Aliens are hell bent on taking over our planet, but to quote Will Smith from Independence Day, “Welcome to Earth!” In XCOM: The Board Game, you and your fellow teammates will square off against the extraterrestrial threats on multiple fronts. This particular conflict may not be completely new to you, as this is a licensed board game based on the hit video game XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Nonetheless, it brings something very alien to the table for gamers of all sorts (pun intended), as it’s one of the first board games that needs to be played alongside of a digital app. Should you suit up for what might be Earth’s last stand?
This is a cooperative affair that requires 1-4 players to take on the four positions within the Earth-defending organization. This includes the Commander, Chief Scientist, Central Officer and Squad Leader. Each role is responsible for different parts of the operation, though they all rely on the success of others in order to work at their full potential.
I don’t think it’s worth covering everything on each member’s to-do list, though I’ll take a quick second to highlight the most exciting parts of their jobs. The Commander is responsible for deploying Interceptors to blast UFOs out of the sky. The Chief Scientist will research new technology that can give everyone the upper hand. The Central Officer tracks enemy movement on all fronts. Last but certainly not least is the Squad Leader, who will be in charge of leading soldiers into ground-based combat.
Of the four roles, my favourites are the Commander and Squad Leader. The former wields a lot of power, as the success of their fighter jets is what keeps the panic levels of each continent in check. He or she is also responsible for auditing the budget, which means they’ll be involved in all of the financial decisions. Managing your money is key in this game, as overspending will cause the most panicked state to freak out even more. The Squad Leader is fun because they get to fight the aliens head-on with soldiers of different classes. Most importantly, it’s the Squad Leader that gets to put the icing on the cake in the final mission. That is, if you’re lucky enough to make it that far.
The Chief Scientist and Central Officer play more supportive roles, though their jobs are still very important. The former’s job is to research technology that would better equip the entire team for success. By focusing their research efforts on the right cards, their work has the potential to strengthen the team considerably. As for the Central Officer, they have the easiest role of the bunch. Most of the time, they’ll be placing UFOs on the board as per the app’s instruction. I’d even go as far as saying that this role would be best for the most inexperienced gamer in your group to start with. However, when it’s time for the Central Officer to resolve their satellite efforts, you better hope that they’re able to get the job done, because leaving UFOs in orbit can mess with the game in weird ways.
Together, you’ll be defending Earth on multiple fronts; all of which are located on the board. Prominently featured in the middle is a world map that will be invaded by a swarm of UFOs. Grounded aliens will also take the fight directly to you, as many of their units will rush your base in hopes of destroying it. Even out in orbit, enemy ships are attempting to knock out your satellites and disrupt your communications.
In all of these cases, you’re on the defensive, batting away their onslaught as best you can. These aren’t the only battlegrounds in play though, as you have the opportunity to send the aliens backpedaling by completing missions. If you’re able to finish the final mission, you’ll send the aliens packing and win the game. However, should the panic level max out in two or more continents, or if your base is destroyed, all hope for mankind is lost and everybody loses.
Play is broken out into two different phases: Timed and Resolution. During the timed phase, the app will guide players through each step of the process. This includes collecting the money you’ll have access to, spawning in the enemies and assigning all of your scientists, satellites, Interceptors and soldiers to their respective tasks. You’ll have a limited amount of time to do each step, so you’re going to have to think fast and move faster. On the tutorial difficulty, the game will teach you how to play the game through the first two rounds before letting you free. As you notch up the difficulty, the amount of pause time you get becomes finite, though completing your actions faster will give you extra pause time for later.
It’s here where the app really shines. From round-to-round, it plays with a myriad of different variables to change the complexion of the game. For instance, you’ll rarely receive the same amount of money between rounds. UFOs will spawn in at different times and in different places. A varying number of enemies will spawn in each round. Best/worst of all, if there are UFOs in orbit, those enemy ships can dramatically change the sequence of events in ways that will likely hurt your cause further. All of this may have been possible with analog components, though the app streamlines this process considerably and is better for it.
If you’re going to play this alone, which the game does recommend as being possible, the Timed Phase is going to be particularly difficult. There’s a lot to manage within a short period of time for four players, though it can be overwhelming for one person to manage on their own. This proves especially true when it comes to activating Asset and Tech cards under a time crunch, as you’re probably going to have to juggle between 12-20 different cards during this period of time. Playing alone is certainly possible, though you might want to use a house rule where you give yourself a bit of extra time at the end to activate any applicable cards before starting the resolution phase.
After this frantic phase is ended, it’s time for the Resolution Phase. Unlike the Timed Phase, all of the steps are played through in the same order and you have an unlimited amount of time to work through it. Most of the steps are resolved through dice rolls and the threat track. Depending on how many soldiers/Interceptors/satellites/researchers you have assigned to any given task, you’ll roll that many blue dice along with one red alien die with hopes of landing on the success faces of the blue dice.
When it comes to rolling the dice, you’ll quickly find them to be particularly unforgiving, much like the video game it’s based on. For one, only two out of the six sides of the blue dice have success markers on them. On top of that, if your alien die is equal to or lower than the threat track number, you immediately fail that task and anything associated with that task is immediately exhausted, destroyed or killed. Furthermore, each time you roll, the threat track increases by one, making failure even more likely. There’s a lot of planning that goes into positioning yourself for success, but having good luck with dice is so crucial to your success.
As a fan of the XCOM video games and board games in general, I think that XCOM: The Board Game does a miraculous job of capturing the essence of the experience in a tense and exciting board game. Most of the tasks you would do in the game are streamlined in a way that works for the tabletop, and the added variability that comes with the app makes the game so smooth to learn and play. Even if you haven’t played the source material before, a love for sci-fi should be more than enough to justify playing this one.
I am kind of sad though at how much of the ground-based combat has been simplified here, as the tactical movement aspect of the video game is cut completely. Instead, you simply assign troops to a particular enemy or task and roll the dice in hopes of the best. However, adding some form of maneuverability probably would have taken away from this particular game’s overall vision. Still, the way those dice are weighted makes the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat resonate with players in just the right manner. I may have to wait longer for a full-on squad-based tactical XCOM board game, but for a title that aims to capture the gist of all facets of the XCOM experience, this delivers in spades.