Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Roll for Humanity: XCOM the Board Game

Game Title: XCOM: The Board Game

Designer: Eric M. Lang

Manufacturer: Fantasy Flight Games

Year: 2015

The sirens blazed above the usual racket, another two had arrived. The holograms flickered to life above Portland and Miami on the war map. Our interceptors could be there in 3 hours, but by then for many people it would be too late. Then there were the abductions in Madrid, the skyranger had just taken three of our best to head those off. We had to send our best, because frankly almost everyone who wasn't our best was already dead. At this point we'd take almost anyone who could hold a gun if we thought they'd survive more than 30 seconds in the field. New sirens cut across the noise in the control room, the sound of gunfire rattled through the air, they were here! My grip tightened on my pistol, ballistic rounds didn't do much damage to these extra-terrestrials but it was my last hope, just as we were the last hope for Humanity.

XCOM was a game that I was looking forward to for a long time, I’m a big fan of the PC game that this takes after (and for people who are curious the game is solidly based on the modern XCOM computer game) and I really wanted to see how the board game would bring across some of the elements from its source material. Before we bought it we’d seen a few people playing it at game groups and honestly that hadn’t given us high hopes, Fiona was put off somewhat by a theme she didn’t care about and perceived complexity. Having played the game though, all was forgiven.

XCOM is a cooperative game where you each take 1 (or more) of 4 roles within an ‘elite’ planetary defence force in order to fight off waves of alien invaders. XCOM is a 4 player game, but the day AI’s reach sentience it’ll be 5 player. The (free) app very much plays the game with you, serving as the bad guy, choosing when and where aliens appear. The game is split into 2 phases, the Timed phase and the Resolution phase. During the timed phase the app will tell you where UFOs are appearing, when aliens are appearing in your base, when Crisis’s happen and other alien activities. It also tells you in what order to react to these events, each timed phase you’ll have 1 opportunity to assign your interceptors/troops, but this opportunity might well be before all the aliens have appeared. 

Bad performance on global defence in one round can actually make it more likely that the timed phase is in a jumbled order, meaning you might end up assigning completely the wrong troops to fight. It might go without saying but every action in the timed phase has a time limit displayed as a countdown on the app. If you don’t finish it in time then it eats into time for future actions, the Central Officer can make use of a limited amount of pause time to buy extra precious seconds for hard decisions, but ultimately the required speedy decision making is what makes this game unique.

An example of a Timed phase action, here the Chief scientist has 8 seconds left to pick a research task and assign scientists to it.
To help against the unpredictable app each player has a variety of abilities, more of which get available as research is completed. Some of these can be used in the Timed phase and the others in the Resolution phase. Most of them are pretty useful ranging from moving UFOs around to adding more money to the commander’s stockpile… Oh did I not mention money? That’s right you are saving the world on a budget! Every turn you will have a slightly varied cash flow and each scientist you assign to research new ability cards costs 1 XCOM fun-buck. Each soldier you deploy, that’s another fun-buck, want to launch 3 interceptors to Europe? That’s going to cost you 3 fun-bucks. If you overspend then countries start to panic (and when 2 countries panic too much its game over) and you’ll have no spare money to rebuild destroyed interceptors and recruit new troops.

During the Resolution phase the forces you assigned actually do the things you assigned them to. Science gets researched, UFOs get shot down, aliens get killed and missions get completed. Each task is done by rolling a number of six sided dice equal to the number of XCOM forces assigned to it (with additional modifiers, particularly for the troops). Each die has 2 sides that have successes on it, each success is 1 destroyed UFO/1 wounded alien (they can have several health points) etc. You can roll the dice any number of times, and you’ll need to if you want to actually get things done, but there is increased risk. Each time you roll the dice the aliens are a bit more prepared, you roll an 8 sided die along with the XCOM dice and if you roll a 1 everyone assigned to the task was killed/destroyed/had a mental breakdown from looking at alien tech. Every time you roll on a task you add 1 to the number needed to fail, sure a 2/8 chance seems fine, but when you quickly ramp up to a 5/8 chance to have your elite troops killed you might be reconsidering. The stakes are kept high because lost troops means more money needed in future rounds to replace them. Ultimately there are 2 ways to lose the game: the XCOM base being destroyed by aliens and 2 countries reaching the end of the panic meter. There is only one way to win, complete enough missions and the game lets you deploy to the final mission, complete that and you saved the earth!

I should mention the player roles: 1 player is the Central Officer who is in charge of the app itself and as such tells everyone what to do and when, along with placing the aliens and using satellites for orbital UFO defence. The Commander is in charge of aerial defence, and also for tracking the budget. The Chief Scientist assigns research, this is probably the easiest role, but no less crucial for success. Finally the Squad Leader is in charge of the troops, which are used in base defence and mission tasks.
The game set up ready to play. Each role is represented by the cards, tokens and figures on one of the 4 sides of the game board.

I really enjoyed this game, the app adds a lot of tension; however it does have its flaws. The app has a built in tutorial mode to teach you the game first time round, a great idea, but since the game comes with no rulebook it’s pretty clumsy to look up that one rule you forgot. The tutorial gives you the first 2 timed phases without time limits. While this is a great way to learn the game I found that when teaching the game to new players this actually left them confused, once the timer came on they suddenly ‘got’ the game and became a lot more interested. My last negative point will be the scientist role, it’s crucial to game success, but it never really feels that the scientist is achieving much, if you are playing with 3 players then this is definitely the role to make someone double up on. 

On the more positive end, the theme is done well, the models are great (though some people may get confused as to which soldier is which class), and the game can be brutally difficult, but it makes failing together fun! The app varies which invasion plan/aliens are attacking each game which adds a lot to the variation (side note @$!& floaters) and whatever happens you’ll be sure to make difficult decisions quickly.


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