XCOM: The Board Game Review

robsm Rob: Today we’re going to be protecting the Earth from an alien invasion in XCOM: The Board Game – a cooperative strategy/push your luck game for 1 to 4 players from designer Eric M. Lang and publisher Fantasy Flight Games and is inspired by on one of our favorite video game franchises ever.

We’re most likely going to fail horribly, so I’d like to take a moment to welcome our new alien overlords and preemptively thank them for not turning me into one of those freaky green frozen sludge people-statues. You know the ones I’m talking about.

The world's safety is in your hands. Don't screw it up.
The world’s safety is in your hands. Don’t screw it up.

XCOM: The Board Game, you and up to three of your other friends will fulfill four different roles as you deal with the alien threat – Commander, Chief Scientist, Central Officer, and Squad Leader. All of these roles are essential to the game, so you won’t be able to function without each and every one. Fortunately you can divide them up amongst your group as you see fit if you end up playing with fewer than four people, but you absolutely cannot simply cut one out of the rotation. And yes, this means that the fewer people you have the more tasks you’re going to be juggling.

andysmAndrew: I guess I’ll be the Commander for… reasons.

robsmRob: Sure. Can’t imagine what those could possibly be. You realize you’re going to be the one managing the budget, right?

andysmAndrew: And deploying interceptors!

robsmRob: Okay, yes, and deploying interceptors.

jessmJess: I call Squad Leader! I wanna kill aliens!

robsmRob: And I think I should be the Central Officer because that’ll put me in charge of the app. And I figure since I’m the only one here who’s played the game before I might as well be the one staying on top of the tasks and explaining the rules as we go.

andysmAndrew: So that just leaves…

dianasmDiana: Chief Scientist. So I’m going to have to do all the complicated science stuff?

robsmRob: Not exactly. Chief Scientist is probably the least stressful role in the game because you’re only focusing on researching technologies and not shooting down UFOs or killing aliens. However it’s also arguably the most important role because what you research will give the rest of us a much-needed leg-up later in the game.

andysmAndrew: Just don’t roll badly.

jessmJess: No pressure.

Don't hate the app, hate the aliens.
Don’t hate the app, hate the aliens.

Let’s circle back to that app for a second. It’s been a rather hotly-debated topic every since it was announced that XCOM: The Board Game would need it to function, and many have been nervous about needing the aid of electronics to play. To be honest, this is a seriously overblown issue. Yes, you do need to use the app in order to play. It functions as the random event generator (think event decks in most other co-op games), but it also crunches a lot of numbers behind the scenes like scrambled communications when there are UFOs left in orbit. It also provides players with a timer for each step of the real-time planning phase, which ratchets up the tension something fierce. I couldn’t see this working nearly as well if someone had to sit there with a stopwatch and a deck of cards.

Another thing that’s important to point out is how the app is available for tablets, smartphones, and computers. You aren’t limited to only one device, and being available for PC means that the app is unlikely to become some sort of hard to find relic in the future. In other words, you’re good. Don’t worry about not having what you need to play, or eventually losing access to the app.

dianasmDiana: Wait, what was that about real-time?

robsmRob: Don’t worry about it. I’ll be calling out the different roles and tasks as the app pulls them up, and if you need any clarification I can pause the timer while we go over the rules.  Actually, the app is basically the only place the rules exist at all, so the only way to really learn the game is to play it.

andysmAndrew: Pretty ballsy choice, producing a board game basically without a rulebook.  I can see that being a pain in the future, but for now, we’ll let it ride.  But what’s the point of having a timer if you can just pause it, though?

robsmRob: Aside from you willingly cheating yourself out of the full experience? The timer only allows you free pauses on Easy, which we’re playing since it’s your first time. On higher difficulties there’s a sort of pool of time you can pull from when you pause the action, and when that pool runs out you won’t be able to pause anymore.

dianasmDiana: But what was that about real-time?

robsmRob: Basically, when it’s time to make decisions like how many soldiers to send on a mission, where to scramble interceptors, and what technologies to research, it’s all on a timer. So we have to decide how we want to handle stuff, usually as a group, as quickly as possible.

dianasmDiana: I don’t know if I like that…

robsmRob: You’ll be fine. Besides, all the resolution stuff isn’t on a timer, so we’ve got plenty of time to discuss things when we’re actually finishing tasks.

Without these upgraded technologies humanity is surely doomed.
The Chief Scientist is in charge of research, making her the lynchpin of many a late-game strategy.

The resolution phase is where the push your luck elements come into play. Most tasks the different roles can perform – deploying things, researching things, etc – require rolling dice. A red eight-sided die is used to track Threat, and blue six-sided dice generate successes. Whenever a player needs to do something like have an interceptor shoot at a UFO or use scientists to research new tech, they roll the Threat die along with a number of blue dice determined by how many assets they have assigned to that specific task (i.e. 2 researchers on a project means rolling 2 blue dice). If you roll a success, good stuff happens. If not, you can decide to push your luck. And regardless of whether or not you succeed, rolling Threat equal to or less than the current Threat level will end the task and usually result in exhausted scientists, dead soldiers, and so on.

If you push your luck, the Threat level rises. This means that it becomes more and more likely for you to fail the farther you go. What’s worse, sometimes nasty events will occur that can do things like start everyone’s’ Threat at a higher level for a round or prevent players from attempting tasks more than three times. Did I mention that this is a pretty tense game?

jessmJess: Okay, but how do we-

robsmRob: UFOs are appearing over Europe!

jessmJess: Yeah, but how-

andysmAndrew: How much money do we have for this round? I need more interceptors!

jessmJess: How-

robsmRob: Oh god, aliens have started attacking the base!

jessmJess: Time out!

andysmAndrew: Yes, dear?

jessmJess: Yes, right, so… How do we actually win?

robsmRob: The only way for us to win is to complete the Final Mission, which can either be picked before we start or randomly assigned by the app. But the Final Mission won’t come up for several rounds, so we have to try and survive that long while also getting as prepared as we can to finish it as quickly as possible. Because the longer the game runs, the tougher it’s going to get.

jessmJess: Okay. I’m afraid to ask this, but how do we lose?

robsmRob: Either by losing two or more countries to panic, or if our base gets destroyed.

jessmJess: Well that doesn’t sound too unreasona-

andysmAndrew: Africa and the United States are panicked.

jessmJess: Dammit!

Getting to the Final Mission is only half the battle.
Getting to the Final Mission is only half the battle.  You, and your base, and the planet, have to survive long enough for you to beat it.

Yes, XCOM: The Board Game is pretty stressful and very tough. It also does a good job of making you feel like you’re in the administrator’s chair while fighting off a massive alien invasion. While we mean that in a good way, it is one big thing to be aware of, though: it’s all about task management. Deploying soldiers, interceptors, and satellites are important but there’s very little to these actions aside from deciding how many of what to put where, then rolling some dice to see if you managed to kill something or just lost a bunch of essential personnel or equipment. It can also be irritating to fail while performing a task that should’ve been simple, thanks to a bad roll of the dice. But I guess “That’s XCOM, baby!”

That said, it’s still an Incredibly fun game. The pressure of never having quite enough time to think about what you want to do, coupled with the increasingly aggressive alien forces, makes each game feel tense yet also very satisfying. I’ve yet to actually win a single game but each and every time I had a blast, and was confident that we’d all done the best we possibly could under the circumstances.

It’s just that saving the world is a lot tougher than it looks.

dianasmDiana: You know, even though this was kinda scary I actually had fun. I’d definitely play this again.

jessmJess: Yeah, me too.

andysmAndrew: You had me at ‘XCOM’, but the game stands on its own, for sure.

robsmRob: I’d love to play again too, assuming that’s cool with our new alien masters.

sectoidSectoid: *Unintelligible nightmare-thoughts blasted directly into our minds*

dianasmDiana: So… is that a yes?

XCOM: The Board Game is a fun, intense game.  It’s undeniably best at 4 players, and the app really gives the game a great sense of pace and pressure.  We definitely recommend checking it out, and you can snag your copy here!

3 thoughts on “XCOM: The Board Game Review

  • December 28, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    We just tried this (2 players only) and barely got through the tutorial (we did win the final mission) – this game is a bit tough. I think this would be easier with more players, but this definitely isn’t the light-hearted kind of game that you want to play while you are catching up with old friends over drinks… this game requires all the players to PAY ATTENTION. That being said, with the right group, it is extremely fun, but does take some time to get used to. It’s nice that there is background music too – it works!

    • January 8, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      Yeah, this one’s a beast. Honestly, you want 4 players – it’s just too easy for fewer folks to be overrun with decision fatigue, if nothing else. And you’re absolutely right; not a wind-down catch-up-with-the-mates kinda game. Everyone’s got to be *in* for this one. Still, I love the tone and the tension, and I feel like it is a really effective use of the source material. I wonder if they will release an xpac this year, with XCOM 2 coming out in Feb.

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