Bytes & Pieces: XCOM

XCOM was a triumph—a critically acclaimed game that single-handedly resurrected the moribund strategy genre on PCs and consoles. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that what made it so special was its clever genre blending. It looked and played like a tactical combat game, but what made it so appealing to the mass audience was the incorporation of strategy and role-playing elements, creating an irresistible Skinner box of upgrades.

That poses a problem for the XCOM: the Board Game. How can something made of plastic and cardboard replicate the original’s magic mixture of play elements without becoming bloated and ponderous in the process?

The designers wisely chose not to even attempt that fool’s errand. Instead they focused on just one aspect of the video game—the one that was most easily ported to physical format—the strategic layer. Players are given a budget and challenged to spend it wisely, allocating limited resources to defending Earth, defending their base, and completing missions.

It’s a fun game that makes good use of its reliance on a digital app to keep things smooth and exciting while minimizing the “bossy player” problem that bedevils other co-operative titles. But while it’s a great tabletop experience, without the lure of upgrades or the narrative of mission tactics, it’s in danger of not feeling like the original source material, of being a game that’s XCOM in the most superficial ways only.

The address this dilemma, it instead tries to capture the sense of playing the videogame on a mechanical rather than a thematic level. The core resolution mechanic in XCOM: TBG is to roll success dice against an ever-increasing risk factor. You can roll as many times as you like to try and get enough successes to complete a task. Each time you do, however, the risk factor goes up by one. As that happens, the odds increase that the numeric die you also roll coming in below the risk number and causing the task to fail. This is an incredible piece of design. One of the things that unified the disparate elements of the video game was the constant sense of pushing your luck into the unknown. Advancing up the map without cover might save time, but if there’s an alien out there in fog it could prove fatal. The technology you’re researching could be vital in the very next mission, or it could be useless. The solider you took off the duty roster to test for psychic powers could be a dud or your next point person.

The simple rules for resolving actions ensure the looming sense of the unknown permeates the board game version, too. And they’re flexible enough to be used everywhere, from interceptors shooting at UFOs to defending the XCOM installation from invaders. It’s also thrilling to resolve, while giving players a meaningful sense of control over their fate. They know the possible rewards of success. The question that haunts each and every roll is whether it’s worth the risk compared to the catastrophic consequences of failure.

What the game can’t, and wisely doesn’t even try, to re-create is the tactical and role-playing elements of the original game. When I read the rules, I presumed that the former would feel like the biggest missing piece. To my surprise, it was actually the latter that felt like the biggest omission, and the biggest departure from the XCOM I remembered.

On reflection, it’s not hard to see why. The game is a strategy game, and that’s not so far away from being a tactics game. So while the bare-bones missions—which see you rolling those resolution dice against multiple tasks in a row—are nothing like the tense tactical firefights in XCOM, the overall game feel is pretty similar. You’re still pushing your luck, still using your brain to defeat the enemy.

What I hadn’t realized was how much the sheer lethality of the video game, combined with the sense of slowly nurturing an ever-improving squad of soldiers, was integral to its appeal. Building your squad, naming them, then feeling the terror of sending them into danger was part and parcel of what made the video game special. They became extensions of you, genuine avatars of your soul venturing into the uncaring digital world. In the board game, they’re faceless plastic figures. They die, a lot, and you feel not a twinge of regret. It’s only the cost of a credit to bring them back.

It’s almost a shame that XCOM proved popular enough to spawn a board game. There are lots and lots of strategy computer games that would translate brilliantly to a physical version, but XCOM is not one of them. It was never going to be able to do all the things its progenitor did in one box. The version we’ve got, however, makes a damn fine fist of trying to get as close as it can.

 

Written by Matt Thrower

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