XCOM: The Board Game — Xenopoly

Every fortnight, some of the team at B3 meet up to play tabletop games together, trying out new games and playing some old favourites. This week, we played XCOM: The Board Game by Fantasy Flight Games.

XCOM: The Board Game is based on the PC and console game of the same name, and is designed to be a co-op game for up to four players. It has a mobile phone app that explains all of the rules, how to set up the board for play and takes you through a tutorial as well as guiding the gameplay.

The XCOM games are a science fiction series based on an elite international organisation tasked with countering alien invasions of Earth, which began in 1994. The series was rebooted in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis Games. It was released on Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. A sequel, XCOM 2, was released in 2016.

XCOM: The Board Game is based around the 2012 reimagining of the series. However, it is certainly not a requirement that you have played the game before trying the board game!

XCOM: The Board Game, set up and ready for play
XCOM: The Board Game, set up and ready for play

Each of the one to four players takes on a distinct role — Chief Scientist, Commander, Central Officer and Squad Leader:

  • The Commander is in charge of the app, putting the alien invader tokens onto the board, and moving the satellites onto the board.
  • The Chief Scientist is (unsurprisingly!) in charge of scientific research, giving the other players upgrades and additional bonuses and is able to use the corpses of dead aliens to further the research too.
  • The Central Officer controls the eight Interceptors, strategically placing the Interceptors in the best positions to fight the invaders, as well as XCOM’s budget.
  • The Squad Leader controls up to 16 XCOM soldiers, a mix of heavy infantry, snipers and light infantry, who have to defeat individual alien invaders in the base and win missions.

XCOM’s budget is decided by the app at the beginning of each round, with any surplus discarded on the next turn. Every action within the game (such as placing an Interceptor, a soldier or a satellite on the board, or conducting research) costs one gold, and the Central Officer controls the budget and decides where to allocate resources. Each department is vital to the success of the campaign — neglecting one area could spell disaster.

While the game can be for one to four players, it is obvious that it has been designed for four people (or more — we had five) to play together. It also is definitely not a game that can be quickly picked up and played, it requires 3-4 hours to play comfortably, especially the first time.

We initially played the tutorial and had a quick first campaign at our last tabletop session, and this took several hours. It took a while to figure out how each role worked as well as how this relates to the rest of the game and completing the overall mission. Success is based on a combination of dice rolls and the ‘luck of the draw’ with the app making random rolls in the background.

The reserve Scientists pool in XCOM: The Board game
The reserve Scientists pool in XCOM: The Board game

In our initial playthrough, we neglected the research element in the game, instead choosing to allocate resources to the Interceptors and the soldiers. We then found the later missions much harder and almost impossible to complete without the vital upgrades and additional bonuses that the Chief Scientist role provides.

This week’s session was a little faster, as we already knew what our roles were and what to expect from each turn. It still took us two and a half hours to play through a single campaign.

Our thoughts

“I liked the co-op element of it, and that everyone has to work together. Because otherwise the game fails,” explained Matt H. We all felt that this cooperative element really made the game enjoyable — each role is equally important and vital to the success of the campaign.

It does have a steep learning curve — the tutorial took about an hour in our last session, and our quick intro session afterwards took us another couple of hours to finish. “Once people have done the tutorial and got to grips with their roles, it’s very intuitive,” said Dann. “Once we got the hang of it, it allowed for a little bit more fluidity, whereas it was pretty intense and rigid when we first started.”

Our group agreed that anyone playing this would need about three to three-and-a-half-hours altogether when playing the first time. After the first three hours of gameplay in the last session, we all had a good understanding of our role and what was required.

Interceptors in XCOM: The Board Game
The Interceptor tokens in XCOM: The Board Game

This meant that in this session when drawing the crisis cards and choosing between them, for example, we then understood what each one meant and the consequences of it. We also found it was easier to separate out the coins in the budget as we were spending them, rather than tallying up at the end!

The group also agreed that it really does need four players, or potentially six, to play. “I don’t think it could be played with less than four players, if it was just one person or even three, one person or more have to take on additional roles and I think that would get confusing,” said Dan O’Reilly.

We also really liked the app and its role in the game. “When this was originally announced, I thought this was going to play a lot like the DOOM Board Game or like Space Hulk, where one person controls the Tyranids and one controls the Terminators, so just 1v1, so it’s really good that the aliens in this game are controlled by the app,” said Dann.

The app also has the deployment music from the video game — which Dan and Stuart, both big fans of the game, really liked.

So what did we dislike?

The main issue with the game were the lack of dice — the Squad Leader can upgrade soldiers to to be elite, which means they get an extra dice roll as a bonus. The game comes with just four dice for these rolls, which definitely wasn’t enough!

Soldiers (Heavy, Light and Snipers) in XCOM: The Board Game - Elite trained receive a small card token on their stand
Soldiers (Heavy, Light and Snipers) in XCOM: The Board Game – Elite trained receive a small card token on their stand

Another issue was the timing phase — it left us all feeling very panicked at the time. “This is the most deep-ended I’ve felt in a game because of the timer — if there wasn’t a timer, I don’t think I would have felt so deep-ended. I’ve played other tabletop games that were much more complicated than this but haven’t had timers, and I’ve found them easier as you can stop and think, and you haven’t felt pressured,” said Dann. “It would be great if instead of Easy mode on the app, it was the same difficulty as the Normal mode — but without the timer on each turn!”

The timer adds an additional pressure throughout the game. This is intended to be a strategy game, but this element means that there is very little time to really plan a strategy. You end up having to think on your feet much more.

Some of the crisis cards are much harder than others to complete — some can dramatically ruin the game if you don’t manage to resolve them in time. “But to be fair, that’s like the random number generator in the actual game — this very much emulates that, so kudos to the board game designers on that,” explained Stuart.

Final thoughts

We would really like to see a new expansion with XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen based missions — as well as more enemy types. Our game had only three types of alien invaders, and so it would be great to have more variety.

Despite this, it was a big hit with our group — and we are looking forward to trying similar games, such as Pandemic, in future tabletop sessions! We would recommend it to fans of the tabletop game Pandemic, which also has co-operative play, as well as fans of the XCOM game series.

You can buy XCOM: The Board Game on Amazon.

Love both video games and board games? Here’s our list of some fantastic crossover games.

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