You thought it was over. You thought the aliens were gone for good. You thought the world was saved.
And most of all, you thought humanity would unite in the face of a massive extraterrestrial threat.
Turns out, you thought wrong.
How It Plays
XCOM: Evolution is an expansion to XCOM: The Board Game. If you aren’t familiar with the cardboard version of XCOM, check out my review, but in brief: aliens are invading the world. During a digital-app-assisted timed phase, you’ll watch as UFOs circle the globe and aliens mob your base, and then assign ships and soldiers to defend your planet and attempt missions to fight off the alien threat. You only have so much budget to work with, and a press-your-luck mechanism with dice will resolve all your interactions.
XCOM: Evolution adds a whole slew of new challenges to the game, and a few new advantages.
The primary new element is EXALT tokens. This represents a group of terrorists using the alien invasion as an opportunity to gain power. In gameplay, the app will at times instruct you to add EXALT sabotage, at which point you draw an EXALT token, flip it over, and assign the token to the matching task on the board. Any task with an EXALT token is now considered “Dangerous” which means that instead of rolling an 8-sided alien die, you roll a 6-sided die, increasing the likelihood of failure.
New Destruction cards are drawn and resolved every time the base damage token moves onto a yellow [!] space, and forces you to choose between spending $2 from your emergency funding or taking a significant hit to your resources. This often means losing one of your original assets, or gaining a lot of panic in one nation.
New crisis cards (especially cards related to EXALT tokens) have been added, and a few new enemies are thrown into the mix as well.
It’s not all bad news, though. You gain a slew of new Technology cards in your tech deck that provide new ways to blow up aliens – both soldiers and ships – as well as deal with EXALT tokens or gain extra funding. Best of all, you can now recruit new MEC Troopers; enormous, cybernetically enhanced humans which feature all 4 combat icons (and are specialized in all 4 as well). These troopers are built with scrap instead of $$, although it still uses up your budget to place them on the board.
The new mission cards include something called MELD. These MELD missions offer a bonus reward if you can complete the marked task (not necessarily the whole mission) the first round it shows up. There’s no penalty for failing, other than you don’t get the bonus.
Finally, two new Invasion plans offer new overall challenges. Suppression is heavy on the EXALT tokens, and Annihilation will have the aliens coming at you from all angles at once.
The Darkest Night Just Got Darker
I really enjoy XCOM. It’s not the most popular game in the world, and I know many people were disappointed with it. Some find the roles too simplistic, or don’t like the heavy amounts of luck the game involves.
I see it as a game about desperately holding on to hope, doing whatever it takes to stave off destruction for just one more turn. You’re already failing, you’re doomed to fail, so every success you roll on a die is some heroic deed or action made in the face of impending doom. The push-your-luck mechanism is thrilling and frustrating all at once, but it captures the feel of being heavily outgunned and it makes for some exciting moments and interesting decisions. I also like that as the game progresses, you gain more and more abilities to reduce the impact of luck. Smart players will learn to effectively maximize the use of their abilities in order to increase the chances of winning the game.
And yes, you can just lose if you roll all failures. So it goes.
All that being said, I hoped that an expansion for the game would deepen strategic choices, add more activities or options for each role, or at least add more risk/reward choices. Steepen the danger, sure, but counter-balance that with greater power on the side of the players – even if it requires a sacrifice.
Unfortunately, I’m sad to say that this expansion is a great disappointment. It bloats all the wrong parts of the game. Instead of more strategic choices or more ways to make sacrifices for a greater gain, you just get more frustration.
If there was one big overarching problem, it’s that the balance of added danger versus added proactive power is way off. While the Base Destruction cards and EXALT tokens hit you with a constant onslaught of danger, you don’t get anything meaningful to counter it. You’ve got a bunch of new tech cards – which are, in fact, very cool – but you don’t really get more efficient ways of gaining those cards. So, instead of adding on new powers you have different powers to choose from. Let me put it this way: if the base game was asking you to dig a 10ft hole with a shovel, the expansion requires a 15ft hole and gives you a second shovel – but you can still only hold one shovel at a time.
The EXALT tokens, which are the core theme of the expansion, should have added more interesting decisions. Do you spend resources on getting rid of EXALT tokens, or just accept the higher amounts of danger. Do you take more EXALT tokens on the board to gain an advantage? There are glimpses of possible choices in some of the new components. The commander, for example, can choose to add an extra Crisis card to the pool to get rid of all EXALT from one task. There’s a tech card that lets you take an EXALT token to get $3 on your emergency funding card.
The rest of it, though, it just absurd. You get so many EXALT tokens added to the board, it becomes meaningless. There’s just no way to counter the sheer number of these tokens, so you just start to accept that they’re there. See, there’s only two ways to get rid of EXALT – one is the aforementioned Crisis card, which is once per turn. That clears out one task, but it’s pretty high risk to draw a Crisis card, and you will have at most 2 EXALT tokens on a single task. The other way to get rid of them is to spend your hard-earned success rolls on a task. Each success can get rid of 1 Exalt token.
But the odds are ever against you in getting successes, and the presence of an EXALT token makes those odds even worse. So now you’re much more likely to fail before you get enough successes to succeed in your task, but you’re expected to earn more successes overall to actually get rid of EXALT tokens? The math just doesn’t add up. It doesn’t create interesting choices. All it does is increase your odds of failure, bloating the most frustrating element of the game.
There’s a small comfort in knowing that the new invasion plans (which I focused on playing for this review) are heavy on EXALT tokens, and maybe the core game invasion plans don’t pour them out so generously. But the new invasion plans are just absurd with the number of tokens added, and there’s still nothing fun to be had with these things. They’re just annoying.
Also disappointing are the new enemy designs. While a few of them are fine, one in particular – the Mechtoid – stands out as particularly lazy design. There’s a photo below, but the Mechtoid is a 3-hit Enemy that you can’t use Tech or Assets to fight. So… like, hey, screw the whole point of the game, right? So much for building a mounting defense. All you have to go on, no matter which point of the game you’ve reached, is lucky luck luck. This isn’t “fun.” This ability enunciates this expansion’s focus on the wrong aspect of the game. Instead of creating interesting choices, it once again just bloats the requirement of luck. It’s lazy design.
All this junk for me makes what should’ve been the coolest feature of the expansion, the MEC troopers, fall a little flat. Sure, it’s nice that you can recruit new troops even when your budget is short. You’re still using up scrap, though, which is a resource you could be spending on other things (like bumping your odds of getting more tech faster). And sure, it’s cool they have all 4 icons and all four specializations. But these things can’t even become Elite, which means a single MEC trooper is at best rolling 2 dice against an enemy, whereas an Elite soldier can roll 3 on her own. There’s no increased odds of success, no protection from danger. The only real inherent advantage is that you can safely assign these soldiers to either the mission or the base defense before any aliens arrive, and you know you’ll be able to roll against it. It’s at least something, but the overall impact is small – especially when compared to the wave of EXALT tokens – and it’s less power than you need.
Of course there are a couple tech cards that boost your MEC troopers – the flamethrower, for example, which lets you use MEC troopers to grant automatic successes to any soldier, and ways to cheapen the cost of MEC, but again, you’ve got to choose those tech upgrades instead of any other. It’s the second shovel thing again.
I can only imagine how fun it would be if MEC troopers came with 1 automatic success per round, or protected other soldiers, or succeeded on the blank sides of the dice instead of the symbols – something that actually made them feel more powerful and more useful than your soldiers. Something to counter the added flood of EXALT danger.
Okay. Okay. I’ll try to chill out a bit.
There is some decent stuff in this box. In fact, if you just ditch EXALT tokens (and the corresponding assets, tech, destruction, and crisis cards) you might have something. Destruction cards add a tough and frequent choice. Do you spend $2, or lose a valuable core ability? The possibility of these happening makes base defense feel all the more urgent, and it also requires the commander to think about leaving enough extra money on the emergency funding card to protect your assets. This balances pretty decently with the new MEC troopers as they are. Destruction is bad, but MEC troops are built with scrap (saving funds) and are theoretically more effective at killing enemies, thus protecting your base from Destruction in the first place and gaining you more scrap which you can use to rebuild MEC troopers. It’s a nice cycle.
You’ve also got the MELD bonus on the new missions. The one-chance bonus forces you to consider spending extra resources on the mission to try and snag the bonus before it’s gone. Unfortunately, early in the game you’re still rolling dice and you have only once chance to get lucky, but at least you can develop your tech and hopefully approach missions with better odds as the game progresses. Again, this cooperates decently well with the new MEC troopers and Destruction cards, forcing you to choose where best to allocate your resources, and facing higher danger with some resources to use to have a fighting chance of success.
Even the enemies get more interesting. Drone is dangerous without being overkill, threatening your precious scrap. Seeker makes a task dangerous – without EXALT tokens, that creates a tough moment with one particular enemy (again, not overwhelming). With EXALT in play, the odds are pretty good the task is already dangerous, so who cares? Anyway, that all might work okay, but we’re talking about house-ruling here, not playing the expansion as the designers intended.
It really saddens me how disappointing this expansion turned out to be. I really like XCOM and had high hopes for new exciting dangers and powers. Instead we got something that suggests the developers don’t quite understand the effect of probability, or the pacing of danger. It perhaps highlights a flaw in the core game design – if the XCOM dice weren’t limited to 2 symbols and 4 blank sides, there could have been new tech or assets that added ways to manipulate dice rolls and increase odds of success. Even an X-Wing style of die design could have gone a long way to add more interesting options in regards to mitigating bad rolls.
Instead, EXALT hangs over everything, making the game more difficult and frustrating without providing the tools to counter it. You could leave out EXALT tokens and play with the more fun elements, but what’s there is pretty slim for an expansion, and it’s hard to recommend dropping your hard-earned cash on something you’re only going to use half of.
I hoped for better things, but XCOM: Evolution pushes the boundaries of all the wrong parts of the game, and takes it in the complete wrong direction.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games for providing a review copy of XCOM: Evolution