As excited as I am about Star Wars Armada, there is one game from Gen Con 2014 that is #1 on my list, and it is XCOM. When I heard the announcement and read about the game, I was excited about it. I’m intrigued by the idea of app integration with gameplay, and this looked like it did something unique with it.
When I finally sat down on the show floor and tried it out, I was blown away. After one training round and one full-on, real-time round of play I enthralled with possibilities.
XCOM is a semi-realtime cooperative board game set in the XCOM universe, although you really don’t need to know anything about that to get into the game. I know very little about XCOM so maybe there were some elements there that I missed out on, but it felt like any decent futuristic earth-based alien invasion sci fi. It could have been a Stargate episode or a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie for all the difference it would make.
Anyways, the backdrop is: near future earth, alien invasion, and you’ve got to stop it.
So, when I read about the game I imagined a tablet or laptop sitting on the table taking up space, but informing the players what to do and they reacted. It’s not really like that at all.
There are 4 completely unique roles in the game – something like Space Cadets – that have their own responsibilities and actions to take care of. However, there is a lot of overlap – it’s not each player playing his or her own game, it’s each player contributing to an overlapping system and we hope it all works out in the end.
You’ve got the Central Officer relating the action from the app – yes, only one person needs to see the app which makes it far less intrusive – and managing a network of satellites to help coordinate deployment. You’ve got the Chief Scientist selecting technologies to research and assigning teams to pursue the tech, which generally gives more abilities and boosts to other players. The Squad Leader draws alien cards when they attack, chooses missions to pursue, and assigns units to defend the base or go after the mission. The Commander has to manage the budget, assign aircraft to defend the various continents, and choose which crisis cards will get resolved (and they’re always bad).
Each role is pretty simple, but under pressure of time it’s not always easy to choose the best or even the right option.
So, what the app does, is it lets you know what phase of the game you’re in. Why not just a CD or a sand timer? Well, the phases come at you in a random order. Each phase is tied to a very specific action – in one phase, you assign fighter jets. In another, the Scientist draws 6 research cards, and in yet another phase she chooses one of those cards to put into play. There’s a phase for revealing which aliens are attacking the base, a phase for choosing a mission, and a phase for adding alien ships to the board.
Because it’s an app and it’s randomized, you never know exactly what you are going to get. You might get 12 alien ships invading, or you might get 2. You might get a full-on assault of some nasty aliens against your base. You might have to deploy your troops in your base before you know which aliens are coming. The scientist might draw her research cards and then have several minutes to read over them and decide which to research; or, she might have to draw and then decide immediately afterward.
Each phase is timed, so you may have 15 seconds to choose which crisis to resolve or 30 seconds to decide which units to assign. In some cases when the time runs out you just have to stop what you’re doing (didn’t get a chance to assign scientists to that research card because you were thinking too hard about it? Too bad). In other cases, you can take extra time but it cuts short the next phase, which, again, is random.
I think the use of the app has huge potential to keep this game alive and exciting for a long time. It’s clear that Fantasy Flight has focused on not replacing the board game experience with an app; it’s unintrusive, it doesn’t play the game for you, and it is used really effectively. There are a lot of benefits I can think of – an app can “intelligently” assign problems so you don’t run into the classic “outbreak cascade” scenario which is typical of many well-designed co-op games. Y’know, that moment in Pandemic where you lose in 2 turns because every infection card was in the same place and a single outbreak triggered a cascade of outbreaks which you never even had a chance to stop. That’s an issue almost inherent in creating a dynamic system – I’ve had something similar happen in just about all of my favorite co-op games – and while it’s rare, it isn’t fun when it happens. An app can be programmed NOT to stack up UFO’s impossibly high in one place.
The randomized nature of the app is impossible with an audio track, which will keep each game dynamic and unpredictable without having to worry about replaying the same track over again or needing to download new tracks. An app is definitely much less intrusive than a game like this would be with, say, a deck of cards and sand timers to randomize which phase is happening – you’ll never have to think through how much time a phase is supposed to have or stumble through drawing/revealing a card that gets stuck to another card. The app keeps the game moving, intelligently, and lets players focus on solving the challenge.
I haven’t played as every single role, but they all seemed like a good time for people involved. Maybe the role description doesn’t sound particularly exciting. Sure, the Central Officer mainly just reports what the app says to the rest of the group. Not terribly exciting. But when you’re actually playing and the Squad Leader has to assign his troops and you’re yelling at him that he only has 5 seconds left and he better hurry up and make a choice, it’s pretty exciting. Managing a budget sounds dull, but when you’re arguing with the Squad Leader and Chief Scientist about how many units they’re allowed to place so you don’t go over budget, that’s what the game is all about. (And these things aren’t the only things these roles do; the Central Officer has a few other things to think about regarding his network of satellites, for example, which can be challenging to do when you’re also making sure the Scientist picks a research card because she only has 2 seconds left!)
I’m all about cardboard and plastic; getting away from screens and getting to the table with a physical, real group of people. But when you can use an App like this in a way that isn’t intrusive and lends to a fluid, dynamic, exciting game, I’m for it. I cannot wait til XCOM releases at the end of the year, it is number 1 on my list.