It’s strange to think that XCOM is now old enough to “look back” and reflect on how it has aged over the years, but here I am.
XCOM: The Board Game blasted onto the scene in 2015, basically the first board game that truly integrated a digital app into its gameplay, making it a precursor to Mansions of Madness, Unlock, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and many other games aspiring to blend the physical and digital realms into a cohesive whole.
I remember the moment I sat down at the demo table at GenCon in August 2014, thrilled to try out this new concept. A cooperative, sci-fi game with true asymmetric roles and the integration of technology? I was ready to be in on the ground floor.
It took months for the game to be available, and when it finally showed up we were PSYCHED. And by “we” I mean a bunch of people who took selfies of ourselves with the game box in hand. There was HYPE!
XCOM was also the first game that promised to teach you how to play during your first game, thanks to the app. No physical rules were included, other than a basic setup sheet. My group and I jumped right in, and while that first game was a little rough, we did indeed learn to play as we went, and it was a blast.
My review of the game was nothing short of raving; I loved it, and had a great time whenever I played. Each role was a challenge to learn and master; the fast-paced action delivered by the app was thrilling. Tension rose and fell with the dice rolls, but as you researched new tech you grew more powerful and less susceptible to the whims of dice. This, even as you watched your base crumble hit by hit, and saw the world flood with UFOs. To me, it always felt like it came down to an exciting last stand; going all in on that final mission and just barely scraping by in hopes to put a stop to the invasion before you completely lost Earth. The game was always stacked against you; the dice and of course your budget made sure of that. But it was (almost) always possible to win.
If it seems like I’m building up to a big crash, a realization of the games faults and disappointments… well, I’m actually not. I know that many people were disappointed by the game, either feeling like it was too random with the dice or that the auto-successes eventually gained through technology caused the endgame to feel less climactic. Or, the complaint was that each role felt a little too simplistic; once you mastered the mechanics, there wasn’t a whole ton of things to worry about.
Still, the game managed to hold on to a decent following, enough to warrant a single expansion. While there were a few good ideas in that expansion, that’s where my biggest disappointment landed. In my opinion, the expansion doubled down on the luck elements without providing any good counters to it. New tech perhaps could have balanced out the new challenges, except that there were no new ways to earn tech more quickly, even as the challenges poured on twice as fast. You had to get more successes just to earn the basic stuff you were earning before, when you’re already barely scraping by. It’s one of the few expansions I had, played out, and then sold off while keeping the base game.
I have played XCOM a few times recently after a hiatus, and while I can see where some of the complaints are coming from, I don’t think any of it is a big deal. Roles too simple? Play 2-player where you’re managing multiple roles, or bump up the difficulty.
Sure, those dice rolls can be rough – and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have games where successes just didn’t pop up. But far more than that I felt like it was choices that our team made that caused our failures. The goal is to barely eke by; you can’t gain a leg up on the invasion. You can’t halt the progress of UFOs. All you can do is try to hold them off just one more turn.
And sure, if the final mission is passed by using tech that gives you auto successes – maybe that is less exciting and climactic than the possibility of failure at the last moment. But taking the round as a whole, there’s risk throughout, and the potential for failure. Pretty much every game that has ended in victory, the last round has been a case of “let’s go all in” – and if something goes wrong at any point; too many UFOs left in the air or the base getting destroyed, or the final mission somehow going wrong – it’s ceding to a loss.
For me it’s all about the teamwork, and the inventive mechanisms that tie the roles together. The budgeting system is a brilliant way of giving the commander actual command power. The scientist gets to give people things, but has to work with limited budget since their actions don’t directly halt the invasion in the moment. The Central Officer has to manage the logistics, keeping everyone on task while doing their best to use satellites to fix mistakes or tactically move enemy units. The squad leader has the tricky balance of sending their expensive soldiers on missions or to defend the base; both a necessity, both very difficult, and there are only so many soldiers.
I’m glad that I still love XCOM. It may not be the perfect game, but it’s a beautiful sci-fi world, a system filled with clever mechanisms that force teamwork, and a challenging cooperative experience that requires deadly risk just to survive. It’s a keeper.