Last week, Sigur introduced Virago and me to XCOM: The Board Game. In contrast to my mates, I’ve never played the computer game, but when I was a kid, I avidly watched the British TV series UFO, which seems to be the inspiration for the world of XCOM.
XCOM is a cooperative game where the players take to role of the staff of an international organisation defending the earth from aliens. To start with, I have to say that the artwork is not my style. I was a bit surprised by the dark and serious tone, as I expected more of the cheerful camp of the TV series. But then again, contrary to what I might wish this is not an adaptation of the TV series. I like the look of the models though, and Sigur’s paint job transformed them into stunning playing pieces.
The innovative and (for me) new thing about the game is that it is app-driven. That means that an app is taking the role of ‘game master’, pacing the game, declaring events and helping to resolve them. I was first pretty sceptical about such as set-up, as I enjoy the tactile element of tabletop games and wasn’t sure if I wanted digital devices to intrude into this.
When you start a game, you first have to choose a scenario and a difficulty level. Each turn is divided into two parts: a real-time phase were things happen (declared by the app) and an evaluation phase where you see if everything you did actually works out. This is a similar mechanic to Space Alert; however, this is also where the similarities between the two games end.
In XCOM, there are several roles for the player to take: there is an Operations Chief, who distributes the funds needed for every action, there is a Captain, who choses missions and sends out soldiers, there is a Chief Scientist who organises research and finally the Commander is responsible for space and air defence.
The interesting thing about this game is that the roles are not only very distinct, they also force you to really concentrate on your job. Conversely, you have to rely on your fellow team members to do their job, as you usually don’t have the time and the information to help them in their decisions. This leads to a kind of tunnel vision, which probably models pretty well how large organisations function. With a good team (and our team was good!) this is also a mode of cooperation that seems to agree with me much more than that of Space Alert, where each action has an immediate influence on each other’s actions and you have to coordinate basically everything all the time. However, the drawback is that player interaction is rather limited, and player interaction is what usually makes cooperative games fun as well as challenging.
Nevertheless, thanks to its strong theme and the interesting mechanics, XCOM is a fun game. With the real-time element and the clearly defined roles it is also unlike other cooperative games I know. I’m sometimes still flabbergasted by the variety of good coop games out there!
In the end, the only thing I’m still not completely comfortable with is the app: While it works well in the game and is not intrusive, there still remains the fact that, in a couple of years, the game will no longer be playable. I still don’t like this idea. But I guess this is a topic that would deserve its own blog post…