Review: XCOM: The Board Game

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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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Make it so!

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, so there was not much gaming (or even painting) going on. However, a couple of days ago, we had some friends over and decided to try a game I’ve had lying around for a while: Space Alert.

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It’s a cooperative game with two unique features: First, it comes with an audio-CD, which provides the instructions for the different scenarios. Second, the main part of the game runs in real-time. Basically, you play the crew of a starship and have to make sure the ship survives before heading into hyperspace. The computer voice, which is provided by the CD, gives you information on threats you have to counter. You can either shoot at them or transfer energy to the shields. However, energy is a limited resource and somebody better be in engineering to make sure that enough is available where it is needed.

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During the second part of the game, all the things you have decided in the real-time environment (and ‘programmed in’ with cards) are resolved and you can see how you have done and whether the starship has survived.

The game is great fun and demands real team work. This is not as easy when a countdown is running and information is coming in all the time. During the first game, which was a training mission, everybody was running around the ship and doing his or her thing, resulting in comical scenes were people were moving past each other without coordination. 

As the game is short – the real-time part of the training missions takes 7 minutes, after which you will need about 15 minutes for the resolution phase – we tried the training mission again. We managed to survive in the end, but considering that this scenario did not use the full rules yet and there are several more different kinds of threats to come, advanced missions are not going to be a walk in the park!

I really like the game. Real-time planning definitely adds to cooperative gaming and the experience is very thematic – it’s a game that really gives that Star Trek experience.

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Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

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This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

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Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

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Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

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Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

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For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!

What I did during the last weeks…

Life has been busy, but in a good way. I’ve got a new job and still have to settle into the new routines. I haven’t actually neglected playing games and painting (though it’s going slower), but I didn’t find time or leisure to write blog articles.

Here’s a quick update on my gaming-related activities. I hope that in the future, this blog will again resume a more structured appearance.

My painting has been rather eclectic. I really enjoyed painting the mole at the Vienna Nerd Institute painting workshop, so I’ve continued to work on the fantastic anthropomorphic animals from Oathsworn Miniatures. Here’s my collection so far:

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Inspire by our recent sci-fi game, I’ve also finished a landing party for an IPU (Interplanetary Union) starship:

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It get’s even more idiosyncratic. I recently met a very old friend again. When we were youngsters, we played a lot of games together, among them Man O’War. Now he wants to rejoin the hobby and bought a whole load of Man O’War stuff. I couldn’t resist and by chance found a couple of second-hand Orc flyers, so I decided to give them a coat of paint:

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I haven’t yet committed to build up a fleet, but I did get some Renaissance galleys from Navwar, which might do double duty as Orc ships if I can convince anybody to play the excellent Galleys & Galleons

And my final product shows that I haven’t completely lost my sense, as it leads back to my perennial obsession. Using the Busch maize field sprues, I built a corn field for the ACW. I’ve made it modular so troops can be placed inside.

 

I’ve also played a couple of games. Most of them Sharp Practice, but we’ve also started T.I.M.E. Stories, an interesting cooperative game about which more in another blog post.

And I had a game of Flashing Steel, still one of my all-time favorites!