One of the hottest games demoed at GenCon last August, XCOM:TBG was designed by (disclaimer: my friend) Eric Lang, whose pedigree includes Quarriors, Marvel Dice Masters, and Midgard among many others. Its theme, unsurprisingly, is the highly-successful XCOM videogame franchise, which blends turn-based tactical combat with global strategic resource and technology management.
XCOM:TBG’s claim to fame is in its integration of electronic and tabletop gaming. There is actually nothing new about this. Thirty years ago and more, with the advent of (relatively) cheap transistor and chip technology, games like Dark Tower, Stop Thief, and The Omega Virus integrated electronic components, and those of us who played them will remember how awesome they were—for their time. Recently, games like Golem Arcana have been released which use apps to streamline record-keeping and gameplay.
The app is absolutely essential to playing the game. If that is a turn-off for you then you might as well move along; nothing I’m going to say will change your mind. Either you’re OK with it or you’re not. I’ve thought about how it would be possible to play the game without the app, and I think it’s possible, but would require a stopwatch, a d6, and a specialized deck of cards at the very least.
XCOM:TBG is cooperative, with up to four players assuming the roles of Commander, Central Officer, Chief Scientist, and Squad Leader. Each role has unique tasks to perform in the game, and the “Pandemic Syndrome” (whereby one player takes over and makes all the decisions) is deftly avoided by forcing each player to make their decisions under timed conditions; the app keeps track of time spent and pausing does not stop the clock. Each round consists of the timed decision-making phases (which are increasingly frenetic at higher difficulty levels) followed by a resolution phase when all the decisions play out.
For fans of the franchise, the question has to be how much XCOM:TBG adheres to its video game ancestor. The answer is: sorta. The strategic aspects of the game have been preserved more than the tactical ones. As in the video game, players have to budget their actions (the amount of credits available is randomly determined by the app), and failure to complete missions is invariably punished by increasing panic on each continent.
Unlike the video game, there is no tech tree per se; technologies become researchable randomly during the game. And although individual soldiers can be made “elite” (making them more likely to succeed in their tasks), the whole skill-building module has been eliminated. The combat missions (which take up the lion’s share of time in the video game) have been streamlined and are resolved in a series of dice rolls, so if you loved the missions, you will feel their absence keenly.
I haven’t played the game enough times to comment on replayability, but I think it stacks up well against other cooperative games. There are different classes of aliens available to fight, as well as different overall alien “missions” which determine not only what happens when things go wrong but also what the game-winning mission is (a mechanic similar to Master Plans and Schemes in the Marvel: Legendary game).
So all in all how does XCOM:TBG stack up? The answer may depend on whether and how much you’ve enjoyed the XCOM franchise. For instance, I am a big fan, but my son is eleven and has never played them (though he loves video games). We both really liked XCOM:TBG. I felt the game captured the flavour of the original very well and came as close as possible to matching the tactical vs. strategic decisions in the video game. My son liked the tension making decisions under the gun of the in-game timer, but wished the app included a few cutscenes from the video game for extra flavour. (Not a bad suggestion, actually.) My final recommendation is to play through the tutorial provided by the app and then go straight to “Normal” difficulty if you want to experience the game full-on; the “Easy” level essentially removes the timer+, which sucks almost all the tension out of the game.
Time will tell whether XCOM:TBG will be considered a harbinger of things to come or just an interesting sideline in board game design. In the meantime, get out there and shoot some Mutons! VIGILO, CONFIDO.