Fantasy Flight Games recently released XCOM: The Board Game, one of several recent hybrid titles that combines traditional board game pieces with an electronic component. In the opinion of this review, it may be the best cooperative board game ever made.
In the abstract, XCOM: The Board Game resembles other cooperative board games like Pandemic, Flash Point, and Arkham Horror. Each player takes a specialized role with its own advantages to fight a randomized mutual enemy.
Instead of cards or dice, XCOM cleverly uses a digital component, accessed through a smart device application, to randomize challenges. One turn, players may have to deal with a single alien in their base. The next turn they may face three.
Each type of challenge calls on a particular player to make a decision — and make it fast.
While XCOM’s randomization generator is a definite advancement over cards and dice, the game’s biggest advancement is something simpler: a clock.
When called on, the app gives players just seconds to act. The amount of time granted varies depending on the task. If a player needs to collect a few tokens, the app may give them seven seconds. If they have to read and compare two cards, the app might give them as long as half a minute.
This neutralizes an enduring problem with cooperative board games: quarterbacking.
Quarterbacking happens when one player dominates game decisions, stopping the action until they have figured out the best action for the active player.
XCOM’s clock stops this cold. Players can’t afford to stop and listen to the quarterback; they’ll lose their action if they do. But the clock also prevents anyone from slipping in to quarterback mode. The action moves so quickly that players must constantly focus on their own duties.
In the second half of each turn, players switch from a timed phase to a dice-rolling resolution phase. The shift gives players a break from the clock — though it doesn’t lower their pulse. Players never get enough resources during the timed phase and now have to decide how hard to push those resources. They can roll the dice up to five times for each task, but the risk of catastrophe rises with each roll.
In addition to XCOM’s solid foundation, it comes with fantastic plastic components and a ton of replay value. Players can choose from a variety of different final missions — each of which has a different impact on the game. And, as players get better, they can increase the difficulty simply by tapping a different setting on the app.