19 September 2014 | XCOM: The Board Game

Alien Intelligence

A Closer Look at XCOM: The Board Game's Unique Companion App

#XCOMBoardGame

The signal was already breaking up. UFOs over Europe, Africa, and… The early warning system went offline. Despite the limited intel, there was no time to lose. The Commander deployed the Interceptors, praying they were headed where they were needed most. There was another alert. The systems revealed an invasion force headed for the base, and then… nothing. The signal was dead. The satellite network was down. XCOM would have to fight blind…

The alien invasion has already begun!

The initial response to our announcement of XCOM: The Board Game has been positively overwhelming. Our demo tables were packed at Gen Con Indy, then again at PAX, and fan sites have since set the net abuzz with news and reviews about both the game and its use of a free digital companion app.

Why does XCOM make use of a digital companion, and what does it add to the game? These are the questions we’ll address today, as we launch headlong into the first of our series of previews.

Researching New Technology

In XCOM: The Board Game, one to four players work together as department heads of the elite military organization XCOM. It is up to you and your friends to thwart a full-scale alien invasion. This invasion is controlled by the app.

Our goal was that XCOM’s digital companion app would allow us to create a gameplay experience that would go well beyond what would be feasible without it. Accordingly, it is an integral part of the game and drives your play experience. It controls the alien invasion, coordinates hidden information, adds to the game’s tension, distinguishes player roles, and promotes a fully cooperative experience. Moreover, the app, which is available for free as both a downloadable app and an online tool, teaches you the game, guides you through each turn, and serves as your rules reference, one that is always immediately at hand.

XCOM’s digital app compresses a wealth of information into an easily digestible format. Furthermore, it keeps the game’s rules immediately at hand. You can learn about the active action simply by clicking on it, and the menu button allows you to access the full rules in just two quick clicks.

Coordinating the Alien Invasion

Each round is divided into two phases, the timed phase and the resolution phase. Throughout the timed phase, the app creates alerts that pop up onscreen and indicate which actions the players need to take. You may need to place UFOs on the board, assign scientists to research new technologies, or choose which global crisis your team will address.

Whenever an alert pops up, it is accompanied by a limited window of time within which your team can act.

The app alerts your team to an impending crisis.

After the app triggers the last of these real-time alerts in the timed phase, you enter the untimed resolution phase. In the resolution phase, you are no longer pressed by time limitations, but you face new tensions as you roll dice and push your luck to resolve your research, missions, and global defense. Even in the resolution phase, the app guides you through your turn sequence. Then, at the end of the phase, you input the results of your efforts, the app calculates the aliens’ next tactics, and the next timed phase begins.

By handling all the calculations for the alien invasion plan, the app greatly streamlines the game, and by serving as your timer, the app also helps to amplify the game’s tension. However, the app does far more than reduce your setup time and track the progress of each round’s timed phase. Those elements are useful, but they don’t truly indicate how the app characterizes your experience.

Promoting a Fully Cooperative Game Experience

XCOM: The Board Game is a fully cooperative (or solo) gameplay experience, and this is one important element of the gameplay experience that the app enables. XCOM’s app handles all of the hidden information for the aliens, directing the deployment of each round’s UFOs and enemies, as well as the number of crises that you and your team are forced to resolve. These decisions are made semi-randomly, based upon the game’s invasion plan, its difficulty level, and your ability to deal with the invasion from round to round. In fact, the app’s ability to respond to your actions means that XCOM permits an experience that’s more intelligent than a deck of cards, without requiring a player to assume the role of the aliens.

It’s thematically important that the players in XCOM are all working together to save humanity from the onslaught of a strange and unknown alien menace, but it’s also important for the game’s mechanics. The app introduces two innovative game elements that are critical to your XCOM experience: forecasts and scrambled communications.

Forecasts appear during the timed phase, flashing across your screen as yellow transmissions, and they give you advanced warning of the alien invasion plan for the round before UFOs appear in orbit or enemy strike teams arrive at your base. The information that these forecasts provide is almost always accurate, but the fullness of its intelligence depends upon how well you can maintain your satellite network. In fact, if too many aliens remain in orbit, your satellite network will deteriorate to the point where you might lose your forecasts altogether.

An example of how the app can forecast the arrival of UFOs. The forecast on the left indicates the future arrival of four UFOs (marked in yellow): two in orbit, one in Europe, and one in Australia. The alert on the right shows the arrival of three of these UFOs. Because forecasts rarely lie, we can generally expect that the UFO forecasted to arrive in Europe will arrive later in the round.

This brings us to the idea of scrambled transmissions, which contribute to one of the most remarkable aspects of the XCOM experience. In XCOM: The Board Game, the app doesn’t just play the role of your rival, it’s also your “game manager.” It teaches you the rules in its tutorial mode and then continues to serve as your one-touch rules reference. However, it also prompts you to act. In fact, there is no turn sequence listed in a rulebook because the app manages your turns, and while you’ll recognize the basic patterns of your turns – receiving forecasts, deploying resources, tracking alien movements, and responding to global crises – there is no one, single turn sequence.

Instead, the app tracks the order in which events occur and weighs your team’s actions each turn, and if the aliens are outpacing your satellite network, the app will start scrambling your transmissions, forcing you to deploy your Interceptors before you know where the UFOs are appearing in orbit. You may even have to deploy soldiers to your mission and base before you have any idea what the aliens have planned for the turn.

Here, we see an example of how scrambled transmissions can impact your ability to successfully resist the alien invaders. The screenshot on the left depicts the sort of information you should receive while your satellite network is doing its job; we see that our alert history twice detected UFOs before we had to deploy our Interceptors. The screenshot on the right, however, introduces a nightmarish situation; we are forced to deploy our Interceptors near the very beginning of the round, well before we have any idea where the aliens intend to land their UFOs. We are fighting blind.

The Central Officer

The Central Officer is responsible for four different aspects of the game. Two of these relate directly to the quality of information that your team receives from the app.

The threat of scrambled transmissions, once again, is another element that adds to the game’s uniquely satisfying cooperative play. XCOM: The Board Game features four asymmetric roles, which players divide between themselves at the beginning of each game. One of these roles is the Central Officer, the XCOM department head responsible to manage both the app and XCOM’s satellite network.

Managing the App

The first of the Central Officer’s listed duties reads:

“Communication – relay information from the app”

At first glance, this duty may appear deceptively straight-forward, but the app isn’t just a digital hourglass. It’s a resource that the Central Officer can manage, and the fact that scrambled transmissions can quickly devastate your efforts means that his role is absolutely vital.

The app has a pause function, and your group has a limited amount of pause time that it can spend each round. This pause time varies according to the game’s difficulty, but it’s also a resource that you can manage carefully in order to ensure that it’s available when you need it most. You can use it to check forecasts or discuss strategies, but if you overuse your pause time, it will run out. Then, you’ll be forced to make your future decisions in shorter windows of time. However, if you complete your earlier, simpler tasks more quickly, the Central Officer can start to bank your pause time for when the invasion hits in full force later in the game.

The fact that the Central Officer controls this pause function means, then, that he’s largely responsible for how much time your group can spend deliberating the merits of different strategic choices. Since each alert opens a limited action window, players can’t spend a long period of time to reach a group consensus about the optimal response, and this means that the multi-player format for XCOM truly encourages each member of the group to carry his or her full weight and focus on a limited set of tasks, rather than trying to manage the whole organization. In turn, the fact that you’re asked to focus so closely on your own tasks and tactics means that you better appreciate your role’s specific challenges, and you gain a greater replay value when you switch roles and tackle another whole set of challenges.

Of course, you’re still a team, and the app’s pause function will let you work together in those moments when you really need to craft your strategies as a group, but the timer and the Central Officer help to ensure that those moments merely punctuate your game experience. They don’t define it.

Your pause time is a variable resource that you will want to manage carefully in order to buy the time you need for your group to reach a consensus during the game’s most critical decisions.

Managing XCOM’s Satellite Network

In addition to managing the app, your Central Officer must also manage XCOM’s network of satellites. He can focus on attacking UFOs in orbit in order to keep your signals strong and your forecasts clear. Or he can jam the invaders’ signals to confuse UFOs hovering over the earth’s continents. When these efforts succeed, the UFOs leave the continents but return to orbit. Of course, once they’re in orbit, those UFOs then threaten to scramble your transmissions. Thus, the Central Officer must constantly weigh the importance of maintaining clear transmissions against the importance of luring alien UFOs away from the Earth.

The more UFOs in orbit, the greater the chance they will scramble your transmissions.

All told, the Central Officer serves your XCOM team as the head of military intelligence, and he’s the member of your group who is most responsible for ensuring that your team can collect the information that you need to formulate a winning plan.

Confronting the Alien Menace

As you can see, the digital companion app for XCOM: The Board Game is an integral part of the game. It streamlines your game experience, coordinates hidden information, serves as your timer, helps to distinguish player roles, and allows you and your friends to enjoy a truly cooperative experience. Additionally, it keeps the game’s rules close at hand, manages your turn sequence, permits variable difficulty levels, and challenges you to maintain a strong satellite network and clear transmissions. Moreover, the app also includes a tutorial that teaches you the game, meaning that you can dive immediately into the action. All in all, this free digital app is far more than a convenient addition to XCOM: The Board Game, it’s the slimy, green, pulsating heart of the alien invasion.

How will you respond to this alien threat? In our upcoming previews, we’ll look at the different roles you can assume as an XCOM department head and the choices with which you’ll have to wrestle as you try to plan your final mission and force the invaders back off our world.

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