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XCOM: The Board Game's companion app is more than just a gimmick

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

If XCOM: The Board Game were a regular board game, it might be terrible.

But it's not a regular board game. It's a board game with a companion app, one that can be run inside a web browser or on a tablet. And the app isn't a gimmick. It's an integral part of how the board game works. It creates a tension that is wholly unique, bringing it closer to something like the Artemis Bridge Simulator or the indie iOS hit Spaceteam.

"This wasn't a case where we added [the app] later," said Eric Lang, a veteran board game designer and the man behind titles such as the Warhammer-themed Chaos in the Old WorldQuarriors! and Kickstarter hit Kaosball.

"We said this is going to be a board game that requires digital integration. We don't want it to be ancillary, and we don't want it to just be an iOS game. When we were prototyping we did not play a single game of this before we had a rough, basic app."

In Easy mode the app can be paused at any time, but that won't be the case in Normal or Hard.

Lang's approach is unique, and the differences were apparent in the pre-production version of his game being shown on the floor of the GenCon convention last week.

Fans of the XCOM franchise will immediately be familiar with the game's four roles. There's the Commander, who is responsible for managing the budget and dispatching fighters to take on enemy UFOs. There's the Chief Scientist, who has to work within a limited budget to reverse engineer advanced alien technology. There's the Central Officer, who manages communications between XCOM forces and intelligence assets in field. Finally, there's the Squad Leader, the eyes in the sky that controls the tactical response to alien threats.

Each role in the board game is asymmetrical, and each role is dependent on the other for success. As the Science Officer, I spent most of my time begging for precious budgetary dollars from the Commander. My game played much like a collectible card game, with a hand of scientific discoveries that I had to use to generate an engine for growth. Meanwhile, the Squad Leader spent most of his time moving squads around the board from one hotspot to another, trying to keep the lid on rising panic in the streets.

But, as the Science Officer, when I made breakthroughs they were game changers. One discovery enabled the Central Officer's to proactively move satellites in orbit, another allowed the Squad Leader to consume enemy specimens for bonuses in combat, while another allowed the Commander to add money to his budget.

Every role at the table felt necessary and unique, interwoven with the others in clever ways.

XCOM: The Board Game will come with 16 plastic soldiers, eight interceptors and 24 UFOs.

"When putting the game together I took a bunch of time to figure out what things are absolutely crucial to progress [the story]," Lang said. "I wanted to make sure that each role had one absolutely critical path to winning, and one aspect of the critical path toward not dying. So I basically cut the game up into quarters to fit each role.

"The Chief Scientist gets to do a lot of risk management with the buffs, and everybody feels the pain when he doesn't get to research something. And because of that everything is interdependent too. Nobody is actually silo'd. Everybody depends on somebody else."

Because of the app, the game has a frantic pace. At the beginning of every round the Central Officer starts the app. As the only person that touches the program, they're responsible for communicating with the other players as well as fulfilling their own role of managing intelligence. A timer begins to count down each phase of the round. But the phases change order every time. It's truly random, Lang says. But the app adapts to how well you're doing. Or how poorly.

The app forces players to make decisions with limited information in ways that regular board games cannot.

Players might be asked to launch their interceptors before knowing where the UFOs are. If there are a lot of UFOs in orbit, players might not be told where the UFOs are and have to launch interceptors completely blind. The Commander may be asked to allocate a budget to the Squad Leader and the Science Officer before knowing what the alien threat is or what technologies are available for research.

In short, the app forces players to make decisions with limited information in ways that regular board games cannot.

"People ask us, ‘Aren't you going to release a deck of cards that will allow us to do this?'" says Steve Horvath, publisher Fantasy Flight Games' senior vice president of communications and digital business.

"No. No we're not."

The best part though is that the app sets the pace for other aspects of an otherwise turn-based game. Even after the app steps aside, allowing players to resolve the turn with dice rolls and other traditional mechanics, the players at the table seem to act as if it's still on, as if the clock is still running.

That means XCOM: The Board Game plays quickly.

XCOM: The Board Game is anticipated to release this year and retail for $59.95, which is the average price of other Fantasy Flight Games titles.