How I’d Introduce Folks to XCOM: The Board Game

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM: The Board Game lately. I’ve got a few crew at the Wicked Goblin who’ll give it a go with me on Thursday nights. Giving folks  a quick run-down on how it works is always a bit tricky, though. It’s a complex game, with a lot going on.

There are still a few basic principles that can help speed learning the game, though. Here’s how I (intend to) explain them as quickly as I can to new players.

How do you win a game of XCOM?

No, it doesn’t come with an iPad.

First off, XCOM is a co-operative game for one to four players (yes, you read that right; XCOM: The Board Game can be played solo). All players work together to beat the game, which makes life difficult for us via a couple of decks of cards, some UFO counters and the turns it takes in the app that governs the game.

The idea is that we’re the senior officers in the XCOM Project, an organisation dedicated to protecting Earth from alien invasion. There are four roles that we fill: Central Officer, Chief Scientist, Commander and Squad Leader.

It’s the Squad Leader who will win the game for us. His job is to send the Soldiers of XCOM out on Missions. Face down on the board is an alien invasion plan. At some point, the app will tell us to flip this over to reveal the Final Mission. When the Squad Leader completes this mission, we win.

How do we go about winning a game of XCOM?

The means of winning the game come through tasks. A task is basically a single mini-objective that requires the rolling of the game’s dice to resolve. Each role has its own set of tasks that play out basically the same way. (Missions, including the Final Mission, always have three tasks to complete in order to accomplish them.)

Gathering XCOM Dice

You can roll up to four XCOM (blue, six-sided) dice for any given task. How many you roll is determined mainly by the number of units (used here in the military sense) you can allocate.

Each role has its own set of units. The Central Officer has Satellites, the Chief Scientist has Scientists, the Commander has Interceptors and the Squad Leader has Soldiers. Each unit that the player allocates to one of its tasks gives the player one XCOM die. Each XCOM die has two XCOM symbols on it, and each symbol that comes up grants one success. If you don’t have enough successes to complete the given task (always at least one), you can roll again. With a one-in-three chance of success per die, you want to try and roll as many as possible.

Threat Level and the !#&$ing Alien Die

Here’s the trick, though. Every time you roll XCOM dice for a task, you must also roll the alien (red, eight-sided, numbered) die. Each time you roll, the alien die must come up with a number over the current threat level. The threat level starts at 1 for the first roll on a given task, but if you choose to try for more successes by rolling again, each subsequent roll pushes the threat level up by 1, up to a maximum of 5. You can choose to stop re-rolling at any time, and you can keep rolling even if the threat level can’t go any higher (as long as you’ve not already lost that task).

If the alien die comes up equal to or lower than the current threat level, all the units you’ve assigned to that task are destroyed. You still receive the successes you earned on the XCOM die / dice you rolled in that roll, and if they give you enough successes you complete the task.

If not, the only way to keep rolling is to prevent the destruction of some of your assigned units (the Squad Leader can also assign extra Soldiers from the remainder allocated to the Mission / Base Defense, if they meet the enemy / task’s requirements). Check the app’s rules and FAQ and your asset and tech cards. Note: Any retries don’t reset the threat level (unless the card or specific rule says so).

If you can’t save any units (or allocate extra ones), you must move onto the next task or finalise the current action.

Destruction means something different for Interceptors and Soldiers than it does for Satellites and Scientists, but we can pick that up during the game. A destroyed unit will be out of play for one full turn, possibly longer.

So there’s a clear risk: the more units you assign to the task, the better your chances of success, but the greater the consequences if you fail.

Another point to note: The threat level will reset back down to 1 after most tasks, which are:

  • Central Officer: Destroying UFOs in orbit with Satellites (called Orbital Defense); the orbit space on the board is one task and each success destroys one UFO.
  • Chief Scientist: Researching new technologies with Scientists (called Research); each research space on the board is one task and each success earns one point toward the chosen technology’s research goal.
  • Commander: Destroying UFOs over continents with Interceptors (called Global Defense); each of the six continents on the board is one task and each success destroys one UFO.
  • Squad Leader:
    • Destroying aliens invading the XCOM base with Soldiers (called Base Defense); each alien is one task and each success earns one damage point against the alien’s hit points.
    • Going on the current Mission with Soldiers; each alien on the mission or non-alien space is one task each success either:
      • earns one damage point against the alien’s hit points, or
      • earns one point of success for the non-alien space.

However, the threat level for the poor Squad Leader only resets between Base Defense and the Mission; defeating an alien in the base or accomplishing a Mission task will not reset the threat level until the Base Defense or Mission phase is done.

How do you lose a game of XCOM?

A typical game of XCOM can take a couple of hours, but it’s not a case of keep playing until you win or run out of time. The game is actively working against you in two ways.

Global Panic

CapturedByCatherine_Bradford_HeadshotI mentioned the continents, the orbit space and UFOs a little earlier on. Each continent has a marker on the panic track, and the marker moves one space up the track for:

  • every UFO remaining on it once the Commander has finished Global Defense,
  • every UFO in orbit once the Central Officer has finished Orbital Defense (only the least panicked continent increases its panic), and
  • the difference between the total of Interceptors, Satellites, Scientists and Soldiers allocated to tasks this turn and the number of credits in this turn’s budget, if the budget is the lower number (only the most panicked continent moves further up the track).

If two continents move into the orange space at the right of the panic tracker, we have lost. (Also, if any continents move form the yellow panic spaces into the red panic spaces, subsequent turns’ budgets will be less; it’s the nations of the world that fund the XCOM Project, and if we’re not seen to be doing our job, the contributing nations will take their money elsewhere, thank you very much.)

Also worth noting: Any UFOs left on the board will remain and cause more panic next turn unless destroyed later. UFOs in orbit will pass down to the continents as directed by the app at the start of the next timed phase.

Destruction of the XCOM Base

I also mentioned the base and aliens earlier. There’s a damage tracker above the three Base Defense spaces. For every alien the Squad Leader cannot defeat during Base Defense, the tracker’s marker goes up by one. When the marker reaches the uppermost space in the damage tracker, the XCOM base is destroyed and we lose the game.

Also, if the tracker’s marker reaches one of the two red target icon spaces in the tracker, the base has been damaged; apply the effect listed on the invasion plan / Final Mission card.

What is playing XCOM like?

The main thing you need to know here is that the XCOM: The Board Game app governs the game. It breaks each turn up into two phases; the timed phase and the resolution phase.

A game of XCOM in progress, probably right after the timed phase has ended. Looks like Africa’s in a bit of troub – No, it doesn’t come with whatever tablet that is either.

Timed Phase

The timed phase is a combination of alien actions and unit allocations on speed. The app will give each of you at least one action (which will usually involve allocating resources to tasks) to perform but only a limited amount of time to do it in. If your action goes over its allocated time, the available time for any subsequent actions (for you or other players) will drop.

In the meantime, the app will tell you when and where UFO counters are to be placed in orbit or over a continent, as well as when an alien is invading the XCOM base. It will also give “pings,” forecasts of future UFO appearances this turn, which the Central Officer can only check manually.

Generally, keep an eye on any asset or researched technology cards you have in front of you with “TIMED PHASE” on them. You can use them at any time during the phase, not just during your actions, but not once the phase is over, and as your time in the timed phase is limited, maintaining the awareness needed to correctly apply an asset or technology at the right moment is critical.

Resolution Phase

Once the timed phase shows you the situation you’re in and you’ve allocated your units to turn it around, the resolution phase is where you get the dice out and determine whether your plans and reactions were successful. The app will take you through a set order of actions, typically commencing with a budget audit and ending with the Squad Leader managing the Mission. There’s no time limit on any of these actions.

Generally, keep an eye on any asset or researched technology cards you have in front of you with “RESOLUTION PHASE” on them. You can use them at any time during the phase, not just during your actions, but not once the phase is over. The Central Officer’s ability to reroll the alien die once per turn could prevent the elimination of a flight of Interceptors or squad of Soldiers – but which one?

Tips for Playing XCOM: The Board Game

Here are a few bits of advice and XCOM life hacks to make the XCOM experience a little less confusing (if not successful).

Everybody (almost)

CapturedByCatherine_Bradford_Headshot_HeadacheYou’re going to lose. Trust me on this. Even on Easy difficulty, XCOM: The Board Game does not forgive mistakes (just like the video game that inspired it, XCOM: Enemy Unknown). Those one-in-three odds per XCOM die can result in horrifically memorable rolls where you’ve gathered enough units to roll at least four XCOM dice – and they all come up blank. And the alien die comes up with a 1. And the Central Officer exhausts the Satellite Uplink card to re-roll the alien die. And it comes up 1 a-!#&$ing-gain.

However, the game as a whole is still engaging enough that even dooming the world to alien domination is still an entertaining experience, so don’t sweat it much. The game will let you learn from your mistakes and rally. And boy, do those horrid rolls make for great XCOM war stories.

Plus, when you do win, it's absolutely glorious. Here's a 71-point victory on Normal with three players and the Infiltration invasion plan.
Plus, when you do win, it’s absolutely glorious. Here’s a 71-point victory on Normal with three players and the Infiltration invasion plan.

Remember that though pause time is limited on Normal and higher difficulties, we can still access the menu at any time, which will not count toward pause time total. Still, keep with the spirit of the game and only use the menu to clarify a rule or for emergency breaks.

Always tell the Central Officer whenever you’re done with your action during the timed phase; any extra time you take comes off any further player actions in the timed phase.

One thing that I find works, especially if I’m playing solo, is organising my asset and technology cards into timed phase and resolution phase groups. That way, when I’m under pressure during the timed phase, I can take a quick look over my immediate options.

Central Officer

It may seem as though you’re the guy who reads off the app and tells everyone what to do, but actually, one of your main roles is to use your Satellites to juggle UFOs and, to a lesser extent, others’ units. During the timed phase, you can use your Satellite asset cards to marshal the UFOs onto one or two continents and orbit so you and the Commander can concentrate your Interceptors and Satellites.

The Chief Scientist is your best friend, providing you with new technology that can knock more UFOs out of orbit and help all your colleagues with their tasks. As you can only allocate a maximum of three satellites to Orbital Defense, you’re not going to divert much budget away from the Chief Scientist, but still, be mindful of the overall budget situation anyway.

Make sure you tell the Commander about any pings you get. The Commander may have to allocate Interceptors before the pings actually manifest as UFOs, and if the Commander can place Interceptors in anticipation of those UFOs, you’ll be in better shape for keeping the continents happy. (Of course, you might get a ping that doesn’t eventuate, but that’s the Commander’s problem, not yours.)


The Chief Scientist is your best friend, providing you with new technology that can boost your budget, protect your Interceptors and even upgrade them to the UFO-hybrid Firestorm class. Just remember when you’re assigning Interceptors to Global Defence that the Chief Scientist needs a slice of the budget to give you those sweet UFO-slaying, budget-saving toys.

The Squad Leader is your second-best friend. If you’ve drawn two crises and even the lesser of the two evils is going to screw you all up, ask the Squad Leader to chuck a couple of Soliders on the Skyranger and take it out. The Squad Leader can do it twice, but only if a total of four soldiers are available to board the Skyranger. Keep in mind that the Squad Leader cannot view the crisis stack and must take your word on which crisis needs nailing the most.

Mind the budget. If you have table space, keep three piles of credits (aside from those on your Emergency Funding card) the bank of un-used credits, the current budget and any credits spent. Whenever someone, yourself included, assigns a resource to a task, shift a credit out of the budget and into the spent pile. That way you’ll have an idea of whether you’ll have a surplus (essential to buy yourself more Interceptors and the Squad Leader more precious Soldiers) or whether the team is getting perilously close to panicking some already-twitchy continents.

Squad Leader

The Chief Scientist is your best friend, providing you with plenty of weapon and armour technology that will allow you to knock aliens over with ease. Just remember when you’re assigning Soldiers to Base Defence and the Mission that the Chief Scientist needs a slice of the budget to give you those sweet ET-slaying, Soldier-saving toys.

The Commander is your second-best friend. If you can give up a Soldier during the timed phase, the Commander can train it into an elite unit that rolls one extra XCOM die in any tasks it’s allocated to. Just one or two Elite soldiers can turn the game around.

Chief Scientist

You are everybody else’s best friend. You’re going to be equipping them with the tools and technology to make their (and each other’s) lives easier. Remember, though, not to go overkill with assigning Scientists to Research tasks; your colleagues will need the budget to keep the skies and the ground clear (and the money for more research coming in).

That said, your best friend is probably the Squad Leader. If you can improve the Soldiers’ efficiency at killing aliens in the base or on mission, you get more Salvage. Your Laboratory allows you to convert Salvage into extra dice on Research tests without risking Scientists, whom you can then commit to asset and technology cards you’ve researched.

What are you doing?

How did you handle explaining a complex board game to a new player?

What are your tips for playing XCOM: The Board Game?

What are your XCOM: The Board Game war stories?

Photo images by Captured by Catherine; model is me. XCOM: The Board Game product art sourced from the Fantasy Flight Games website.