XCOM: The Board Game
Continuing our theme of PC classics turned board game (and coincidentally another Fantasy Flight title), XCom is a fascinating peek into the potential future of the medium. Rather than focus on the tactical combat of Firaxis’ reboot, the board game simulates the money-crunching management of the organization, with the role of the aliens (and keeper of the rules) being played by an official tablet/phone/desktop app, dropping objectives, challenges and funding your way in real time.
The Mod: XCom: The Board Game
Steam Workshop page
Does just what it says on the tin! The image quality on the cards and counters isn’t great, but it’s fully playable and the app is available via the official site for the game. It won’t run on the TTS tablet though, sadly, so whoever is playing the Central Officer role will have to read each update to the other players and hum the soundtrack so nobody misses out.
There does seem to be one small and amusing glitch with this mod – the interceptor models are incorrectly aligned, so those little planes end up standing vertically on the board rather than flat – a feat that they’re only capable of if you hit the Flip button on them.
The Results: Once the logistics of running the app alongside Tabletop Sim were worked out (I ran it in a separate window, but if you’ve got a twin-monitor setup or a tablet to hand, that’s even better), it was plain sailing the whole way through. In fact, once you’ve figured out the basics, you can pre-set the board and create a saved game to get yourself back into the action more quickly next time.
As an interesting aside, the XCom board game can also be played solo, with one player controlling all four wings of XCom Command. You’ll have to abuse the pause-time feature to keep up with the sheer number of duties you have to track, but it is possible, and an interesting place to begin with if you really want to get down and dirty with TTS without embarrassing yourself in front of friends. At least that way, nobody will judge you if you can’t resist the siren song of the Flip Table button.
Doom: The Board Game
After some deliberation with our team of board-game boffins, we decided to eschew a full pen-and-paper RPG (something TTS isn’t quite ready for until they add virtual paper) in favour of this venerable (and out of print) behemoth. The Doom board game is an enormous, sprawling thing with what seems like a million pieces, all in the name of replicating the FPS experience in turn-based form. One player controls the demons (and reads out scenario notes from a dungeon masters handbook of sorts), and up to three others control the marines.
In terms of actual play, it’s surprisingly simple and intuitive, controlling more than a little bit like the tactical layer in Firaxis’ XCom. Each marine can perform two actions per turn, modified by various class perks, and item tokens moved over on the board are placed into your ammo/equipment pools. The issue comes from the sheer number of tokens, miniatures and board-segments used, making it complex enough to deal with in real life, let alone a virtual tabletop.
An impressive piece of work, all things considered. While the miniatures are replaced with virtual cardboard standees on metal bases (real models are apparently planned for a later update), everything from the core set is there, including the DM’s scenario files on a tablet.
The Results: This one was rather exhausting to play, but not so much because of failings in the software. Frustrations stemmed from a combination of Doom’s enormous physical complexity, and some shortcomings of the mod used. While it’s nice that the first campaign map comes pre-assembled (normally a time-consuming process in reality), it isn’t laid out in sync with the tabletop sim board-grid, meaning that placing anything in a given tile-space can be frustrating.
Other issues presented themselves early, such as the scenario booklet included on the in-game tablet being unreadable there, necessitating the use of an external PDF reader. Not too much of a hassle, but it did require some careful window-stacking and additional muttering under my breath that I wish I had a two-monitor setup. Mainly, the issue holding back the game is the sheer number of pieces involved. Playing it virtually might eliminate the (lengthy) game setup period, but there’s still a lot to track and manage. That said, a cleaner version of the mod with proper grid-snapping pieces would probably make for a vastly improved experience.
With all that said, I’d love for some enterprising indie developer to adapt this into purely digital form. If Doom: The Roguelike can exist in the gaps between corporate monoliths, then so can this.
By Jove, it works! It really works! For the most part, at least. While Tabletop Simulator does have some limitations in its current incarnation that prevent it from doing everything with relative ease, it’s a surprisingly powerful and flexible piece of software. While we found some notable shortcomings during testing (Pen & Paper RPGs are still a fools errand best served by the likes of dedicated packages such as Fantasy Grounds) and some quirks in the mods we used, all five games were consistently playable, give or take a few irritations.
I also need to address the snarling elephant in the room, which I’ve been turning a blind eye to for so long. As inherently neutral a toolkit as TTS is, and there are plenty of people using it for wholly new creations, most will use it to play board games that would normally set you back £30-50 in a shop. Vastly more in some cases, such as with constantly expanding games like Netrunner & X-Wing. Perhaps the solution for publishers, as with Fantasy Grounds before it, could be releasing official Tabletop Sim adaptations of their properties as paid DLC, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Legal quagmire aside, Tabletop Simulator works as advertised. It may not provide quite the same tactile joy of rolling dice through your fingers or clicking hard tokens across a polished board, but it does something genuinely important: it lets you play these fascinating, creative games with friends, no matter how far apart you might be, and I consider that a resounding success.
Tabletop Simulator is available now for £11 via Steam Early Access, and supports Windows, Mac & Linux.