Designers: Cody Miller
Publisher: Far Off Games
When I was a kid and Social Media was a virus not yet born, we grew up wanting to be Police Officers, Firefighters, and above all – Astronauts. As Mr. McConaughey put it in the fantastic Interstellar, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars”. That wonder, that sense of exploration and infinite possibility appealed to me as a youth full of energy and still resides in the back of my heart. I remember the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teen, mesmerized by those enthralling scenes of black, silence, and orchestra. I can swiftly recall the first time I saw Alien, my imagination confronted with sheer terror and the depraved face of that wonder. And now I can promise my mind will easily be able to recall my first plays of Xia, where that fading youthful spark of imagination and awe was caressed and reignited like a gentle mother helping a child find its way.
Eclipse and Race For The Galaxy are two of my favorite games yet neither one scratch that space exploration itch that is engrained in our souls. The theme of both take a back seat to the strategic and mechanical decision space which is the exact opposite direction Xia takes. This game mechanically is all guns starboard lined up and ready to obliterate the Euro spectrum of science fiction. This is a game full of random chance, daring risks, and bloated with setting in the most satisfying of ways. It’s a chaotic foray into the black that tickles your imagination and leaves you unrestrained to do whatever you can imagine.
Xia’s components are magnificent – pre-painted ships, metal coins, and lavish cardboard.
The term sandbox game has been increasingly thrown around lately to describe a wide array of games but Xia is the poster child for this term. The game allows you to achieve Fame Points, and thus victory, by partaking in a myriad of different activities. You can mine asteroids, hunt down ships, partake in missions, transport goods to distant worlds, salvage wreckage, and explore the galaxy. All of the different strategies are viable to a mixed degree but you will often find yourself dabbling in multiple paths and the player who proves the most opportunistic and capable of handling whatever the universe throws at him will be the most successful, for this is a capricious and malevolent star system akin to Mother Nature herself.
Most tasks in Xia are handled by rolling different sized dice. To move you will roll a die whose size depends on your engine. The more expensive and upgraded your thrusters the larger the die you are able to roll. Roll and move is a tricky mechanic because it brings a lot of baggage amongst the more initiated gamers in our hobby but Xia is able to pull it off due mostly to sheer volume as you typically roll 3 different moves on a turn and dozens of time throughout a game. Averages will pan out and the odd annoying low roll is just fate being momentarily fickle. You also are afforded Impulse movement once each turn which is a guaranteed 2-4 hexes of movement which helps alleviate the concern of randomness.
Mining, salvaging, and passing through asteroids require rolling the 20-sided die with low rolls resulting in damage or even outright death if flying through wreckage. The game is constantly prodding you with risk/reward and dying is something that tends to happen with a small amount of frequency. Death is somewhat soft and forgiving with your starting Tier of ships as you simply lose your current Mission and any cargo you possess – you keep your weapon outfits, ship, and money. When you upgrade to Tier 2 or Tier 3 ships death comes at a higher cost as you lose a turn, which can be very off-putting. Luckily death almost always comes by your own hand as you choose to take a high risk/high reward maneuver as opposed to flying around the debris or taking the long way to the planet’s gate. You will be tempted often with taking the shortcut and flirting with disaster which can definitely provide a visceral and raw feel of adventure that this game captures so well. You can do stuff like blind jump into a sector in order to save time but you cringe and contort your body in agony as you flip over that top tile hoping it’s not the system’s star, Xia, which equates to instant destruction. Because dying is not overly punishing in the early game players will take risks and exploding into a million small pieces when trying to take a shortcut through a planet’s shields will often result in the table erupting in laughter and high fives as the thrill and emotional ride is part of the appeal. My most memorable moments are when things have taken a turn for the worst and my ship collided with a heat seeking asteroid or nicked its fuel cell on that floating piece of debris with my name on it. You can’t help but recline and smile as the game throws you a beautiful curve ball.
Much of this game can be directly comparable to one of my favorites – Merchants and Marauders. You’re picking up and delivering goods, accepting dangerous missions, and even avoiding dangerous non-player ships. These AI controlled ships are one of Xia’s strongest elements as the game comes with three distinct personalities that players can interact with. The Merchant will fly planet to planet, making tons of cash and fattening itself up so that you can take it down. The Scoundrel looks for nearby lawful ships to burn down while the Enforcer hunts down Outlaws. You can battle and take down any of them for the associated Fame reward and if you are implementing a pirate strategy they are the weakest and juiciest of targets. The way they maneuver on the board and behave really gives them a life of their own and comes across as a satisfying and well developed mechanic.
While the included NPCs are fantastic, the most prolific and enjoyable element of the design is the player ships. Each ship you field has its own special ability which is distinct and flavorful and carries over when you upgrade to the next tier. So you may start out with a spacecraft that can harpoon another ship and be carried along only to upgrade later so that you now have a massive railgun on your vessel that you can blast away with after detaching your harpoon. It provides for a huge variety in combinations and tactics and is joyous to interact with.
The ship special abilities are creative and interesting.
The second aspect of equal importance is that each ship has a hold of varying size and shape. In addition to storing goods in the hold you will place different systems called Outfits. Outfits include your engine, weapons, and shields and they come in different Tetris-like pieces of awkward shapes. There’s a mini-game of sorts as you’re trying to maximize the space in your hold and ascertain what the best possible layout is so that you can fit that Tier 3 missile with the Tier 2 Engine and Tier 1 shields. Different ships are suited to different systems due to the shape of their hold which is fascinating and damn clever. Perhaps it’s not difficult to imagine but there is a great deal of fun in buying gear for your ship and organizing the layout of your different systems. It provides an enjoyable and direct connection with a simple and elegant solution.
There are many different aspects to this game that are admirable but there are a few rough edges which may be a source of chagrin for some. In addition to approaching the game with the right mindset for the sheer number of dice rolls and randomness, players need to be aware that going on the offensive against other players is not a directly successful strategy. Defense edges out offense in a general sense which means you have to be opportunistic and thoughtful in your decision to attempt to take out an opponent. Additionally, since the galaxy is laid out in a random fashion odd-ball results will sometimes come out. You may find a planet which is selling goods that are in demand by the adjacent planet which allows the situation to crop up of a player repeatedly running a very short trade route. My table would deal with such a tactic via verbal and mechanical harassment which often is enough of a solution to not cause us too much agony. The only other element which is slightly disappointing is the lack of an event system similar to that in Merchants and Marauders. While the mechanics are chaotic in nature the star system often isn’t. Once the galaxy has been fully explored the only future unknowns are typically Missions. That’s not to say the game gets boring but a touch of unpredictability via an Event deck would be appreciated.
Xia: Legends Of A Drift may not be a perfect game but it has one huge thing going for it: in terms of setting and emotional impact it doesn’t have any peers. No game has previously attempted to tackle that sense of child-like awe or deliver our fading dreams like this. There have been a few that have come close but not one has really followed through on its promise like this release. Xia is first and foremost an emotional connection to that vast, hostile, and beautiful frontier and it’s a game that when approached from the correct vector will deliver on laughter, excitement, and unbridled enthusiasm.