Designers: Simone Romano, Nunzio Surace
Publisher: Ares Games, Gremlin Project
X-COM: It raises hair on the back of thousands of gamers’ necks. X-COM: It’s one of the finest sci-fi intellectual properties that’s full of nostalgia and imagination. X-COM: It’s one of the most requested subjects for a board game since trading in the Mediterranean. Long before Fantasy Flight announced the X-COM board game Ares brought Galaxy Defenders to Kickstarter, funded the hell out of it, and then delivered an enormous quality box stuffed full of thick cardboard and detailed plastic. This is the closest thing we’ll get to an X-COM tactical experience and filling size 14 shoes can be quite the challenge.
Ares is the only company left doing massive coffin-box games that hearken back to yesterday and us Ameritrash gamers can’t help but eat it up. This game comes with several large map boards, hundreds of tokens and tiles, and 28 quality miniatures. The box is overflowing for the price and is leaking excellent engraved custom dice, two beautifully illustrated manuals, many player aids, and dozens upon dozens of high quality componentry. The sheer volume and attention to detail is excellent and this definitely qualifies for that over-used labor of love cliché.
So is this a Jaguar and all chrome with a shoddy engine? Hell no; this is a Ferrari, tearing the highway up as a team of Marines run roughshod over a horde of alien corpses. This game excels on the back-bone of influences from previously released genre titles such as Gears of War, the D&D Adventure System, and even Doom: The Boardgame. Players cooperate to control a team of Space Marines and are each assigned a specific character outfitted with gear, skills, and unique abilities. Gameplay is scenario based as you will tear into a huge Story Book that contains a large quantity of scripted missions that all bear unique surprises and clever layouts.
Players will take turns activating their agent and then activating the aliens before play passes to the next agent. On your turn you can move several hexes, attack, and perform an action in any order you wish. Attacking consists of rolling either red or blue custom dice and looking for hits. The defender then takes up a number of blue dice equal to the number of hits you scored and tries to roll shields to cancel them out. There’s a few wrinkles and interesting tactical elements in that additional symbols trigger loss of ammo, jamming, and special weapon or character abilities. Resolution is surprisingly fast once you get in a rhythm and wide array of effects are achieved with a streamlined and direct mechanic.
The system forming the artificial intelligence of the enemy is typically a crucial quality of cooperative shooters/dungeon crawlers and they can make or break a title. This is another thing Galaxy Defenders gets just right as the invading alien force is activated via an AI deck that is reminiscent of the excellent Gears of War. Some cards will activate specific alien types (Xeno Alphas, Aracnos, Spine Critters, etc.), others will activate all aliens that are wounded, and some will activate all aliens that are in close combat. It’s dynamic and unpredictable and achieves a level of tension that many Coops struggle with. Additionally, each alien has its own attack and behavior priority found on its stat card which grants personality and distinction. Some aliens will prefer to keep their distance while others will want to charge in and hit multiple characters in melee. It’s interesting and contributes to the mental wrangling of trying to assess the best actions for your team and how to approach the quickly devolving battle situation.
The single most important element this design has going for it when comparing it to its peers is the built in campaign mode. This is the recommended mode of play as you begin at Mission 1 and will branch off into a series of different scenarios depending on your success or failure. Specific events and effects will also change in a given scenario based on your previous mission and how well you did. This is clever and a great way to create an over-arching narrative that gives each session purpose and meaning. You find yourself wanting to push on and rescue that damn helpless scientist before a Xeno-Beta blasts him in the back of the head because you know they will be able to provide help and support on the follow-up mission. I also am in love with the event deck that has you drawing a single card at the end of each turn. This deck is pre-seeded based on the scenario and typically includes a myriad of interesting effects such as weather or erratic alien movement as well as a single card that has you reference the mission text to see a custom-tailored event. This gives enormous flexibility and is where you find references to succeeding or failing the previous scenario and where that leaves you now.
The second facet of the campaign mode that is of prime interest is the experience system which has you ranking up in the middle of missions. If you kill an alien you get to roll several dice at the beginning of the next round, looking for GD symbols to trigger a rank up. This awards different benefits such as skills or tactic modules that provide special effects and powers. It’s a simple and elegant level-up mechanic that still offers a wide array of options when selecting said skills without bogging down the game with huge class trees or an overwrought development system. It’s sleek and fits snugly into the rest of the design in a perfect manner.
Galaxy Defenders features some of the most gorgeous and detailed map tiles of any game I’ve seen.
Galaxy Defenders is a mechanically enjoyable design with one of the best campaign systems for a game of this type yet it has an enormous monkey on its back which has kept it from hitting that next level. The issue is primarily that it’s a game which has been thrown into a backyard pond packed to the brim with sharks where it’s eat or be eaten. Competition is fierce with a slew of tactical miniature games already filling the market as well as several monsters coming out soon.
Its biggest hurdle is the fact it’s based on a brand new intellectual property with no prior established setting. It bears a strong resemblance to X-COM and certainly feels similar as signals move around the map which reveal aliens when they move into line of site, as well as signature elements like collecting alien weapon fragments to build energy weapons. However, it doesn’t quite feel fully realized in scope or breadth here. This release feels more like a solid pilot to an up and coming television show that’s burdened with having to lay the groundwork and establish the setting parameters before it can really break out. It reminds me of my first viewing of the pilot for “The Wire” and how I was mildly intrigued but wasn’t hooked. A few episodes later and a couple of Omar Little appearances in and I was stammering like a junky in need of a fix. I hold out hope that Omar’s ‘coming round the block’ in the two recently funded expansions that look to introduce psionics and power armor. The horizon certainly looks extremely promising in this regard.
Galaxy Defenders is a quality title that pushes nearly all of my Ameritrash buttons. It provides tension and tough tactical decisions while framing the entire experience into an intriguing campaign story that features stellar character progression. It has a high toy factor and gives you that warm fuzzy feeling of playing with GI Joes in your parent’s living room while still participating in the structure of a game and overcoming arduous challenge. It’s not quite my perfect tactical shooter but it’s nearly a perfect dead ringer for X-COM and that should be enough to bring any thematic gamer to the table.