One Sentence Synopsis: “It’s an ugly planet. A BUG planet! A planet hostile to life…” -Last Words of Unnamed Field Reporter
“Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world. Service guarantees citizenship.” Starship Troopers was the first “R” rated movie I ever saw, and almost 20 years after its release it’s still the quintessential action film for alien bug hunting. Although it has been a while since I’ve seen it, the memories I had of the propaganda newsreels, the initial shootout with the bugs, and the epic defense by the Roughnecks of the outpost on Planet P, all came flooding back the second I saw Xenoshyft Onslaught on Kickstarter. Something about the art reminded me of Starship Troopers– maybe that the weaponry and armaments were futuristic but still connected in some form to modern technology or design- and after reading the description I was pretty sure I had found that against-the-odds base defense moment distilled into boardgame form. Having enjoyed Xenoshyft Onslaught over the last couple of months, I can confirm that’s exactly what Cool Mini or Not’s latest title brings to the table.
Xenoshyft Onslaught is a cooperative deck-building game that drops 1-4 players into a daunting situation; a NorTec outpost is under attack by a horde of alien bugs, and it’s up to them to defend the base at all costs. Each person is tasked with defending a different location at the base which gives the player unique abilities that further develop as the game’s nine total rounds progress, in addition to providing a couple of item cards that are added to their general starting decks of militia and Xenosathem resource cards. Players are then responsible for building upon those basic item, troop, and resource cards to survive the increasingly difficult waves of randomized enemies they face at the end of each round. The base takes damage if positions are overrun during the course of each wave, or in some cases as troops are killed, and the game is lost if the installation ever takes an amount of damage equal to the number of players times five. If the base is still standing at the end of the ninth attack, however, the players are victorious and the outpost is saved.
Each game round is divided into two phases: a developmental phase in which players acquire new cards and prepare their defensive lines, and a combat phase. Players start each round with a hand of six cards from their draw deck, and receive an additional Xenosathem card based on the round number. They’re then allowed to discuss and coordinate card purchases, choosing from any of the nine item cards on the board that are randomized at the beginning of each game and consist of equipped gear or instant-use cards, or from increasingly powerful troop cards that become available as the game goes on. Unlike most deck builders, purchased cards are added directly to players’ hands and are available for use immediately, rather than going into the discard pile.
Players finish preparing for the impending wave of bugs by placing troop and item cards into the lane they’re tasked with defending. The smart positioning of different troops and gear makes the difference between mere survival and completing the wave with minimal or no damage taken, and the game facilitates this by allowing players to give cards from their hand to other players. It’s therefore possible for others to pitch in to shore up the defenses of a player who drew a less-than-ideal hand, though ownership of those cards transfers to the player whose lane they’re played on.
Unlike the developmental phase, the combat phase is completed one player at a time as each are dealt four face-down alien invaders to deal with from the deck corresponding to the wave color of the round. The bugs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with some possessing heavy damage or health statistics and others sporting abilities that help other bugs in their lane, or even take control of marines to do their bidding. If a player is truly unlucky they may even encounter a powerful boss bug which can single-handedly ravage their forces. Battles are resolved by flipping the next alien card in a player’s lane and comparing the abilities and statistics against their front-most marine until no alien cards are left, or all the NorTec forces in the lane are defeated and the base takes damage from any remaining bugs. Again, instant use cards can be played across lanes to aid others, and it’s a tactic players will want to make generous use of given the randomized nature of the various encounters.
Surviving Xenoshyft Onslaught’s nine rounds, spread equally over three different wave colors/difficulties, is a challenging feat; I don’t think it’s quite on the level of brutality as Ghost Stories, but it’s up there on my list of punishing cooperative games. Although the statistics on the alien cards can pose significant challenges on their own, the difficulty mostly comes from the various special abilities of each bug type which range from dealing instant damage to marines, to buffing other bugs in the lane. The fact that the decks and configurations of aliens are randomized each wave means the game can deal out some truly nasty combinations of stacked abilities that can sink even the most well-composed defense. It’s completely possible to lose 1/3 of the base’s total health just from one person’s lane failing in a round, and players will find themselves hard pressed to keep up with the increasingly powerful bugs they’ll encounter; any one player falling behind is therefore of real concern for everyone involved.
The randomization of the bugs helps replayability, but it definitely makes Xenoshyft Onslaught’s difficulty vary widely from game-to-game. Whereas players may completely control the game for many rounds during one playthrough, in the next they’ll feel like they’re fighting a losing battle from wave one. It comes off as a bit unfair in the worst-case scenarios, and I wouldn’t fault groups for finding that off-putting. Luckily, Xenoshyft usually succeeds in managing those difficulty swings by including some of the most cooperative, interactive elements I’ve ever actually seen in a cooperative game. Many of the abilities from base locations can be used on other players, and the purchase phase gives players ample opportunity to discuss deck-building strategies. Coordination is extremely important because players can actually play their own troops, items, and instant-play cards on other people’s lanes. Have a player that only drew one marine? Help them out by giving them a couple of your extras. Ridiculous bugs revealed in your pal’s lane? Toss one of your grenades over and blow them to kingdom come. The interaction that sharing stimulates during rounds is great and keeps everyone engaged even when they’re not in combat, though players must be mindful that their cards actually go into the deck of the person whose lane it was used on afterwards.
While part of succeeding comes down to effective cooperation, the rest is up to the balancing act players must perform between getting new cards, and cycling out old ones. Most deck-building games have some sort of mechanism for cycling old or basic cards out of a player’s deck to strengthen their odds of drawing more beneficial cards, but the necessity of actually doing so varies greatly. In Xenoshyft, it’s completely essential. Not cycling decks efficiently means players will get stuck fielding lower-powered troops during more difficult waves, and since lane space comes at a premium and the stronger bugs have a tendency to do damage to multiple marines, or to even gain power after killing them, that can quickly turn a winning game into a lost cause. Xenoshyft helps players recycle cards by including “burn” effects on the troop cards that let them discard the card for a discount on a new trooper, or in the case of resources to combine 3 lower powered resource cards into the next tier up.
Gaining cards to help more immediately is, of course, also of pressing concern, and Xenoshyft’s deck-building mechanism is really quite exciting in that regard. Unlike most deck-builders which send player purchases directly to the discard pile to come up on future shuffles, Xenoshyft lets players use their new cards immediately. Rather than having to wait turn-after-turn to potentially see your acquisitions come up, that means the shiny new NorTec mech you purchased and your sweet-ass auto-cannon can kick some alien butt that very turn-and that’s a good thing, because you’re probably going to need them. That really creates a sense of urgency and action that’s lacking in many other titles in the genre, and further promotes the importance and fun of discussing strategies and coordinating buys.
Even with the randomization of the bug deck, locations, and the items available during each game, I can still see some players becoming disenchanted with the game’s replayability. While those elements definitely provide for new situations that necessitate different strategies and adaptation during each game, there’s no variation in the end-goal of surviving nine waves. The randomization itself may even prove problematic to people who want concrete intelligence from which to build strategies, which is simply not the case in Xenoshyft since there’s no real way to tell what’s coming at you during the next wave; it fits thematically, but players must accept a degree of planning in the blind. Similar to other cooperative mitigation games like Ghost Stories, the desire to continue playing in the long-term comes from the challenge of bettering your performance/score from previous games, and successfully adapting to the different situations presented. If that’s not what you’re looking for in a game you’ll likely still enjoy Xenoshyft for a while, but I doubt it finds a permanent place in your collection.
The Kickstarter edition of the game came with some additional content and components upgrades which I’ll discuss in a moment, but the retail version of the game stands up in its own right. The cards are sturdy and vibrantly colored, and the player lanes and commons-area are all printed on good card stock. Furthermore, small red and blue counters for health and defense are thick plastic and work really well for tracking purposes throughout the game. My only real complaint about the components is the box insert, which I deplore. Although it’s made from sturdy plastic and has slots to neatly organize all the different card sets to potentially speed along setup, the lack of any identifying dividers makes finding the right item stacks a real pain. Throw in the fact that it doesn’t have room for the Kickstarter decks, expansions (of which there are already two), or even the additional kickstarter components, and I’m half tempted to just throw the insert out entirely.
Speaking of the Kickstarter-exclusive content, components-wise backers received a playmat to replace the main board, and thick cardboard lanes for each player. These extras are really outstanding, and although I’ve never actually bought a playmat before I can say that using this one makes me want them for a few other games I have. The game also came with a miniature space marine to act as the first player/wave marker, but even though Cool Mini or Not is known for its miniatures games I have to say I’m disappointed in this particular mini. It comes disassembled which normally isn’t an issue for me, but the parts have no pegs/holes to guide assembly, and mine required some fine-tuning with an exacto knife before the arms would actually go on properly. That’s fine for miniatures gamers, but probably won’t be appreciated by general board-gaming audiences.
The Kickstarter exclusive decks also add some interesting cards to the mix. The first Kickstarter Deck includes some additional troops choices for wave groups two and three, which adds to replayability thanks to some added variance in setup for each game. The second deck, which is composed of all foil cards, adds a special veteran version of each troop card players are able to recruit if one of their marines survives a full round of combat, and a special version of every item in the game that has an additional benefit from its normal counterpart. These special items are shuffled into their respective item decks at the beginning of play, and are then purchased normally as they come up. None of the extra decks are necessary to enjoy Xenoshyft, but extra cards are always nice and I have enjoyed the limited RPG feel that “leveling up” a surviving marine into their named veteran card lends to the game. Each card has commissioned art that’s different from the base version to give the visual feeling of having something upgraded, but the colors do get washed out a bit by the heavy foil application.
COG Takeaway: Xenoshyft Onslaught is a solid cooperative deck-building experience; it feels fresh, exciting, and is challenging enough to keep perfectionists busy for quite some time. The increasing challenge posed by the mounting horde of bugs lends a sense of urgency to every round, and the game’s mechanism that lets players use their purchases immediately is an innovative way to make it feel more action-oriented than most deck-builders. Xenoshyft also goes above-and-beyond many other cooperative games in how it actually promotes cooperation by allowing players to use cards from their hand on friends in need, which also helps to mitigate some of the swings in difficulty that accompany the game’s randomized elements. Between managing purchases, overall strategies, and more immediate hand management for each round, Xenoshyft also doesn’t seem to be as vulnerable to quarterbacking as some other cooperative titles, though there’s always the possibility of one person dominating discussions. In short, if you’re looking for a card-based cooperative game and have been jonesing for a new mitigation-style game similar to Ghost Stories, Xenoshyft Onslaught is the new hotness.
Stay tuned for a review of the game’s first two expansions: Psychogenics Lab and Grafting Lab!