It has been over a year since we opened our boxes of Xia and traversed Cody Miller’s drift system. This game generated a lot of excitement at the Pub and elsewhere during its Kickstarter campaign and subsequent release. I still get excited bringing this game to the table and here’s why:
Designer: Cody Miller
Playtime: 60-180 min
THEME, ART, AND COMPONENTS
Do you love the Firefly universe? Well strap into a captain’s chair and plan to misbehave… or don’t. The beauty of Xia is in its seeming open-ended design. The fact that the theme is so essential to gameplay is evident by all the constituent mechanics involved as you decide what kind of ship you will captain and the path you take to rise in fame. The ‘verse designed for Xia supplies a beautiful playground for our space sandbox and I’ve been saying from the beginning, this is the game that the Firefly board game should have been. While I love the mechanics and think they’d make a great “system” for other games, anytime I’m asked for a suggestion on a space game, I immediately think of Xia, and largely for its thematic execution.
The models, the cubes and metal coins, the beautifully rendered cards and tiles were all designed with care. So much effort went into component aspects like clarity in graphic design, color blind considerations, and maintaining the creative macrocosm constructed for Xia that I believe a fanbase came out of the experience (not that I’d admit to being a fanboy, but I’m not saying I’m not). What’s amazing is the high level of quality that came from a first-time Kickstarter produced by the designer. It’s a miniatures game that requires no paint, assembly, or collectable habits… and she’s real pretty.
SANDBOX, POINT SALAD, FREEROAM
One of the most refreshing aspects of Xia is its flexibility to accommodate an open-ended turn of play. Of course, gameplay is not truly open to anything you might imagine, as one might find in an RPG, but as my good friend Jared said in our early video review, “I’m in control… there’s very little the game says, ‘No, you can’t do this.’” While there are other great sandbox games (Mage Knight for example), there are few outside the role-playing genre and their openness is found within a rather complicated ruleset. In Xia, you will find comparably streamlined rules, comparably simpler turn actions, and a comparably shorter game (in most cases).
Turns consist of a semi-action allowance system that is directly tied to the operation of a ship’s outfits. This integrated theme-mechanic is brilliant and ultimately limits the open-ended turns. Eventually, a player simply runs out of performable actions and must pass the turn. It’s all integrated so well into the manipulation of the ship mats that it’s difficult to separate the mechanics and the actions they represent.
Many of the rules are intuitive to the design.
Points are provided through various triggers in the game including exploring certain spaces, completing missions, destroying opponent ships, buying ships, selling goods, helping stranded players, completing special feats, buying points, or getting a lucky roll. And it’s so great when you can exploit the misfortunes of another ship captain in some sort of combo effect that wracks up your own fame (I’m looking at all you scoundrels that help poor stranded ships only to turn and blow them up). But bad luck in the drift system isn’t permanent and as players respawn they’re given a chance at making a better life. While setbacks in Xia are penalizing, they are not difficult to recover from and players can stay in game and continue to advance on the scoreboard.
Carrying on this spirit of freedom of play, we come to my favorite aspect of Xia. Customizing your ship is probably the super-coolest thing this game provides for player ownership and the implemented system is simple enough that it doesn’t detract from gameplay.
To customize your boat, players are offered the chance to purchase outfits that come in various shapes and magnitudes. The spatial Tetris system plays directly on the ship’s hold configuration and many actions require attention to the outfits you’ve selected. These are, of course, interchangeable and can be replaced with the bigger and better as you go. And where that’s a fun start, your ship selections are what really tie your abilities and outfits together when planned right. As you upgrade and progress in the game, you really want to get a superior ship. And while the prospect of a larger hull and better energy stats are appealing, a clever captain will look to a strong combination of unique ship abilities. As you purchase a new ship, your old ship’s abilities transfer over with all your outfits and cargo. Being able to chain these abilities together can create a fairly indomitable piece of plastic.
ON THE RULEBOOK
While Xia is more approachable than categorically similar games, there is still a healthy sweep of rules that must be digested in a somewhat overwhelming rulebook. The game turns out much easier to play than the rulebook might lead you to believe. It is not the most concise document, but the examples are detailed and very little is needed in the way of an FAQ. I tend to save new players the trouble and try to teach the game organically, as many of the rules are intuitive to the design. Other little hints are embedded in the game as well so we’re not always looking up rules for crossing borders and such. – For example: there is a harvest spot in most nebulas, a mining spot in each asteroid field, and a salvage spot near the debris fields and all have icons for their respective d20 rolls and consequences printed on the space, which also corresponds to the same consequences when crossing the nebula, asteroid, and debris borders, respectively.
Try this game if you like:
- Firefly: The Game
- Merchants and Marauders
- Mage Knight
- Duel of Ages II
The replayability of Xia offsets the cost dramatically. We are not talking about a game that might make it to the table occasionally but one that could easily become a regular staple among gamers. It can be tailored to just about any length of game given its variable end-game point option, and the available NPCs build in some interaction that could otherwise be avoided. As amazing as Xia is, however, I do have some preferences for play.
First, I don’t particularly enjoy this game in large groups. Sean hits this in his thoughts below and I agree with his take on it. For different reasons, I have not gravitated toward playing Legendary games of 20 points (we usually keep it to the 12 – 15 range). The early game tends to focus on exploration while the later game often transitions into a pickup and deliver race. Once the board has been explored and exhausted, the scenario gets a bit stale and samey as we race to capture points. This could be broken by a bit of space combat and NPC interactions but the late game doesn’t demand that kind of attention.
I feel I need to note that combat is light unless you have players determined to seek it out. In many ways this is refreshing, but as a spaceship game, I wouldn’t mind a bit more incentive for it. That being said, we’ve had some very satisfying space battles in Xia so don’t write it off completely, but that shouldn’t be the reason one goes out to purchase the game.
Ultimately, I love the drift system. It’s kind of a grail game for me as it encapsulates so many coveted mechanics, themes, and genres that I love: miniature movement, dice rolling, combat, unique customization, and objective driven rewards. If you would like to see it in action, go check out our early review of the game we filmed right after it was released.
THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB
Xia is one of my favorite games and is probably the most unique of all the games I own. I attribute this to the sandbox style gameplay. The open-ended point scoring system is great for those with different play styles. It allows each player to take on any persona they want without compromising a single best strategy. The number of ship combinations only adds to the amount of customization, giving each player the ability to play to their strengths.
The artwork and quality of components are nothing short of amazing. The detail is superb and the hand painted ships push it over the edge for me. One of my favorite things is seeing what new solar system we create each time we play. It’s just so satisfying to see the beautiful artwork come together as each tile comes down to the table. The graphic design is simplistic and uniform which doesn’t detract from the theme but still operates functionally as a game.
The rules can be a little overwhelming when looking at the rule book, but they’re actually fairly simple. There’s not too much complexity and the reference card really helps in this manner as well. Also, I would never suggest playing with more than four as there will be a lot of downtime between each of your turns. The sweet spot for me is three players with the NPCs. Game time is shorter and the frequency of turns is higher.
Overall, this game is a complete winner! Definitely worth the price. If you’ve never heard of it before you should buy it and get your buddies together for a game night. If someone you know already owns it, I would say give their copy a try first. However, if you enjoy it highly consider adding it to your collection as it is just such a unique game.
I remember seeing this game on Kickstarter and immediately knew that it belonged in my collection. You want the feel of being Han Solo in a game? Or better yet, do you want to choose to be a merchant instead of a smuggler. Or an outlaw. Or……whatever you want to be! That is the beauty of Xia. It is a true sandbox game that you can play in and do whatever you want, as long as you get the die rolls. This is my only sticking point with the game. Everything you do is based on a die roll. Choose to do something, roll a die, and see how it turns out. Normally I love some dice throws in a game but this one relies on it a bit too much.
I recommend this game as a Play It first, then Buy It if you liked it. It can get a bit long and the die rolls are a bit too much but, other than that, I really enjoy this game. It is a beautiful game and it creates some very memorable experiences around a table.