[We are pleased to welcome Selwyn Ward to the pages of Gamers Alliance Report. As he says:

“Selwyn Ward has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board’s Eye View page on Facebook (facebook.com/boardseye) showcases in 360º games from his 2500-strong games library.” In this issue, Selwyn turns his “board’s eye” towards the far reaches of outer space!]

Reviewed by Selwyn Ward

XIA: LEGENDS OF A DRIFT SYSTEM  (Far Off Games, 3 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 120 minutes; $84.99) 

and XIA: EMBERS OF A FORSAKEN STAR (Far Off Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 180 minutes; $50)


If you’re of a certain age, you will have fond memories of the long hours spent hunched over a keyboard exploring the far reaches of geometrically patterned space in the computer game Elite. You’d start off with a very basic spaceship. You’d buy upgrades and equip your ship. You’d try to earn money by filling your cargo bays with one planet’s produce in the hope of selling it at a profit on the next planet you visit. You’d take on missions, some of which might be illegal. If you broke the law, you’d be chased and attacked by police ships. Whatever you did, you’d be chased and attacked by space pirates. If you survived and prospered, you’d upgrade your ship, and so the game would continue. It was open-ended. It was what would later be termed a “sandbox’ game” where you could, like a child in a sandbox, play any way you liked. The computer and video game industry regularly spawned such games. They might have an underlying story arc but you could play the game any way you liked and you could choose to follow any one of a number of different paths to explore the game’s universe.

Few board games are as open-ended. In a way, that is unsurprising. Board game designers may all have their different motivations but one characteristic they all have in common is their god complex. Authors create stories; board game designers create worlds. Regardless of whether a game is abstract or thematic, regardless of whether the game is simple or complex, regardless of how much time and effort has been poured into artwork and graphic design: board games are always about rules. The game creator always establishes the parameters within which his pocket universe will operate. They may offer us options; they may present us with choices; but board game designers like to order us about. Anyone who has played Seafall, for example, (don’t worry – there are no Spoilers here) will know that they may have a seemingly wide range of options but the game design will nonetheless drive them down a particular route.

The most striking thing about Xia: Legends of a Drift System, designed by Cody Miller, isn’t its sprawling galaxy of tiles, its satisfyingly chunky metal currency tokens or its much-vaunted pre-painted ships. It’s the fact that the designer has created a universe and left it pretty much entirely up to each player how he spends his time in it. It’s a game, so it has clear rules and an objective – in this case, to accumulate Fame Points – but Fame can be earned and won in a myriad of different ways. And you can set the Fame Point target as high or as low as you like, depending on how long you want to play for.

Xia is, for all intents and purposes, Elite in a box. You start off with a modest ship. You equip it with engines, weapons and shields and you set off. You can explore, you can take on missions, you can trade, or you can attack other players or non-player ships. Pretty much anything you choose to do can offer a route to earning Fame Points. Randomly selected Events and ‘Titles’ emerge through the course of a game, and these can modify the way in which the universe works while also offering additional paths to Fame. The layout of the tiles, the Event cards, the ships’ different special abilities and the different paths players opt to follow mean that no two plays of Xia will ever be alike.

If you like to pigeonhole games into categories, Xia is “Ameritrash” rather than “Euro” in feel and design. The trading may momentarily put you in mind of that endless array of Mediterranean pick up and deliver games but the dice-rolling will leave you in no doubt as to which side of the fence Xia comes down on. I haven’t rolled so many dice since I last played Shadows of Brimstone. You will be rolling one sort of die or another for every action you take. Often, you will have to roll several times in succession. This is a game, therefore, where luck and pushing your luck can be decisive, but it’s a game too where players are making judgement calls and where they can buy ship enhancements that can serve to mitigate poor die rolls. Upgraded engines or blasters may substitute an eight-sided or twelve-sided die for the standard six-sided die, for example. However, that won’t stop you cursing when, like me in a recent game, you manage to roll 1 for movement on a 12-sided die three times in a row.

Xia makes no apology for this. Indeed, it seems to go out of its way to celebrate the fact. Much of the time, players will find themselves rolling a D20. Often, low numbers spell disaster: in many cases, they will actually result in your ship being instantly destroyed! In Xia, if you roll a natural 20, you don’t just do as well as you possibly could on whatever test you’ve taken, you also get additionally rewarded with an instant Fame Point. This is the mirror positive equivalent of adding insult to injury.

I mentioned “instant destruction”. This is a game where you take risks and they don’t always pay off. You can hit an unlucky roll when mining an asteroid field and your ship will blow up. You can take the risk of making a blind jump into an unexplored sector of space without first scanning it, only to find you’ve incinerated your ship by flying it straight into the heart of the sun. Your ship can be attacked and blown up by another player or by a non-player ship. In space, there are lots of ways to die. Happily, however, death in Xia is not the Final Frontier: as in most video games, in Xia, if your ship is destroyed it respawns on your next turn. The new ship is as it was, except that you lose any cargo you were carrying and you are burdened with a damage token. This means that there may actually be circumstances in this game where death and destruction can turn out to be a profitable career move, usually better than limping along with a crippled ship. I am not wholly convinced that players are penalized enough for a ship’s destruction. It seems to me that losing a ship ought to cause you to lose a Fame Point (or at the very least have to roll against the possibility of losing a Fame Point).

The base game of Xia: Legends of a Drift System was good but it is the Xia: Embers of a Forsaken Star expansion designed by Cody Miller and Ira Fay that has taken a good game and made it great. Several of the rules were streamlined and cleaned up, so the expansion does not just give you more tiles, more cards and more plastic ships, though it does that too. If you buy Xia, you really do need to buy it with the expansion.

But still you may be left wanting more. Happily, Far Off Games have not been overly precious with their franchise. They’ve actually gone out of their way to encourage Xia fans to create their own additions to the game. The company’s website provides free templates for new sector tiles, cards and ship mats, and several fans have made their own very playable creative additions to the game, freely shared on Boardgamegeek. I was inspired by some of these to rummage through the loft to reclaim my old Star Trek and Babylon 5 Micro Machines from two decades ago to repurpose as additional ships: the Star Trek Federation starships are just a bit too big but the Micro Machines Ferengi Marauder looks to be the perfect size and scale for use in Xia.

So if you like space games, are okay with the luck element, and attracted by the idea of an open-ended game where a solar system is your oyster, should Xia be an instant buy? For many the answer will be a definitive yes. In my local group, almost everyone who has played the game has subsequently ordered their own copy! There is, however just one downside. Xia can be a game with a lot of downtime. It is playable solitaire (and it works as a solo game). It is playable as a two-player game: though you can find there is little player interaction in a game with just two: the universe is a big place. Xia works very well with three or four players, and you can take the number of players up to five. With four or five players, though, you may find you are waiting 20 minutes or more for your turn to come around. This is because, in Xia, players take all available actions in their turn. Perhaps someone has worked out a variant where players’ actions are broken up – with each taking just a single action and the turn moving on – but I haven’t yet seen this tried successfully.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that downtime means that the game drags. It doesn’t. You’ll have plenty to think about while others are taking their turns and the game is interesting enough that you’ll anyway want to see how your rivals fare in their endeavors.

Meanwhile, several folk have devised options for groups like mine, with multiple copies of the game, to stage play across parallel universes. Some of these allow ships to travel between the universes but an option would be simply to play two separate games of Xia simultaneously, so that players are taking actions in one universe during their downtime in the other… Of course, you’ll need plenty of space for that much Space.

If you get bitten by the Xia bug, the scope for experimenting and building on this game are almost as limitless as the universe itself. – – – – – – – – – Selwyn Ward

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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