I used to play this simple little game on my Palm Treo over a decade ago — Space Trader. It’s been ported to just about every device around, and it continues to be a fun little game because it lets you take the helm of a starship (a small one at first) and navigate a random galaxy, visiting planets, buying and selling, defending yourself from pirates, upgrading your ship, and much more. I always enjoyed saving my funds to upgrade my ship to a bigger one that gave me more cargo, more powerful weapons, and even crew members. I could play as a merchant… but I could also take a turn towards the dark side and try my hand at pirating. It was a fun little game that offered up a lot of variety given its simple rules and the device’s small grayscale screen. I have some good memories of that game.
Jump forward 10+ years, and now I’m finding myself sitting at a table with two friends, playing a full-color game that is seriously evoking memories of Space Trader. It’s called Xia: Legends of a Drift System, and it’s going live on Kickstarter today. I’ve played a handful of sample games with it (the game is for 3-4 players — I had two playtesters), and I’m here to give you a good rundown on the game’s components, rules, and overall gameplay. Let me start with the components. There are a LOT of components to this game, but the ones that stand out the most and are the most fun to examine are where I’ll start.
The game comes with 15 ship miniatures on small plastic bases (12 are for players, 3 are for NPCs). Each of these ships has a unique design and color, and it’s hard for me to believe that these prototype pieces that I’m playing with were printed out on a 3D printer and hand-painted. The final game’s pieces will be professionally manufactured, but let me jump back to the 3D printer bit. The game’s designer, Cody Miller, intends to release special software templates that will let Xia owners design and print out their own miniature starships for play with Xia. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this review — if funded, players can print out their own ships with a 3D printer and create a custom Ship Card for that 3D printed ship.
The miniature ships are really cool looking. You’ll likely have your own favorites, but what you’ll want to understand about Xia and the use of minatures is that all players will start out with a Tier 1 ship — a very small starter ship. As the game progresses, players will be able to upgrade to Tier 2 and even Tier 3 ships. The higher the tier, the more cargo, weapon, shield, and engine capabilities will be available. These capabilities (and more) are tracked using the Ship Cards.
There are 12 Ship Cards, one per ship miniature. Each Ship Card is used by a player to track damage, cargo spaces, maximum movement using Impulse engines, energy transfer to movement, weapons, and shields, and much more.
Each Ship Card has a flip side that provides a nice story/summary about the ship; the story isn’t really relevant to the gameplay, but it’s a nice bit of extra flavor that players can use to read to other players when the ship is purchased… as well as a Victory Story that can be read if that player should win the game. Along with the Back Story and Victory Story are some ship stats that, again, aren’t relevant to the gameplay, but do add a bit a nice touch of uniqueness to each of the ship classes.
Fame Point Track
At the beginning of each game, players will decide on a number of Fame Points that must be obtained to win a game. The first player to reach that number wins. What’s nice here is that the length of the game (and to some extent, the complexity) can be set by limiting the number of Fame Points that must be obtained.
Fame Points are earned for attempting various activities such as missions or combat or even rescuing a fellow stranded player. There are eight different methods for obtaining Fame Points, so keep that in mind as you learn more about Xia.
There are SO many types of cards. Blue legal missions. Orange illegal missions. Titles for players to try and obtain. How to Win game summary cards. Special ship ability cards. NPC cards. Each card is color coded, making them easy to distinguish in their various stacks (Missions versus Titles, for example). There is a very easy-to-understand sequence of allowable actions for each turn (that can also be found on the four How to Play summary cards), but even after a few games I still found myself needing to consult both the summary card and instructions.
I’m including this one because I do believe that even masters of the game will still find themselves needing to consult the Turn Overview occasionally. The Turn Overview is broken into three phases:
1. Take Action
2. Do Business
3. Update Status
Inside each of these three phases are a number of possible actions that a player may make, and player’s aren’t limited to one action for each phase. Depending on where your ship is located or how much power it has ready to allocate to weapons or shields or your fund situation, there’s a lot that can happen in a single player’s turn. At first, I thought this would slow the game down, but once all the players have had a couple of turns (three phases), it really starts to roll.
The instructions consist of 16 pages of full-color documentation. The cover page shows all the components including counts — no worries about packing up the game and forgetting a piece or two. That said, assign duties… with 60 damage markers, 18 exploration tokens, 60 cargo cubes, 35 credits… you get the idea. I’m not breaking out the calculator here, but there’s well over 200 pieces to this game. Ask for help when packing up!
These are fun to look at, and very colorful. The 19 pieces include planets, stars, debris, planetary shields, nebulas, gates, and much more. Your ship miniatures move around these, navigating obstacles, trying to find legal entrances to planets (or ignoring them and risking a Bounty be placed on your ship for other players to try and collect), and basically trying to survive day to day. Movement is easy to calculate — each ship has a basic Impulse value that defines how many spaces it can move. Powered up ships may distribute energy to special engines (using the Engine Outfits options described below) that give further movement options.
Sectors can have points of interest for players to visit. For example, some spots contain Exploration Tokens that are placed face down and can add Fame or Credits to a captain… or nothing. Additional spaces on Sectors include spawn points (where dead players can restart in a Tier 1 ship) and Mission points for grabbing or wrapping up missions.
Sectors are shuffled at the start of the game and are randomly drawn at various points in the game. One daring player (not me) jumped off the known map, forcing a random sector to be placed. We all held our breath, thinking it was going to be a star (instant death), but it turned out to be an asteroid field. He survived. Barely.
Ship combat is totally allowed, and one thing I really enjoyed about Xia was the Line-of-Sight rules that allowed players to use obstacles to prevent other players from targeting their ships. There are a number of methods for breaking Line-of-Sight in this game, and my two fellow players (3 in all) and I enjoyed using them often. That said, when combat does occur, the rules are quite easy to remember. It’s weapons versus shields, and players will discover quickly why it’s so important to have energy allocated for arming Outfits. Combat is when the game really shines in my opinion — the ability to not only customize your ship with Outfits and Special Ability cards combined with careful planning on movement and power allocation makes watching those little orange damage markers (like little fires) pop up on your enemy’s Ship Card so worthwhile.
The Outfits tiles are one of the features of the game that really stood out for me. Outfits come in four types: Engine, Shield, Blasters and Missiles. Each Ship Card has a set number of empty cargo spaces on it — players can purchase Outfits for their ship that must be squeezed into these spaces. The Outfits come in fixed grid patterns, so players must find efficient ways to add outfits while leaving enough space for cargo.
Outfits lets you increase your shield strength or fire more damaging missiles. Each Outfit tile has a number associated that tells you immediately which die to roll. The Small Engine Outfit, for example, has a D6, allowing the player to roll a D6 to determine the number of spaces. The standard Engine Outfit bumps that to a D8. The Uber Engine offers up a D12. The same kind of increases are mirrored in the shield, blaster, and missile Outfits, affecting the damage that can be delivered or absorbed.
Unused spaces on a Ship Card can be used to transfer cargo from planet to planet. Planets only buy cubes of certain colors, so captains will need to carefully monitor their holds if they intend to purse a merchant/trader-type career. With Xia, players don’t need to worry about cargo details beyond the color (five colors in all). You buy two cargo cubes for $1000, and sell one cargo cube for $1000 (when entering a planet’s Sell space). Easy math and a definite non-aggressive way to win the game in many instances. (Cubes can also be mined or salvaged or harvested — it was quite fun to pick up some cubes that were jettisoned from a damaged enemy ship.)
What haven’t I covered? Let’s see… players can commit illegal acts and have a Bounty placed on their ships. Makes for some great chases when other players start seeing those 1000s of credits stacked on someone else’s Ship Card. Upgrading ships is quite fun… especially when you discover you can carry over the Outfits and Special Abilities that you’ve already bought or earned. Death isn’t the end… players can start over with a new ship, respawning at random spots on the existing sectors. Rescuing stranded players gets you some nice rewards. Scanning new sectors. Trying to run planetary blockade shields. Avoiding the 3 NPC ships, each programmed with their own set of rules. (The Enforcer always goes after any Outlaw ship and the Scoundrel is always trying to attack Lawful ships. The Merchant can buy and sell cubes if you can catch him.)
I really never felt as if I was playing a beta game. Game designer Cody Miller has been working on this game for many years, and it really shows. Xia feels balanced… well polished. Other than having to consult the rules a half dozen times or so, the gameplay went fairly smooth for three different tests.
The first test game was actually setup in the instructions for first-time players. We only played to 5 Fame Points (a very short game, about 25 minutes if I watched the clock correctly) and we were given specific sectors to start out using. (We also ignored the NPC ships.) All three of us agreed that this “fixed” game was a great idea — it allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the rules.
The second test game we decided on 10 Fame Points, thinking it would take double the time. It actually took about 40 minutes mainly because all three players were avoiding combat as much as possible, focusing on missions. We also only made it to Tier 2 ships. One player went completely pirate/renegade at the wrong moment, just about three spaces away from the Enforcer. He got destroyed, had to start with a Tier 1 ship, but it was too late in the game to catch up.
It was the third test game that we bumped the Fame Point goal to 20 points. We ran out of time for that game, but we were SO close to finishing. Total time was almost 90 minutes, but we did get bogged down with our first Tier 3 ship-to-ship battle. It was fun, though… those Tier 3 ships can dish the damage as well as take it. My two playtesters both enjoyed the game as much as I did, asking when, not if, we could play again.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System was a blast. And, yes, I am backing it. (My prototype game came in a brown box, and now that I’ve seen the great artwork for the Ship Cards and Sectors, I want a real game in a real box. ) You don’t have to be a genius at math to see the amazing customization this game offers up. Twelve ships, twelve Outfit options (3 each of Shield, Missile, Blaster, and Engine), 19 Sector Tiles, 18 random Exploration Tokens, 60 Cargo Cubes (5 colors x 12), 52 Mission cards, 18 Title cards, 12 Special Ship Ability cards, a variable Fame Point Track card… you get the idea. And throw in the fact that if the game is fully funded, players will be able to design their own Ship Card and print a 3D ship of their own design.
So, are you in? Do you need more information? Well, point your web browser over to the official Kickstarter page for Xia and watch the video, examine more images, and ask a question or two. The basic game will be $75 for US residents, $105 for international backers, and expected delivery is December 2013. Stretch goals are a possibility, but Cody isn’t talking yet… he’s just wanting to get full funding first.
Note: I’d like to thank Cody for providing me with the prototype game and my two playtesters, Jacob and Tony. Sorry I destroyed your ship, Jacob. And Tony, you’re an evil genius who understood this game at a very scary level early on.