Adventures in the final frontier: Xia review

Xia: Legends of a Drift System is a space exploration game in which you attempt to achieve “Legend” status as command a star ship who flies around the galaxy, exploring new sectors, completing missions, trading goods, and fighting with other ships.  Though the game play runs on the long side at 3-4 hours, it’s got a great theme and components and fun strategic elements.  Despite all that, it’s not the most strategically pleasing game, with a lot of the game coming down to the luck of a 20-sided die that you can’t influence with bonuses or anything.  It’s like, you have endless choices and you use them, and after all that, your ship blows up because you rolled poorly on the d20?  Or you do a job for $1K but your opponent gets $5K for getting a better die roll?  It sort of doesn’t fit a game so rich with choices and mind-bending configurations for star ships.  It has a lot of great elements, enough that I’ve played the game several times in hopes if it kind of taking off, but doesn’t quite tie them into the epic space game that it’s going for.  That’s my review, they can’t all be glorious.

Overall Feeling

Xia succeeds with highly stylized components and a science fiction theme.  If you want to feel like the pilot of a pretty great-looking starship, this game is for you.  You will travel, trade, and complete missions.  There is also a sense of piracy and violence, but taking down an opposing ship is a challenge that doesn’t typically have a great payoff so you’re not going to do it a whole lot.

I think it’s worth sharing that one friend remembers this as the “crowded space” game.  The genre of space and space faring, as we understand it, is one of flying through the open, vast emptiness of space, much like a ship on the ocean.  Xia is actually rather claustrophobic in the way the space hexes are laid out, and I think this interferes with the epic space feeling that it’s going for.  There are many great elements that, in this bloggers’ opinion, don’t quite come together for a great space game.  Believe me when I tell you, I very much wanted it to be that, especially with the great components, but it just isn’t.

Some more nitpicks:  There’s a fun element with varying missions you can run, but there are only 11 total mission types and not enough variety there for a game that otherwise appears really deep.  A game like Merchants & Marauders, the pirate game, has more going on in terms of the various missions for various clients that you can run, that’s sort of the mark you need to hit.

There’s also something missing with no pilot and no crew, just a spaceship that can change to new space ships as the game goes on.  I think the Firefly game probably does a better job of capturing the feeling of deep space exploration, along with having the crew element.  In Xia, space is something you zigzag through, which doesn’t seem quite right.

Somewhere between Xia and Firefly, with a nod to Merchants & Marauders, is the perfect space pirate game.  It’s actually on my short list of original game projects I intend to work on, but I’ve got another original design cooking right now that is close to the finish line.

Setup Highlights

Surprisingly, there isn’t really a ton going on with this game, at least the version we played had everything organized into neat trays that made most of the setup pretty easy.  You have to shuffle up some kind of annoying board tiles, but there aren’t so many of them to make it a cumbersome task.  You spend more time selecting a ship and deciding how to initially outfit it.


Interesting Mechanics and Game Play

It’s a simple game in many ways, which is to it’s credit.  There are no multiple phases of the game with different rule sets for each.  Rather, you take as many actions as you want, but your options are fairly limited so it’s pretty clear what you’ll want to do, not that that’s a bad thing.  For example, if you’re traveling in space, you can only activate your engine the one time and move as far as it allows you to.  That’s about it.  If you have weapons, you can activate each of them once per combat.  If you’re on a planet, you do as little or as much “business” there as you want.  There are still enough variations and wrinkles to keep things interesting, such as the way you explore new sectors, and whether or not you want to scan ahead or just jump in, which could lead you to crashing into a star.  Different areas will spawn different goods, which you can buy low, take elsewhere, and sell high to make money.  There are also warp gates or something, like wormholes, that can make travel quick, making a trade strategy a viable one.  As an alternative, or a complement, you can pick up missions and complete them.  They can involve shuttling passengers back and forth or getting materials for scientific research.  Finally, you can engage in a bit of piracy, attacking your opponents’ ships directly.  In the 3-player games we played, there were also 3 NPC ships, that flew around the galaxy guided by certain rules, some more combative than others.  Combat comes down to rolling dice so nothing innovative there, but the ship parts you invest in determine what kind of dice your roll.  The game is more complex when it comes to selecting and upgrading your ships, and tailoring them to the exact strategy you are pursuing.  For all the planning and strategy you put into it, huge game points come down to a single roll of the die, often 50-50, and you can’t influence it in any way so you just shrug and go with it.  There’s sort of a mismatch for a game of this length and this complexity to come down to a 50-50 die roll.  I understand not wanting to bog the game down with too many complex modifiers and such, but a strategy game like this one could handle a few of those in favor of situations that the player can more directly influence.  It’s like, I’ve made dozens of tough decisions to get to this point, and it just comes down to a coin flip?  Again, to compare it to Firefly: The Game, in Firefly it often comes down to a die roll, but you do everything you can to stack the die in your favor.


Theme and Components

Xia gets these down at the highest level, and you have to know that goes a long way with me.  You fly around little spaceships and they’re really cool and unique, and hearken to some sci-fi favorites like Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly without directly ripping anything off.  There’s a nice mix of a space feeling as well, with areas that feel more settled along with areas that feel more distant, yet others that feel unexplored.  After a while you live in a set galaxy of sorts that has it’s own feel, with trade routes, outlaws, bounties and the like, but as mentioned, it’s all a bit crowded for a space game.  Firefly and Eclipse probably better pull off the overall space theme, and Eclipse especially makes it epic in scope.  However, even when compared to the fancy ships you can get for Eclipse, Xia has hands-down the best ships in the galaxy, and that’s something.

Do-Something-Ability

Pick a ship, outfit it, then fly around a galaxy that you and your opponents explore.  The scope of this one is smaller than some others – it’s just your ship, there’s no settling planets, no building an army, but you do build up your ship and eventually, you get an even better ship.  Even in that regard, there’s something slightly missing there for me.  The ship has a very limited number of slots you can use to upgrade, and some of it is a spatial puzzle of sorts, so you can really go further upgrading in Eclipse than you can in Xia, but Xia probably allows more upgrading than Firefly, or a similar amount at least.

You’re going to upgrade your ship, explore space and expand the map, trade goods, complete missions, eventually buy a new ship, maybe do some ship-to-ship combat and collect bounties.  The one thing that’s lacking here is some continuity in who you are and what you’re doing.  You don’t create any kind of character and you upgrade ships, so there’s no one thing that you are, just sort of a faceless pilot.  Contrast to the Firefly, where you have a consistent character, crew and ship that you upgrade as you run missions and trade goods.  Still, the buying and outfitting of 2-3 different ships, is awesome.  Running missions can be fun, and winning combat would be a thrill but I’ve never accomplished much there, since they make taking down another ship pretty hard to do.  You will at least create a galaxy map in each game and fly some ships around it, as far as doing something, that essentially checks the box for me even if it doesn’t hit it out of the park.

Replay Ability

There’s a lot you can do, a lot of different ships and ship designs to explore, so there’s plenty to replay in that way.  There are also several different paths to victory and opportunities to create some exciting moments, like game-changing mission completions and combat showdowns.

At the same time, the game runs several hours, and there are only 11 different missions, and only a few viable goods to transport until the later parts of any game, so there’s not that much you can do in a given game.  You wouldn’t play this more than once in a night and for me, I’m probably not going to play it more than once in a while.

Verdict

Xia has many of the elements of a great game, but it doesn’t quite pull it all together into a great game, in my opinion.  It has great components, an open-ended spacefaring theme, ships you can upgrade or trade in for biggers ships, goods you can transport — like I wrote, all the elements.  But, it’s a crowded, zig-zagging version of space, only a few missions, and no crew or consistent character of any kind, just a ship.  The galaxy map changes up each time, there are many paths to victory, there’s an element of exploration but also visiting different planets and completing missions.  The mechanics aren’t particularly interesting and it’s not as strategic as some games, relying a lot upon the luck of a 20-sided die.  Luck can determine whether or not you pull the right missions, and whether you or your opponents are successful in some of the risks you or they take.

It’s a very good game that I feel like just misses being a great one.  It’s complex and long like a strategy game, but acts more like a luck-of-the-die game in the critical moments.  It has elements of a great story and character, but lacks any actual character development or even picture to really bring it to life, sort of keeping it an arm’s length in terms of really getting into the feel of the game.  There’s still enough meat there for that I’ll play it every now and then, but it’s not something I’m going to buy.

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