Free choice is a strange thing to have in a board game. It is incredibly rare to be told you can do whatever you want and still work towards a winning goal; some people despise it and crave structure, others love it and bask in the wide selection of choice! Xia: Legends of a Drift System by Far Off Games is a game of both sides. You can do what you want, choose any play style, and still work towards a win... But you will inevitably fall into a role within the system, be it a pirate, an adventurer, a ship for hire, or a delivery boy!
No matter how much free choice you have, you'll always end up following a system and filling a role. Xia allows for a lot of independence from your competitors but also allows you to hunt them down should you require to (or if you just fancy it!).
The gameplay for Xia: Legends of a Drift System is not unlike many other free roamers, however it's unique in its own way. Everyone starts in a different sector (map time) which will contain elements from the system of Xia. You may find yourself near a lawful planet full of do-gooders, a neutral trading planet, an outlaw planet full of bloodthirsty pirates, an asteroid field, a debris field, a nebula, or near a gate.
The starting tile may inevitably determine who you will be within the game, a player's ability to adapt will determine how famous a space captain they become! Starting near neutral or lawful planets will allow players to buy goods, pick up missions lawfully and also give them somewhere safe to end their turn. Starting near an outlaw planet means you'll probably either be a bounty hunter, chasing down the evil within the system, or a pirate! Being anywhere near asteroid, nebulae or debris will allow you to mind or salvage their resources, but also come with a risk of loss of energy, damage or even death!
Despite these many options, adaptability is key. You may see everyone else is going to end up being a pirate and think that your dreams of being the greatest delivery boy in the galaxy are going to be impossible... so you adapt! Each player has a ship card associated to the current ship they have, as well as a power card for that ship. The ship card shows the ship's hold. This can be filled with cargo or outfits. Outfits are powerful elements any ship may need! Engines, blasters, shields and missile launchers. They come in three tiers and cost their respective tier to buy; Tier one costs one coin.
Generally speaking, the higher the tier, the more useful and more activation spaces it will have. As example, the tier one engine allows for use of the D6 to determine movement, tier two allows for the D8 and tier three the D12. Naturally, this makes having higher tier stuff more desirable, however the higher tiers have more complex and larger shapes which must fit within your cargo hold. Nothing wrong with some intergalactic feng-shui!
On their turn, players run through three phases; action, business and status. During the action phase, players must use "armed" tokens to utilise the different outfits they have. Spend an energy, move an armed token to an engine activation point on the outfit and you have effectively fired it up! Roll the dice, establish moves and begin your journey.
Players have no limit to actions they can do, however they can only arm four outfits and only have so much energy to use. If you run out of arming tokens, that's okay! At the end of your turn you can place them on the "disarmed" point and even spend one energy per token to rearm them! However, if you run out of energy... You are stranded! Zero energy means no arming of anything! You are at the mercy of your competitors and reliant only on your thrust, which will not get you very far at all. Being on top of your energy and knowing when to retreat to a planet to refill it is essential! The business phase only comes into play if you are on a planet. This phase is all about buying and selling outfits, repairing your ship and maybe even purchasing a new one! The status phase is where you're able to disarm, rearm and refresh your abilities. When a player has gone to the next phase they can't suddenly change their mind!
When you've begun to get to grips with movement, buying and selling, picking up missions and the rest of the niceties... You'll undeniably have a run in with a pirate or a bounty hunter. Combat is avoidable in Xia, but more often than not it's too rewarding to avoid entirely. Players can seek to attack others on their turn by using blasters or missile launchers. Blasters require players to be adjacent to one another, whereas missile launchers allow for line of sight from 2-6 places away.
Line of sight does not travel through obstacles or planet boundaries though! If you choose to shoot someone with a shield, they can defend and reduce the damage taken by arming their shield out of turn for an energy. Whatever the outcome of the battle, someone will be unhappy! Taking damage means placing damage markers on your ship within the hold. If you can't add any more your ship is history!! Luckily, early game Tier one ships can be re-spawned immediately and risk no penalty whereas higher tier ships lose a turn. The murderer on the other hand gets one coin bounty on their head and are now an outlaw, meaning they cannot go into lawful planets (without breaking in) and anyone can now claim that bounty by serving up some justice! The more crimes they commit the higher their bounty... and eventually no one will be able to resist the bounty! Luckily for everyone else, there is no penalty for destroying an outlaw! Sweet, sweet justice!
Being an outlaw isn't so bad, but it doesn't make life easy. You will probably become an outlaw the first time by completing outlaw (red) missions which often say in the rewards that you will gain a bounty! These may require stealing, salvaging or killing. Although we found that you can become an outlaw through sheer bad luck! Blindly move to another sectors without scanning to see what it is may mean you unintentionally break a planet boundary, which is an illegal act! (And the only way to enter a lawful planet when outlawed).
As the game progresses and players begin buying new ships, exploring the whole map and getting to a point where they're fully engrossed within their role, Title Cards will start coming out. Dependent on how many Fame Points you decided were required to win, Title Cards appear when a player's hits a certain score. These cards have challenges on for players to complete within their turn to allow them special bonuses and more Fame Points. Some are nice and simple like attack two ships in one turn, whereas others worth more fame may require you to make a very long journey in one turn! The moment a player starts picking up title cards, the game heats and speeds up! Fame Points are usually claimed in small doses, but these allow for a lot more in a high risk high reward payout!
The most noticeable thing about this game is its visuals. They are beautiful. There is no denying the care, attention to detail and time taken to develop the game, but the actual look of Xia gives it so, so much more! This is undeniably one of the most themed and pre-polished games available. The ships are beautiful and look exactly like you'd expect them to from their description. From the plain and simple, to the weird and wonderful, by just looking at the ships you know their intended purpose; a freighter ship is easy to spot amongst the delivery ships, as are the pirating ships amongst the adventurers. And the paint jobs? Someone definitely took a long time choosing what each ship would look like and clearly considered the actual palette for each!
The coins, however, are without a doubt the most noticeably attractive elements; metal cast, weighty, excellently detailed triangular tokens to represent your money or the bounty on your head. Owning loads and holding them makes you feel wealthy, seeing loads on your bounty makes you become a little anxious.. as it should!
Other than player pieces, there are the ship modules that are attached to each player's ship card. All of these clearly explain which dice they're associated to, how many uses they'll have and are shaped to prevent you from over-boarding on specific types of module. On top of this, they fit neatly together on your ship card and can be clearly seen by other players, allowing for collective knowledge of who sits where in terms of fire power. Seeing a player with three missile modules lets you know you've got no hope or a death wish!!
Then there's the actual tiles. They genuinely give you a sense of being an interstellar explorer! The planets look beautiful and the hazards look deadly. Even with all of this, it is clear what everything on it represents! Planet force fields are easy to spot, boundary lines are obvious, hazards and benefits are easy to find... It's almost cool proof! (As long as you know the rules...)
This is one of the few games I've played where your preferred play style won't always give you the edge. The game itself allows for lots of different takes on how to gain Fame Points, however there is no surefire guarantee to gaining it the quickest! Which is by no way a negative! The beauty of this is that you can start the game with a clean slate of not knowing how your journey will progress; will your missions be deliveries? Discoveries? Heartless murders? Who knows! But the main thing it that you as the player will have to either adapt to the cards drawn and work towards them... or shoehorn yourself into piracy!
Winning by bloodshed or winning by being a bus driver may not hold the same value in everyone's mind.. But a wins a win! On top of this, considering that everyone else will have the exact same starting situation as you (bar the ship style), it means everyone else will adapt; no two games will ever be the same! Tie in all the ship power combos from buying new ships and you've got an infinite chain of possibility!
The moment the game loses its replay-ability is when a player is not willing to, or simply can't, adapt. Reliving the same experience and play style time after time will kill the experience for you and will make your actions predictable. For the best experience; adapt, overcome, and if needs be, become a pirate!
Xia is a game where engagement is optional, frustratingly. You can still swan along whilst messing on your phone, much to the bane of your companions, however you will quickly regret it. Missing the state of play because of technology is going to make it so you have no idea who is where, doing what, heading where and you'll inevitably be left on the back foot because of it!
As much as engagement can be seen as 'optional', I have high doubts anyone will be distracted enough to miss anything if they want to win! Should they do so, they may end up losing track of the sectors left unexplored and bravely but blindly jump into the star!
Space can be a lonely place, drifting amongst the endless void... and then it gets worse as someone decides to blow you up! Xia has a big emphasis on player interaction. The game is competitive but allows players to choose how they'll strive to win the game.. and many of those options link heavily to the slaughtering of your fellow explorers. On top of that, there is the rush and race between you all to get stuff done the fastest, discover stuff first and generally be top dog!
No one wants to be last and it can become cutthroat to be number one, but at the same time no one wants the highest bounty because they've been too ruthless. Though the fastest way to get to number one may be through questionable missions, and the moment that bounty looks too big, everyone's eyes will be on you and you'll be forced to interact with them down the barrel of a missile launcher.
Tips For Before The First Game
- Play the example game first from the rulebook! It's only to five points but it will definitely allow for a lot more understanding of what's what and how to make best use of your outfits and the different parts of the system you're making through exploration!
- Buy extra dice! Having each player own their own D6, D8, D12 and D20 will help massively, especially if you're wise enough to buy colours to associate to player colours. It sounds silly, but we found that, at some point every round, someone asked where one of the dice had gone!
- Make sure you have adequate space. The game has lots of elements; ships, outfits, tiles, cubes... and you'd be wise to get them out and within range of all players. There is nothing worse than breaking the flow of a turn to fumble around with baggies looking for green cubes. I'd also have specific players in charge of managing specific game components. Again, it sounds silly, but it massively sped up people's turns and ensured they were all engaged!
- Keep an eye on everyone and be prepared to fight. Not having a weapon or a shield is a very, very risky strategy, especially when playing with NPCs as well! The Scoundrel caused a lot of upset when we played with him; he killed one player twice in a row due to sheer bad luck!
Final Thoughts on Xia
We found Xia to be one of those big games. The ones where you will need to have planned to play it ahead of time, not a quick game you can just pick up and play. It’s big, it takes time, and it’s so very rewarding and incredibly fun! It’s doesn’t feel like a heavy commitment though, once you’ve experienced Xia’s enticing visuals, high freedom play and diverse options, you’re going to want to play it again!
There is never a moment in Xia where you’re out of options either, the high level of freedom allows for that immediate decision to be made, meaning opportunists can cash in often and those with a set agenda aren’t strictly stuck and predicable. It also means even the most reluctant players can happily ship cargo from one planet to another should they choose to do so. The components and visuals make this a charismatic game, enticing you in and drawing atmosphere in every turn.
This game is one of those people aren’t on the fence about, you either have positive feelings about it or you haven’t played it yet! If you’re looking for a game that really makes you feel like you’re the captain of a space cruiser, allows absolute freedom of choice, has stunning components, or is just a fantastically brilliant game to play; Xia: Legends of a Drift System is for you!