There are a lot of board games out there. A lot. But it’s not like every single one is this unique and innovative thing. Just like any other industry, you’ve got trend setters who blaze new trails, and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon with their own twist on it once it proves popular. Dominion brought the deckbuilder to prominence back in 2008, and these days you can stock an entire aisle of a game store with deckbuilding games. Gamers even talk about the idea of replacement games, ones that do something an older game in your collection already does, only better, thereby replacing it. Of course, some of us just buy the new game and keep the old one too, and then sit around wondering where all our spare space went. Regardless, the point is that you’ll often find different games doing the same things with minor little differences, and inevitably, you stack them up against each other. How that comparison goes determines if you make room on your shelf for another game or stick with what you already know.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System — Which brings us to my play of Xia last night. This was another Kickstarter sensation that’s a variation on a genre called the 4X game. In such a game, you travel about discovering new territory, usually for the purpose of establishing trade or mining resources, all while developing your influence, researching new technology, and blowing the hell out of anyone who gets in your way. Thus “4X”: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. The term really caught on in relation to video games like Warcraft and Civilization, but it’s spread to board games as well. There are enough X’s for everybody.
In Xia, each player has their own spaceship they can customize with various upgrades that they fit into their ship Tetris-style. You zip around the solar system, discovering new sectors, buying or mining for goods to sell back at a profit. There are dangers, such as asteroids and debris fields and even other players who can go outlaw and decide to rob you. Everything you do earns you victory points, and you keep going until someone reaches a pre-determined number first. This is your classic 4X game: flying through space, seeing what’s beyond the current edge of the board, and hoping it’s a lucrative new planet. There’s not a lot going on with the research aspect; you don’t have to spend time or resources developing that flashy new engine for your spaceship, you can just buy it when you can afford it, but otherwise, you’re X-ing all over the place.
Thing is, while this was a perfectly enjoyable game, it didn’t really do anything a couple of other games do better. Eclipse, a sprawling 4X game that can handle up to 9 players, has a better bead on the exploration and extermination aspects, since you’re commanding fleets of ships that can engage in epic battles both with other players and alien races you encounter. It also has a robust research component, where you have to put resources into newer and better technologies or else you’ll find yourself behind the curve. As far as the trading and commerce goes, Merchant of Venus has Xia beat there, with your trade routes and their hazards already laid out and you having to decide if you want to take the safe or fast route to riches. Now you could say, “But Xia combines both of those into a single game, isn’t that better?” And yes, part of the appeal is its “best of both worlds” approach. But doing both things and doing them well are two different things, and like I said, while Xia isn’t a bad game, I never got that overwhelming “gotta play it again” feeling I got from Eclipse and Merchant.
But not all gamers are created equal. One player fell in love with Xia and declared it a must-buy. It all depends on what experiences you bring with you to a given game; if I’d never played Eclipse, I probably would have been much more enthusiastic about Xia. It’s all in the timing. As it stands, I’d certainly be willing to play Xia again to see if there’s something about it I missed, but I’d be looking longingly over at the Eclipse game at the next table while I did.