Insects are creepy. Multiple limbs, weirdly segmented body, and grotesque mouthparts, are all well and good for doing their part in their respective biospheres, but add one to a fictional race or character and bam: instant, terrifying villain. We never seem to grow tired of them. And of course we don’t: everyone (well, at least every urban apartment-dweller) loves to hate bugs. Capitalizing on this enthusiasm for revulsion is publisher Cool Mini or Not (CMON), with the Android port of their tabletop title Xenoshyft: Onslaught, a board game that, after receiving almost ten-fold their original backer goal of $25,000 on Kickstarter, can safely be called “wildly successful”.
If you’re a fan of the original, the digital version won’t be much of a surprise. You play a commander of the NorTec corporation, a company about which you know little, but who’s major divisions, which include “Weapons”, “Barracks” and “Armory”, might give you an idea of what they’re all about (interestingly, and as a complete aside, Nortec Corporation is a real world company that’s in the not-as-glamorous business of dehumidifiers). Your job is to oversee an alien mining operation and protect it from nine waves of attacks from the insectoid “Hive”, long enough to collect your quota of “Xenosathem” and skedaddle.
Interestingly, as I played the game, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the wrong side of the Avatar movie, as the greedy humans ripping away a planet’s resources and destroying any natives that try to stop them. I mean, sure the critters from the Hive could hardly be called harmless (they poisoned, clawed, melted and zombified a fair share of my troops), but aren’t they just protecting their habitat from encroaching invaders? Who are we to steal their stuff and then blame them for attacking us? (Un)fortunately, this undercurrent of remorse wasn’t strong enough to deter me from doing some of my own, shooting, blasting and vaporizing of alien hiney. Cue the post-colonial guilt.
Regardless of the story, the gameplay’s pretty fun. Xenoshyft features an interesting take on the deck-building mechanic found in games such as Dominion or Ascension. Each round of the game is made up of two phases. In the first phase, you draw up to six cards from your deck. Any “Xenosathem” cards in your hand can be spent to buy specialized troops, weapons armor and other items, the selection of which is randomly determined at the start, to give the game extra replayability. True to the genre, these purchases go straight into your discard pile, only to be used once they get reshuffled into your deck and are drawn into your hand. Thus, as you purchase cards, you’re essentially building a deck, hopefully based on a strategy that combines the effects of the various cards to help you win in the second and most important phase of the round.
In the second phase, you have to defend your “lane” from a wave of incoming Hive-creatures (again, which specific bugs attack is randomly chosen at the start of the game). You do so by placing any troops you might have drawn in your lane, along with any equipment, and each troop you place faces one of the five alien cards randomly selected for you to fight. Your troops, equipment, and even division of NorTec all supply you with an arsenal of abilities you can activate to help fight the aliens. While they add a layer of complexity that might be daunting to a player unused to this kind of game (and even an experienced player will need a few playthroughs to get used to it all), you’ll need all the help you can get because Xenoshyft is HARD. Hive bugs are not easily squished, and a combination of genius strategic insight and astonishing luck is necessary to beat back all nine waves of them. In fact, that might be a flaw in the game: regardless of how cleverly you build your deck, if you’re unlucky with the selection of aliens you face, you’ve had it.
Unfortunately, Xenoshyft suffers from the same plague that afflicts many other tabletop-to-digital ports. A clumsy interface that tries to cram the whole game board onto a tiny screen, leading to much zooming and scrolling. Clunky controls, unsuited to the touch capabilities of an Android, that lead to mis-clicks and misfiring of abilities. The lack of an adequate tutorial. Boring, static visuals. Just another in a long line of uninspired digital conversions, Xenoshyft reveals the laziness of developers when it comes to adapting beloved tabletop games for digital formats: trying to recreate a boardgame without taking advantage of the digital format, and thus failing to capture the very real corporeal and sensual affordances presented by a physical game.
Furthermore, when I think of “board game”, I tend to think “multiplayer”. While Xenoshyft does offer a cool co-operative multiplayer mode where different players control different divisions of NorTec and help each other protect their lanes, I found the multiplayer waiting room to be… sadly lacking in enthusiasm. Or to put it more plainly, completely empty. Never once did I see a single game posted, and while this certainly isn’t CMON’s fault, the lack of a pass-and-play mode meant that the multiplayer mode was essentially nonexistent.
While the game mechanics are exciting, Xenoshyft’s digital implementation holds it back from truly becoming a great game. Developers should really learn from successes of titles like Hearthstone or Talisman, before they try and produce a digital card game. Otherwise, in the hyper-saturated market of Android games, they risk getting squashed like a bug.
Decent gameplay, bad implementation.