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XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a card game

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XCOM

I’ve been on this mission in Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for almost an hour now. Slowly and methodically, I’ve directed my soldiers through an alien aircraft that crash-landed in Argentina. For a skeleton crew, we’ve taken out all opposition — save for one of their large, brute-like soldiers known as Muton — without sustaining any casualties. All that’s left is to kill the final foe, which retreated out of the ship and into the fog right after we eliminated its allies.

I split the group. I position a support soldier and sniper at a balcony to keep watch. Assaultman Captain Gonzalez, along with another soldier, head outside. We’ve narrowed the enemy’s location in the fog down to a blind spot concealed by the ship’s exterior architecture. I put all my soldiers into overwatch for a few turns, waiting for it to come out. We hear some vague sounds coming from the darkness, but no one has visual confirmation. Seeing as it’s only one enemy, I send Gonzalez deep into the area.

xcom 2

To our surprise, he discovers not only the Muton but three Chryssalids — powerful creatures that move long distances, deal lots of melee damage, and convert soldiers into zombies. The arachnid-like monsters scramble to surround the captain. My sniper takes a reaction shot at one; however, he doesn’t inflict enough damage to kill it. This isn’t good.

I’m now doing the math, weighing my options. Looking at potential hit percentages and damage outputs of different attacks. Counting how many tiles every unit can move, and how many turns everyone has to reload. Playing out a dozen different scenarios in my mind. But they all end the same way.

The numbers don’t lie. I am fucked.

In sports, we have the concept of “clutch.” A clutch player thrives under pressure and has the capacity to overcome odds stacked against him when the game is on the line. Gaming’s most obvious example of this is Daigo Umehara’s comeback win over Justin Wong in a Street Fighter III match at Evo (Evolution Championship Series) 2004.

XCOM’s rigid turn-based combat system doesn’t let clutch moments — or any other situations that occur largely due to player skill — happen. Players can facilitate comeback victories and other interesting scenarios, but that’s only because the possibilities lie within the cards, so to speak. Success lies in playing them right because at heart, that’s what XCOM really is: a card game.

You could technically break most video games down similarly. In a typical first-person shooter, players constantly make decisions about which weapon to choose, which route to take, which target to engage, when to reload, when to crouch, when to switch weapons, and more. You can also factor in the variables they’re not in control of, like ping time, bullet drop, and so on. The difference — aside from the overall inclusion of variables — is that FPS players make those decisions on the fly and don’t care about the actual numbers behind them.

They don’t know how much damage the shotgun puts out over the amount the pistol does, for example. Their only concern is that it’s “more.” Additionally, successes and failures aren’t seen as the outcome of hundreds of uncontrollable variables. Instead, they’re the result of a contest of skills. But attributing success in XCOM to skill isn’t as straightforward as it is in other games.

In most games, there’s a gap between skill and tactics — or rather, between planning and execution. While a good player will ideally use both (such as Umehara did in the video above), the systems are usually flexible enough for him to pick and choose. You may want to lob a grenade into an enemy bunker’s embrasure from behind cover in Call of Duty, but if you’re not accurate enough, it probably won’t go as planned. Alternatively, you can abandon reason, recklessly storm the bunker alone, and — if your skills are up to par — come out on top.

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With XCOM and most card games, skill isn’t determined by reflexes, accuracy, or timing. Execution and planning are one and the same. Player skill is your ability to make effective decisions with limited knowledge of the playing field. The A.I. is the dealer, and you make choices as the “cards” — or enemies — present themselves. Execution isn’t much of a consideration since you’re not the one performing the tasks. Even if a soldier misses, you knew the exact odds of that happening before giving the command.

The game also takes situational awareness further than most games do by preventing players from targeting enemies that aren’t within their soldiers’ line of sight. So even if you know that an alien fled into the darkness, you can’t have your soldiers attempt to shoot at it with direct-fire weapons. This is a bit more restrictive than your typical game, wherein you can almost always act on knowledge of your opponent’s hand even if it isn’t in play. XCOM forces you to play by the rules, and that means choosing from the options it gives you. In this respect, the target-based combat moves the game away from most other strategy counterparts and closer to board or collectible card games. As Rowan Kaiser concludes in a Gameranx piece:

Fascinatingly, being-based targeting makes XCOM more similar to Japanese-style tactics games, like Disgaea. But those games are usually fantasy-based, and therefore melee-based, making stray bullets irrelevant. Shifting a firearm-based tactical game to this style of system may not seem like much, but it affects the entire game.

I gambled big by sending that soldier into the unknown area alone. It turns out the enemy had an ace in the hole. But it’s not entirely hopeless. Just like card games, XCOM lets players fold their hands or cut their losses by aborting missions and having their soldiers flee to an extraction zone. Though character death is permanent, mission failure doesn’t end the game. Players can retry missions with any characters they still have available, and the game’s psuedo-randomized maps and enemy spawn points essentially shuffle the deck.

This contributes to the game’s addictive nature and goes back to how the game removes the traditional concept of skill from the equation. Losing in many other games means you weren’t good enough — or didn’t execute well enough — to win. But after losing or quitting in XCOM, like in gambling, you can just say the numbers didn’t add up right or the cards weren’t in your favor. Nothing a good shuffle can’t fix.

Back at the mission site, I do the math one more time. I had this game in the bag up until that last turn. I just didn’t play my hand right, and the A.I. had a better one. It won’t end this way next time. I’ll get a better hand, for sure.

So I fold.