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The Circus is like PBR...makin' a comeback! Xia Review....

So, Circusgoers, after a year of waiting, I finally ponied up and purchased Xia: Legends of a Drift System from Far Off Games. The look, the bits, the setting, and the theme all  appealed to me in a visceral way. I begged the mighty Michael Barnes  to sell  me his copy,  since he is a reliable source of both game criticism and discount games. After a year, he finally felt pity on me and offered it up, which I snapped up despite having a financial situation that is, in BGG-speak, “Less Than Optimum” (cue chortle). I tore the package open like a child on Christmas, and it was “game on” like white on rice. I had a three-person session (again, not entirely unlike Will Smith) with the game and had a blast. The only bitch I had about it was that the first game, despite the rules’ simplicity, involved figuring out just what exactly to do, which added a little downtime. Not bad, but a little long in the tooth for such an, essentially, simple rule set.

We loved virtually everything else about Xia, though, because it is the analog version of Microsoft’s Freelancer, sans main story. Basically, you just fly around doing all kinds of different shit such as exploring, mining, harvesting, and best of all, introducing opponents to your new friend, The Vacuum of Space. Before long we were sending people and NPCs to Neil Armstrong’s Duffel (the space equivalent of Davy Jones’ locker, we surmised) with great prejudice. Killing people isn’t particularly easy, either, because all attacks are contested rolls, if shields are involved, so it’s not like Star Wars where you can fire one Force-aimed torpedo and bust a brother up. Its not so much tactical as it is just shooting a lot  of bullets (laser blasts?) and wearing them down.

Anyhow, killing was our business, and business was pretty good, but that was only a small fraction of what went down. We were smuggling goods like some bootleg Han Solo in cheesily-named ships like Easy Tiger,  scanning and exploring, and forcing ships to abandon their cargo left and right. It’s not implicit in the rules, but we found that talking dump truck loads of shit such as “Well, I can fire my missiles at you, then fly over there and knuckle you up, or you can just jettison your cargo and you can go on to New Damascus and get some Total Recall 3-boobie chick…”. It’s not really a negotiation game, at all, but if you’re the type of group who enjoys that kind of thing, it’s packed in the box with the rest of the awesome.

All of this is helped immensely by  the fact that this game is the second- or third- most overproduced game that I’ve ever seen; Cthulhu Wars and Kingdom Death being the other two. It comes with pretty little painted miniatures, beautiful little metal coins, and a bunch of cubes in five styles, not to mention the tiles and whatnots in the box. The in-game artwork was clearly done by someone who doesn’t do artwork, but it’s not ugly by a long shot.  It’s simply not illustrated by someone  like Eric Carter or Jason Benningfield, which didn’t bother us in the slightest. Our only complaint about anything physically in the box is that the spaces on some tiles aren’t super-clearly defined, and a thin line surrounding the hexes would have looked really sharp and been fully functioning awesome-stations.

Moving back to the overall experience, we were playing the “short” version of the game, which sees players attempting to gain five “Fame Points”, which is supposed to be a 15-minute-per-player session. Suffice it to say that not only is that not really possible, even with seasoned players, but this game should be savored as a fine wine. The experience is such that you become drawn into it; your character matters to you, and his or her fate is in your hands. There is no real perma-death or player elimination in the game, so when you get blown up through enemy action or simply dumb, blind bad luck, it’s much more of a soft reset that a brutalizing, caustic experience. Unless you’ve sunk a huge amount of money into your ship, the death is pretty painless, yet you still feel compelled to be a good steward of your little space cruiser, and I found myself becoming attached to that little, yellow tugboat-in-space.

The mechanics are tight as a drum, too. Everything makes sense aside from the fact that you can gain a point by simply rolling 20 on the included d20 die. That didn’t make sense to me, until my buddy rolled two of them, back to back, winning the game; it’s because that’s something I’ll likely never forget that he got those Fame Points. The game’s character is such that he will heretofore be known as “Lucky 20 Mickey”, which has overtaken his previous title of “Boxcar Mickey” which was earned while playing Dungeonquest, when he rolled a six and whooped in delight, not realizing that it was the catalyst for his instant and brutal demise. You see, the fame that this game creates is real, at least to your game group, and so it really does make a ton of sense that rolling a 20 will give you a “Fame Point”, silly as that may sound.

Now, the next game we played was a four player session to ten “Fame Points”, and it lasted a full three hours, despite the box noting it should only last two. We played with the same three original players, plus another, but she picked the game up very quickly so the timing wasn’t extended due to her lack of grasping the game as much as it was about the amount of carnage increasing. This was largely the same experience, good times had by all, but waiting 8 minutes on average to take your turn can really kind of suck the life out of the party. Playing with fewer players and a larger-valued goal is the way to go if you want to find balance in the world of Xia.

There have been valid comparisons to Firefly and Merchants and Marauders, which are both fine games in their own right, but I think that I like this game far better, primarily because it’s much more accessible, despite having slightly longer individual  turns. The rules are laid out so remarkably well that I’d love to see the Far Off people contracted to write  rules for other people. Where Merchants  and Marauders can be opaque, and Firefly can be repetitive, Xia offers a compromise between the two and delivers a truly unique, fun game experience that we highly recommend to people who would like this sort of thing. And the bits…..for fuck’s sake…..the game just looks absolutely fantastic.

Why I Wish I Could Pronounce The Name Properly:
– The production quality is astounding
– The rule book is one of the best I’ve seen in 30 years of gaming
– The open-world concept is executed spectacularly well
– The replay value is almost infinite
– Great stories emerge organically whilst playing
– Community- and publisher- mod support is outstanding

Why Xia Would Also Be A Fine Name For A Stripper:
– The downtime is longer than some people can tolerate
– The board art is a bit on the dull side
– So.Much.Dice.Rolling. might piss people off
– I’ve owned cheaper modes of transportation

While the downtime can be a little much, and the open-world concept might have players wondering about how to develop a cohesive strategy, this game is fantastic in almost every way. The bits are nothing short of spectacular, but along with that comes a hefty price tag. If you like lots of die-rolling and don’t need rails to guide your play, this is a real gem.

4.5/5 Stars

Learn more about Xia: Legends of a Drift System here: www.faroffgames.com

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Posted: 25 May 2016 05:03 by Gary Sax #228117
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Good to see you back in the saddle. Thanks for the review. It's a tough sell since I already have Firefly, Merchants and Marauders, Merchants of Venus... I'll have to try it sometime at a con or something.
Posted: 25 May 2016 06:07 by Legomancer #228120
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If I ever get drunk enough to buy this, the first rule that gets airlocked is "20 = Fame". In the game I played, the winning point was earned that way and, while it's true I won't forget that soon, it's not because I thought it was really great.
Posted: 25 May 2016 06:31 by SuperflyTNT #228122
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Gary Sax wrote:
Good to see you back in the saddle. Thanks for the review. It's a tough sell since I already have Firefly, Merchants and Marauders, Merchants of Venus... I'll have to try it sometime at a con or something.

Barnes indicates that he liked Merchants of Venus more, hence his relinquishing his copy to me. I had Firefly and all the expansions up to Blue Moon, and it's really good, but my main beef is that it's basically the same thing ad infinitum. Xia has a lot more ways to win which is why I like it more.

Also, I never really stopped writing - I do the very occasional Miniature Market review and still put up reviews on www.superflycircus.com fairly often. That Miniature Market gig is definitely more for people who are into buying and trying lots and lots of new games, and after the wife's surgery and the opposing car insurance company essentially winning the lawsuit through what can only be considered as dirty ass tricks, I can't be dropping 100$ a month. And even if I could, I wouldn't. The only viable model for doing that is the Patented Barnes Plan (as I imagine it): Buy 100$ in games, play them, sell them at a discount and cover that loss with the payment for the articles. Smart plan and totally legit, but just not something that I'm keen on doing.

In any event, thanks for the kind words!

@Dave: I'm a five percenter, I guess. Knowing that the D20 isn't rolled all that much, and when it's usually rolled, there is a 'uuuuge chance that you blow up, it doesn't bother me. I look at it like the Kessel Run - you were so awesome at piloting through the asteroids that you became a legend. Makes sense to me, but YMMV. Just kind of sounds like you lost because of it and it left you salty.
Posted: 25 May 2016 06:40 by Josh Look #228124
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I played this twice and thought it was merely okay. I liked it better than M&M, but by no means is it better than Firefly. Xia is nice and open, but there's a few areas where I thought, "Yup, this was a Kickstarter." I preferred Firefly's more focussed design, the whole thing runs on push your luck, which I love, and the movement mechanic is fun and exciting. I think it ultimately comes down to which design goal you prefer though, both games do accomplish them quite well.

Thank you for not using the term "sandbox." Fuck that bullshit term and the douchebag horse it rode in on. It means nothing in the realm of board games as every game has an end goal and it deserves to be banned from the lexicon along with "epic," "fail," and any combination of the two.
Posted: 25 May 2016 07:20 by SuperflyTNT #228128
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I think "sandbox" has its uses in this world - I always thought of FFP's Last Night on Earth as a sandbox game in that it dumps a bunch of parts and mechanical rules on you and has the flexibility to basically play whatever scenario you want. I mean, many games do that but they don't generally dump parts on you that aren't in any way used in the existing scenarios. They literally tossed shit in the box that they thought you'd have fun creating scenarios with. But I agree - the phrase is overused in epic proportions. Total fail.
Posted: 25 May 2016 07:45 by Legomancer #228132
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SuperflyTNT wrote:
@Dave: I'm a five percenter, I guess. Knowing that the D20 isn't rolled all that much, and when it's usually rolled, there is a 'uuuuge chance that you blow up, it doesn't bother me. I look at it like the Kessel Run - you were so awesome at piloting through the asteroids that you became a legend. Makes sense to me, but YMMV. Just kind of sounds like you lost because of it and it left you salty.

No, I thought it was a dumb rule as soon as I heard it.

Xia is miles ahead of Firefly, imo, but that doesn't say much because I thought Firefly was crap. Xia is the game Firefly wishes it was, though it doesn't have a Hat Card. You can probably still use a plastic dinosaur for the current player token, though. Xia has a lot more room for good play and surprise routs, where a player in the lead can be passed not because the game threw him a random bone he couldn't handle but because another player did better. Yet there's still enough sloppy randomness to give it a good time, AND nobody will quote lines at you.

Compared to Merchants and Marauders, though, it's not so good. We didn't see a lot of combat in our Xia game (it didn't really last long enough and none of us came out with guns a-blazing) but I'm not a super fan of the combat in M&M, so that might be the factor that pushes it over. In nearly every other respect M&M does what Xia does better, just with pirates. I love Merchant of Venus but it's not really comparable here (at least the "Classic" rules, I haven't played the FFG rules.)
Posted: 25 May 2016 14:37 by SuperflyTNT #228175
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I tend to agree with you, for what it's worth, with regard to the 20 rule. It's certainly not something I think I'd have put in a game design. I get what he was doing - legend making - but it's kind of a dumb rule. That said, it did make my kid dance around when she won like that and that alone was worth it.

I love M&M, but I think combat was weenie. I think the adventure cards in M&M really did make the game interesting, which is lacking in Xia. But M&M has two choices, basically - be a merchant, or be a marauder. There's no exploration, no surprises mostly (aside from the side adventures), and it's a pick up and deliver game for the most part. Xia does more and I'd argue better in some ways, and it doesn't pidgeonhole you into one of two persistent roles.

Combat in Xia is awesome, but they kind of fucked it up a bit with the ships' ability to take way too many hits to blow up. Shields are just too juicy.

Just my 2c.
Posted: 25 May 2016 20:08 by jpat #228200
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Nice piece, good headline.

I think now that I've gotten my wife interested in Firefly (and now that she's watched more episodes, which I do think helps the immersion), I probably won't be looking at Xia again anytime soon unless someone else has it (and few people I game with would either play a game like that--unfortunately--or pony up that much for one game, but it's certainly intriguing.
Posted: 25 May 2016 20:50 by SuperflyTNT #228204
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I waited a year+ to play it....it was my single most anticipated game. The minis sold me. I admit freely that I'm a bits whore. As it turns out, I also really loved the game.
Posted: 26 May 2016 11:29 by Egg Shen #228234
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Nice read Pete. I've been really tempted to by this one and wanting to try it for a long time. The two things that have constantly kept me away are 1) price and 2) similar games. Everytime I thought about taking the dive I would think about how I already have Firefly, Merchant of Venus and Merchants and Marauders. They all seem like they scratch a similar itch. Don't get me wrong, it's one of my favorite spots to scratch, but for whatever reason I've been able to hold off on Xia. It sounds like a great time.

They're launching an expansion kickstarter on May 31st and we'll see if I can resist going all in on the expansion and the base game......
Posted: 26 May 2016 14:13 by SuperflyTNT #228242
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Thanks, Mike. Means a lot coming from you. I needed that today, too. What a fucking miserable two days its been.

You're right in a sense - I see this being equivalent only to M&M; Merchants of Venus and Firefly are far more similar to one another and dissimilar to M&M and Xia. Firefly and MoV are essentially in the same space (in my mind) as Return of the Heroes; lots of pick up and deliver, some other minor shit to do. Even the missions in Firefly are essentially "go here, roll some dice" type delivery-style non-delivery missions. So, you're spot on with that comparison.

What impressed me about them as a company is that they gave Photoshop files for fans to make their own missions and cards; the problem, obviously, is even if you get Artscow cards, there's going to be a noticeable difference. I plan on making a shitload of expansion stuff and using some Firestorm Armada ships I have lying around as the ships.

I didn't know about the expansion - good looking out, brother. I shoud be able to sell something to pay for it; my problem is that my stable of games is pretty much loaded with the games we play and love. Except Horus Heresy.
Posted: 29 May 2016 23:07 by MarloweSpade #228371
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Great to see Xia getting more love - our group has really taken to the game, in particular the tightness of the rules and the fact that they're so easily customizable, too. We've ruled that a "1" on the d20 actually LOSES you a Fame Point, and implemented a few trade rules to prevent "milk runs" from happening too often. And yeah... the thing just looks gorgeous, for cryin' out loud.
Posted: 31 May 2016 11:44 by SuperflyTNT #228406
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39$ expansion dropped on KS today. I backed it within a couple of hours. What a value.
Posted: 31 May 2016 12:05 by Egg Shen #228408
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Looks like the expansion will address some of the primary concerns people had with the base game (easy trade routes and fighting not being entirely worthwhile). It's always nice to know that a company is listening and willing to address these things.

Funny you should mention that you've been trying to get this game for so long and having all that anticipation build up. My "Waiting in Vain" game seems to be Shadows Of Brimstone. I was eager to buy it when the kickstarter launched...but then I bailed due to the price. Then it was the minis that kept me away. I've yet to pull the trigger on one of the core sets, but I think I might finally cave. At this point I just need to know. It's a good feeling to be that excited about something, but man I hope it doesn't let me down. At least you loved XIA! I'm hoping it goes similarly for me with SoB.
Posted: 31 May 2016 12:42 by SuperflyTNT #228415
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Man, this is my last hurrah. I sold some guns to fund my lawyer bullshit (see other thread) and I told mama that I was keeping 50$ for this expansion. She didn't have anything to say. But, at this point, I don't care if the best game ever made comes out, I'm not buying shit.