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XCOM and the Perils of Adaptations

XCOM and the perils of adaptations

Many video games have been adapted into board games: Slay the Spire, XCOM, and This War of Mine are three of the most prominent. But there’s a challenge to making a good adaptation.

The Faithful

This War of Mine is extremely faithful; it feels exactly like one playthrough of the game. While the video game is single-player, the board game plays up to six, a concession for the medium. Even with six players, the players take turns reading emotional prompts, and act as one. The best way to play the game is with as few people as possible, in an intimate setting.

The Vibes

Compare that to the XCOM board game. This isn’t an attempt to port the video game to tabletop space (that’s been done with games like Level 7: Omega Protocol, which is an N-Vs-1 combat game in the same vein as the board games DOOM (2016), Imperial Assault, or Descent). Invariably, these games end up with a lot of dice rolling and complex line-of-sight rules, things often labeled as hallmarks of the “Ameritrash” genre of board games.

No, the XCOM board game takes a different approach. Instead of adapting the gameplay, it emulates the FEEL of an XCOM game: not having enough resources, having a time crunch to make difficult decisions, and choosing whether its better to lose one country over another. In some respects, it’s not a very faithful adaptation, as it’s a completely different experience to the video game. In other respects, it succeeds at its goal, and gives an experience of the stress and genre of the modern XCOM games.

What about TTRPGs?

Tabletop roleplaying games (a la Dungeons and Dragons) are an a similarly weird bind to XCOM. Some people play them as romance simulators, while others play them as combat simulators. There are those who argue that the 4th edition of D&D is the best version, because it lays bare what the game is “really” about (beating up monsters and taking their stuff) and makes that core loop fun. Others argue that it’s the worst edition, because it only has rules for combat and eschews the “roleplaying” part of roleplaying games.

So what would an XCOM adaptation look like? Just like with board games, there are multiple possible approaches you could take. You could flesh out the combat system and have a slow-moving, tense game of tactics, where the chance to roll is determined entirely by swingy dice, or you could let the combat take a back seat and focus on the resource management side of things.

My take, or The part of this post that’s closest to being an ad

Two years ago, I released an RPG called Cyberrats. Mechanically, it was inspired most heavily by the modern XCOM games, as well as Shadowrun (an RPG famous for being incredibly “crunchy”). Here’s how I chose to handle various aspects of the adaptation. In my mind, the six most important aspects of an XCOM adaptation are:

  • Combat
  • Basebuilding
  • Resource Management
  • Specializations
  • Lethality
  • and a campaign.

I want to be clear: my goal was not to adapt XCOM, but to create a tabletop experience that feels similar to XCOM, while being its own thing. Here’s how I tackled these elements.


I wanted combat to be tactical, but quick and fun. Many RPGs with heavy combat systems end up spending hours in a single encounter. I didn’t want that. I used a modified version of the LUMEN system, which means that players get a number (usually 1-3) of six-sided dice (d6), roll them, and keep the highest. A 5-6 is a full success, a 3-4 is a success with consequences, and a 1-2 is a failure with consequences.

Additionally, enemies are simple (having attacks and non-combat ‘moves’, like inflicting status effects or activating their allies) and drop loot when defeated. Range bands are abstract (close, near, far), and missions have objectives (hack this computer, defuse a bomb, capture the VIP, and so on).


My favorite part of XCOM is investing in the base to unlock new powers and abilities. In the base game of Cyberrats, there are 17 total rooms that can be built. These rooms improve healing (the clinic), offer new psychic powers or weapons (Auguary, Detonatorium, Engineering Lab), improve player characters (“Operatives”) (Gym, Training Grounds), or otherwise affect gameplay. Players can choose which builds are important to them, and build them as a team in whatever order they’d like.


The base is a 4x4 grid of rooms. The first two rooms are clear, the next tow cost 1 to clear. The second row costs 2 each to clear, and so on. In addition to clearing a space, rooms cost money to build.

Campaign and Resource Management

As fun as the missions in XCOM are, it’s not a game I would play indefinitely. I play to win, with a strong probability of losing. Similarly, I know a lot of RPGs are designed to be played indefinitely, as a forever campaign. With Cyberrats, I wanted a short campaign, one that can be beat in ~10 sessions.

And I did that by tying it into resource management. The premise of Cyberrats is simple: the world is being invaded by aliens. You are interns at a megacorp, and a rival megacorp has the situation under control. Unacceptable!

You have to sabotage the rival megacorp, fend off the alien invasion, and make sure your boss gets all the credit.

Mechanically, it looks like this: there are two “Victory Meters”. One for the Interlopers (the aliens), one for Valdivian, your rival Megacorp. If either of those Victory meters reaches 10, you lose. In the first case, the aliens win. In the second case, someone else fended them off.

Players are presented with 3 missions. They choose one to fail, one to settle with dice rolls, and one to play out. Failing a mission targeting a specific faction increases that faction’s victory meter. Succeeding against a faction lowers it.

There’s also a third faction, the Military. They don’t have a victory meter, but do have some of the best loot in the game, making them a lucrative target.

In order to win the campaign, players must win a mission against each faction 3 times, and then go on a special story mission to fight the big boss from each faction. The final story mission is blowing up the mothership and saving the day.


In XCOM, you start as raw recruits. After your first mission, you are assigned a specialization based on actions you took. After that, as you gain experience, you choose between two powerful abilities corresponding to your specialization.

In Cyberrats, you start as interns. You have very little health, and only one power. After your first mission, if you live, you choose a Career. As you gain experience, you choose between 3 abilities for specializations of that career. The careers are Vector (hacker), Trenchy (weapons specialist), Mindjob (psychic), and Ratter (mutated freak).


In Cyberrats, you create two Operatives to send on missions. Partially, this is so you can send one on the backup mission (resolved with dice rolls based on the prowess of the assigned Operatives), and partially this is because there’s a good chance your Operatives will get Injured.

Hit points are small (even the brawniest Career only starts with 9), and nothing is guaranteed. But, it’s very hard to die in Cyberrats: it just becomes increasingly expensive to recover.


There’s no wrong way to adapt a game to a new medium. I once read an article about 6 different ways to adapt a book into a movie (if I find it again, I’ll link it here), and these thoughts have been stewing in my mind ever since. I made some choices in bringing an XCOM-like experience to table, but I can easily imagine several other, equally valid approaches. It’s all about what you want to emulate, baby!

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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