Updated: Oct 24, 2020
You’re lost, out in an uncharted part of the galaxy, on the hunt for cargo and artefacts to sell off. Your ship is damaged; chancing that asteroid belt was not worth the single cargo cube you picked up. You come to the edge of the board on the last boost of your engines, but the next sector tile could be a planet: salvation to refuel and repair. You could scan the area first but that would mean forfeiting the rest of your movement. You decide to chance it. Gritting your teeth, you take the tile and whisper 'blind jump'; fingers crossed that you haven't just leapt into the heart of a blazing sun.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System is a 3-5 player competitive game set in the limitless confines of outer space. You start with a unique tier-one ship miniature, matching player board and ability card and 3000 credits, which you spend to outfit your ship with various modules such as engines, shields and blasters, not forgetting to leave space to store cargo. These modules take the form of cardboard tiles of varying shapes and sizes that have to be positioned on your player board. They dictate the dice you roll when taking an action, with cheaper and easier to place modules giving d6 and the most expensive, largest and more complicatedly shaped modules giving you a d12 and more options for use.
Each player starts on a tile connected to a central hub, with the rest of the board tiles shuffled into a face-down stack ready to reveal as the game goes on. This randomised system ensures no two games are the same. With a large variety of tile types, ranging from confederate and outlaw planets, asteroid belts and interstellar portals, and the deadly sun, players will have a new galaxy to traverse every time. Your mission? To get famous and become a Legend!
You gain fame points by completing missions, collecting explorer tokens, selling cargo and shooting down enemy ships. Your style of gameplay will initially be determined by the way you deck out your ship. Will you invest in large engines and lots of cargo space and earn a merchant's living? Will you get the big guns and chase after fugitives, outlaws and maybe other players? Will you be a daring hero seeking out rescue missions and salvage ops? The choice is entirely yours in this expansive truly sandbox game, tho' your choices are also bound to be influenced by the mission cards you happen to pick up and the opportunities presented as players' exploration reveal new sectors. On planets, you can always spend your good- or ill-gotten gains to upgrade your ship and its equipment...
Each round you can take as many actions as you like, such as picking up resource cubes or starting missions, though you must have enough 'armed markers' to activate the modules on your ship allowing it to move or to shoot enemies. At the end of each turn, the player's markers are reset but this expends energy, and energy cannot be replenished unless you are docked on a planet. Along your space journey you will come across many hazards that will do damage to your ship. You assign this damage to your player board, increasingly covering up your modules; and if they are covered up completely, they are inoperable. The damage can be repaired for a price on a planet, so frequent pit stops are recommended. Risk vs reward is a critical part of gameplay: do you use up your last bit of energy fighting an enemy ship and risk not having enough juice to make it back to sell your booty?
Xia is perhaps the ultimate Marmite game: you'll either love it or hate it. On the one hand, it's unashamedly dice dependent. Sure, you can attempt to modify your luck but, ultimately, you are always going to be dependent on how the dice treat you. Designer Cody Miller makes no attempt to shy away from this; Hell, the game will even reward you with a valuable fame point for the legendary act of rolling a natural 20 any time you have to roll a d20! On the other hand, every play of Xia is a memorable event. You'll still be telling the story of how you narrowly escaped from space pirates, or managed to outrun the police gunship, days and weeks after you've packed this game back into the box.
Far Off Games first published Xia back in 2014. Since then, the designer has been joined by Ira Fay to add an Embers of a Forsaken Star expansion. This adds quite a lot to the original game and streamlines play; to the extent that we'd rate Embers as an essential addition to the core game. Crucially, too, the Embers expansion turns Xia into a 1-5 player game. Solitaire options are always very welcome additions - especially so in our current period of Coronavirus lockdown - but it's also good to see the game pivot in favour of a lower player count. You can certainly play and enjoy Xia with five players but you'll almost certainly complain about the down time as you wait for your next turn to come around. This is a game that is at its best with 1-3 players.
If you've fond memories of playing Frontier Elite on your first computer, Xia is about the closest you can get to a board game version. And Xia won't just bring back happy memories, it'll help you forge new ones.
(Review by Claire Woodward)