Xenoshyft Onslaught Board Game Review (CMON)


Xenoshyft is a rare game: every time I play it, I like it both more and less. For a cooperative game, it also counter-intuitively becomes more difficult the more players you add. In Xenoshyft Onslaught, you fight waves after waves of enemy in a tower defense format. Once the base explodes, you die. If you can last a set amount of rounds, you win. All of it is really quite simple, except where it falters is its strangely unintuitive battle system. It's such a frustrating system that I've only seen the game played properly once or twice. Despite this, it's a game that's both challenging and exciting. 

Game Details

Players: 1 to 4

Game Time: 60 Minutes

Age: 12+

Genre: Tower Defense / Deck Building

How is Xenoshyft Onslaught Played?

Players each have a deck of cards -- it's a deck builder. From that deck they draw their infantry and items. Infantry are laid out in front of them while most (though not all) items remain in their hand. They also have gold (sorry, shards) that they can spend to recruit additional cards into their hand. After everything has been organized, enemies are spawned face down in front of their infantry. Four cards of enemies come out in front of each player at a time. Players then fight each line against each other; battle resolves between the 'enemy line' and the 'player line' one by one, with the cards moving down as fights are resolved.

It's all a system that can be elegant. But it's not. I've seen players play with the wrong rules consistently, such as using ability markers as health damage chips (which makes it impossible to reliably track abilities) and placing items into the wrong discard (thereby freely swapping items with each other). Part of the failing is the often vague manual.

How Does Xenoshyft Onslaught Look?

A slick design with bad components is still bad. Xenoshyft looks good on the surface, but there are all sorts of corners cut. The base HP counter falls apart easiy. The tokens are not as plentiful as they need to be and are made out of cheap plastic. The cards are fine, but practically everything else just feels phoned in. Of course, that also makes it a fairly cheap game compared to some others of its depth. Everything is serviceable, but it's very clear that they tried to spend as little money building it as possible.

How Does Xenoshyft Onslaught Feel?

Like absolute insanity. Xenoshyft always starts out feeling great and then it slowly descends into a morass of confusion and chaos. Playing with two or three players is best; playing with four players is simply distressing.

Here's how a battle might go in simplest terms:

  • An enemy with 4 HP and 2 ATK comes out against a soldier with 2 HP and 4 ATK.
  • The enemy hits the soldier for 2 HP and the soldier hits the enemy for 4 HP, simultaneously.
  • Both the enemy and the soldier die.

And that's fine. But here's how a regular battle goes, at the beginning of the game:

  • An enemy with 8 HP and 2 ATK comes out against a soldier with 4 HP and 3 ATK.
  • The enemy hits the soldier for 2 HP (leaving him with 2 HP) and the soldier hits the enemy for 3 HP (leaving him with 5 HP).
  • The enemy hits the soldier for 2 HP (leaving him with 0 HP) and the soldier hits the enemy for 3 HP (leaving him with 2 HP). The soldier dies and is replaced.
  • The enemy now has 2 HP and 2 ATK against a new soldier with 4 HP and 3 ATK.
  • The enemy hits the soldier for 2 HP (leaving him with 2 HP) and the soldier hits the enemy for 3 HP (killing him). 
  • The soldier remains with 2 HP.

And here is how a regular battle goes, at the end of the game.

  • An enemy with 8 HP and 2 ATK comes out against a soldier with 4 HP and 3 ATK.
  • Someone yells that they have a bomb which will do 3 ATK.
  • Another person yells that they can tap their infantry, which will do another 2 ATK.
  • Someone throws in a stim card which will heal the soldier 1 HP and have them go first.
  • Another person says that will kill the enemy outright.
  • You say that no, the enemy will still have 3 HP left.
  • Another person throws in another stim card which will heal the soldier 1 HP.
  • Someone tries to tap their infantry again, to do another 2 ATK, forgetting that they did it already.
  • Someone grabs the cards and says "OK, it's dead now" even as you mutter -- "w-wait."

I've never seen a game that inspires as much incorrect quarterbacking as Xenoshyft. Even in my early example, there's a lot of math going on that you have to do. In a 4 player game, you need to do that 4x4=16 times at minimum. In practice, everyone starts yelling at once and doing the math incorrectly because everyone can play on your turn, and in the end you never feel like it's correct. This game would be infuriating if it was competitive, but even cooperatively, it's frustrating. 

At the beginning of the game, everyone does things properly with the tokens. By the end of the game, everyone has become fatigued and lost track. They use abilities incorrectly, add things up wrong, and just generally aren't sure what they're doing anymore. Is it a failing of the game that people are fragile and weak? Who knows. All I know is that it happens.

Part of the problem is that it's high risk and high investment. Xenoshyft claims to be a fairly short game, but it isn't. By the end of the game you've probably put a solid two hours into it and you may only have a few HP left on your base. This inspires everyone to start micro-managing everyone's turns. Also, people are bad at math. The tokens are supposed to help. They do not.

The experience of playing Xenoshyft is a very "there has to be a better way" gray infomercial sort of thing. And I know I'm in the minority with this, because a lot of reviews disagree and seem to think it's a fairly intuitive and easy system. Though, I'm fond of one Amazon question, which asks plaintively: "How long is this game? I've been playing it for two hours. Am I playing it wrong?" -- some say he is still playing to this day. 

Xenoshyft Onslaught Board Game Review
  • PRO: A rewarding tower defense game when played properly.
  • CON: Some fiddly mechanics make it difficult to control the game.
  • CON: The game pieces are incredibly low quality.