Project: Elite has a pretty bland and non-descriptive name. This may be because Super Panic Space Alien Genocide Squad Force: The Board Game was a little too wordy. Don’t let this deceive you though, because lurking just below the surface of the name is one of the best timed cooperative games I’ve ever played. Project: Elite has surpassed the XCOM board game for that top spot on my list, also making it one of my top cooperative board games in general (right up alongside Shadows of Brimstone). While it initially seems overwhelming to learn, I can attest that my sister, who I can pretty much only get to play casual board games, looked weary and unsure after the rules explanation and we started the game. By the end of the 2 nd round she was out of her chair, strategizing with the rest of the group, and thoroughly into the game. I will say that this review is based off of my Kickstarter copy I received that included everything they produced for Project: Elite. So that’s it for my unapologetic gushing. Now, on to why you might feel the same way.
One of the biggest problems with cooperative games, in my opinion, is that you usually have 1 or 2 alpha gamers captain the table and just tell everyone what they should do on their turn. If you were to take all the players out and just have the alpha gamer do their actions on their turn, there would be no noticeable difference from how the game plays out. In my estimation, the best cooperative board games find some way of negating this (usually in the form of timed phases where everyone has to be worried about their own actions). Project: Elite does this by being the perfect marriage between the XCOM board game and Escape: Curse of the Temple. Each round of the game starts with drawing a number of Alien spawn cards that get distributed amongst 3 spawn points, and some of them may even move after spawning in (the Alien cards tell you everything you need to know for this). Each board (the game board is double sided with 2 completely different maps that play uniquely and an expansion that adds an additional double sided map) has arrow symbols pointing in one direction that connect one side of the board (where aliens spawn) to the other (where the players start and are trying to protect). They quickly let you know how and where aliens move. Then comes the meat of the game, the player turn.
The game comes with a digital timer, which I’ve never used, because you can get way better sounding and functioning ones with a phone app. It doesn’t have an on/off switch, so the only way to “turn it off” is to remove the battery every time. It was a nice gesture to include it, but isn’t really needed if anyone in your group has a phone. However you track time, your team gets 2 minutes to do what it can against the never-ending alien horde. Each player gets 4 dice with different symbols that they need to do things like walk, use weapons or items, interact with objectives, or search for gear. There’s also a side with a red alien head that you will learn to hate and loathe with all of your being. If you have one or more red alien heads on your dice, you cannot reroll those particular dice or perform any actions until you deal with them. How you deal with them is moving any single alien one space, per red alien head. It doesn’t sound that bad, but when you have 2 minutes, and you’re frantically trying to roll dice to move just one more space, or fire off your weapon one more time it can aggravate you having to stop and move an alien on the board one step closer before doing what you want to do, or having a friend from across the table shouting for someone to move an alien because it’s too far for them to reach.
The flow of the game is perfect. Everyone is incredibly focused and frantically rolling dice for 2 minutes. Then everyone gets to stop, take a breath, and brag about all the stuff that they did. That is, until new Alien cards get drawn and the board fills back up with aliens and everyone starts to feel overwhelmed again. Finally, you figure out what you need to do for the team this round and start the timer, going right back to being focused and frantic for 2 more minutes. It’s great because you get these bite-sized moments of really intense gameplay with your friends, before getting a break and being able to joke and talk about everything you did; and you potentially get to do this 8 times (a game is over after a maximum of 8 rounds), making for some fun stories. One thing I decided to make my groups do while playing was to always draw new aliens from the huge reserve of alien models and keep aliens we’d killed as trophies next to our character cards off the board. By the end of the game you could see all the aliens that had been killed and even if we lost, it was gratifying to see what we had been able to do.
As great as this game is, there are some negatives. Firstly, there are 5 different alien mobs you’ll usually be drawing on the Alien cards. Many of them look very similar from afar and can be hard to distinguish both during the player phase and the alien phase when they do different things. I know my group has said that painting each mob a different color to make them easier to distinguish would help a lot. The manual can also be a little tricky to read. If, like me, you have read a lot of game instruction manuals, you know that you can usually skip card layout diagrams if the main text of the instructions talks about it as well. Don’t do that with this game! I missed a few important rules about some card icons and whether new aliens move immediately when they spawn and so we just moved every alien immediately when it spawned. There is also a misprint on 2 of the cards for the Advanced Guardians and Advanced Eruptors. It says to spawn 3 or 4 of them, but they should say 2 for all of them.
Overall, this is a great game that I’m thrilled to own and look forward to playing it. Everyone I’ve played with has liked it a lot and walked away excited to play again. If you like cooperative games, I would recommend you give this one a try when you get the chance.
– Nathan Wesley
Master of Board Games at Level One Game Shop