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XCOM: Clear Choices, Tough Decisions

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an impressive re-imagining of the originally. This article details one of the more interesting mechanics the game employs to create tough decisions for the player with relatively simple mechanics.

Harold Myles, Blogger

October 17, 2012

4 Min Read

By mixing both tangible rewards, that progress the win condition, and panic management, that postpones the loss condition, XCOM's Alien Abductions events deliver a lot of tension while remaining an easy to understand mechanic.

One of the key features of XCOM, as well as the original X-COM, is that the game presents two different gameplay layers: the strategy layer and tactical layer.  These layers, while separate and discrete in gameplay style, are intertwined by various mechanics and sub-systems. Good or bad performance in one layer will likewise affect the other layer.  Additionally the games winning and losing conditions are each exclusively the domain of only one of either layers.  

The strategy layer presents the game’s only losing condition, while the tactical layer provides the game’s only winning condition.  The choice between winning the game and not losing the game isn’t always simple.   XCOM employs a surprisingly simple and transparent mechanic for making those choices even more difficult and ambiguous, and that is a good thing.

Paraphrasing Keith Burgun; a choice isn’t a choice unless its effect is ambiguous.
Periodically, on the strategy layer, the game presents the player with an Alien Abduction event.  

These events provide the player the opportunity to choose between not losing the game and winning the game.  How the player’s choice will affect either goal is clear and transparent. Impressively, that doesn’t make the choice any easier or less ambiguous.

The Alien Abduction events provide the game’s most direct mechanic for mixing these two layers together.  And it does so in a simple way:

  • Three choices

  • Each choice provides one benefit for not losing (managing panic)

  • Each choice provides one benefit for winning (progressing technology, gear and troops)

  • Each benefit can be clearly gauged seperately

  • Yet only one choice can be made

The conundrum of choice is achieved by blending the two different goals into a single choice.  Depending on the current game state, and some random mixing, the best choice for winning the game and the best choice for not losing the game may not be the same. In fact the best choice for winning may be the worst choice for not losing, and vice versa.

That is pretty much the end of this article.  I just wanted to describe the above mechanic because I thought it was one of the more interesting designs in the game.  Primarily because it is so simple yet achieves so much tension.  The rest of this article describes some more detail in how this system works for those that may not be familiar. And may make it more clear why the two rewards presented in the Alien Abduction events tend to favor two different game goals discretely.


The condition for losing the game is stated upfront in a clear way: the Doom Tracker.  For each country that reaches an elevated panic level, that country is permanently removed from the game, and the Doom Tracker is permanently incremented by one. When the Doom Tracker reaches eight then the game is over.  

A countries panic level is managed by successfully completing events presented on the strategy layer, such as the Alien Abduction events.  Choosing between these events the player can raise or lower the panic levels of the various countries, which is the player’s primary mechanism for managing the Doom Tracker.  And ultimately not losing the game.

The important thing to note is that this system does not provide a win condition.  The player can manage the Doom Tracker only to keep from losing, but it provides no direct mechanism for the player to win.  


Mirroring the strategy layer, the tactical layer provides the game’s only win condition: by completing the game’s last tactical mission.  

In fact, at the time of this writing, due to a supposed bug, the last mission can be repeated when the player’s squad is wiped out, even in Ironman Mode.  There is no way to directly lose the game through the tactical layer. 

Alien Abduction missions provide a method for managing panic, and additionally provide a more tangible reward: scientist, engineers, money, or highly skilled troops.  Each of these rewards allow the player to progress his capabilities, and enhance his chances of success in the tactical layer.

By mixing both tangible rewards, that progress the win condition, and panic management, that postpones the loss condition, Alien Abductions deliver a lot of tension while remaining an easy to understand mechanic.

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