by Matthew Pook
X-Bugs: Microscopic Mayhem
Published by Steve Jackson Games
Designed by Marco Maggi and Francesco Nepitello
Edited by Steve Jackson
The Easter weekend of April 2003 saw the last Gen-Con UK or Gen-Con Europe for the forseeable future. I had attended most of them and the Games Fair events before them, watching as they became increasingly less intimate affairs and attempted to grow into major events akin to their American cousin held each August. Over the years I have played a lot of games, spent a lot of money and added to my burgeoning games collection, worked one or two of the events, sneaked my current partner in for our first date, and even suffered from an appendicitis while playing a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP.
As the convention has become more public and more Americanised, and thus more expensive, I have reduced my attendance to a single day each time. This year was no different, except for the fact that it was the last Gen-Con Europe to be held in the UK before it moves to Holland in 2004, and that at ten years of age, my daughter was old enough to attend. Alexandra likes a wide range of board games, her favourites being Carcassonne, and Steve Jackson Games’ Dino Hunt, as well as the PokÉmon and Harry Potter CCGs. She has also looked a little at roleplaying, with the recent re-release of the first Fighting Fantasy book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and even at a copy of Tunnels & Trolls. Thus I considered her old enough to attend and appreciate my hobby.
Held again at the Olympia Convention Centre in London’s Kensington, for a Saturday it seemed an all-too quiet affair. Circling the four levels of the convention gave me the chance to meet people, old friends and also publishers, browse the stalls and find out what games were available to play. Eventually after combing the buckets for pretty dice to add to her starter collection, Alex tired of this and asked if we could find a game to play.
Making our way behind the trade stands to where the MIB (or Men in Black, the Steve Jackson Games demo team) were hiding, we became one half of a four-way game of X-Bugs that was about to begin. Originally published by the Italian company Nexus Editrice srl, X-Bugs can be best described as a game of Cold War combat tiddlywinks set in orbit around the Earth. The game is available in four boxed sets, each containing enough counters and dice for a two-player game. With the addition of one or more boxed sets, X-Bugs can be played as anything up to a gigantic eight-sided battle!
In X-Bugs, the Earth is under attack by the part-machine, part-bug Flyborgs who want to assimilate the planet, while our saviours are the flag-waving, patriotic USArthropods. The first two sets support the Flyborgs vs. Arthropods battle with Set 1 providing a yellow Flyborg army and a blue USArthropod army, while Set 2 gives a purple Flyborg force and a white USArthropod one. Steve Jackson Games have also released another two sets that provide dice and counters for Chitinians vs. Sovietoptera battles.
For reasons that will become clear, it is the very first release, X-Bugs Set 1: Flyborgs vs. US Arthropods (Yellow/Blue) under review here. Inside the bright colors on a black background box, are two ziplock bags, each containing three six-sided dice and a selection of round and rectangular thick plastic counters (one bag of blue and one of yellow), a six panel 14 x 28 centimetre full-color foldout rules sheet and four sheets of stickers, two yellow and two blue. The ziplock bags are an absolute must to keep all of the contents together, but are a little tight to hold everything from one army. That said, they are also more packaging than is to be found in other Steve Jackson Games’ boxed games.
Some preparation is necessary before play can begin, as stickers have to be applied to both dice and counters. Care needs to be taken to ensure the right stickers go onto the right places. Once done though, X-Bugs is ready to play at any time.
Each army has an order of battle, which divides the counters into three bases, a variety of different bugs, a ranged attack (the USArthropods can launch missiles, but the Flyborgs cannot), and a shooter. This last piece is a blank rectangular counter used to make all of your other bugs jump or flip to attack, in true tiddlywinks fashion.
All counters are double-sided, with all bases and some bugs possessing a special ability when one side is face upwards. For example, the USArthropod Battle Station base can launch a missile when its large side is face up, as can the bazooka-wielding Stinger when its shooting side is showing, and the Green Beret cannot be captured when the side showing is covered in green spiky foliage. Likewise the Flyborg’s Laboratory base has the power to flip away the nearest enemy when its large side is face up, a Centurion can only be taken out by two hits in a round if its shield side is face up, and the Stinger bug will kill the enemy bug that captures it if its stinger side is showing.
Also necessary for play is a table, preferably with a good plain tablecloth or even better, a felt cloth to cover it and provide a non-slip surface. For a two-player game this should be a minimum of 18 x 24 inches, but longer games should be played on larger surfaces. Each side puts their three bases at the edge of the table and their bugs all around. The Flyborgs begin the game with their bases face up and their large sides showing, which means they begin their games with their specialist abilities available for use. All other bugs and bases begin with their ordinary sides showing and their special abilities unavailable.
Play is itself very simple: A player rolls the dice and then uses their shooter to flip whatever counters are shown on the result of the dice throw. The basic tactics are three fold: primarily, to flip and land a bug on an enemy bug to capture it and knock it out of the game; secondly, to do the same to an enemy base; and thirdly, to land on and capture the colored resource counters that litter the center of the table. If a player can capture two of these, they can be spent to upgrade a base to its larger side, which the USArthropod army needs to do to get access to their bases’ special abilities, and which the Flyborgs may need to do if their bases are landed on and turned over to their smaller face.
If a player successfully takes out one or more enemy bugs, they gain an extra move or flip of a bug that has yet to move. Eliminating a base not only removes it from play, but two enemy bugs at the same time. Further, and more dangerously to the side that loses the base, they also lose one of their dice, thus reducing their force’s effectiveness for the rest of the game. It also reduces the possibility of bringing reinforcements onto the table, which happens when a bug shown on the dice throw is not currently in play.
A game is won by eliminating all of an enemy’s bases or all but two of their bugs. The well-written rules cover longer or shorter games, as well as a guide to setting up and handling multiplayer games. X-Bugs is a game of combat tiddlywinks, but with a surprising amount of depth built around the many bugs’ various special abilities. This is balanced by the random element of the dice results, and the skill involved in flipping the bugs. Actually, flipping the bugs is easy, but always getting them to go where you want them to is another matter.
At $24.95, X-Bugs is perhaps a little overpriced for a two-player game. If you want to play games with more than two players, it costs just as much for each additional two-player set. And if they want a little more variety in their bugs and bases, then sets three and four, Chitinians vs. Sovietoptera might be a better choice, as set two only offers more of the Flyborgs and US Arthropods. Otherwise, X-Bugs is entertaining and fun to play, and really easy to get out and set up.
It was the Flyborgs of Set 1: Flyborg Vs US Arthropods that Alex took in the four-player game set up by the MiB. Under the tutelage of the black clad MiB Graham, she very quickly grasped the play of the game, the special abilities of her bugs and the tactics. It was not long before she no longer needed Graham’s help and was taking out enemy bugs in what turned out to be a long slugfest. Indeed the other MiB were able to set up, run and complete a second game in the time it took to complete ours. In the end, it was not one of the three adults that won this big game, but my ten year old daughter, and what she won was a copy of Set 1: Flyborgs vs. US Arthropods.
Once home from her first convention, Alex had the game open and the stickers in the right places in record time -- maybe it’s a child vs. adult understanding of the VCR thing? Then she was challenging myself, her mother, her friends, and my friends to games of her newly won prize. And she won! It was three weeks before anyone actually beat her, but X-Bugs has quickly become her favourite game. While we will not be able to get back to the now totally cancelled Gen-Con Europe of next year, there is Dragonmeet in December -- just about the time of her eleventh birthday. And she is keen to see what she can win next…