Project: ELITE is a real time cooperative board game, of which a new edition has just been released by Artipia Games and CMON. Designed by Konstantinos Kokkinis, Marco Portugal and Sotirios Tsantilas, the game sees players going up against an alien invasion. With miniatures flooding the board, real time dice based gameplay and different missions to complete Project: ELITE plays with 1 – 6 players. However, is it fun to fight an onslaught of aliens? Let’s find out!
For a game that rarely lasts over an hour there is a good chunk of setup, though mostly as during play gamers won’t want anything distracting them. Each player will choose one of the six characters to play as, taking the appropriate miniature and character board from the box, before claiming some hit and action dice. Every single alien and boss miniature will need to be within reach, and it helps if they are organised at the side of the board. This is because you’ll want to be able to grab them easily in spawn phases but more importantly quickly remove them from the board when you manage to kill one.
The side of the board needs to be chosen, with each of the five available missions playable on either side. With the side of an abandoned lab or a crash site selected, it is time to set up the objective of whichever mission you wish to face. Each mission has their own slight variation on the objectives. However, the general rule is that the special objective must be complete with everyone returning to the start zone. This must be done before the end of the 8th round or before a single alien gets past and enters the start space.
At the start of each of the 8 rounds an event card is flipped, from a deck that is built based on the chosen difficulty. These range from the best outcome of nothing happens, through negative events, to an extra boss spawn card being flipped. The second phase is the alien spawn phase, with the amount of swarm and boss cards flipped again depending on the difficulty but also the player count. Swarm aliens come in three types, each with slightly different attack abilities and movement speeds. Flipped swarm and boss cards will tell the players what spawns, how many spawn, at which spawn point they appear and if they activate straight away.
Now it is time for the characters to fight back, with a 2 minute real time action phase. Setting the included timer, or even using the app, to 2 minutes, players will plan and then simultaneously roll and use their action dice. The symbols on the action dice mostly refer to actions the players can take. If the dice don’t show the symbols needed the players are free to reroll them, though if an alien face is rolled any of the alien figures must be moved one space. The actions players will most use are for movement, perhaps to search or use various symbols to load weapons. Once a weapon is loaded a player can fire it at any time at an in range and in sight alien. This is simply done by rolling an indicated number of hit dice and seeing if the hits are successful. Multiple hits can be used to take out multiple swarm aliens at once, each having one health point, or to chip away at a boss’s health pool.
By searching players can find better weapons, upgrades to existing weapons and even technology – such as launch packs. These can be key to victory with the starting weapons being on the basic side, especially compared to some of the things you can find! Depending on the objective players will also have to get to specific spaces on the board and assign dice to the objective. These dice get locked in for the entire round and 3 or 4 must be placed in a round to complete the objective. Choosing when to run in and attempt this can be a tough decision, as there are always aliens that need shooting and you’ll be attempting to do so with fewer dice.
At the end of the 2 minutes the buzzer will sound. If a player has a loaded gun then they can still fire it. Otherwise, aside from the mandatory alien symbols causing movement, all other action symbols are lost. The board then fights back, with the alien activation step. Players in range of shooters, biters and bosses will probably take damage at this point, before all aliens charge towards the starting zone. This isn’t done randomly, the routes aliens will take is printed on the board for players to follow during this step. In some cases a space will have an arrow to more than one space and this allows players to choose which is best for them. Finally, the round finishes and players check to see if they have won or lost. If players haven’t won or lost the next round begins with the next event card.
There is no getting around that the first game of Project: ELITE is on the daunting side, even for moderately experienced gamers. This is not helped by the size of the rulebook – though it is laid out well – slowly stepping through aspects of the game with plenty of images and examples. The daunting nature really comes from the sense of not wanting to muck everything up for others. Due to the real time nature everything is going on at once. With the timer ticking during the action phase it feels like there is no time to ask questions if you get stuck, whilst weary of cheating or screwing over the team. Thankfully, it is well within the rules to pause the timer for rules questions, though no actions or dice rolling can be performed during this time.
Not helping this daunting look to the game is that, while there is an easy difficulty, the game doesn’t suggest an objective mission nor a side of the board to start on. Exterminate is one of the easier ones to play, as the objectives are out on the board for all to see from the beginning. Still, despite being in the rulebook first there is no attempt at saying is it mission 1 or that it is a good one to start with. Unfortunately, the missions do feel a bit similar with only some minor differences, such as carrying the objective with you to a location. Surprisingly, there isn’t a simple survival waves mode, which the game is surely capable of.
The first time you play Project: ELITE it lulls you into a false sense of security. In early rounds players can venture out, search a bit and shoot at the aliens that aren’t that close to the start zone. At the turn of an event card something can hit the fan. Biters, bosses and more will start to not only outnumber you, they’ll actually be a force to be reckoned with. This isn’t to say that even 5 games in players won’t think everything is going fine before it changes but at least then you should know better. At some point it won’t just be a no effect card being drawn from the event or boss deck!
Project Elite may have 60 minutes on the box but it isn’t a game to go to if that’s all the time you have available. Putting aside the time to setup and teardown, which isn’t minimal, the game can be over within the first 2 minute round if players’ rolls are bad. This is the sort of thing players will have to accept to get on with Project: ELITE – as it comes from the chaotic nature of the game. Thankfully, if that occurs players will be crying out to reset and go again. The next game could end after a tense hour with victory torn from the alien jaws of defeat. So, having a couple of hours set aside just helps the only time factor players need to worry about is the in game timer ticking down.
While it doesn’t quite double the amount of content having a double sided board does boost the replayability of Project: ELITE. The two sides feel very different. When playing on crash site there is almost more of a need to instantly take things out with limited spaces between the alien spawns and their exit, with only the crash site itself to skirt around. The abandoned laboratory however offers a lot of line of sight issues for players to deal with, having to more tactically move both the characters and the aliens.
The readability of the game board has been upped from the original release. Rather than brown arrows that blended with the terrain, the alien movement arrows pop from the board. Due to this, you’ll always be able to see and follow the exact paths aliens will take. This makes the movement phase easier. However, it is the real time section that it really impacts as you can grab an alien mini and quickly shove it in the direction of the arrow and get back to rolling. This amazingly manages to make players not exactly look at the bigger picture, just that they have correctly moved an alien one space. Keep doing this and aliens can legitimately slip past the players despite it being the players that move them!
Coming with unique sculpts for the boss aliens and a uniform sculpt for each of the three swarm alien types the silhouettes of the aliens are ideal. Each is clearly different from a glance, so players know what to stay away from and what will be attempting to sprint past them during an upcoming alien activation phase. On top of merely looking different the aliens miniatures look awesome too, though the vibrant red of the boss miniatures could have been toned down somewhat – still this does distinguish them further from the basic aliens.
Project: ELITE has a learning curve to it. Once players are past this, which is often only a round or two, it seems so simple that you look back and cannot quite fathom why elements were as daunting as they were. A number of elements are there to provide replayability: the double sided game board, the boss deck and even to some extent the missions – nevertheless each game of Project: ELITE feels somewhat similar. For once this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the tension that builds, the chaos that erupts and the emotional swings of winning and losing are always present. It may not be an ideal game for lockdown as at 2 players only the tip of the chaos iceberg is apparent, though when you’re able to get it to the table with more it gives you an incredible buzz when playing.
(Editor’s Note: Project: ELITE was provided to us by Asmodee for the review. The game is currently available from local board game stores, some of which are reopening! Find your local store here.)