Project: ELITE is a Frantically Good Time
I’ve played a few real-time board games and while they are easy to teach and include players of all levels, I don’t particularly enjoy them. I find that the real-time games I’ve tried, like Escape: The Curse of the Temple, don’t offer enough depth to hold my group’s interest. Others like Captain Sonar stress out my group enough that no one ever wants to play it. Despite the odds, I chose to back CMON‘s newest edition of Project: ELITE, knowing that it may never leave the shelf of shame. Instead, it managed to find the perfect balance between easy to teach mechanics, depth, and intense time-sensitive gameplay that doesn’t give players gray hair.
Project: ELITE puts up to six players in the role of special operatives of the ELITE Squadron, going up against waves of fast moving alien forces. They may not be the strongest alien species in the galaxy, but they’re agile and vastly outnumber resistance forces. It’s up to the ELITE Squadron to push back against the invaders.
How It Works
Before starting a game, players will decide between a variety of missions to embark on, which map on the double-sided board they’ll drop into, and which characters their squad will be composed of. Project: ELITE‘s core box includes five different missions with setup variations to support either the Abandoned Lab or Crash Site side of the board. The main difference between the boards is whether players want a two or three MOBA style lanes. Each player will then choose one of the six character options on the board, keeping in mind that their passive powers will be important considerations in selecting an efficient team. Then, the Alien Spawn, Search, Alien Tech, Event, and Boss Spawn decks should be shuffled and placed near the board in reach of all players.
Everyone at the table should now have their character card, a basic weapon, and health tracker in front of them. The last step is to ensure every player has a complete set of dice comprised of four action dice and three hit dice. Together, these dice make up the heart of Project: ELITE.
Depending on how well you and your team perform, a full game of Project: ELITE can take as little as thirty minutes and no more than sixty, making it an excellent way to start out any game night. It’s also an incredibly easy game to teach.
In the first phase of the game, players draw one of the event cards from the event deck. These events will either have an immediate or ongoing effect that players can mitigate or cancel during the action phase. Once players have resolved the event card, alien forces appear in droves in the Spawn Phase.
Depending on what difficulty players selected, players will draw and resolve a number of Swarm Spawn cards, followed by Boss Spawn cards. In a Medium difficulty game, players resolve one Swarm Spawn card per player and two Boss Spawns cards. This system guarantees that the more ELITE operatives there are on the board the greater the opposing force will be without upsetting the difficulty balance.
Some of the Swarm Spawn cards have a triangular caution symbol on it that means those aliens will activate as soon as they’re placed on the board. Activating means they will both attack with their ability (if in range of someone) and then advance on the board. When an alien would move into an already occupied space, it pushes all other figures out of the way and further along on the map, ever closer to the starting area and players’ defeat. In the case of the Runner species, they move three spaces forward each time they activate. Should they be unable to move into an unoccupied space, they would then push all figures in front of them forward until the Runner can complete its full move, potentially moving the entire Alien Swarm forward three spaces.
Boss Spawn cards work much the same way. The main difference is that the Boss Spawn deck is comprised of twenty cards in total; twelve of which are “All Clear” cards that won’t spawn any baddies. The others are all Boss cards. At least one of the eight Boss Spawn cards will appear during the game and summon a big gnarly alien to give players a hard time. More often than not bosses will move across the board at a slower pace, but will be significantly more deadly. Their abilities often are particularly unique and do more than just issue higher rates of damage.
The Searsting will deal one damage to all players within a range of two, each time it activates (once per round). Meanwhile, Naga adds slime to spaces that advance enemies an additional space when they land in the slime, increasing the likelihood of swarms getting pushed forward and closer to player defeat. The range of bosses means that players will have to adapt their strategy accordingly to deal with these heavies or risk costly losses.
After the Event and Spawn phase have made player’s lives more difficult, it’s finally time for players to push back. At this point the ELITE soldiers will have a whole mess of monsters to deal with and only two minutes to do it in. Project: ELITE comes with an electronic timer that will act as the cue for when the round begins and ends.
Time will either pass too quickly or too slowly, depending on whether or not you’re getting the roll results you want. During this short two minute window players will repeatedly roll and spend their four action dice as quickly as possible to push back against the swarm.
Players will roll their action dice as quickly as they can, immediately spending or setting aside for later. Each of the d6 action dice have one of each symbol on them which are spent to execute a given action. For example, the blue crossroads die can be spent to move a player one space for each face up crossroads symbol. Once the die has been spent, it can’t be used again and must be re-rolled.
Most of the roll results have conditional applications. The wrench, magnifying glass, hand, and gun symbols only have use if there is a slot to place that die nearby. Basic weapons will almost always accept a weapon die to ready the weapon before the die can be spent to fire the weapon. Magnifying glasses can be spent to search a location for useful items, but only when players are standing adjacent to a search token on the board. Otherwise, the magnifying glasses do not serve a specific purpose. Tokens on the board as well as item cards will always indicate what actions outside are available to players with symbols that match those on the dice.
The one exception to these rules is the red crossroads result. Whenever a player rolls a red move symbol, they must advance an alien on the board one space before doing anything else. This feature ensures the alien threat continues to advance regardless of the phase of the game. If players roll too many swarm moves and not enough dice to attack, players will be fatally overwhelmed very quickly.
Whenever players have the necessary dice assigned to a weapon, they can spend those to attack an in range alien. Each weapon card has a number on the left that indicates range and a number on the right that indicates the amount of dice to roll when attacking and what number constitutes a hit. In the above example, the Exo-Shotgun has a range of one and can only hit targets in adjacent spaces. When firing, the player rolls two dice and any die results of three or more are considered a hit. Each hit deals one damage by default, which is enough to instantly kill any enemy that isn’t a boss. If both results were three or more, the second successful hit could be applied to another target in range.
As players only have eight rounds with two minutes to push back the forces that so greatly outnumber them, equip themselves, and achieve the scenario objective, the team will have to move fast to even stand a chance. For that reason, communication and flexibility are going to be essential to success.
The core box has a total of five different scenarios: Extermination, Capture, Demolition, Recon, and Exploration. Each with a setup for both the Crash Site and Abandoned Lab maps at three difficulty levels, for a total of thirty possible setups. That said, most variations have little impact on gameplay from session to session.
Overall, I find Project: ELITE to be a fairly easy game. So much so, that I’ve never bothered attempting to play on Easy mode. My wife and I learned to play on the medium difficulty and it came close a few times, but we managed to hold a 100% win rate playing with a range of two to four players. It wasn’t until we started playing on the hardest difficulty that we truly found the game to be challenging.
However, I also don’t see that as a negative. In a collection of games like Gloomhaven, Kingdom Death: Monster, and Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon, it’s nice to play a game that doesn’t try to murder you for every imperfect player decision. Unlike many other games in my collection, Project: ELITE only took about ten minutes to explain to a group of new players. Its consistent use of a small number of symbols and simple game mechanics make it a very welcoming game. It’s fast paced nature also makes it an exciting way to introduce people to the world of modern board games without throwing them into the deep end with anything too strategy oriented.
Equally as accessible is the length of the game. Depending on players’ success, a full game can range from thirty to sixty minutes, plus another ten for setup. It would be an easy game to bring to a social gathering (I miss those) to either open a game night or a short aside. Win or lose, Project: ELITE is a blast and only gets better at higher player counts. Any time we won or lost (only on hard) too quickly, the group immediately requested to play a second time and we reset in a matter of a minute to give it another go.
Project: ELITE is definitely not for everyone. It’s a shallow fast paced action game driven almost exclusively by random card draws and dice throwing results. We rarely came up with a plan more extensive than assigning responsibilities to each player based on their character abilities. Those who want to play a game with more depth, won’t find it here.
Fans of Project: ELITE can find the most variation by picking up expansions. While that is an unfortunate design choice, I’d argue that some of the game’s best ideas lie beyond the core box. The Alienship Rescue Expansion introduces quite a few new features, including a new swarm type, additional bosses, new scenarios, and a modular board. In this expansion, players will find themselves storming an alien ship to rescue prisoners. As Alienship Rescue is an interior map, it also adds the added challenge of moving through doors that close each round, forcing players to spend additional die to get around the ship. The maps in this expansion are also narrower creating more challenging bottlenecks that players will have to go on the offensive to push through.
The Deathmaw Valley expansion adds a new double-sided board with The Valley and The Burrow: Deathmaw’s Lair maps. Both of these maps are far narrower than those in the core game, making successful combat rolls that much more important. This expansion also introduces trap items like land mines, beacon, and a wide variety of turret styles. These traps can be placed as a defensive tool against the incoming swarm.
The most notable inclusion is the Deathmaw boss itself which can be incorporated into the base game or any of Deathmaw Valley‘s six scenarios. The Deathmaw is a giant centipede-like boss that’s constructed of a number of segmented body parts based on the number of players. The segments not only determine the size of the Deathmaw, but also its health.
Components and Artwork
But I’d also take a moment to talk about the god awful artwork. Project: ELITE‘s artwork is generic 90’s sci-fi at best. You can tell that the artist was going for a first person perspective based on the rifle on the right side of the box, a generic space marine on the left, some nondescript viscera that’s never seen in-game, and an alien that also wasn’t featured in the game. It looks like the kind of game I would have desperately wanted when I was eight years old. It’s a genuine shame because no matter matter how many times the old adage gets repeated, there will always be people who judge a game by its box art.
The contents of the box tell a very different story. There’s a plethora of well detailed minis that are clearly color coded to identify playable heroes, swarm spawn, and bosses at a quick glance. They certainly aren’t detailed enough to be high up on miniature painters’ or collectors’ want lists, but they have a great scale and set of textures. Thick layered player boards are a welcome addition to keep health markers and locked die in place. Despite the message the box art sends, the contents of Project: ELITE are a collection of well made and sturdy components that can survive getting knocked around in the dice chucking frenzy.
Project: ELITE is a game that I recommend everyone try at least once. The round structure gives players the excitement of a real-time game while also presenting them the opportunity to devise a plan. It certainly doesn’t offer the deepest gaming experience, but sometimes all you want is a quick and exciting game to enjoy with your friends that doesn’t make you feel bad about losing. Project: ELITE and all of its parts will have a home in my collection for a very long time.
No longer than sixty minutes, but can be significantly less pending difficulty and dice results.
Arguably one of the easiest games I’ve taught in the last year. Intuitive and clearly defined symbols that streamline the design making the game easy to understand. Other than some of the boss minis being a little grotesque, this would also be a really good game for families with a wide age range.
The artwork is underwhelming at best. However, all of the components and miniatures are sturdy and look great. It’s a shame the illustrations don’t match.
There are ten different variations of scenarios to play if you exclude difficulty as a factor. However the scenarios have little impact on the gameplay experience. Players will have to track down expansions to find more variants.