Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Why Is It Fun?! XCOM Edition!

I have a new article format I want to insert forcefully yet pleasurably into you brain array! It's called "Why Is It Fun?!", and it's similar to my combat analysis articles, except it's not limited to beat 'em ups and it's not just about combat mechanics. It's about the spectrum of interactions and the response of enjoyment/addiction you feel when you experience it. It's going to be very interesting seeing what themes emerge! Let's start this party off with XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Why Is It Fun?!

  • Moving your little soldiers around a grid is fun because it makes you feel like a general, and generals are smart and powerful. There is a distinct pleasure in telling a bunch of powerful little entities where to go and who to kill, which is the very essence of the general's job position.
  • Customizing your little soldiers is fun because you get to express yourselves, which generates a sense of ownership and closeness with the little soldiers. It also makes your decisions that involve them much more meaningful, which is also fun.
  • Naming and customizing them to resemble your own friends is fun because it gives you stories to tell, laughs to laugh, and in-game deaths to actually feel something about. Your friends get to cash in on the fun, too.
  • Gambling on soldier abilities in the middle of a fight is fun because of the inherent risk and reward. You could fuck it up and get hurt or you could pull it off and feel amazing. Either way it's thrilling!
  • Playing it safe with overwatch is fun because on the occasion that it works, you feel like a complete tactical bad ass.
  • Throwing grenades and shooting rockets is fun because you get to distribute destruction amongst a bunch of little bad guys, and there are few instances in which this doesn't feel good.
  • Choosing the ability upgrades on your little soldier is fun because you get to make an interesting decision. Every side of the tree has pros and cons, and it's thrilling to both A. pick one because you know it's right and B. pick one even though you don't know which one is right.
  • Earning money is fun because you get to determine what to spend it on, and spending money is fun.
  • Developing a base is fun because you get to determine where facilities go and how bad you need them.
  • Researching is fun because the game gives you an exciting countdown to a point in which you get to buy more powerful weapons and armor.
  • Outfitting your group of little soldiers is fun because there is both expression and tactical contemplation involved, and picking the right equipment makes you feel smart and powerful.
  • Determining which little soldiers go into a battle is fun because you get to gamble on the effectiveness of your choices, and this is thrilling.
  • Killing enemies is fun because in addition to the obvious endorphin injection, they explode in a gooey mass of blood and guts, which reinforces the sense of power you feel.

There are many more reasons the game is fun, but thinking like this is a good design exercise! It helps to know what your players will be feeling when they interact with your game in specific ways, and maximizing the positive aspects of those interactions is what makes your game stand out. Do this on your own with some of the games you're playing/played or love/loved and you will develop some very valuable insight.

  • So what’s interesting to me as I read this is that you referred to “little soldiers” and “little enemies” quite a few times. Kind of a common thread here for me is how playing XCOM is like playing with toys in a way—whether it’s dolls, Lego guys, action figures, or gaming miniatures. There’s just something inherently appealing about kind of acting out scenarios and experiments with “little” entities. It’s sort of like the “microworld” concept in instructional design (

    • That’s intentional. It’s obviously a massively different situation if you’re “playing that game” with real human lives which is, again, the very essence of the general’s job. I’m demarcating those games by making it poetically clear (ha) that I’m talking about non-real entities.

      But yeah, I’m totally with you! Simulation with toys is a very pleasurable experience, but it’s missing non-imaginary output. I think that’s why games like this fill such a huge intellectual void for us as adults.

      Also, along these lines, it’s interesting thinking about how certain individuals (both children and adults) fantasize about conflict in the context of individual roles i.e. cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, soldiers and terrorists, bang-bang-you’re-dead, etc., while other fantasize about complex simulations of war from a bird’s eye view. For some people making tactical decisions is much more interesting than pointing and shooting a weapon, so to speak, and vice versa. I’m just remembering this very clear division as a child between wargamer friends and the friends that ran around and slicing and shooting each other. Different strokes!


  • “Researching is fun because the game gives you an exciting countdown to a point in which you get to but more powerful weapons and armor.”

    Interesting when compared against South America’s “We Have Ways” bonus ability (all interrogations and autopsies are completed instantly). This bonus would actually rob you of the enjoyment of a relatively fast interrogation/autopsy. But maybe the fun there would be you can say. “YES. I got that completed INSTANTLY. The Council is gonna be so proud of me at the end of the month. I pity all those other deuschbags who weren’t smart enough to get this Bonus and get that checked off their To Do list instantly, as I was.”

    • In my experience with the game, instant autopsies occurred alongside a big list of things left to research. So at least for me it was still fun because I felt like I was given some freebies, but wasn’t circumventing an important system.

  • Tried to narrow down the core thesis of what makes this game very fun:

    1- Always keeping your To Do list full of fun things- at the hour, minute and second level. (“I gotta get my Base Assault team equipped and ready!”, “…if I can just clear out this terror mission!”, “…which will go easier if I can figure out a way to flank and make the shot to destroy this alien!”)

    1b- Constantly fun frustrations in your way- challenges that up the friction but also reward you if you can beat them. (“Alien base will have to wait- the Council just popped up with a mission! (That will give me $148, 3 engineers, and a Sniper (Lieutenant) if I beat it!”), “Oh man, there was a patrol of mutons hiding behind that corner (but if I can stun one with my arc throwers, I can interrogate him for that plasma research credit I’ve been wanting and take his plasma rifle too!), or “oh crap, he’s hunkering down and using Overwatch!” (But that means if I can draw his fire with my Assault+Lightning Reflexes, he’ll powerless to stop my team from doing what they want the rest of the turn!)

    2- Tough But Fair. The system is challenging but winnable or losable based on your knowledge. Failure and losing squadmates is a very real possibility every time- but perfect play is also possible. The tactical game can go from hopeless to flawless based only on your improved understanding of cover, teamwork and abilities. The strategic management of panic makes losing countries (and even the game) a very real possibility, until you learn how to maximize your satellite production strategies. My first couple tries at Impossible, I lost entire squads and had to start over. But it forced me to tighten my risk control, and by the second half, every mission was a zero-hospitalization scenario. Finding the eye of the storm between abject defeat and awesome victory makes the player feel like a GENIUS!

    3- Progression- They introduce new tougher enemies, and better gear to fight them with, at a VERY well-polished rate.

    4- Look and feel. Like you said, the polished graphics and audio effects, the voice chatter and scenes, really the specifics satisfying.