Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem

What’s snowballing? In XCOM, if your troops survive the mission, they get stronger, tougher and get more abilities, which makes them more likely to survive future missions and get tougher still. If they die, they’re replaced by vulnerable, weak rookies, who are likely to die and be replaced by vulnerable, weak rookies.

If you’re finding the game easy, it gets easier. If you’re finding the game hard, it gets harder.

That’s bad. And it’s not just theory-crafting, that’s exactly how my XCOM 2 campaign played out: early on we got crushed repeatedly, then a few lucky missions got us off the ground, and after that my people became almost unstoppable for 35 missions straight – even after I upped the game difficulty.

Any game with persistent resources will have some snowbally tendencies: success has to get you something, or failure has to cost you something, otherwise it’s not really persistent. And some parts of XCOM’s snowballing are too good to lose: unlocking cool abilities for my favourite troops is why I play XCOM.

So you can’t scrap that, but what could you do? Here are some ideas.

Vary Squad Size By Mission

Squad coming home

Stop getting more badass, you stupid badasses.

The number of soldiers you can take on a mission starts at 4 and can be upgraded to 6 if you’re doing well enough in the strategy part to afford the facility, and well enough in the tactics part to already have soldiers of high rank. That is snowball central. Even one more troop is a huge advantage to everyone’s survivability, and having a team 50% larger makes the game more than twice as easy. You don’t want to reserve that for the players who are already doing well.

I’d take squad size completely out of your hands, and make it a per-mission variable. The game does this once, and that mission was refreshingly brutal. I’d have every mission come with a squad size: “We can only get three people past the checkpoints leading to the mission area for this VIP extraction”, or “Security’s light here, we can drop six people in for this Retaliation mission.” That way it’s not snowballing, and it also adds more variety – I took the same six people on about 80% of my missions, which meant my tactics were pretty similar each time.

Level Out Soldier Health

Soldier health

That’s Bladestorm. You don’t want to tongue-snare Bladestorm, for reasons we’ll get into if you try it.

Currently this starts extremely low and increases fast as a soldier levels up: faster than than the enemy’s damage output. It makes the early missions of the game the least forgiving, and discourages you from mixing up your squad lineup later: every time I brought a rookie along to try to diversify my squad, they were insta-brained by a single shot.

I’d start it higher and not increase it at all, except for kit bonuses. That way new recruits get a fighting chance to last long enough to gain experience, and your best people aren’t unkillable when the enemies step their game up.

Health is not a particularly exciting upgrade anyway – I didn’t even notice it was increasing until the first time I fielded new troops next to old and looked at the healthbars. The idea of keeping your favourite people alive is appealing, but it’s also the problem: that’s what happened in my campaign, and it means I have very few interesting stories or desperate moments to recount. It’s one of those things players think they want but which subtly makes the game less interesting when you have it.

Low Profile Missions

Low profile missions

These people have no idea who Nika Harper is or why she just railgunned their friend.

There’s a great little touch in some of the more urban levels: rotating holo-screens with portraits of your most veteran soldiers, presumably warning the public about these dangerous dissidents. That suggests a great way to stop you using the same unstoppable people every time: they’re too well known. Not just their faces, but their bio-signatures are on file or something. So for a new type of mission, in populated areas, you can’t bring any of your Most Wanted soldiers.

Injury recovery times do try to make you mix it up like this, but they’re not a great anti-snowball mechanic for obvious reasons: the better you do, the less injured you get, the less your recovery times, the more often you can field your best people. Only once did it really work for me: I stupidly took on a mission while a more time-sensitive one was still pending, so I had to do the second immediately afterwards with none of my best people. It was one of the most nutty and enjoyable missions in my campaign, and my team had that ‘motley crew of scrappy misfits’ feel that the game’s fiction obviously wants to inspire. But I never used them again, because the game severely punishes doing this any time you don’t have to.

These Low Profile Missions would both give you a reason to field those B-teams more, and give them a viable route to becoming part of your A-team. It’d reduce snowballing and, again, increase variety.


Snowball header

This was the first time our team met an Archon. It was also the first time an Archon met a Trin, which you can see in his face.

In conclusion: all those things I just said. It wasn’t that long a post.

22 Replies to “Solving XCOM’s Snowball Problem”

  1. This is some good insight; you could almost be a professional game designer with this kind of savvy!

    BTW, your CSS or something is busted and the “Your name” label is black-on-black above the comment form.

  2. Interesting read, as always.
    Regarding squad size I think you could work a nice balance by having some kind of squad points system, with rookies costing less to deploy and high ranking soldiers more. That way you’d have to compromise between sending three veterans or six rookies.
    Mod idea maybe.

  3. I’ve found that there is less of a snowball effect on the harder difficulties (commander/legendary). Especially in regards to player health. You stated that your soldiers were unkillable, but on Commander+ that is never the case unless you’ve gone to lengths to make someone buff.

    the overall difficulty of the game is also much more flat once you understand how to approach the pre-mag weapons phase of the game in a way that lets you never get anyone killed.

  4. What’s funny is the original X-Com: UFO Defense avoided all the issues you’ve cited in very similar ways. (aside from limiting the squad based on mission, but mortality was so high that squad numbers didn’t matter as much)

  5. Base health and health growth are both configurable in the config files, so that would be easy to implement. If you haven’t played with .ini’s yet, I would highly recommend it. It’s allowed me to make the game much more personally enjoyable.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the other two were possible with advanced mods. Might be fun to try, or maybe someone read this and is already working on it :)

  6. Really good points made here. Haven’t played XCOM 2 but the hype from it made me return to XCOM Enemy Within, where I threw the toys out the pram after losing my squads at the medium difficulty, and never completed the story at easy difficulty. It seems your ideas here would apply there too.

  7. If you enjoy board games, I’d recommend trying out the new Pandemic Legacy – actually, I’d recommend it anyways, but it should get your mind spinning a lot on this subject. It has a similar flow to X-Com – a steady campaign of individual missions. However, it combats snowballing really effectively with a variety of levers. For example, if you win on a mission your funding is reduced on the subsequent because “clearly you have this under control”. You can fail during a month, but receive upgrades win or lose, so losing more often grants you some benefits. However, winning a month grants an immediate bonus during the following month. There’s more.

    In X-Com, you get rewarded for doing well with more funding from the council, and get punished for doing poorly by getting less funding. This should be reversed.

  8. You have mentioned that you changed the difficulty mid-game. This is important, because unlike the first installment, a lion’s share of difficulty balancing lies in the strategic layer and resource/time management. For example, all tech research, bonus or necessary scans, wound times and construction times on Legend are TWICE as long compared even to Commander. To double down on that, I think many resource prices (e.g. building weapons) are significantly steeper.

    This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the player, because the margin for error becomes almost invisible. At least in early game, A, B and maybe even C squads are a must… but also a source of horrible anxiety, because they level up slower when rotating. Oh, did I mention they also level up slower because they need twice as much XP?

    Sadly, it kind of showcases your point: if you start losing on Legend, it snowballs in a different direction until you can’t win. The game is balanced so tightly that after several losses you just fall behind and can’t output damage fast enough. I think a careful rebalance mod should expand on that: Long War-like length with hundreds of missions should even out that breackneck pace.

  9. It might be possible to develop a scalable difficulty, which prior to every mission would assess how good/bad you were doing in the game and determine then determine the number and quality of aliens and stat boosts. Then again, the question that presents itself is “why do well?”

    I think I like the Long War solutions for this. Fatigue forced you to build a deep bench and the aliens themselves would snowball and you had to do likewise to keep up with them.

  10. Yeah, gotta jump on the: “Hey, you figured out why X-COM is a better game than XCOM in everything but graphics” bandwagon. ;D

  11. A counter could be, perhaps, to implement some sort of stress mechanic ala deepest dungeon.

    You gain stress by doing missions, additional stress for bad stuff happening. Characters with high stress rating would be forced take some rnr or face burnout (spontaneously panic in missions… Or something?).

  12. I was thinking about how this snowballing is even true during any given mission. Currently, if you lose one guy, you don’t just lose them, you get extra punished if one of your other guys panic, and stuff like that. You mentioned on Crate and Crowbar how it would be ideal for you if you lost an important guy every few missions. But with this kind of snowball effect, they need to balance it on a knife’s edge to make that happen, because if you lose 1 guy, you are much more likely to lose more.

    There could be mechanics to stop this on the tactical level too. For example, when a soldier dies, the nearby soldiers don’t panic. Instead, they temporarily gain a new ability called “Revenge!” that allows them a shot at -15%, which is a guaranteed critical. Or something like that.

    If you tried to balance it less snowbally like this, it might make the 4 difficulty options more likely to fit for a wider range of people. But I guess you also lose some of the feeling of brutality the game has.

  13. I don’t recall anything like these ideas in the original UFO games, they snowballed way harder than the Firaxis reboot. The end game position was Avenger spacecraft in place of Skyrangers, carrying squads of 24 flying power armoured space marines with infinite range missile launchers that could vaporise any cover, even UFO hull plate. Avengers could also take down UFOs directly, enough that you could maintain funding without engaging on the ground at all, and you didn’t *need* to maintain funding because X-Com could be run as a highly profitable black market military industrial corporation. The Enemy Within Long War mod is the closest thing to Tom’s design that currently exists.

  14. Oh yeah, and the missiles were programmable drones. You could clear most missions without anyone even leaving the dropship.

  15. I love panicked soldiers – they get to do lots of shooting, and oddly seem to hit more often.

    For snowballing countering you could have more support roles so you can build up your rookies without them being dead as often. Grenadier for example isn’t a bad support role, if the grenades get a bit beefier.

    One of the root problems is the old D&D-as-model, where
    you go from zero to stupidly overpowered, combined with an attritional combat model where soaking up damage (‘I can take a hit from that rifle’) is a legit tactical trade-off for a better position.

    In old XCom (characteristic of most Gollopgames) you have a catastrophic combat model. You’re pretty much either immune to damage, or dead. No matter how experienced they are if humans expose themselves to enemy fire then they’re generally toast.
    This makes the difference between a rookie and a colonel a lot smaller, and so the snowball never gets going. Some people seem to see this as a bad thing.

  16. Other reasons to use troopers might be good too? Send an experienced officer to train up the Resistance somewhere or to lead Intel gathering or set up tech cottage industries? This way you can broaden the feeling of reach (more like an organisation?) than an increasingly lethal single cell with a really sweet ride.

  17. X-Com was also a lot about the seesaw. The humans slowly caught up with the aliens, only for the aliens to pull a new trick out of the bag and slap you back down.

    Ah ha! Now I have plasma rifles, nothing can stop me!
    Um, why is the whole screen suddenly on fire? (blaster bomb)

    New XCom is pulling the same ‘enemy unknown’ trick on me pretty consistently. I’m losing plenty troops to inappropriate tactics because I don’t yet know what the aliens can actually do.

  18. I think one way to balance it would be to give you incentives not to send your elite soldiers into battle. In Massive Chalice (which I think you’ve played) you have to balance fielding the best squad with making your best troops regents so their bloodlines can be continued.

    Xcom could implement something similar, so keeping high level troops back at base assigned to certain roles would give you more resources, faster research or maybe passive XP for lower level troops. This would work thematically as well, the old hands teaching the new recruits, only deploying for the most important of missions.

  19. I just found a mod that dabbles with Aaron’s idea of scalable difficulty:

    Essentially, the aliens’ force level (a behind-the-scenes stat that determines which enemies get thrown at you) will rise if you do well on a mission or fall if you get stomped. That way the game should get difficult more quickly if you’re doing well and lighten up on you if you’re not. It’s a simple solution, but I’ve not yet played it myself, so I can’t say whether it does the job.

    Among Tom’s suggestions, Low-Profile Missions are my favorite hands-down. It does the required gameplay task and adds another mechanic that emphasizes the idea of XCOM as ragtag rebel group. My one quibble is that I imagine it should play out somewhat like Fatigue from Long War, where sending someone on too many missions forces you to leave them back at base for a certain amount of time.

  20. IMO the low profile missions are a bit too extreme; rather, make it so that you bring whomever you want but the more wanted the troops are the lower the timer is, or the more likely you are to start without concealment, etc.

    TBH having a massive system for wanted-ness would be really cool, ie, if you engage when civilians are nearby then the wanted levels of everyone they can see go up, and once the wanted levels reach a certain point there is a chance that civilians will open fire on XCOM in the hopes of bagging one of these people.

    This leads me onto another idea which would increase the amount of juggling players would have to do, if they are being more effective and killing all of the aliens, where you need to launch propaganda campaigns and pick your missions better, without just doing the “click a button to poke the resistance in X region, giving you 57 more monies and increasing how much people like you”.

    The missions which don’t shred public opinion also are the ones that are less useful for gaining resources, and make the aliens more annoyed with you, for example:

    Attacking a massive government building would give you a tonne of intel-related resources but the aliens reinforce such areas a bit because they mean a lot to the public, but the actual ruling aliens don’t give a crap about the humans. The public hate you because they don’t know that ADVENT are supposed to be the bad guys, and they just saw XCOM blow up their leaders.

    The other option is to infiltrate stealthily some big bad out-of-the-way facility that the allegedly benevolent aliens shouldn’t have and record everything they find, then threaten to publish it: if ADVENT talk about how bad XCOM is for attacking it, then the public raise some questions about what it was for and why it was never listed anywhere before this point or ever talked about, and XCOM complies by publishing all of the bad stuff they found but didn’t take; if they don’t then they have no idea what XCOM took or copied, if anything, and they have to treat it as a worst case scenario, assume XCOM has everything, and start again, knowing that they have lost the advantage.

    XCOM on the other hand now has the option to tell ADVENT that they took everything, then issue a ransom for it, giving them a tonne of supplies and other goodies at the price of losing the data, or they can hold onto the data and hope that the stuff inside is worth more. The Commander would have to decide very fast, because the longer he waits the worse a position he is in during the potential ransom deals as the aliens trust XCOM less and less not to have decrypted and copied all of the data as time goes on.

    That was a very long post and I still am unsure about the full implications of everything I just wrote, let alone what is in it, whether it makes any sense, whether it got everything I wanted to say across, and most importantly, whether it was in any way related to the original post.

  21. Nice work. I’d add some tweaks to your ideas, which I think could flesh the idea out quite a bit.

    On “Vary Squad Size By Mission”:

    I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I would add something extra… Make it the players choice. Say, in a mission, you can take more or less people, but have the results, or objectives be based on those numbers. Large groups can get the primary goal done, but a small team could have the chance to secure an important or achievement worthy that you could brag about. This would allow people who are succeeding in the games to take smaller squads to get more advanced rewards, while those who are having trouble to offset the difficulty with weight in numbers. I can’t say either of our ideas is better, but it’s just a thought.

    Health is always an issue for me, I’m a hardcore gamer so it’s usually never something i like seeing happen, sometimes Xcom however can be brutal, and the randomness of their attacks hits/misses sometimes require that extra hp. People get plenty upset when the 6% hit chance of some enemy gets through and kills their elite sniper. HP req could be resolved with other things however, like damaging armor, or even breaking equipment, I always find hp’s are kind of an over simplified idea.

    Low Profile Missions
    I agree with that idea, but I feel like I would work even farther into the idea of stealth. I know the new xcom has stealth missions per say, but they don’t feel stealthy, and seem brute forced in to me. I would prefer to see some thoughts into creating different styles of these missions, not just “shoot em all till they are dead” or “try not to get seen, then shoot them all till they are dead”

    I feel like it could be interesting, and create a lot more tactical/gameplay style to involve more realistic stealth, and at the same time, remove it from the gun-toting soldiers of death equipment everyone has. If you required specialized skills and equipment to run stealthy missions, right there you would be requiring multiple teams, your “kick the door down and take names” brutes, and you “steal everything that’s not tied down” shadows. Making stealth require light weight and speed would mean they would need different armor, more vulnerable, but with lots of tricks, and have stealth-based weapons that would remove a lot of damage, but offer some other, more interesting, and silent effects. You could also easily tie this in to your “Infamy” rating for soldiers, meaning some missions could involve you sending in your stealth squad to wipe out the bio-signatures of your brutes so they can once again make the bodies hit the floor.

    Overall i love the idea of taking games that I really do enjoy, and brainstorming ways they could be truly improved. Keep it up!

  22. I really like how they handled balancing in the board game Pandemic Legacy. When you win a round difficulty increases (funding drops because you’ve got a handle on it), and if you lose you get to replay the month gaining an additional set of upgrades (you always get 2, win or lose).

    Instant auto-balancing! No snowballs. Sure fire fun for everyone!

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