If you could encapsulate the term “zerg rush” into a board game, it’s probably Project: ELITE. It’s a skirmish game for 1-6 players from Artipia Games and CMON that sets the players to stand against an overwhelming horde of enemy aliens. Not only does the game perfectly signify why aliens still make for effective horror, but it comes with an interesting gameplay twist: All of the main combat happens in real-time. So, does this twist actually bring any depth and longevity to the game, or is this a tacked-on gimmick like with Discover: Lands Unknown? Let’s find out.
Project: ELITE is a very well-packaged game. You certainly won’t be having cards flying all over the place when you open it like Darkest Night. The packing this time around is more akin to Dark Souls: The Board Game. The components are all kept inside a separate cardboard box, and each has its own designated location. Actually, this packaging is much better than Dark Souls because cards, dice, and tokens all have their own locations inside the box as well instead of needing to be stuffed into spare spaces.
The main thrust of the gameplay is split into 5 phases: Event, Alien Spawning, Action, Alien Activation, and End of the Round. During the event and alien spawning phases, you flip a card and spawn more monsters, respectively. The Action Phase is where the real meat of the game is, followed swiftly by the Alien Activation phase, which allows the aliens to get revenge on you. The End of the Round Phase is exactly what it sounds like: time to clean up the pieces and reset for the next round.
You may be thinking that Project: ELITE sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry Ameritrash game, and you’d be mostly right. It’s certainly leaning very heavily on its grimdark “aliens minus the Gieger” theme. The board is very visually busy and littered with gun-grey metal tones with occasional green and brown to mix things up. Your main characters are all grimacing badasses, bar the one grinning psychopath in the back, who don’t really give you all that much to get hooked on. Then again, character and story really aren’t the point. When you sit down to a game with this box art, you’re here to murder some damn aliums!!! (that’s not a typo, it’s a joke).
The gameplay is pretty simple and mostly contained within the Action Phase. During most of the other phases, you’re basically taking actions that you have to take because they’re automated by the game. During the Action Phase, each player has a pool of dice. You roll this pool of dice to get symbols you can use in different ways, such as a hand symbol to activate something, a gun for shooting, etc. You also need to assign these dice to spaces on various on-board tokens to win the game in most cases.
It’s during the Action Phase that the unique gameplay feature comes in. When the Action Phase starts, you have to hit a two-minute timer, either included in the box or via the downloadable app. Then, each player starts rolling their dice and taking action immediately and at the same time. There’s no limit to how much stuff you can do in your two minutes; as long as you can keep rolling those dice and spending those symbols, you can keep going.
The funniest thing about this gameplay gimmick is that I can’t decide if I like it or not. Project: ELITE is certainly a hectic, action-packed experience. The problem is that when you start to add more players to this mix, it becomes nearly dangerous. Everyone’s limbs flying all over the table, scrambling to perform actions and smacking into other players trying to move at the same time. It certainly gives the game a frenetic tone, but it’s also liable to cause more than a few heated moments at the table.
When you start a game, the players must choose from one of five missions. Extermination is exactly what it sounds like, kill all the alien eggs before you’re overwhelmed. Capture sees you capturing rather than killing a certain number of aliens. Demolition is blowing stuff up, Recon is looking at stuff and finally, Exploration is about revealing mystery tokens. This mission selection system does give the game a bit of variety, so you’ve got some reasons to come back and play it.
Project Elite’s mission system does leave something to be desired. It’s nice to have five mission options, but honestly, there are actually only three. Extermination, Demolition, and Recon are all just “go to a location and roll dice until you fill up spaces”. Capture is fundamentally similar but gets a free pass because you actually have to activate the traps while aliens are on them. Exploration is the only really unique mission mode as you’re tasked with flipping over tokens that can have an effect on the board state.
Som if the missions in Project: ELITE don’t help it to stand out much, is there anything else to write home about? Well, the art is very well made but once again doesn’t manage to bring a much-needed “wow” factor. If you’ve played other grimdark sci-fi games before, then you’ll be more than familiar with most of the enemy and character designs on display here. It doesn’t even have the color and pop of old-school Necromunda. Probably the worst part for me is the cover. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the original release had a much more vibrant cover that made the characters seem more interesting.
All of this isn’t to say that there isn’t something enjoyable about Project: ELITE, and I wouldn’t want to turn you off of the game unnecessarily. It will always be great fun to sit a group of six down at a table and tell them to all take their turn at the same time, especially with a two-minute time limit. It’s just that once you’re done playing it and recovered from the bruised arms, you’ll not find much that makes you want to keep coming back for more. No amount of gimmick is going to make this more appealing than other more well-established tabletop fares.
Designer: Konstantinos Kokkinis, Marco Portugal, Sotirios Tsantilas
Artist: Saeed Jalabi, Stef Kopinski, Henning Ludvigsen, Mike McVey, Edgar Skomorowski
Publisher: Artipia Games, CMON Limited
Gaming Respawn’s copy of Project: ELITE was provided by Asmodee.