Classic Ironman mode in XCOM is not for the faint of heart. You will lose troops, regardless of how amazing you might think you are at the game. Sooner or later all your units will spectacularly miss their shots and an alien will critically hit one of your soldiers in full cover. You will most likely see a number of countries withdraw from the council and you’ll feel like you’re fighting an absolutely hopeless cause, especially early in the game. But quite frankly, this is by far the most enjoyable way to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and many of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are a wide range of things you can do to even the odds in your favor and to ensure you have a much better chance at succeeding against the ever increasing alien menace. After beating the game on normal with virtually no losses I’ve been playing Classic Ironman exclusively and the game has taught me a thing or two in the process. The very first game I played was completely hopeless, my Memorial was 3 pages long and no soldier would last to Lieutenant.
A few games further and I’ve largely perfected my strategies. Soldiers reach Colonel rank consistently and I only lose soldiers in the most dire of circumstances. I’ve also managed to keep the number of countries who withdraw from the council to an absolute minimum. For example, in my current Classic Ironman game I have world wide satellite cover in Month 3 with the only exceptions of China and Australia.
So let’s go through some of the strategies I found highly successful. I do recommend you play through and finish the game at least once on normal non-ironman. This way, you are familiar with the research, the story and can read through this without spoiling things for yourself.
Your first decision will be whether or not to play the Tutorial. I would recommend that you don’t. You do get a free satellite, but the timing of other aspects is poor at best, and you might find yourself unable to order another satellite before you run out of time. Since they take 20 days to build, you need to be able to order another one by the 10th.
- I’d recommend you start in Africa or North America. Africa will probably be your best bet – as you get the bonus to 30% income instantly, and you can swap fully to North America after. If you decide to start in North America, you will need to focus on acquiring Africa at the earliest possible convenience. Overall Africa is a better start as you can sacrifice the lower income members there without losing your bonus.
- Play a ‘perfect’ opening mission. You are so early in that if you screw this mission up restarting is your only option. You have nothing to lose at this point.
Upon finishing the mission, check your base layout/facilities. In particular, where your Steam vents are located. You need at least one, ideally two of these to manage your power needs efficiently. Please refer to base layout for more information as I go in more depth about this in that section. If your Steam vents are in totally terrible locations (they’ll prevent you from getting a good base layout, especially in regards to satellites) – consider restarting. You have enough challenge to worry about without an impossible to manage power situation.
- Start researching Alien Materials – you want armor as soon as possible and 1-2 vests to protect your ‘better’ soldiers early on can be invaluable.
- Your highest priority is to order 2 satellites and ensure they will finish before the council report.
- Your second priority is to create a foundation which will allow you to build a satellite up-link next month. This means ensuring that there is enough power in your base. You probably have to open with a conventional generator, but you want to aim at your second generator being a Thermal Generator. This means tunneling towards a Steam vent.
- Ignore the storyline for now, the Alien Containment can wait until your economy is stable and you are not at peril of council members withdrawing constantly. Your resources are limited right now, so don’t waste them.
You should aim for the following satellite cover by the end of each month as an absolute minimum (assuming an Africa start):
- Month 1: Buy 1 Sats. Total Countries: 2 – USA.
- Month 2: Buy 3 Sats + 1 Uplink. Total Countries: 5 – Finish USA. Start working on Europe, or finish South America in 1 go if they have high panic levels.
- Month 3: Buy 3 Sats + 1 Uplink. Total Countries: 8 – Finish your continents as much as possible, but focus on high panic levels now.
- Month 4: Buy 6 Sats + 1 Nexus. Total Countries: 14 – Finish all other countries.
A much more ideal scenario (depending on your mission success / available resources) is to bring forward the 1st Uplink into Month 1 or buy 2 Uplinks in Month 2. This is very possible – but you’ll have to plan accordingly and manage your funds extremely carefully. If you’re lucky on what missions you get, go for it. Sell some UFO Power Sources if you need to, it’s worth it in the long run and you’ll acquire more anyway. They bring in enough cash to fund your uplinks. Don’t get rid of the Navigation Computers, you’ll need them for research and construction of the Satellite Nexus.
Note that you will need Workshops in order to pull this off – as there will be an ever-increasing requirement of Engineers in order to place new satellite up-links. This means you will need to anticipate this by building generators and workshops accordingly.
If you are at serious risk of losing a council member, you can drop the panic level in said country by 2 by placing a satellite right before the council report. Don’t do this any sooner as a late month mission might change everything. Generally speaking once you are nearing the end of the first and second months you might have to plan to sacrifice specific countries. If you started in Africa, you can safely sacrifice the two other countries there without too much impact. The best other choice for sacrifice would be the lower paying countries in Asia. The bonus Asia gives is completely not required by the time you heavily invest in the Foundry and Officer School, as you will have a satellite network paying you in excess of 1500 per month. Bear this in mind when you choose Abduction missions as well – take note of the reward and the effect not doing them will have on the rest of the continent. Russia might be fine, but if Germany is on 4 panic, you might want to do the Russia mission just to prevent Germany from withdrawing from the council. With 9 workshops planned in this strategy, Europe provides a huge bonus which you don’t really want to lose if you can avoid it. (Though not as vital as Africa and North America are!)
Please note that countries with Satellite cover are not subject to Abductions. Since abductions are the biggest risk to your panic levels, full cover effectively means you have a very stable and much easier time managing your panic levels across the globe. It is worth keeping a spare satellite around – in case you fail to shoot down a UFO and it decides to take out one of your Satellites. Launch a new one ASAP, to prevent triggering an abduction!
Tips & Tricks
- Don’t buy anything unless you have to. Swap gear on your units every mission so you only need as many items as you have soldiers.
You only ever need 2 medikits, 2 arc throwers and a handful of protective vests or chitin plating. You might wish to use scopes on a few soldiers later.
- Don’t buy anything until you need to. (I can’t stress this enough) Remember you can go back to briefing / buy weapons and armor when a mission has already been triggered. Take the chance that no mission is triggered and you can use the money elsewhere.
- Don’t rush the storyline unless you are ready. I’ve had the most success not even doing the initial live capture until I had full satellite cover and an experienced squad equipped with a mixture of different armor and laser weapons.
- Once you unlock the ability to research Plasma Cannon for your Interceptors, do so immediately and start retrofitting at least 1 per continent where you have satellite cover. This allows you to take on large UFOs.
- Don’t build any Research Labs. No seriously, you don’t need them.
- Always time Satellite Uplink facilities so that they finish by the end of the month. There is no point buying them if they wont finish before the end of the month, wait until next month in that case. The Satellite Uplink takes 14 days to build and the Satellite Nexus takes 21 days to build.
- Once you have a small bit of cash ‘spare’ – put up an Officer School and buy extra squad slots. This is the single most important investment you make to your squad early on.
- The Foundry can quite frankly wait until you have spare resources for it. The bonuses are not vital early on. Put it up once you have made your investments in Sats for the month and the Officer School is already up and running. A couple of workshops first is more important to be honest.
- Capturing live aliens grants a research bonus to a specific field. Most of these, you’ll already have completed before you gain access to the bonus. However, once your sat cover is in place and you’ve put up an Alien Containment, try capturing a Muton alive. This will help your Plasma research, which you probably wont have completed yet at this point.
- Once you get to the Alien Base Assault – if possible, capture the Commander alive. Don’t take any risks though – you will have other chances and your soldiers are far more valuable than the little boost to psi research.
- Rotate soldiers. This goes for missions, psi testing, everything. Have at least 1, ideally 2 soldiers of each class more than you take on missions. This way, if you lose a soldier, you have a reasonably suitable replacement available.
- The only exception to the rotation rule is pushing specific classes towards key perks. Once they have these perks, ensure you take those soldiers on the harder missions. E.g. the ability to use a medikit 3 times on a Support, Lightning Reflexes on an Assault, etc.
- When presented with the choice for Abduction missions, when panic levels are equal prioritise as follows: Engineers, Money, Soldiers, Scientists. The exception to this is if you have the required engineers (or workshops finishing in time to give you more engineers) to expand your satellite network, but lack funds.
XCOM Base Layout
When planning your base, consider the following:
- 0 Research Labs.
- A 2×2 grid of Satellite Uplink / Satellite Nexus facilities. Placement for this is not optional as the first is already sitting next to your lift. There are 16 countries to cover and 2x Uplink and 2x Nexus will cover them all. Realistically speaking you should be fine with 3x Uplink and 1x Nexus which will cover 14 as you are very likely to lose two countries.
- A 3×3 grid of Workshops. Trust me, it will pay off due to the giant rebate you will receive. I generally put these to the right of the access lifts, starting on the 2nd row from the top and working down.
- Top row on the right side: 1x Officer Training School, 1x Foundry, 1x Alien Containment.
- Depending on placement of Steam Vents, a 2×2 grid for Power Facilities. Work with Steam/Conventional at first. You can always replace your conventional ones later if you have to. I often place a temporary conventional generator at the top row next to the Sat Uplinks and delete it at endgame to make room for one of the ‘special buildings’. By that time I have spare power from more advanced facilities.
- Anything else will fit in the remaining 3 slots: Psionic Lab, Hyperwave Relay and Gollop Chamber.
One of the biggest questions I get asked is what soldiers to take on missions – and what perks they should have. There isn’t really a single good answer to this, but I’ll tell you what worked extremely well for me, and provide comments where I am able.
First in terms of set-up for the Squad itself. Obviously, you will rely on the availability of your soldiers, but in my experience you will mainly come down to a fairly consistent set-up. I had a huge section written out until I realised that quite frankly, there’s little variation in what you should take. The ‘core’ would definitely be;
You then add a Heavy for any mission which isn’t a UFO. For those, honestly – besides for the few pulls away from the UFO, you want to minimise collateral damage. On Terror Missions, I am torn. If you have a fantastic Heavy, go ahead but otherwise consider an additional Assault or Sniper. Your last slot once you have 6 can be anything: Shiv, experienced soldier or better: rotate less experienced soldiers in to bring your reserves up to snuff. Personally I’ve had a lot of success with experienced Assaults and love running with 2x Support, 2x Assault, 1x Sniper and 1x Heavy/Shiv. On Council missions, provided I have a very experienced one spare, I might bring an additional sniper as those can make a huge difference on the smaller maps when the reinforcements spawn. Thin men are very easily dispatched with double tapping squadsight snipers.
Support Perk Choices
Deploy a smoke grenade once per mission. The smoke confers +20 defense to all units, not just allies, and lasts during the enemy turn.
Allows the support to move 3 additional tiles.
Allows reaction shot to trigger on enemy attacks, not just movement.
Allows medikits to be used 3 times per battle instead of once.
|Smoke and Mirrors
Allows 1 additional use of Smoke Grenade each mission.
Allows Medikits to revive critically wounded Soldiers at 33% of maximum health instead of just stabilizing them.
Fires a barrage that pins down a target, granting reaction fire against it and imposing a 30 penalty to aim.
Smoke Grenades have increased area of effect and further increase units’ Defense by 20.
Smoke Grenades now contain powerful stimulants that grant +20 Will and +10% Critical Chance for all units in the cloud.
Confers an additional item slot in inventory.
Medikits restore 4 more health per use.
Allows two reaction shots during Overwatch, instead of only one.
Corporal: Covering Fire – at this difficulty you’re not sprinting across the map with a support, you are turtling and covering your squad at every opportunity with overwatch. Covering Fire is absolutely amazing for this as it means your Support will fire at aliens which don’t leave their cover. This combines very well with Sentinel later on.
Sergeant: Field Medic – there simply isn’t another choice here. Medikits are vital if you wish to see your soldiers survive beyond a few missions. Having a veteran unit bleed to death because you were stupid enough not to bring enough medikit uses is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Lieutenant: Revive - bring soldiers back into the fight? Yes please. No medic should go without this. Rifle Suppression is situational, ideally enemies should be dead, or you go in Overwatch if they’re not.
Captain: Dense Smoke – this is a personal choice and you could easily go with Combat Drugs for those tougher situations when not panicking is key. I quite like being able to make smoke grenades more effective, as I primarily use them in situations where additional defense is key.
Major: Deep Pockets – all Supports get this but I wanted to highlight how crucial this perk is. This enables your Support to take an Arc Thrower, or if live aliens is no longer a concern, Chitin Plating. A huge benefit.
Colonel: Sentinel - this might be an odd choice as additional healing is obviously a great perk. Personally, I use my supports exactly as the name implies: to cover and support my other soldiers. My supports are among the soldiers with the highest number of kills and I have them on overwatch almost permanently – unless they’re busy actively killing something or healing another soldier. Sentinel is outright amazing and has literally saved me during some tough terror missions later in the game.
Assault Perk Choices
|Squaddie||Run & Gun
Allows firing or Overwatch after Dashing on the turn Run & Gun is activated. 2 turn cooldown.
Confers +5 Defense per enemy in sight (max +20).
Confers +10% critical chance per enemy in sight (max +30%).
Forces the first reaction shot against this unit each turn to miss.
|Close & Personal
Confers +30% critical chance against adjacent targets. The bonus declines with distance from the target.
Fire a shot that causes enemies to run out of cover. The shot is easy to hit with, but does reduced damage.
Take two shots against a single target in quick succession. Each shot carries a -15 penalty to Aim.
|Captain||Close Combat Specialist
Confers a reaction shot against any enemy who closes to within 4 tiles. Does not require Overwatch.
|Bring ‘Em On
Adds 1 damage on critical hits for each enemy the squad can see (up to 5).
Confers bonus health based on which type of armor is equipped. Heavier armor increases the bonus.
Confers immunity to critical hits.
Activating Run & Gun now also grants +50% critical damage for the rest of the turn.
Squaddie: Run & Gun – all Assaults get this but oh my god this skill is so damned useful. It allows you to flank enemies and make a real difference.
Corporal: Tactical Sense – this is a personal choice and the other perk is great too. However, when there are enemies in sight and all else fails (which it often will) I’d like my soldier to have every chance to survive the alien turn. Aggression could work well too – but later on you really have plenty of crit chance already and I never felt it made a huge difference.
Sergeant: Lightning Reflexes – this is hands-down the winner here. You can now use Run & Gun not only to flank the enemy but to force that enemy to waste its Overwatch reaction shot, allowing the rest of your squad to move freely. Vital.
Lieutenant: Rapid Fire - quite frankly, flush is useless and doesn’t work half the time. Rapid fire is amazing as it allows you to Run & Gun close to an alien and then blast it full in the face with 2 shots. As you’re so close by, the -15 to aim isn’t that big of a deal.
Captain: Close Combat Specialist – this gives a free attack against any enemy who comes within 4 tiles. This attack has a great chance of hitting as the enemy is so close to the assault. The amount of times this will save you against cryssalids, or on top of a ladder cannot be underestimated. This talent is huge and always works. Vital.
Colonel: I tend to go with Killer Instinct, which provides an excellent synergy with Ghost Armor. Using Run & Gun and shooting someone twice with the additional crit damage and 100% crit chance on your first shot due to stealth can lead to a tremendous amount of damage. Resilience however makes it far more likely that your Assault will survive several hits during combat, which can prove vital in Classic Ironman. Either is a solid choice, I’d make an assault with each and use one of them to make banzai style attacks and the other as clean-up crew.
Heavy Perk Choices
Fire a rocket using an equipped launcher. This ability can not be used after moving, nor more than once per mission.
Firing the primary weapon as the first action no longer ends the turn.
Shooting at or suppressing enemies also confers a +10 Aim to any allies’ attacks on those enemies.
Fire a rocket that causes all enemies hit to take +33% damage from all sources for the next 4 turns. The rocket’s blast is weaker than a standard rocket’s.
Can fire a special shot that grants reaction fire at a single target. The target also suffers a -30 Aim penalty.
+100% to damage against robotic enemies.
Confers a second reaction shot, if on Overwatch and the first reaction shot is a hit.
Allows to carry 2 grenades in a single inventory slot.
Increases hit area of rockets and suppression by 2 tiles.
|Major||Will to Survive
Reduces all normal damage taken by 2 if in cover and not flanked.
Allows 1 additional standard rocket to be fired per battle.
Confers additional damage based on weapon tech level to Suppression and all area-effect abilities.
Corporal: Bullet Swarm – this gives your Heavy the ability to fire and then either move or shoot again. As useful as Holo-Targeting might be, Bullet Swarm is the clear choice here.
Sergeant: Shredder Rocket – I’ve found this rocket invaluable both for taking out groups of weaker enemies early in the game, as well as softening up the stronger enemies later, such as Cyberdiscs or worse. Suppression uses a huge amount of ammo and pretty much forces you to lose another turn later while you reload.
Lieutenant: HEAT Ammo – very nice against Cyberdiscs and Sectopods, which are among the hardest enemies in the game. Rapid Reaction relies on the Heavy firing and hitting a reaction shot and given that this class has the poorest aim of all, the chance of this actually happening is quite small.
Captain: Danger Zone – unless you consistently equip grenades on your heavy (which I don’t, I prefer a S.C.O.P.E. as their aim is poor) you are better off increasing the area of effect of your rockets.
Colonel: Rocketeer - whilst additional damage is nice, I prefer to carry an additional rocket. Especially as my Heavies don’t use grenades, otherwise I would run with a Grenadier/Mayhem combo.
Sniper Perk Choices
Fire a shot with +30% critical chance and extra damage on critical hits based on the tech level of the sniper rifle. 2 turn cooldown.
Removes the sniper rifle’s restriction on firing and Overwatch after moving. Any shots taken suffer a -20 Aim penalty.
Allows firing at targets in any ally’s sight radius.
Confers 2 bonus damage with pistols.
|Damn Good Ground
+10 Aim and +10 Defense against enemies at lower elevation in addition to the usual elevation bonuses.
Allows the Sniper to fire a shot that causes the target’s main weapon to malfunction. The target may use Reload to fix the weapon. The shot cannot inflict a critical hit. 2 turn cooldown. -10 Aim penalty
Scanning device, when thrown creates a new source of vision for 2 turns. Can only be used 2 times per battle.
+10% Aim against targets with less than 50% Health.
Eliminates the Aim penalty on reaction shots, and allows reaction shots to cause critical hits.
Makes partial cover count as full.
|Colonel||In The Zone
Killing a flanked or uncovered target with the sniper rifle does not cost an action.
Allows both actions to be used for Standard Shot, Headshot, or Disable Shot, provided no moves were made. 1 turn cooldown.
Corporal: Squad Sight – This is miles better than Snap Shot, I guarantee you. Without squad sight, you spend far too much time finding good vantage points for your Sniper. With Squad Sight, this is not needed. Just ensure you are in a good position overseeing a large part of the map and you can shoot anything your other soldiers see as long as there are no walls or obstacles between you and the target. Once you have Archangel armor, you simply float to max elevation in the corner of a map, far away from the aliens and shoot them in complete safety.
Sergeant: Gunslinger - You will use your pistol a lot if you play the sniper right, especially early on while you level towards the better perks. You might not be able to use your sniper rifle after you move, but you can use your pistol and it does a surprisingly decent amount of damage with this perk. With better pistols, you will instantly kill most weaker enemies and your pistol is always available.
Lieutenant: Battle Scanner – To be honest, this depends on your play style. I use Battle Scanners a lot to reveal areas of the map and allow for Squad Sight kills but you could use Disabling shot if you want to disarm an opponent. That said, it doesn’t work on the enemies which cause you the most problems so I’ve never seen too much point in it.
Captain: Opportunist - This is awesome and makes Overwatch incredibly dangerous on your Sniper. My sniper has made an insane amount of kills in Overwatch because of this skill with huge critical hits against stronger opponents.
Colonel: Double Tap – A lot of people love In The Zone, but I prefer Double Tap. Being able to shoot twice with your sniper rifle against any enemy in sight is just too good to pass up. There are specific situations where In The Zone is better, but Double Tap is invaluable against some of the stronger opponents later in the game when one shot just isn’t enough.
Classic Ironman is often brutal, and completely unforgiving. You will not get a second chance if you make a huge tactical error, and therefore your stategy should involve not making any errors. If you play with caution, your soldiers will live longer and each subsequent mission will become a lot easier as a result. Alternatively, if you play poorly and lose a lot of soldiers, this problem will cascade and things will become harder up to the point where you can no longer achieve your missions successfully. Below are some tips and strategies that will help you reduce unneeded losses.
- Have your soldiers cover one another by slowly moving them forward. Always have at least 1 soldier covering another before you move into unrevealed tiles.
- Always think to yourself: “If I do this and my soldier fails to hit this shot, will something really bad happen?” If the answer is yes, don’t do it. You can and will miss even at 95% chance.
- Never reveal additional tiles if you are already fighting aliens. Trust me, the worst possible moments occur when you inadvertently invite another 7 aliens to your party. They won’t bring booze or snacks, but will nom on your face instead.
- Having a sniper in Overwatch prior to revealing new tiles often leads to at least 1 dead alien when you do happen to come across a pull.
- Never open a door unless you have a soldier on either side of it. Don’t jump through it like your soldier is Chuck Norris. Open it quietly and don’t alert the aliens.
- Never dash into unrevealed tiles, ever. Dashing is only to catch up with other units which are already providing cover.
- If you do encounter aliens, check all your units before making the first shots. One of your soldiers might only be able to fire on a few of the aliens and you want to leave the ones with multiple options until last.
- Take sure kills first. It’s better to fight 1 extremely strong alien than 3 weaker ones – as the weak ones will kill you just fine. There are exceptions to this rule, you don’t want to get hit by a Cryssalid, period.
- Stay away from melee enemies. They’re actually among the easier opponents with this play style as your units should rarely be very close to them when they appear.
Use grenades and rockets to blow up the opponents cover if they’re behind cover and hard to hit.
- Similarly, use grenades and rockets to level up rookies. They’re terrible shots but they throw a grenade into a group of sectoids just fine. As bonus, they’ll gain a rank.
- Give your sniper a decent pistol as soon as they become available, it will prove invaluable.
- On that note, don’t forget about your pistols. They do decent damage later in the game. You can also use them to soften up a target before you use an Arc Thrower.
- Stay in cover at all time. Move from cover to cover and never stand in the open unless absolutely required. Never do this when there are aliens around as you will most likely lose that soldier.
- Full cover doesn’t guarantee protection. A lot of the time you can and will still be shot. If you want a soldier to be completely safe, he needs to be out of line of sight, which involves at least full cover on both sides of him. Standing behind full cover means he leans towards the most appropriate edge with half or no cover and is still in line of sight.
- Focus your fire. An injured alien hurts just as much as any other. Only dead or unconscious aliens are harmless.
- Always have a back-up plan. If you’re going to charge in to capture an alien, ensure you have one covering him with a decent chance to kill the alien outright if the first fails.
- Ignore Dr. Vahlen. 1. She is French. 2. She’s constantly complaining about explosives and how you’re reducing the amount of salvage. Quite frankly, tell her to stop whinging as your soldiers lives are far more valuable than some weapon fragments. Just tell her if she doesn’t stop her complaints that she can share a night in the Alien Containment facility with a Berserker.
- Listen to the type of noise aliens make during their turn. Learn to notice the different sounds each alien makes. Does it sound like insects skittering? That’s a sectoid. Big stomping? Mutons coming your way.
- Once you have Ghost armor, use stealth. You can scout without exposing your soldier to danger, do so.
- Exploit the destructible environment. Want to flank an enemy but have no way into a building or UFO? Make a door yourself – that’s what explosives are for.
And so concludes an insanely long article. I hope you found it useful and that it will help you find your own success in Classic Ironman mode. Most of these tips will apply in normal difficulty as well, but you’ll go through that without feeling the sensation of despair and terror that the harder difficulties bring. Don’t worry though, once you’re through the early difficulty, have your satellite network online and have some experienced and well-equipped soldiers, things aren’t actually that bad in this mode. Just be careful, as any mistake could be your last.
Give them hell, soldier!