Battlestar Galactica – The Admiral And President Approve

BSGI’ve owned Battlestar Galactica twice now, although this last purchase wasn’t intended; a guy I like quite a bit needed some money and sold me a bastardized copy plus an expansion for a song, so I figured it was a double win. I had to buy the plastic spaceships separately, but on balance it was still a great deal. Anyhow, with my first copy I had only played it twice, and both times the game was ruined by “meta” situations, like a guy with no poker face whatsoever sitting and smirking for 5 minutes reading the card which tells them whether they’re a traitor or not. The second game was ruined, mostly, by one person who was texting to another person at the table, then when their turn started, they kept saying, “What do I do again?”. This game might not work with those kinds of people, but anyone else will have a blast.

As with most co-operative games containing a traitor mechanic, there is an amount of intrinsic complexity to the rules which provide players a framework for an enjoyable, rich experience. That said, many people have claimed that the game is too complex, which is folly at best. There are many moving parts, but all of them are displayed in such a way that they are very intuitive, and from the “what do I do in a turn” perspective, there’s not really that many things to do, and the order in which you can do them is very well defined. If you’ve avoided playing this because you don’t like complex games, I’d encourage you to try it anyhow, because I would be shocked if you came away from the game thinking that it’s really that tough.

‘For the uninitiated who have been hiding under rocks for several decades, Battlestar Galactica was originally a TV show from back in the 1970’s, and it depicted a big space aircraft carrier protecting a bunch of commercial ships from an race of automatons called “Cylons” which hunt them mercilessly after delivering a genocidal blow to their home solar system’s planetary colonies. Fast forward to about 6 years ago, and the SyFy channel “re-imagined” (read: totally outshined) the show, made it better than anyone could have possibly imagined, changing many of the core elements and adding a huge political aspect to the show. It’s truly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen from a plot and production perspective. It was so good, in fact, that a couple of guys at FFG made this game from it, and it is so genre-defining that when most people think “epic betrayal game”, it is the first game that pops into their heads. In short, the show and the game are incredible on a scope that even my hyperbole-loving self can’t easily even begin to explain.

The idea of the game is that players are on that same big space carrier, loaded with refugees and soldiers, surrounded by civilian ships, trying to do space jumps (think folding space, Jump To Lightspeed, Hyperspace, etc.) to get to Kobol, a legendary planet that is foretold in prophecy to be their new home, since their old home planets are awash in radioactive fallout. It’s all well and good, except that a huge fleet of really nasty space battleships, called Base Stars, are continually appearing from nowhere to try to wipe them from the universe and secure Cylon domination. Now, here’s the twist: one or more of the supposedly human players actually ARE Cylon agents, but perfectly disguised as humans, and will seek to destroy them from within. The short version is that the humans are on the ropes from the get-go, and winning requires huge doses of good luck, smart planning, and attention to detail. Many games in, I have only won once as a human player, and I have yet to be a Cylon. I keep thinking that I’d make a great Cylon, which both is enticing and scary at the same time.

Play really is surpisingly simple, revolving around moving your avatar around the board and playing cards, either in response to something or to get out in front of a crisis. The magic to what makes this game so good is that it found a way to keep the pace and intensity high, even with as many as six players, because there’s almost no down time. Every single round, even on others’ turns,  you have decisions to make and cards to play which can contribute to the game state. Some of these cards allow the current player to bend the rules, others grant temporary skills or abilities, while others allow more freedom of movement. Each card is dual-use, as well, meaning that it can be played to gain its ability, or alternatively can be played for its value when attempting to defuse a crisis. Thus, because of all of these factors, no player is ever really just sitting around with their dick in their hand waiting for something to happen.

I want to reiterate that while seems to be very complex on its face, the game play itself is much less complex than you’d believe at first glance or on perusal of the rulebook. The board is set up so that there’s a beginning amount of resources, and the humans must travel to Kobol, and then one more jump, to win, where the Cylons (and really, the game itself) is trying to run them out of any one resource. The turns are set up so that each player first draws cards based on their characters’ abilities, then moves their character, then takes one action. After that, a crisis happens that needs to be resolved either by a decision or by taking a skill test which requires use of the aforementioned drawn cards, which culminates in a Cylon attack, generally, and then the player’s turn ends. It’s very straight forward and while there are a couple of charts to refer to, using Universal Head’s player aid, you can easily reference them. The back of the rulebook also has these charts, but if each player has one, it’s easier. Truth be told, this game is far easier to learn if you have someone like me explaining it, but I learned from reading the rules so you most assuredly can too if you’re your group’s designated game explainer.

The production value is fully awesome as well, with these really neat little wheels built right into the board to track resources, these little awesome plastic ships that look like the show’s ships, and some great little cards that have art from the show (with a bonus: readable, understandable text!). It’s really a beautiful game, if nothing else, and even the rule book is really understandable and well-formatted, a first for Fantasy Flight, in my opinion. If there’s any real bitch that I have, it’s that there’s cardboard standies to represent your characters, and since it’s FFG and not some random schmoe making the game, I’d really have liked to see the characters in plastic model form. Now, this game has been out a long time, and they’ve made a bunch of expansions for it, each with new plastic bits to replace some of the cardboard, but still, they’ve never released little plastic models. My real complaint in this regard is that when you have a bunch of players on any given space, it feels really cramped, and you have to move them around to read the text on the board, which matters, and which you will, at some point, absolutely need to do.

All in all, the game has an intensity that can be only described as profound. If you really get into the game, which I suggest doing, there’s a sense of dread and hopelessness that greats like Pandemic can’t come close to matching. The best part is that some players, the lucky ones, in my estimation, actively contribute in secret towards the dread and hopelessness. I’d even argue that the Cylon players do far more harm by simply being “negative Nellies” and always bitching about not having cards, or just being a basic bitch about everything, because it will totally contribute to the desperate mood. The one thing I would caution players about is that there are a lot of accusations about who is a Cylon, most of which are unfounded, so you may find yourself wrongly accused at many points during the game. If you can’t handle that kind of Werewolf style accusations, you might not be comfortable playing this game. The best players are the ones who can manipulate the other players into siding with them, through insinuation and snide remarks, and this is half the fun, if you like that kind of direct confrontation. I’m sure that there’s other ways to play while retaining the feel of the game, but it’s the accusations that really make the game what it is, in my opinion.

I think another great design feature is that when you start, you may end up with all the players being dealt a “loyalty card” that indicates they’re all human, but halfway through the game they’re dealt another card and some may end up being “sleeper agents” who immediately become Cylons. This really mixes things up, and again, the trick to being a good player is to not play too terribly aggressively at the beginning because if you do, if you later become a Cylon, you’ll end up being identified quickly when the play style changes. It’s really all about subtlety, being very clever, and avoiding siding too closely with either side until the mid-game point, at which all hell generally breaks loose. The short version is that people who are outed are sent to the Brig, which is infinitely hard to get out of without help from other players. So, really, alliances are crucial, and they feel tangibly important, unlike so many other games.

If there’s one thing that really irritates people who play this, it’s got to be the Brig. Once you’re in there, and sometimes you get sent there by bad luck rather than player action, it’s a bitch to escape, and even moreso by yourself or when players’ cards are running low. What the Brig does is limit how much you can help, or hurt, the other players, and it also causes you to not be able to cause a crisis. Now, if you’re a Cylon in the Brig, you can still cause some trouble for the others, and despite people’s complaint that “being in the Brig is boring”, you have a lot of options. You can still take actions to help or hinder skill checks, either by throwing skill cards against or for tests, as well as playing “action cards” for your one action which can help (or hinder) other players who aren’t imprisoned. It’s not as helpful as being able to move about the ship freely, but you aren’t completely sitting out of the game as some would have you believe.

A cool thing about being a Cylon is that you can choose to not reveal yourself, but if you do, you get what amounts to a devastating card to really stick it to the humans, although when you reveal, you’re instantly removed from the ship and sent to another location on the board reserved for revealed Cyclons. This allows you to have more negative options, such choosing one of two crisis cards to employ against the ill-fated crew of Galactica, but you lose your ability to be a sneaky bastard. Your ability to screw players on skill checks are limited, but no more limited than a player in the Brig, so it’s really not that crippling, and clearly far less than an imprisoned, unrevealed Cyclon. To add to that, Cyclons who are not in the Brig can reveal themselves and immediately screw over the humans with a one-time power that can Brig a player of their choice, or cause heinous damage to critical ship systems that humans have to generally race to repair. As with most things, timing is everything, and the best players wait until the worst possible time to reveal themselves and cause the most carnage. It’s awesome, and having never been graced with being a Cylon, I can only tell you that once they strike, it’s devastating, although not game breaking. The odd part is that when a Cylon is revealed, you’d think players would have this sense of dread redoubled because a Cylon has been confirmed, but in reality, players tend to band together a little closer now that they are sure of their common enemy. This makes any remaining unrevealed Cylons all the more effective.

As I noted earlier, there’s several expansions to the game. The first was the Pegasus expansion, which replaces the two base star cardboard ships with plastic ones, but also adds a new Battlestar ship with unique locations as well as an overlay that replaces the Cylon-only locations. It also adds the ability to execute people, which is brutal if a Cylon convinces the humans that a human player is a Cylon. It also introduces a new stack of Skill cards which provide players some leverage when deciding which side to help. Finally, this expansion adds a planet to colonize, although it’s essentially a Cylon-owned colony, but this changes the game’s goals for the humans in a very profound way. It’s a good expansion for an already great game, so it’s more about “variation” than “enhancement”. I’d argue that you need a good ten sessions of the base game with the same group in order to want to try it out. It complicates things, in some cases unnecessarily, but all in all, as I said, it’s a good expansion.

There are two more expansions, Exodus and Daybreak, both of which add more complications, politicking, and tenuous loyalties. I’ve never played either, but before writing this I asked a lot of people about them, and I’ve been told that both are kind of hit-or-miss, depending on what you choose to implement in them. Universally accepted is the new “Cylon Fleet” board in the Exodus expansion, which makes the space battles more meaningful and tense rather than just rolling dice and hoping for the best. I don’t want to go on any more about these because it would just be conjecture, and there’s many more people out there who are smarter and more eloquent than I who can speak from experience on them.

Anyhow, at the end of the day, whether or not you buy an expansion, this game is the King Shit. No serious hobby gamer should be without this title, because it may be the single best game that has ever been made, and this I say with no hyperbole or exaggeration. The wankers who go on about Puerto Rico or Twilight Struggle must never have played this game, because for those to be more highly rated, globally, just indicates that there’s a bunch of people who have no taste. The fact that it’s rated 25th at Boardgamegeek.com is a testament to its quality and longevity, despite my belief that it’s underrated by at least 20 places. The long and short is that if you don’t own this game, you should. Go buy it, and I mean now. Here: let me help.

Why The Battlestar Galactica Theme Song Should Be Our National Anthem:

– The production quality is off the charts, and the mood-setting art is impressively effective
– While only medium-weight as far as rules, it has the capacity to allow for deep strategies
– The game’s ability to truly put you “in the game”, emotionally, is unparalleled
– This is the single best hidden traitor game of all time, if not just the best game of all time

Why The S.S. Minnow Was A Better Ship In Almost Every Regard:

– You really need at least five players to make this game what it was meant to be, ahtough 4 is OK
– Cardboard standees in this game are like duct tape hubcaps on a Mercedes

Overall:
I am not aware of any game other than Space Hulk that is as startlingly effective in communicating the mood of the setting and theme to the players, and because of this, I just can’t help but love this game. Brimming with dark overtones of betrayal and mistrust, this game has managed to be my “go-to” game anytime I can get it to the table. Sure, it can run a bit long with five players, like maybe three hours, but you just don’t feel like it’s that long of a game because of its intensity and mostly short downtimes. Everyone is always engaged, making this one of the best games ever. If you don’t own this, you’re absolutely missing out.

Rating:
5/5 Stars

Read more about this game here:
http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=18

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