Sunday, February 15, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game

This boardgame was created by man.  It evolved.  It rebelled. Fantasy Flight Games are, hands down, the majestic emperors of the licensed boardgame market. These guys know how it is done. They make really excellent games that play well and capture wholesale the spirit of their source material.

I loved War of the Ring, I was an enthusiastic convert to A Game of Thrones, and now I am thrilled to bits with Battlestar Galactica.

This is, naturally, a game based on the modern incarnation of the show rather than its prehistoric origins, and most of your favourite characters are involved. You can play as obvious choices like Adama, Starbuck or Baltar, or some less overexposed characters such as Tyrol, Zarek and Helo.

Gameplay focuses on the first season-and-a-half of the show and, although the box art shows the bearded Baltar of Season Three, you won't find anything in the cards or rules that spoils stories further along than the discovery of the Resurrection Ship. Every player is, at least notionally, a human, and the co-operative goal is to guide Galactica and her civilian fleet safely to Kobol (not Earth).

However, every player is dealt a "loyalty card" at the start of the game, and another one halfway through. These cards can reveal to a player that they're secretly a Cylon, at which point they begin discreetly sabotaging the fleet either alone or in conjunction with another Cylon player. The Cylons, naturally, win if Galactica runs out of any of the key resources: fuel, food, morale and population.

Play revolves around the handling of crises, one of which is randomly drawn from a "crisis deck" each turn. These are problems which typically involve a choice between two unappealing options (lose 1 food or lose 1 fuel, etc), or a "skill test". In skill tests, players play numbered and coloured cards from their hand secretly into a pool. Cards of the correct colours for the test count towards a goal and cards of other colours subtract; if the total goes over the difficulty of the challenge, the humans pass, but otherwise they fail with disastrous consequences. Cylon players, of course, will normally be secretly playing aganist the vote, masked in their schemes by the contribution of a "destiny deck" which adds random cards to every vote and thereby obscures any toaster shenannigans going on.

The real hook to the game is finding and identifying the Cylons; this can be a really gripping political challenge, with everyone prevaricating as though there is no tomorrow. There is no way to test for Cylons (barring a quirky ability of the Baltar character), so if you think you've figured out who the robots are you'll have to send them to the brig - an action that involves a skill test. Brigged characters are essentially powerless until voted out.

The Cylons can also reveal themselves, which results in them getting shot in the head and sent to the Resurrection Ship. Once revealed, they gain new powers but lose the opportunity to sow dissent; it's clearly intended to only be a valid gambit once the jig is well and truly up.

Looking for Cylons is great fun. This is the core of the game, and it's what brings you back for more. The characters are also really interesting, each one packing unique and surprisingly well balanced abilities. Baltar, for example, is more likely to be a Cylon, but has the ability once a game to test if one other player is a Cylon. Saul Tigh can steal the Presidency and give it to the Admiral. Helo, the ship's "moral compass", can turn a traitorous decision upside down when pressed.

Unfortunately, if there are no Cylons in the first half of the game (because they're coming up in the later "Sleeper" phase) or if all the Cylons have been revealed, the game gets quite dull. With the "possibly a Cylon" factor eliminated, there is generally a clear "best" move in any given situation - the game can practically play itself. Playing a revealed Cylon is also not terribly exciting.

The game also uses a "Sympathiser" mechanic in games with even numbers of players as a way of balancing out the game - Sympathisers join whichever side is losing at the halfway mark - but this mechanic doesn't seem to work very well or be much fun for anyone. Another role that isn't much fun is being a pilot, who's typically expected to fly around Galactica shooting Cylons, but this gameplay is far shallower and less fun than what's happening on ship so few experienced players will volunteer for it.

There's a lot of pieces in Galactica, and the setup time is about 10 minutes, but the profusion of components is generally justified. The pieces are high quality, starting with a really excellent board and moving on to full-colour cards featuring art assets from the show. You get little plastic Cylon Raiders and Human Vipers, and the tokens for each character are a thick piece of card wedged vertically into a plastic base.

Battlestar Galactica isn't a perfect game, but it's still a strong game, and the thrill of playing something which captures the feel of the show so well more than compensates for its mechanical weaknesses. Trying out different characters provides a lot of inherent replayability, and the dynamic also substantially changes with different numbers of players, so there's always something new to see and do when you sit down for a round of Galactica. If you're not a Galactica fan the game is strong enough on its own to support you for two to three playthroughs, and it generally makes sense without having to understand the scenarios and characters involved.

If you're a fan of boardgames and of Battlestar this is a must-buy. It's excellent. For everyone else, it's still strongly recommendable, and a steal if you happen to see it at budget prices.


Josh said...

What would be your suggested number of players?

Darla said...

Nothing like a healthy dose of paranoia and the enjoyment of accusing one's friends of treason...

I also like the fact that you're always at the top of the list of people who are suspected of being Cylons, Greg...what does that tell you?

Greg Tannahill said...

Darla: it tells me that I disproportionately enjoy playing Baltar.

Josh: Five players. Two cylons, no sympathiser, works well.

Dist said...


Chris said...

Hmmm... I love boardgames, and I'm a fan of Battlestar Galactica (old and new!) as well. But I understand the play time for this is in the region of 3 hours. I just don't have a role for a game that takes that long in my regular gaming group, and I already have plenty of "slow" games that I could bring out on occasion. It makes me reluctant to get this one.

Greg Tannahill said...

Two and a half to three hours. But that's a real estimate, and it isn't code for "half a day to a day".

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