Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review: Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I’m also a huge fan of the Battlestar Galactica game, and it is one that has seen very heavy rotation in my core game group. I’m also a big fan of the reimagined teevee series (or at least the first two and a half-seasons of it, which covers this expansion nicely), though I had always secretly worried that a reimagined Muffit would appear.


The Overview:



The exact dimensions of the original Battlestar Galactica box.



Game lay out with the original board and components as well. 



Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus is an expansion for excellent Battlestar Galactica which is, in turn, based off of the reimagined series. The events portrayed in the base game via cards and mechanics covered the first and part of the second season. This expansion covers the second season and into the first few episodes of the third season. If you are afraid of spoilers, you may not wish to pick up this game, or for that matter, read any reviews on it (this one included). I won’t go heavy into elements of the show, but many of them will seep into the review since game mechanics are based around them. Also, by the fact that the expansion covers the series up to a certain point, it is obvious that FFG intends on continuing the line of expansions after this one. This especially seems to be the case with the modular set-up of the Pegasus expansion. As such, it does seem that some mechanics are not yet fully fleshed out, but are laid out to set up future expansions.

I will also assume that you are familiar with the base game at this point, so the review will primarily focus on what the expansion brings to the game.

Pegasus is still primarily designed for 3-6 players, but the rules introduce rules for playing with a 7th player. Adding to the threat of the humans (and possibly salvation) are Cylon leader characters, which can be chosen by a player and are played from the beginning as revealed Cylons. A Cylon Leader draws an Agenda card, which determines their ultimate loyalty as well as motivation, and complicates the requirements for them to be victorious.

The small board representing the Battlestar Pegasus is included in the game, giving the human players more firepower and locations to interact with. The Kobol destination is replaced with the New Caprica destination and a board that represents a new end-game condition. And, of course, more characters from the series now are playable and are represented in the expansion with a character card.



The Theme:

Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus multiplies almost everything about the base game, which is to say that it adds significantly to the highs but also adds to a couple of the flaws of the base game in that manner. For those familiar with the series, the players will recognize event pictured on the Crisis Cards and see how the skill checks or decisions on the cards play so well into the scenes from the show, making it exciting from time to time to draw a card and get the "tough choice" feel of some of the decisions in the show reflect so well when your character has to make the same choices. The mechanics of the new characters feels like the characters from the show and are portrayed elegantly using game mechanics. And the New Caprica board and mechanics really work in making it the exodus feel tense and dramatic, forcing the Admiral to make hard decisions that could instantly lose the game for the humans.

That being said, however, the expansion is not forgiving to those who are not familiar with the series. Crisis Cards are still only illustrated with a picture and a single line of dialogue from the series, not giving significant back-story to the crisis at hand. The Pegasus board does not need much explanation to someone not familiar with the show and even the Cylon Leader mechanic is rather intuitive. However, for those not familiar with the show, the New Carprica board is rather confusing plot-wise. For most series-naïve players of the base game, they could just be told that the humans are trying to find Earth and most just assumed that Kobol was Earth. That worked fine. However, introducing a mechanic where the players suddenly are on a Cylon police-state planet with human secret resistance groups suddenly and no Galactica requires a much more in depth explanation. I don’t necessarily think that this is bad, but it is a warning for those who have not watched the series: Do not include all of this expansion for the first few plays. Get to know the base game, and then bring in this expansion. I would imagine that otherwise you would just have some baffled players trying to figure out why they are suddenly cohabiting a planet with the people who were just trying to kill them for the first three-fourths of the game. A mechanic which seems natural and representative to those familiar with the series seems jarring and a sudden and stark change to those unfamiliar with the series events.

And with that being said, the true core theme of the game remains the same: Suspicion and lack of trust. There are new mechanics behind the game as well, giving sneaky Cylons new ways to hide and frame others, while giving humans new means to ferret out their traitors. It is here where the original game has shined brightest and this expansion has not diminished the glow of the best part of the game.


Learning the Game:

If you are familiar with the base game, the expansion is easy to pick up. The rulebook is 20 pages of large print and many pictures and examples, so it is an easy read.

Perhaps one of the toughest thing to learn are the couple of changes that were made to the rules of the original game, just because if you are well-played in it, the rules are second nature. However, now the President can only have a hand of 10 Quorum cards and, perhaps the most powerful of the human cards, Investigative Committee, has been weakened to only reveal player's cards and not the cards from the Destiny Deck anymore. This has appropriately weakened the humans who, with an experienced group, had a much stronger advantage in the base game using heavy Quorum draws and Investigative Committees. Also, a few other location changes have occurred, and the Cylon locations on the Galactica board have a new overlay describing their new game effects and handing off excess loyalty cards is done fluidly now, instead of as an action.


The Components:

The components are minimal in the expansion other than new cards and boards. The Pegasus board seems rather small, considering its firepower and strength in the show. And the New Caprica board also seems a little small. But then again, considering how much table space playing Arkham Horror involves, I have to say that I do not mind the smaller boards. Two new sculpted basestars have been included in the expansion to replace to cardboard cutout ones from the base game, and that’s a nice touch.




Pegasus board and New Caprica board respectively. Both boards are each about 6.5" x 11". 


All-in-all, the components are sturdy and strong and fit into Fantasy Flight’s usual high quality. And also, for those who have played the base game a lot and worried, like I did, that the new cards would be very distinguishable from the well-worn cards from the base game; this has not been the case for me. You can pick out the bright white of some of the new cards along the edge of a stack of cards, but the top card is not noticeable as to if it is new or old. That is a testament to the good choice in card stock and strength of the base game. I’m not a huge fan of sleeving, but I doubt that anyone was able to sleeve the odd sized skill cards. And my cards at least, have held up well enough that no one can distinguish if you are throwing in a worn Strength 5 Tactics card from the base set or spiking the check with a new, crisp Strength 3 Treachery Card.

The only other thing to be aware of when it comes to the components out-of-the-box is that they have update / corrected Louanne "Kat" Katraine’s character card in the Pegasus Errata and FAQ on the website. Her "Stim Junkie" flaw is printed on the card as moving her to Sickbay if she ends her movement turn in the same location or space area that she began her turn in. However, the Errata changes that to if she ends her action turn in the same space. This has a significant impact on the play of this character.


Playing the Game:

The theme and feel of the game have not changed much, which is a good thing. And the new mechanics are easy to manage in the scope and scale of the expansion. So I’ll write out a bit about some of the bigger changes from the expansion and how the mechanics seem to affect the game both intended and possibly unintended.

The Pegasus Board: The Pegasus board adds four new locations that can be accessed in a similar manner as accessing Colonial One (discarding a card to travel to or from it). Each of the new locations is very useful in certain circumstances. The "Main Batteries" of Pegasus almost completely ensure that the already rarely used "Weapons Control" will do nothing but collect more dust. The "Engine Room" location lets a player discard 2 skill cards to treat the next Crisis Card as if it had the prepare for jump icon on it. This is situationally very useful, but could easily be a resource dump if not strategically used. The "Pegasus CIC" gives the humans a chance to damage a basestar and the "Airlock" location lets players use one of the new mechanics: Execution. Execution can cause the character to be discarded. The player reveals if they were a Cylon. If they were, they do not discard the character, but they are revealed and go to the Resurrection Ship without drawing a Super Crisis Card. However, if they are human, they discard the character and draw a new one into play and the humans lose 1 Morale. It may seem easy and tempting to execute characters with a bit of suspicion, but it really does hurt the humans more than it seems on the surface. Finally, one of the big, but subtle changes the board brings in is that there are 4 more locations that can be damaged before Galactica is destroyed. This means that it is much less likely that the humans will lose from their ship being damaged, and the new Cylon location inlay no longer gives that as a Cylon action.

Treachery Deck: Also included is a new set of skill cards for the skill set of Treachery. They are negative cards that count against almost every skill check (though their values only run from 1 - 3). Many of the Treachery Cards have an effect that is triggered if someone plays a human beneficial card prior to the check that makes it "Reckless". The Reckless cards can help the humans out a lot, but there is substantial risk to trying them. One of the added influences of this deck is that it offers more of a chance to throw in suspicion in skill checks to savvy players. If everyone is human (or pretending to be), then it should be much easier to card count the 2 Treachery Cards in the skill deck. But if a third one shows up before Destiny is finished, then there is a traitor among the group. Many of the Crisis Cards force players to draw Treachery Cards into their hands, giving unrevealed Cylons a lot of opportunity to add suspicion to any character by tossing in one or two into a check. However, in games with fewer players and fewer Cylons, it is not much of a factor and Treachery Cards easily are dispensed by discarding them as travel cards or Crisis Card discards. And essentially, once all the Cylons are revealed, there is no worry whatsoever on the choices or failures that make you draw a couple of Treachery cards into your hand.

New Caprica Board: New Caprica gives a new ending condition to the game that is very thematic and well-produced that builds a race and tension for the endgame that sometimes could be lacking as you just casually waited for the final jump if your resources were good or there were no Cylon ships out during the last FTL cycle. The locations on New Caprica can be used by humans and Cylons (with differing effects) and represents the struggles of the Resistance against the Cylons on the New Caprica colony. The civilian ships that made it this far are placed on the board, face down. The human players are scrambling to prepare them for space turn-by-turn, while the Cylons are trying to destroy them turn-by-turn. If one is lost, the humans still lose the resources and can lose this way. After one cycle of Galactica’s FTL, it returns and the humans need to move the ships up to Galactica one-by-one, where they sit out in space and need to be defended from the raiders and basestars also on the board. The Admiral can jump at any time, leaving behind any ships not yet moved up yet and losing the resources for ships left behind. However, sometimes it can look so hairy out there that this is the best option. The unintended consequence of this mechanic, however, is that it is almost beneficial for the human players to lose civilian ships early, before reaching New Caprica. This way, their resources are more manageable and it is easier and quicker to prepare the ships and move them up to Galactica. Even if it means the human population is at 3, I would rather only have to worry about protecting and moving 4 civilian ships and having a population of 8 and having to worry about preparing and moving 9 ships. A lot can happen in those extra 5 turns.

Cylon Leaders: There are three Cylon Leader characters that can be played in games with 4 or more players. The Cylon Leader is a revealed Cylon from the beginning and has powers and flaws that are on their character card that they can use like the human players can. However, a Cylon leader draws an Agenda Card instead of a loyalty card at the beginning of the game and it states which side they are on and the conditions of their victory. They do not simply win if the humans win or the Cylons win. They need to have their side win and meet the conditions. This makes playing them a bit more complicated. For example, you may win only if the humans win AND all resources are 3 or lower. In this case, you will be attacking the humans, but keeping them away from the killing blow and trying to stop the other Cylon(s) from trying to finish the job. Or you may win if the Cylons win AND 6 or more units of distance have been travelled, making you favor the Cylons, but trying to assist the humans until a certain point, then crushing them before they make that last jump. It is a good and interesting mechanic, but a little weak compared to some of the other game, especially because the Cylon leader abilities seem to be a bit unbalanced. I think that this is set up to be expanded more upon as it follows the shows and the politics of the Cylons becomes more apparent and more involved later in the series.

And one last point that I would like to make: It is too early to necessarily tell where the advantage is now. With the base game, our first games were heavily skewed towards the Cylons and only after experience did the humans start to catch up, and eventually surpass the Cylon win ratio. This expansion has weakened (justifiably) some of the standard strong human strategies and introduced a lot to the game. It will be a while again of the new mechanics working against the players again before we start to get a truer feel of where the balance is. It won’t take as long as the first time, but still, expect more Cylon wins on your first games.


Scalability:

Pegasus keeps the same scalability of the base game, but includes rules for playing with a seventh player (which I have not done yet). Also, in a move that should make many happy, the Sympathizer mechanic for 4 and 6 player games have been changed somewhat, forcing the Sympathizer to take an Agenda Card, just as the Cylon Leaders would have.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She’s a huge Battlestar Galactica fan (both of the game and the show), but at the same time, she sneered whenever Admiral Cain was on the screen and had no issue with telling me how much she despised her at every turn, so I was a little worried that some of the stuff from this era of the show would ruffle those feathers again. However, she loves the expansion. After our first weekend playing the game, we returned home and she was trying to come up with 2-player mechanics to keep playing the expansion (and for the record, she did not come up with one. I instead got her to play 2-player Middle-Earth Quest instead.). She’s also very excited to play it again this weekend.

Battlestar Galactica is among her favorite games (with Arkham Horror being the contender for the #1 spot) and she really seemed to get into the expansion. And, truth be told, our core group has played the base game somewhere between 40-50 times, so we had finally started to slow on it. However, the expansion has breathed a lot of new life into the game and we are all eager to jump back into the roles again (making my task of getting Middle-Earth Quest and Chaos in the Old World, when it is released, onto the table a much more difficult task).


The Pros:

*More characters with more variety.
*Keeps the level of suspicion and tension very well in the new mechanics.
*New strategies for play, as well as new strategies for avoiding suspicion and casting it on others.
*New mechanics fit well into both existing game mechanics and theme of the show.
*Minor rules tweaks to bring down some over-strengthed human strategies.
*Introduces play for a seventh player.
*New Caprica adds tension to the end-game, which sometimes could just be a rote playing of the last few rounds waiting for the -3 jump because you knew you had the population to spare.


The Cons:

*Not a good expansion for those not familiar with the show.
*New Caprica does add time to the game length.
*Some Agendas seem unbalanced and the Cylon Leader mechanic seems the least fleshed out.
*Some of the Cylon Leader abilities seem a little unbalanced when applied to certain sides and Agendas.
*It came out at a time when there are so many other games that I want to get to the table as well.
*Some groups may have to deal with that awkward guy in their group who is just a little too excited that he is playing and pretending to be Caprica Six.


Overall:

Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus has breathed a lot of life into a game whose breathing had slowed a bit, but was nowhere near needing resuscitation . There is a lot that I like about what the expansion adds to the game, but at the end of the day, it is still your group’s play-style that will determine how good your BSG board game experience is. If your group sits and plays in silence with no debate or accusation over motives, the game is a dull rote in skill checks. But if your group openly analyzes and accuses other players moves and motivation, this expansion shines. Since now when you do your Saul Tigh impersonation and suggest that someone is a frakkin' toaster and should be blown out the airlock, you can follow through on the threat! While most of the major mechanics introduced are excellent, it seems as if some of them are introduced simply to eventually be better expanded and fleshed-out. If you are a fan of the base game AND a fan of the series, then this is an obvious must-have and I’m sure you’ve already pre-ordered or made plans to buy it well before you read this review. However, if you are a fan of the base game, but never saw the series, it is a good addition, but you may want to read some spoilers just so that you understand what the end game is about. And if you have never played BSG or seen the teevee show, do not buy the expansion. Familiarize yourself with the base game at first and possibly the series before you consider picking this up with the base game, as you may be wondering too much what the hell is happening at the end of the game. Someone grabbing the base game cold can still very much enjoy it, but someone grabbing the base and the expansion cold will likely be confused and possibly put off.


8/10

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