Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: Battlestar Galactica: Exodus

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. Also, I'm a big fan of the first two and half seasons of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series, but think that the writing and story arcs of the show really dropped in quality after that point, and this expansion covers the period where the series writing started to lack.

Review Spoiler Alert: For those who are afraid of spoilers about my review, skip the next Spoiler Alert section.

Series Spoiler Alert: For those who are afraid of spoilers for a television series that ended two years ago, don't read any further. The mechanics and nature of this expansion discussed are based on the series story arcs and you will find out things about the show. But I'll let you know that I give it 9 out of 10 stars.


The Overview:


The box cover. As you can see, the cover shows the changes that start to appear in the series: new Vipers, Anders is shoehorned into a major role, that's probably Athena and not Boomer (unless, of course, its Boomer pretending to be Athena), Chief buzzed his hair and Baltar pretty much committed to not shaving. 



Pictured is what is in the box, including a lot of new counters. 



Battlestar Galactica: Exodus is the second modular expansion for the very excellent Battlestar Galactica board game. It covers the period of the series after New Caprica was left up to the battle of the Ionian Nebula and adds a number of new additions to gameplay, as well as a new end game condition that can replace either the Kobol Destination (from the base game) and New Caprica (from the Pegasus expansion). The expansion is modular and I'll be discussing what this expansion both includes and does not include.

First of all, the expansion includes new characters: one for each of the four human roles (Military Leader, Political Leader, Pilot and Support). There are no new Cylon Leaders included in the game (which was introduced in the Pegasus expansion.). Each of the new characters seem both balanced and are somewhat appealing to play. There is no obvious unbalanced character in this expansion, like Admiral Cain was in Pegasus. Anders isn't the strongest pilot, but he does not make a bad secondary pilot in games with 4 or more players.

The expansion also includes new 0-strength and strength 6 Skill Cards for each of the skill suits of the base game. There are no new cards for the Treachery Deck. The 0-strength cards have effects that are always resolved in Skill Checks, which could be used either for or against the skill check. However, the subtle effect of the 0-strength cards is that they add another unspoken level of bluffing. For example, if a player had 0 cards in his hand at the start of his turn and drew 2 Tactics cards as part of his draw, I would expect that he would put in 2 cards (since he drew 2 Tactics) into a tough skill check that required Tactics cards. However, now, if he only puts in 1 card, I have to wonder if he is intentionally holding back because he is a Cylon, or that his other card might be a 0-strength Tactics Card that could hurt the check if played into it. For the most part, the 0-strength cards can possibly help, but also have the potential of damaging a check. There is 1 new 6-strength card in each deck as well, which each has a powerful ability if played as an action, but can be used to either help or spike a skill check. There are also no new Reckless cards or abilities in the skill cards (a mechanic from Pegasus.).



The new 0-strength and 6-strength Skill Cards. 


The game also introduces new Destination, Quorum and Crisis Cards, which are included into the existing deck. None of the new Crisis Cards make use of Treachery Cards, but some make use of the new 0-strength Skill Cards, as they trigger an additional "Consequence" on certain Crisis Cards if any are in the mix during a Skill Check. These Consequences are never beneficial to the human players and are always a risk, since there may be a 0-strength card in the Destiny cards added to the Skill Check.

Beyond these additions, there are three modular options in the expansion:

CONFLICTED LOYALTIES: This option adds two types of "You Are Not a Cylon" Loyalty Cards into the mix.

The first are Personal Goals, which aligns the receiver with human loyalty, but gives them dubious goals to achieve or else risk losing resources at the end of the game. For example, the goal of the card may read: "Political Intrigue: The President is in the Brig". You could reveal your Loyalty Card with the goal on it as your action if the President is in the brig. This means that the card is discarded and a new Loyalty Card is drawn. However, if at the end of the game, this card has not been discarded and is in possession of a human player, then the humans lose 1 Food at the end of the game, which might just kill them. So, this forces human players to take dubious actions, blurring the lines of perceived loyalty. For example, the player trying to throw the President in the Brig with little cause or suspicion might be a Cylon, or he might be a human player trying to protect the food stores at the endgame.



Personal Goal Loyalty Card. 


Next are The Final Five Loyalty Cards, which also align the player with human loyalty (even though they are Cylons, the circumstances of their infiltration as aligned them with humanity). All these cards do is make looking at Loyalty Cards a bit riskier. For example, if you look at a player's Loyalty Card and it is a Final Five card, you need to resolve the effect on it. The effects include things such as "Whoever Examines This Card Is Executed" and "If This Card Is Examined Damage Galactica Twice". So now examining Loyalty Cards becomes a little riskier.

In this option, both the Personal Goal and Final Five loyalty cards are shuffled in with the existing "You Are Not A Cylon" cards. So when the initial Loyalty Deck is created, it is possible that any of these cards may or may not be included in the mix when added to the appropriate number of Cylon Loyalty Cards.



Final Five Loyalty Card. 


Since executing a character makes them draw new Loyalty Cards, these cards limits the appeal of trying to execute to determine loyalty, since you might end up with the new character getting a Personal Goal that will hurt the human players with their new draw.

CYLON FLEET: The Cylon Fleet option adds a few new elements to the game, but it primarily removes the relying on the randomness of the Cylon fleet Crisis Cards to bring out Cylon ships to threaten the fleet, and instead creates a pursuit track which slowly builds and adds a more constant pressure to the human fleet.

The Cylon Fleet Board is placed to the side of the main board. It is broken into sections similar to the Galactica board. Now, whenever a Crisis Card is drawn that has a Cylon Ship Activation symbol on it the players must check to see if any of that ship type is on the Galactica main board. If so, then it is resolved normally and that ship type activates. If there is not one on the main board, then one is added to the Cylon Fleet board. A die is rolled to determine which section the ship is placed in and the Cylon Pursuit Track marker is moved forward one space. Certain spaces on the Pursuit Track trigger the humans to place 1 or 2 Civilian Ships onto the main board. If a ship type is to be added to the Cylon Fleet board, but there are no Cylon ships of that type remaining in the supply pool, then one section containing that type of ship is moved to the Galactica main board, immediately becoming a threat to the human players. If the Cylon Pursuit Track reaches the end, then all of the Cylon ships in every section are placed on the Galactica main board. Now, when Galactica jumps, the Cylon ships on the Galactica board are placed back onto the Cylon Fleet board. This means that if the players do not attack or reduce the Cylon ships when they are out, they will continue to grow in numbers for their next attack.



Cylon Pursuit Track. You'll notice that it is shorter than Galactica's FTL Jump Track. 


Civilian Ships no longer are removed after a jump. Instead they remain on the board. However, a viper in the same section as a Civilian Ship can now take an action to "Escort" a civilian ship and remove it from the board. There are also four new Viper Mark VII models. They begin "damaged", but when repaired, they can be used both manned and unmanned. When moving, they move 2 spaces and they are a bit harder to hit than the regular Vipers.

There is also the CAG card, which is a Pilot-based Title card. It gives the holder additional abilities if they are out in a space section when taking an action, but also whoever is the CAG gets to place any new civilian ships onto the board when directed to by either Cylon Pursuit Track or Crisis Cards.

All of these additions really add much to the Pilot's role, since Civilian Ships can be protected by pilots more directly now and there is much more incentive to reducing the number of Cylon ships on the board instead of just hitting a quick jump away.

IONIAN NEBULA: This option changes the endgame as well as adding Allies to the fleet to be interacted with during the game and creating a new resource for each player to secretly manage throughout the game.

First are Trauma Tokens. There are two main kinds: Benevolent tokens and Antagonistic tokens. There are also two Disaster tokens in the mix, but the majority of the tokens are of the other kinds. These will be important during the Ionian Nebula endgame, but essentially, human characters want to avoid holding a lot of Antagonistic tokens at the endgame, while Cylon players want to avoid holding a lot of Benevolent tokens. Each player begins the game with three randomly drawn tokens that they can look at, but keep secret from other players.

Two locations, the Brig and Sickbay, get face-down Trauma Tokens placed on them. Any player starting their turn in either of these locations takes the Trauma Token and adds it to their held tokens and then a new token is replaced on the location. If a Disaster token is drawn, then the player is immediately executed.

Three Allies are drawn from the Ally Deck and their tokens are placed onto the location dictated by their Ally Card. A facedown Trauma Token is placed on their Ally Card. When a player ends his movement in a location with an ally, then they need to flip the token and resolve the card. If it is a Benevolent token, the "positive" effect takes place, while if it is an Antagonistic token, the "negative effect" takes place. A new Ally Card is drawn and their token is placed onto the board. Now, the player who just resolved the Ally takes one of the tokens in his possession and places it onto the newly drawn Ally Card. This is how players can really manage their hand of Trauma tokens. However, since human players want to have few Antagonistic tokens at the end, they are more likely to set up the next Ally to be "negative" and vice versa for the Cylon. However, sometimes an Ally's effects may be too nice to pass up on and either side may place the token they want for their effect when it is resolved.

Now, when Galactica reaches a distance of 8, it sets up the Crossroads Phase. Each player (human and Cylon) are given a Crossroads Card. It will have a "positive" and "negative" effect that can be triggered by the player spending either a Benevolent or Antagonistic token on it. This is also the last chance that each player will have to try to manage the remaining Trauma tokens that they have. After each player's card is resolved, each player then reveals any remaining Trauma tokens that they still have. Human players discard all of their Benevolent tokens and Cylons discard all of their Antagonistic tokens. If any player has 2 or fewer tokens at this point, they discard their remaining tokens. If any human players have 3 or more Antagonistic tokens, they risk elimination. If any Cylon players have 3 or more Benevolent tokens, they risk elimination. The player with the most amount of tokens is then eliminated from the game. If it is a tie between human players, the President decides who is eliminated. If it is a tie between a Cylon and a human player, both are eliminated.



Crossroads Card. The last chance you'll have to try to get rid of your Trauma tokens. 

This is permanent elimination from the game. Galactica has reached a distance of at least 8 and still needs to make one more jump to survive. Galactica's board is also now set for the final battle, so the last jump will have Cylon ships present and it won't be a dull ending. From this point on in the game, Trauma tokens are ignored.


The Theme:

Since the expansions have been following the storyline of the series, it is fair to question how well the expansion "feels" like the portion of the series that it represents. Well, I am pleased to say, it does not represent it well at all. And, by that, I mean, when playing Exodus, I am genuinely interested in what is happening, I find the storyline to be engaging and suspenseful, I'm worried about the fates of the characters involved and things seem to make fluid sense and tend to have a general direction and goal. None of these things were present in the portion of the series that the game represents.

But seriously, the game takes what was great about the base game and expands on it better than the Pegasus expansion did. Theme is lost a little bit with the Ally Cards, however. While I do find them to be an interesting and potentially thematic choice, I don't really like how they really are nothing more than a means of managing your Trauma token hand. And, for example, if you see a player quickly visiting every Ally out right after the Sleeper Phase, well, you can probably guess that they've changed loyalties. Thematically, the Ionian Nebula is the weakest option. But the set up for Galactica's final jump really means that you have avoided the "dull" endgame where no Cylon ships are out and the Cylon players have little to do but wait for the jump.

The Cylon Fleet option is probably the strongest for theme, since it really adds a lot of pressure to the human players and their plight throughout the game, especially as things get progressively more dangerous for them by the endgame.


Learning the Game:

This is an expansion, so the base game should, of course, be already understood. Really, the expansion does not complicate the base game too much. The Ionian Nebula is probably the portion that adds the most as far as rules and management strategies to it. However, veterans of BSG should have no problem incorporating the expansion into the game.


The Components:


Gaeta's finally here to kick around.



Close up of the Cylon Fleet board. It also adds a new location for a Revealed Cylon to activate. 




Close-up of the token sheet.



The components are consistent with the quality for the base game and the prior expansion. BSG gets a lot of play from our group and our cards are starting to show a little wear, so the Skill Cards from this expansion stand out a bit cleaner and crisper than the older cards, so as much as I am not a big fan of it, I really would suggest sleeving the cards.

New Cylon Raider miniatures and Viper Mark VII miniatures are included and are of the same excellent quality as those in the base game. I really do not have any complaints as far as the quality of the expansion's components, especially since they blend so well with the previous expansion and base game.


Playing the Game:

Game play with the expansion adds only a little time from just the base game, but it is significantly shorter than playing with the New Caprica expansion, which really made the game drag at the end. For the most part, the expansion increases the challenge towards the human game. This is actually good, as veteran players of BSG have, for the most part, started to find the best ways to play the human game and (in our group, at least), started to see a human-win bias. This is also done thematically.

I really think that the complaints of the base game as well as the complaints of Pegasus were taken into account throughout the creation of this expansion. Pilots now have more to do. The randomness of Cylon Fleet cards in the Crisis Deck has been modified to a constant, growing threat. Execution rules have been modified to make it less useful to try to break the game with an execute to discover loyalty method. Because of Personal Goals, there are more reasons why characters may react in possibly suspicious ways to benefit humanity, which helps break "group think" on what the best course of action is and limit alpha players from dictating "do this, or you are a Cylon".

The biggest worry, however, comes with the player elimination with the Ionian Nebula Crossroads Phase. I've played as the lone Cylon who was eliminated not by the tokens I had drawn (I had none), but by shit-luck and being forced to draw 3 Trauma tokens by the human player's cards. I drew 3 Benevolent tokens and was eliminated from the game. It was something that I had no control over (I had managed my Trauma hand to 0), but I didn't mind it. It was a play by the human players who succeeded in a gamble to remove me from the game. I think that overall the Trauma mechanic is a little dicey and I find it unthematic to "set" the Ally's attitudes just to manage your hand. However, I still didn't mind it when the worst outcome came my way.

However, what this expansion is missing is compatibility and fixes for the previous expansion. For example, the Cylon Leaders, which felt like an unfinished mechanic in Pegasus has no support or fix in Exodus.

Treachery Cards are not factored into this expansion, but that means that their use is much less prevalent. Because the Pegasus Crisis Card effects that give out Treachery Cards are more watered down, you are much less likely to have them in your hand. That means, with mild card counting in the Destiny Deck, you know exactly when Reckless skill cards can be played with no risk whatsoever.

Also, with only six Crisis Cards in Exodus that have a Consequences effect in the expansion, they are really very watered down in the draw with both expansions included in the game.

I would suggest that if you are using the Sympathizer in your game, I would recommend using the base game's Sympathizer card, since Pegasus's Sympathizer card uses the Cylon Leader mechanic which is still unfixed. Also, a Sympathizer can now use the Cylon Basestar location, so this should limit the resentment about the Sympathizer having "nothing to do".

There is a Destination Card from the Pegasus expansion, "Mining Asteroid", which calls for searching the Crisis Deck for the "Scar" card to resolve. However, with the Cylon Fleet cards removed from the game, this card will not be in the deck. So, you may wish to remove this card before play or house-ruling some way of using the Scar card's effect.

Finally, there is a slight change to the Loyalty Deck build. There is one extra card now. So with 3 players, there will be 1 Cylon Loyalty Card and 6 Human Loyalty Cards. So after the Sleeper Phase, there will be one left over card. Now, this card will be potentially added when a player resolves a Personal Goal or is Executed. However, there still stands a chance that that extra card might be the Cylon Loyalty card and you can go the entire game without a Cylon in it. This also means that in 5 and 6 player games, there is a chance that only 1 Cylon Loyalty card might be out. This actually is another deterrent against Execution as a means of Loyalty detection, since you run the risk of including a Cylon Loyalty Card if it is the card sitting out of the game.


Scalability:

The game hasn't really changed in scalability. The Sympathizer mechanic has not been altered and Cylon Leaders have not been fixed, making the sweet-spot for this game a very hard 5 players.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, BSG is one of her favorite games, if not her favorite, and this is a reason to get it to the table again. I never had any difficulty getting BSG to the table with my wife and this expansion has only made it all the easier to find it in front of our players.


The Pros:

*The game is much better than the period of the series it covers.
*Cylon Fleet randomness is replaced with an excellent and intelligent mechanic for bringing in threat of Cylon ships.
*More characters = More better.
*Pilots much more useful now, with more options (escorting Civilian ships, CAG uses, and fighting Cylons).
*Ally Cards give more of a thematic, living feel of Galactica, as well as provided something else to do on the turns when you have no useful action to perform.
*Personal Goal and Final Five Loyalty Cards add a lot of interest and intrigue and break up group-think on best choices to make since some agendas may require shady actions to ultimately help the fleet.
*Ionian Nebula sets up a "final battle" set up for Galactica's last jump, eliminating the anti-climatic endings where Galactica simply coasted to their last jump.
*Revealed Cylon players have even more options now.
*May ways to blur actions and make loyalty more difficult to determine by actions now.
*"Broken" or "abused" tactics (execution as a means of determining loyalties) are addressed and "fixed" in this expansion.


The Cons:

*No real backward compatibility with the Pegasus expansion.
*Treachery, Reckless and Consequences have weakened effect since each is watered down when adding both expansions.
*Cylon Leaders are untouched, leaving them still feeling as an "unfinished" game mechanic.
*Having Anders and Tory as characters constantly reminds me about how much shoehorning was done to make their characters important in the show's storylines.
*Ally Cards lose their thematic feel when they simply become a means of Trauma Token management.
*Ionian Nebula player elimination will turn off many players, especially because elimination can occur even after a game of "perfect" Trauma Token management.
*Pilot reliance may be too high, if any or all of them become Cylon and leave the fleet early.


Overall:

Battlestar Galactica: Exodus is an excellent and thematic expansion that brings a lot of modular options to the game. While it does address some of the problems of the previous expansion (replacing the New Caprica endgame, making executions as a means of loyalty determination much riskier, creating more options and opportunities for Pilots), it also does not address others, leaving them watered down (Treachery vs. Reckless) or ignored them completely (Cylon Leaders). Overall, the additions are welcome and have given a lot of new options while shaking up standard strategies and making us rethink how to play the game... which is exactly what an expansion like this should do.


9/10

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