Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Battlestar Galactica

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 gameplay 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, while I never liked the original "Battlestar Galactica" teevee show as a kid, I believe that the new "Battlestar Galactica" is one of the best teevee shows out there now, and this is despite the slight writing decline in past seasons and the fact that even as humanity teeters on the brink of annihilation Lee Adama cannot get over his daddy issues. I am also the kind of person who does not hide from spoilers, but will still do my best to avoid bringing up any that might be involved in this review (although the game only really covers events from the miniseries and the first season).


The Overview:

The game is based on the television show "Battlestar Galactica". No, not the one with Muffit, but rather the reimagining of the series. In this version, humanity is on the run from the Clyons, which have all but destroyed the human homeworlds. What is left of humanity is fleeing in defenseless civilian ships protected by the only known remaining warship, or Battlestar. The Battlestar Galactica is guiding these civilian ships which hold all that is left of humanity aboard them towards the planet Kobol, which will lead them to their final destination: Earth. Now, the Cylons are not just metal robot kill-machines... They have evolved and have created certain models that appear human in most every regard. In fact, some have be programmed to believe that they are human until their programming goes off and their true nature is revealed. The Cylons are attempting to eradicate humanity completely and outright attack the humans, but also have infiltrated the ship with Cylon agents who may or may not yet know their true heritage and programming. The humans win by reaching Kobol through a series of Faster-than-Light (FTL) jumps. The Cylons can win by any of three means. They can win by reducing any of the humans' resources to 0. These resources are Population, Morale, Food and Fuel. They can win if a heavy raider activates and boards Galactica, and the boarding party track moves up to the end before they are repelled. They can also win by destroying Galactica, usually through combat with the Cylon basestars.

In the game the players each choose a character to represent. The characters come from three character career paths with three characters in each of them. The paths are political leaders, military leaders and pilots. Now, in order to maintain a well balanced group, you may only choose a character from one of the most plentiful groups at the time of your choosing, so that you cannot end up with 2 pilots, 3 military leaders and no politician. There is also the support character which does not fit into any of these three career paths and can be chosen at any time, regardless of the most populated career paths. Each character has a different set of skills, primarily determined by their career role, but with some variation between characters. Each character also has two positive abilities (one that can only be used once per game) and one negative ability. Between skills and abilities, each character has a different feel for play, making it a unique experience. And all seem relatively balanced as well.

Characters are then assigned roles. A character in the Politicians track (determined in order from a list in the rules which is based on the show history) is given the title of President and receives the powers associated with the role, which include sole ownership over the Quorum cards, which is a political deck that allows for special actions to be taken or played. One of the Military Leader characters (again determined form a list) is given the title of Admiral and receives the sole control over the ship's only two nuclear weapons and control of the Destination deck, which determines where the battlestar is after each FTL jump. This can be vital as it shows how close to Kobol the players are getting and what resources are lost along the way.

At this point, loyalty cards are dealt out. The number of players determines the number of Cylons. If there are 3-4 players, then there is one Cylon. If there are 5-6 players, then there are two. There is also a "Sympathizer" card, which is added in the 4 and 6 player games, but more on that later. The loyalty cards are not quite that simple, however, as more "Human" cards are added to ensure a second round of loyalty cards being given at roughly the half-way point in the game. For example, in a 3 player game, there is 1 Cylon card and 5 Human loyalty cards. They are shuffled and each of the three players is dealt one card and the remaining three cards will be dealt after the humans are at least half-way to their objective. This means that one of the other players might be a Cylon, but it is also possible that no one has been dealt that Cylon card yet and all players are human. It also means that you only think that you are a human and when the second round of loyalty cards are passed out, you find out that you have been a Cylon sleeper agent and are no longer working for the humans to win. This mechanic is a great way to increase the tension and suspicion throughout the game. Even though every player may, in fact, be loyal in the first half of the game, you do not know this for sure and may start second guessing everyone’s actions. Then, during the second half of the game, you know that someone is a traitor, but do not know who. Someone who acted completely in the best interest for the Humans and that you trusted completely during the first half may now suddenly turn against you. And, if you happen to have received a Cylon card in either phase, you have TONS of opportunity to cast suspicion on other players if you are crafty enough and then you get to sit back and watch the last bit of humanity turn on one another.

Play involves each player taking their turn drawing skill cards based on their character's skills. Each skill type is color coded and each card drawn has a number on it from 1 to 5 and has an effect that can be played. The player then can move his character and then take an action. Actions consist of using an action on one of the skill cards in the player's hands, using a character's action from his character card or employing the action of the location that they are in. Now, there are a couple of other things that a character can do. A pilot in a Viper can attack a Cylon ship and whoever is currently the President can play or draw a Quorum card.

At the end of a player's turn, a Crisis card is drawn which generally will provide a challenge that the group needs to resolve. The challenge comes most often in the form of a skill check. Failing a skill check usually will reduce one or more of Galactica's resources by one or more points. This is rather critical, as these resources are very rarely regained. Successfully beating a skill check usually just means nothing happens. Skill checks are managed by players putting in their skill cards face down and shuffling them together. Two skill cards from the Destiny Deck (which is made up of 2 cards from each skill set) are also added to the mix. Any cards that come up matching the required skills add their point value to the total. Any of opposing skills subtract from it. In this way, a hidden Cylon player can put cards into the mix. However, if you put in too many cards to reduce the skill check by a significant amount, you risk revealing that there is a Cylon aboard the ship. Since the Destiny Deck only adds two cards to the mix, if there are ever three or more opposing cards, then you know that you have a traitor on board. Usually a clever Cylon player will wait for the optimal moment to reveal themselves, only marginally helping skill checks or trying to appear helpful by putting in a lot of help in skill checks that do not matter much.

Besides just skill checks, some crisis cards mark the arrival of Cylon ships that arrive to harass and attack Galactica. The card shows how to set up the board and where to add ships, including the helpless civilian ships that Galactica is trying to protect. If one of them is destroyed, you turn it over and the human players loses the resources listed on the back of it (usually population, but occasionally one of the other resources is lost as well). This sets up a situation where pilot characters can jump out in Vipers to attack the Cylons and protect the civilian ships, or non-pilots can move to the Command location on Galactica and order around "unmanned" Vipers to attack and defend. "Unmanned" is a game term, meaning that one of the player's is not piloting it; just assume it is just a random extra from the show piloting it. Character pilots are much better than unmanned ships, so it makes sense to get them out there to help if possible.

The bottom of each Crisis card also resolves which of the Cylon ships activates and moves and/or attacks and it also notifies the players if Galactica's FTL drive cycles or not. Galactica will automatically jump (moving closer to Kobol and winning as well as removing any Cylon ships from the board) once the FTL drive has cycled five times. However, after three cycles, the humans can try to jump early, but they risk losing 3 population. After four times, they risk losing 1 population. That can be a tough loss, but there are times where it is strategically necessary to take the risk.

As an action, a hidden Cylon player can reveal themselves on their turn. By doing so, they lose the abilities on their character cards (which, in most cases, can be used effectively to help OR hinder the humans, depending on the application), but gain a host of other abilities. A revealed Cylon character still takes their turn, but their move is limited to four Cylon locations. Each location allows the Cylon player to take an action that will affect and hinder the humans in a different way, from making them resolve more Crisis cards to activating portions of the Cylon fleet to attack. These present a host of strategic options for a Cylon player to use and do not leave the Cylon player with just one rote mechanic to stymie the human players.

Some of the actions that can be taken (through Quorum cards, successful (and failed) skill checks and locations on the board) can be used to restrict and restrain other characters that you believe may be a hidden Cylon agent (or, a hidden Cylon agent can do it to the human to delay and hamper their useful characters, usually exposing themselves by the nature of their action, unless they've successfully cast suspicion on other characters prior). Characters can be sent to the brig, where they cannot move out of unless they pass a skill check, though the other players and Destiny still adds to the check. If a character is in the brig, they can only put one card towards each skill check. So, if you suspect a Cylon sabotaging the checks, putting them in the brig really hampers their ability. However, if you are wrong, putting a human in the brig limits the amount of help that they can give and it means the Cylon player will have fewer cards to play against to lower a total.

Finally, there is the "Sympathizer" card. This is added to the mix of loyalty cards during the SECOND round of loyalty cards being passed out in the four and six player games. Whoever gets the Sympathizer card reveals it immediately and is placed in the brig. They are human (unless their first card revealed them to be a Cylon) and their ultimately loyalty is determined then. If the human players are doing poorly (in game terms, they have already been reduced to less than half of one of their resources) they side with the humans. If the humans are doing well (they still have more than half of each of their resources), then they side with the Cylons. The do not have quite all of the powers as a Cylon does, but they can still hamper and harass Galactica effectively. This mechanic basically evens out the game at the half-way point, ensuring that neither side runs away with it.


The Theme:

Theme is usually one of the more important traits to a game for me. Battlestar Galactica really sets a great atmosphere of tenseness and suspicion. The characters are all from the series and the Crisis Cards each deal with a situation from the miniseries or first season of the show.

That being said, if you are not familiar with the show, the cards do not really do much to bring you into the plot. You have a picture and quote from the show, but really not much more to bring you into what exactly is happening. The card might be titled "Rescue Mission" and have a quote from an episode, but that is really it. I suppose that is enough to get the gist of what is occurring, but really Crisis cards just seem to turn into a glossing over of the plot and simply looking at the skills required and the penalties. Being a fan of the show, I'm familiar enough with everything that is going on and what it represented. I am curious how it would play out with a couple of gamers not familiar with the show. Would it detract from the game for them? I am not sure. For me, the story-telling theme is lost a bit, but the tension and suspicion more than makes up for it.

To me, that is what this game is really about: Suspicion and lack of trust. I love it when I am a Cylon and can make others believe that someone else might be a Cylon. I love being a human and not knowing who to trust and who to turn to at any time to trust to make the right move. And that is the thing about this game. There are MANY points during it when things have gotten so tense that a move might be required on someone's turn, but you can never fully trust if they will act in the interest of the humans or if they will take advantage of the situation and turn on humanity.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is relatively low. The rulebook is 32 pages of large type and riddled with pictures for examples of gameplay.

The wife and I played a couple of two-player games (which does not really work thematically or mechanically as far as traitors are concerned) to familiarize ourselves with the rules before presenting it to our gaming club weekend play. That helped us out a lot, as I hate having to refer to rules so often while learning a new game with a bunch of other people playing. In our trial games, we referred to the rules a couple of times, but gameplay went smoothly and easily our first time out. The only bad part about that was that it had whetted our appetites to play it for real and we still needed to wait a week and a half to play it with a full group. Even without the full mechanics in place, we enjoyed playing 2 players enough to do it a couple more times for fun before playing it for real.

Since playing it with more, however, and seeing all of the mechanics in play, I would not be able to go back to the shallow 2-player game that we tried out. The glory of this game is the suspicion and the accusations.


The Components:

It's from Fantasy Flight, so the components are excellent. The board is efficient, but just a little bland with a bunch of open spaces (yes, I know that those big open spaces are supposed to represent, well, space). However, those spaces fill up pretty quickly and nicely with enemy ships, so as a human player, you start to miss the blank open spaces.

The characters are represented by thick cardboard standees and they work well enough. I almost prefer them to plastic figures. Unless painted, figures all tend to blend into one another's appearance and it is difficult to tell who is who. The ships are represented by plastic ships and are of good, detailed quality.

The chits are color-printed thick cardboard and are study and efficient. Everything is about what I would come to expect from a Fantasy Flight game.

The printing edition that was available at GenCon has a few minor printing errors on it, but they are already being corrected (with replacements handed out by FFG at GenCon).


Playing the Game:

Wow.

I have been impressed with this game on every game play. With the exception of one play, every game that we have played has been remarkably close and ended in the final moments. The Cylon players seem to win about as often as the human players. Each time it has come down to the wire for the finish. Well, except once, but that seemed to be just the perfect storm for the Cylon wins. Two of the most experienced players were dealt Cylon cards in the first round of loyalty and Crisis card after Crisis card brought out more and more Cylon ships and activated them one after another. The Cylons, seeing how hurt Galactica that early, revealed themselves right away to add to the pile on (since the ship was being pounded, there was no need for subtlety this time around). I think Galactica made one jump before it was destroyed. But I have played enough times now that I can pretty safely say that that was a rare anomaly.

What makes the game work is the hidden Cylon treachery. The first half of the game, accusations may be made and discussed, but it is fully possible that everyone is human. Still, you over-analyze everyone's moves and every step they take. You also have to be worried about the moves you make. Despite what the consensus of other players believes, I think I know a better move to make. But if I make it, will they think that I am a Cylon and going against them? Perhaps a hidden Cylon player has convinced them that the wrong move is better and I should make my move anyhow, even if it adds suspicion to me. And, as a hidden Cylon player, the gaming could not be sweeter. I love playing against one another and gaining other player’s trust only to smash their hopes and faith when I finally am in the position to make the best possible move.

Unlike Shadows over Camelot, which has a similar traitor mechanic, the gameplay works much better for the traitors. I was afraid that BSG was going to be a simple retheming of SoC, but it is not. In SoC, you remained hidden as the traitor not because it necessarily was the best optimal move, but because you wanted to play along with the theme. Then, once revealed, you primarily spent your time adding catapults. BSG offers a LOT more options to the Cylons. There are a lot of reasons to remain hidden as a Cylon on Galactica. You can wait for the perfect opportunity to use your character ability against Galactica before revealing yourself. And you have more influence over skill checks. And once revealed, you have a host of options available to you, each one just as useful depending on the situation at hand.

The Sympathizer card balances the end game well and, as I've said, each game has been a squeaker victory for either side. And as far as resources go, that varies as well to which ones will be a primary concern. There may be one game where the human morale is teetering on the edge, but the next game, it is fine, but fuel or food is the primary issue.

There are means of looking at one of another character's loyalty card, which is fun as well. You can trust someone, at least until the next cards are dealt out. Or you only get to see one of their two cards if it is in the second half. As a hidden Cylon, if I see a human loyalty card, then I could accuse them as being a Cylon and try to place the blame and heat on them while I position myself better. But it is all well balanced since you do not get to see all of the cards that a player has at once. Either they have not been dealt the other yet, or you only get to see one of their two cards. So, even if you see a "human" card, you can still never be completely sure.

Now, there have been a couple of times where no enemy ships arrived for long stretches and the only challenges were just skill checks at the end of the rounds. This can drag and be a little slow, however, the shadow of doubt on your other players is still there and it tends to keep things just interesting enough as to not drag on. This, however, could be affected by player types. If you sit there are your group just takes an action, then flips a Crisis card to resolve without much chatter, then it will drag. However, the game is made to be played vocally. Speak your thoughts. Suggest who you think is a Cylon and why. Scrutinize their actions and call them out on it. That dialogue gets interesting and ensures that there is enough going on at the table that the tension level never really drops.

The game also plays well with three players, but you do lose a bit with the supicion, which is such a large portion of the game's fun. With more players, there are more people to suspect (or to accuse, rightly or wrongly) and it really adds to the amount of fun. It is still very playable with three players and just as challenging, but it lessens the accusations and table chatter, which makes it that much more fun.


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. She's not really a wargame fan and games with a lot of direct conflict are often hit-or-miss with her (despite the fact that she is deceptively good at them). Since a good portion of my gameplaying involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

Fortunately, I married a geek. She watches "Battlestar Galactica" with me and really loves the show. This was not a hard sell at all to get her interested in it. And once played, even in our limited trial versions to learn the rules, she fell in love with the game.

Part of the fondness she has for this game may be attributed to her crush on "Chief" Tyrol, but even on the games where she's been convinced to play someone else instead, she still has enjoyed herself immensely playing it.

This currently is her favorite game (surprisingly surpassing Arkham Horror) and she will usually quickly suggest this to play if there are 3 or more gamers around at any time.


The Pros:

*Well-produced game pieces.
*Great involvement of the Cylon/traitor mechanic.
*Incredibly balanced as far as humans vs. Cylons.
*A great atmosphere of suspicion and tension.
*You have an excuse to look at a friend of yours and say in your best Saul Tigh voice, "He's a frakking toaster, throw him out the airlock."


The Cons:

*The Crisis cards are a bit minimalist as far as theme and story presentation.
*Could drag on at points if your group is not the kind that likes table chatter accusations.


Overall: Since this is a newer game, I don't want to say that it is my favorite game just in case the "newness" will wear off a bit. However, I can easily say that this game is firmly in my top three. I have been impressed with the gameplay and it is one of those games that fits very well into my gaming group. I foresee this being a gaming favorite for a long time to come.


9.5/10

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