The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Battlestar Galactica Intial Thoughts

Given the gaming demographic, I probably don’t neeed to explain Battlestar Galactica (BSG) the series to explain BSG the game. But just to be safe

A technological-advanced, spacefaring humanity created a robot servitor race. And we all know that never ends well. The Cylons (robots) rebelled. War raged until (A generation ago) a peace was signed and the Cylons left. During their exodus, the Cylons designed biological models that look (and act) human; infiltrated humanity, and launched a devastating sneak attack, killing almost everyone. One spaceship (the Battlestar Galactica) is making a run for a mythical safe place and leads a fleet of the last remnants of humanity. Of course, some Cylons are part of the crew.

So BSG deserves a semi-cooperative game. I don’t remember any traitors in Le Morte de Arthur, but BSG has scads. Incidentally, I was quite into the series until they decided to take 16 months or so off, which gave me time to cool down. I haven’t been watching this year. (The writers have been willing to take risks and I appreciate that, I just don’t think many of them worked, and the end of season 3 was fairly appalling. If you want to discuss the series in the comments, feel free, but no spoilers please).

Battlestar Galactica uses the same basic structure as Shadows over Camelot, but evolves the system nicely. You have a character and special powers, a hand of cards, a card that labels you human or Cylon. You take a good action and a bad action. The details vary; the core remains. The loyal humans have plenty of ways to lose – run out of food, fuel, population or morale and game over. The Cylons can get boarders and take over Galactica, or destroy it by bombardment. If you make enough jumps you’ll eventually find Kobol and win.

Like all FFG games, BSG looks great and has a zillion decks of cards (8-ish). Five decks are the skill cards and form the ‘good actions.’ Each card has a value from 1-5 (mainly lower) and an action or ability. Each character’s skill set and draws five cards a turn, but usually split among 3-4 decks. So the fighter pilots draw “piloting” cards and a few others, the chief mainly draws engineering, the president draws political cards, etc. But each character draws from multiple stacks.

The bad action is a deck of cards. Some pick a player (the admiral, the president, or the current player) and force them to choose between two bad options. Some just have a bunch of Cylon ships show up. The rest present a crisis. Here’s clever idea number one. A crisis card presents a set of skills (such as, say, piloting and tactics). Players throw cards (in order) face down into a kitty. The right cards add their value (piloting and tactics in our example), the rest subtract. Everyone can see who throws how many cards into the pool. Then the destiny deck (made up initially of two random cards from each type) tosses two cards in. Those get shuffled up, then revealed and totaled. If you beat the challenge, great! If not, bad things happen.

This mechanism has lots of room for gaming. As a cylon, you can throw in a bad card. Of course, if the destiny deck throws two bad cards in (which happens reasonably often), everyone knows a cylon is lurking. But suppose you go last and throw in three cards (and everyone else put in one) and only one is bad. Now if there’s “One bad card” you start braying about who it could have been. Or you can throw in a bad card only when the player to your right throws in cards, and throw in great cards when that person sits out. In short, you can manipulate the evidence. Are traitor cards often in the “Politics” suit? Well, that probably means a politician is the traitor, not the guy who doesn’t get politics cards. You can also (potentially) track the destiny deck by making some assumptions. And then you get to the “But I know you know” interactions.

Another nice improvement over Shadows — the characters are distinct. Not only does each character draw different cards, they have three special abilities. One “use every turn,” a “once a game” and a drawback. Gaius Baltar (the semi-traitorous scientist in the show) gets to pick one card freely after seeing what the current crisis is and can, once a game, simply look at someone’s loyalty cards. But he gets an additional loyalty card which means a) he’s more likely to be a cylon and b) nobody really trusts him even when he’s human. Clever. The game comes with 10 characters, so plenty of variety. Also, each cylon gets a different special ability and an “Oh My God Horrible” crisis (once they reveal). The cylons also get to make meaningful decisions (once revealed).

The best element comes from the games flow. The game revolves around “jumps.” Players have their turns, but the game flows around jumps. You wait for the jump drive to cycle (and that’s up to the cards). A jump cleans the field. All the players and cards stay the same, but all the dangers get left behind. This means that the game ratchets up the tension (and danger). A bad random event or two, then a basestar appears — Raiders launch and start menacing the fleet (You have to protect the rest of the fleet or lose resources). Boarders approach. Another basestar pops up, the entire fleet is at risk and Galactica is getting pummeled. Everything looks lost, but a jump saves the day! A few turns to regroup, repair, refill hands. After all, there’s only a few bad events. Also, jumping is not entirely random. You can jump early (risking population as ships get left behind)

The game piles on crisis after another, then has the “Whew, made it!” jump. A player’s turn should be fast. Draw a few cards, move to a location, take an action, flip a crisis card. (Resolving the crisis card takes a while). Roughly half of the crisis cards move the jump engine along, and it takes five steps to auto-jump, so you’ll get a jump roughly every 10 turns. The players can move this along by risking early jumps, but a jump happens often. This means that each turn is usually important. The bad things on crisis cards usually involve a decision or debate. You aren’t drawing a card and just mechnically resolving it (moving Excalibur, adding a figure). You which bad thing happens, or ‘vote’. (You do just resolve the enemy ship stuff). Fewer decisions, but more important.

My big beef with Camelot is lack of tension. You get situations where failing a quest wins the game, or a bad start crushes you, or you are on the grail track so you play a grail card. BSG starts with a dire situations – a basestar, raiders, ships in danger. Our game threatened a near loss before the first jump, but then, relative quiet. You make that first jump, all is forgiven. The cylon fleet doesn’t automatically follow you.

More tension: once you’ve covered a certain distance, you deal out another set of loyalty cards. There are two cylon cards (with 5+ players). They may go the same person. They may not. There may have been nobody disloyal until the halfway point, but there’s definitely a traitor now. A previously loyal person may be a traitor. That ratchets up the tension, but you only have a few jumps left to win…

Whatever flaws I may discover, Corey Konieczka has done a terrific job in making a tense game. (Incidentally, I find all the BSG trappings fit nicely. Having watched the show for the first few seasons, none of the details seemed wrong). I thoroughly enjoyed the first play and may have bought a copy right then, except it wasn’t available. In calmer hindsight, I doubt I’ll need one. You can read the session report on SABG.

That being said – flaws. Two cylons on the opening deal (which could happen in a 5+ player game) makes this phenomenally difficult for the humans. Cylons can choose to reveal at any particular moment (and become quite powerful). We didn’t play with six (which also adds a ‘sympathizer’ card which switches a loyalty), but I’m not sure how well this game scales between 3-6. Given that each human has a different skill set, the loss of a human (or two) can be quite crippling just from a card flow perspective. In our game, when I flipped sides, the number of potential “repair” cards being drawn each turn was cut in half. If both cylons have the same skills, humanity has a problem. In short, the difficulty varies randomly.

I’d like to see it go to 7. That’s a tough number to deal with, and I think that semi-cooperative games should handle it. It would probably lessen the difficulty.

Also, the game took over two hours. The time flew by, but this is a longer game. Also, if players start dawdling on their turn, this could easily change to a painfully long game. Not a problem so far.

Perhaps we missed something, but I felt that sniffing out a Cylon should provide the humans with more of a bonus. It does provide a bonus in that if you throw them into the brig the cylon can’t use their “Super reveal” power, but can either just sit there or reveal themselves and escape. We may have a rule wrong, or just missed something.

Continuing to hammer the play balance point – Revealed Cylons get 4 options on their turn, and some are incredibly powerful. Cylons also keep tossing a (single) card into the challenge once revealed, which seems wrong. You shouldn’t be a saboteur and an enemy general at the same time.

I wish that resources (morale, food, population, fuel) had more differentiation. They could be labeled A-B-C-D, for the most part. A minor complaint in a game with so much theme.

There’s lots of chrome, which I like, but it means your first few games may include surprises and caught off guard. “Chief, let me see your loyalty cards!” “What?!?” “Gaius Baltar can, once per game, just look at someone’s loyalty cards.” “Ohhh-Kay.” (passes cards) “He’s a cylon.” Mostly surprises are a good thing, but hyper-planners dislike that sort of thing. One big example, after each jump the admiral picks two cards from the destination deck and reveals one. This shows how much closer we’ve got to Kobol (mainly 1 step, but up to 3) and what we find. If you don’t know this deck, you’ll be hard pressed to make an informed decision if the admiral is screwing you. (In fact, I decided he wasn’t when he was my fellow cylon). The president gets to draw cards from a Quorum deck. “Quorum” implied voting, but judging from the few cards played it involves martial law type powers.

A few fiddly questions popped up that may have been in the rules, but we just resolved them and move on. A few of the (hundreds) of cards weren’t clear. Nothing major.

Component quality is good, as you’d expect from FFG.

I’ll need a few more plays to confirm this, but my opinion right now? BSG takes semi-cooperative games to the next level. Well done.

Update – After I wrote this I perused some of the reviews on BGG. Several people stated BSG was too long and lacked tension. I suppose I could have gotten lucky. I can’t imagine how you can play for 1.5 hours at any speed with nothing happening. The rules also allow for tuning if a group finds the game too hard (or too easy). It may be that the people who played with random gaming groups didn’t have fun, whereas those who played with fun groups had fun.


Written by taogaming

November 18, 2008 at 6:55 pm

2 Responses

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  1. My first (and probably only) BSG game was pretty bad. Of course, it didn’t help that we decided to “learn while playing”. And I’ve never watched the series, so that isn’t too good, either. But I don’t think involved mechanics make too much sense in a co-op and this seems to have way too much going on. Plus, the downtime while we all decided if we were going to fight that turn’s event was brain-numbing. Finally, I got to take shockingly few actions in our two hour game. I think I’ll just stick to standard “winner takes all” games for now.

    Larry Levy

    November 19, 2008 at 9:18 pm

  2. I played this last night, I think I like it. Our game was a bit wonky as the Crisis deck didn’t get shuffled. We had no Basestars show up until the very end.

    The mechanisms aren’t that complex once you learn them. The skill checks are very straightforward, and combat comes down to dicerolls.

    It does seem whether the Cylons show up early or late makes a huge difference. Of course if both Cylons are out on the first round it increases the chance of one of them becoming a Sympathizer at the halfway point if they haven’t revealed yet. A smart Cylon will probably reveal themselves before the jump to 4 if they think Galactica won’t make it, or stay hidden and hope they get turned.


    November 23, 2008 at 10:30 am

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