Monday, January 2, 2012

The Cylons are Coming, the Cylons are Coming

Battlestar Galactica
  • Designed by Corey Konieczka
  • Published in the U.S. by Fantasy Flight Games
  • Plays 3-6 players in the base game, up to 7 with the Pegasus expansion.  Best with 5 or 6 players, with 5 being better than 6.
  • Play time is around 3 hours, which can vary depending on player experience.

I decided to depart from my normal review format a bit for BSG.  I’ve brought in my friend Josh, and we’re going to have a running discussion on the game while still covering all the main review points.
Battlestar Galactica or “BSG” is a semi-co-operative game.  It follows roughly the first season and a half of the television show, as the crew deals with the massive assault on their homeworlds and the realization that the cylons now look like humans.  This comes into game terms by handing a loyalty card to every player.  Most of them say “You are not a cylon” but one or two of them, depending on player numbers say “You are a cylon”  Players get another loyalty card at the half way point in the game, which usually means someone will switch teams from human to cylon.  The uncertainty brought in through this is a great driving force in the game, and causes everyone to play the first half a little cautiously since you don’t know if you’ll switch sides or not.
The game progresses through a series of “jumps” to different locations, which are brought on by crisis cards. These cards force players to make decisions on resource loss, or the loss of skill cards to try to avoid said losses.  This continues until the fleet jumps a distance of 8, usually accomplished in 3-4 jumps, and then jumps again, or one resource drops to zero.  It’s a great balancing act between losing some of everything without losing too much of any one thing.
D: Ok, so let's talk about components.  It’s a FFG game, so a lot of detail has been put into the game pieces.  What are your favorite pieces?
J: Definitely the toys (meaning vipers, raptors, raiders, heavy raiders). They work well with the board setup.
D: Now, one thing I would have loved to see would be painted minis, do you think those would help the game at all?
J: I guess. I don’t really care personally, but it might be cool for long time fans of the show.
D: I’d say that BSG has the best components in a game I’ve ever seen.  Do you agree with that, and is there anything you’d change or add in regards to the components?
J: Yeah definitely, there's just so much to handle, it's exciting for everyone(meaning everyone has something to do).  I wouldn’t add anything. I feel like you need that many components to make the game true to the show, it's pretty much the simplest they could have made the mechanism and adding anything would clutter the game.
D: That’s probably the best way to put it. The components are very true to the show and that makes them great, even if you don’t know the show. 
D: I give the components a solid 10/10. If you’re looking for awesome miniatures that have a great use in the game, this is for you.
J: I agree with 10/10.  Especially with the variety in the skill decks.  Different players get to handle different things, and it keeps things exciting.
Game Mechanics
J: The important thing to note is that BSG takes awhile to learn and you will most likely be completely confused the first time you play it.
J: Speaking strictly about mechanics, it's won't always feel really balanced between human/cylon, since human wins tend to happen more as the playing group as a whole gets better, but from our experience I think it still feels pretty balanced.
D: Right, it has a learning curve to be sure, but the actual mechanics are fairly easy to pick up since it's basically draw cards, move your character, do an action, then draw a crisis card.
J: oh yeah, that's definitely simple, but even that's complicated by Executive Orders and stuff, and the insane amount of options you have for an action, playing cards or activating locations, as well as the President and Admiral title cards.
D: True, the good thing is that not every possible action is useful on every turn, so the options do slim down.
J: Once you start seeing crises come and go, it starts making sense.
D:Right, and the crisis cards are the driving force of the game. I think that's the hardest part for new people to see since everyone worries about failing a check not understanding that some are more crucial than others.
Dwindling resources add to the tension
J: Yeah the skill check is definitely the most complex mechanic. New players always panic over whether they should keep cards or play them... sometimes for like ten minutes.. And let’s not forget secrecy rules.
D: Of course. The secrecy rules in BSG are a bit strict. Basically, you can never say exactly what you have, only make vague assertions about things.  Of course different playgroups will have different enforcement levels. I think we’ve tried to be a little more relaxed on things, without getting rid of the balance.
J: The secrecy rule is one of the hardest parts of BSG. It still confuses even the most advanced players, since there is a lot of wiggle room.
D: True, I think the key is to be relaxed with new players, let people learn the game, and then correct for the future rather than admonish the past mistakes.
J: I score the mechanics as an 8.6. Because the basic mechanics are easy to understand and once you actually get them each turn becomes a lot of fun. The only reason I take some off is that it'll take some players a long time to even understand the simple things. But again i think for staying true to the show that's about as simple as they can get. 
D: I give the game turn mechanics an uninspired 5/10. It all boils down to draw cards, do something, draw a crisis, rinse repeat, every once in awhile something different happens. 
One of the most interactive parts, the skill checks
Player Interaction
You’re a cylon. No I’m not, you’re a cylon. Wait a minute, we’re both cylons?
D: The player interaction in BSG often looks like that. Everyone pointing fingers, throwing cylon accusations around, only to be either completely right, or completely wrong.  It makes for entertaining gameplay, that’s for certain.
J: (laughs) Yup... The amount of decision-making involved between the players.. it's truly co-op. It often even gets cutthroat among players on the same team.
D: I think that might be more the people we play with. There’s a few of us who always think we know best. Plus, we’re always worried that the one we trust is secretly the cylon.
J: Between experienced players there'll always be different views on situations. On top of that, the paranoia induced on the human group by the hidden Cylon makes every player really alert to the actions of every other player. Only thing, I guess, it's really easy for new players to get completely ignored and manipulated here.
D: Right, I think we've seen far too many new players just take the approach of "well if you think that's best then ok" rather than doing it themselves.
D: It really is the paranoia that drives BSG. Once you know where everyone stands in terms of teams, it’s a bit boring.
Life in the brig is lonely
J: Yeah, the paranoia is great. Personally, I don't mind that happening, since I love the game's mechanics so much, and just enjoy watching games play out.
D: The other part of player interaction that really shines is you have to listen to everyone else, but that doesn’t mean you have to do what they say.  You make the final call, but if you ignore your teammates too many times, you will find yourself rotting in the brig.
J: Yeah. Wow I also totally forgot the brig. Yeah that makes life miserable for new players too often.
D: Player interaction makes this game for me.  You can never truly know everyone’s true nature until it’s too late.  Sometimes you have to trust someone, and be willing to get hosed by that trust.  For that reason, it’s a 10/10 for interaction from me.
J: It's definitely 10/10 for me. There’s just so much interaction in so many different ways, it's rare there's a boring moment because of all the decision-making. Nearly every turn has at least one difficult decision.

D: Obviously with a licensed game, you’re going to get theme.  Unlike the 300th iteration of Monopoly, this game was specifically designed for Battlestar.  One of the first times I played the game I said something to the effect of “I feel like I’m in the show, and everything is going wrong.” 
One of the character cards you can
choose from at the start of the game
J: Yes, definitely stays true to the show. When I watched the show *after* playing the game it was amazing how everything fit into place. So yeah... definitely a great theme.
D: And that’s where you and I differ. I watched the entire show before playing the game, whereas the game got you to watch the show.  It’s nice to know that both ways work well.  For all the reasons mentioned before, the theme incorporation for me is a solid 10/10.
J:honestly when i played the game first i thought i probably wouldn't like the show.. it was so dark, haha. But yeah, it was mindblowing playing the game like five times, *then* seeing the show and thinking "WOW, that makes SO MUCH more sense!"
I give it a 10/10 but would like to give it a 10.6/10.
Learning Curve - Long-very long
There’s a lot for new players to get.  Don’t think you’ll understand it all after reading the rules, or playing one game.  It probably takes 3-4 games to understand why things are working they way they do. 
Why I like this game
D: For me, this game is all about the people and the theme.  I love the deduction aspect of the game, which really boils down to psychology.  I try to understand why people do what they do, and didn’t do what they didn’t do.  I’d also say most games have been close, where things could go either way in the last few turns, and that’s always a fun place to get to in a game.

J: Once you get to know the game, and get to know all of its idiosyncrasies, you realize it's a strategy game unlike any other. So many exciting components come together to create a fantastic game where you're managing skill card strength, skill card actions, a space battle, and your own loyalty. All while dealing with the paranoia of finding out who's on your team. It shines in player interaction and it's really a new kind of co-op game. The thing I love most about it is that it creates situations where everyone will have a different perspective. My first few games, i stayed quiet and allowed everyone else to give me directions. Once I learned the game, and how to play the Cylon, I found myself talking a lot more and guiding the group towards different decisions, and really becoming a part of the group. The game stays exciting, and things can turn around for either team at any given moment.

Why I don't like this game
D:  If there’s a negative in the base game, it’s lack of variety. This gets addressed with expansions, not always for the best, but options still exist.  The other downside for me as an experienced player is that games run a bit long for what I’m looking to get out of the game.  There are some games that feel insanely close, and those I don’t mind. Heck, I’ve played a 5 hour game that was close all the way through and that was a lot of fun.  It’s the runaway games that seem to take forever that I have a problem with. Also, the game has started to feel a bit samey to me, but I can’t put my finger on why that is.

J: Especially if you're not a regular boardgamer, the first few games are going to suck for you. The other players will make most of the decisions for you, and you might get overwhelmed by the massive rulebook (33 pages). Don't give up though! It all eventually makes sense. Another thing I don't like is how "out of your hands" the game feels. A lot comes down to how kind the Crisis and Destination decks are towards you. You can play an extremely ineffective Cylon, but if the Crisis deck gives the humans streaks of non-jump icons, they are unlikely to emerge victorious. Still, specific situations emerge al the time that give each player their moment, so that's not much of a flaw for me.

D: If you had asked me 6 months ago, I would have given it a 10/10, but now as I’ve been relegated to playing forum games, or Vassel games, it’s dropped down to a 9/10 for me.  I still like the game, but it’s just not as good without knowing your opponents and watching them squirm as you accuse them.
J: Still a 10/10 overall for me.
Will you like this game?
If you’re a fan of Battlestar Galactica the show, you owe it to yourself to give it a play.  If you enjoy longer games with a good theme then you should enjoy BSG.  If you’re looking for something to win by yourself, this isn’t for you.  You have to be willing to work as a team, and not expect everything to go your way.  
Amusing Story about a gameplay
One of the easiest human wins we've ever seen.
All Resources were in the blue when we finished.
For me the most amusing game was the second one I ever played.  It was my first time as a cylon, and on the first skill check I placed cards into the check and my friend says “That’s how a cylon plays cards in a check.” I laughed it off, but the die was cast.  I revealed shortly after sleeper, and passed off my loyalty card.  Another player ended up in the brig, since everyone was convinced he was the cylon.  Fortunately for me, he wasn’t.  The Admiral bided his time, slowly allowing Galactica to take damage, and then revealed at the end, destroying the last two locations as he departed. 
I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the one time I accidentally added 3 cylon cards instead of 2 to the mix.  It still take some grief over that, even three years later.

Final Thought
This game is hard.  It could probably beat a team of only humans. Probably not all the time, but it would still make for some close games.
Also, I used to be an amazing viper pilot, then I took an arrow to the knee so I’m relegated to a desk job.

Want to buy BSG or an expansion and support BoBG?

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