Sunday, 14 July 2013

Classic WGR Review Revisit: Battlestar Galactica

For some reason Fantasy Flight's Battlestar Galactica has been getting a lot of press on the gaming podcasts I listen to. It's been mentioned on at least four different shows in the last month. This is a game I received for X-mas back in 2010 and first played at a Games & Grub event in 2009. I really loved the game back then and all the talk about it recently had me wanting to play again. So I brought it out to the last Boardgames Are Really Fun event at Villains Beastro last month and then broke it out again last night. Based on those two plays I thought it would be interesting to break out my original review and see if/how my feelings on this game have changed.

Original WGR review from Jan 10, 2010

Quickly - great team game. Note I said team and not co-op.

This board game is based on the new SciFi TV series of the same name. Thankfully you don't really need to know the show as I haven't seen it (I know, I'm a bad Geek, but no Cable means no SciFi network).

This is a team game where the human players play against the cylon players. This is also a bluffing game as you don't know which players are which. The overall goal for the humans is to get Galactica to the planet Kobol and space jump one more time. The goal of the Cyclons is to prevent the humans from doing this.

Each player chooses a character from the series to play. Each character has two advantages and one disadvantage that generally break the rules in a typical exception based ways. After choosing characters players are given a hidden loyalty card that determines which team they are on, Cylon or Human.

The game plays similar to Shadows Over Camelot and a lot of people like to compare the two, which I couldn't help myself. Like Shadows each turn consists of a player moving, doing an action and then drawing a card for something bad to happen. Each player turn is very short due to this. The actions the characters can do are represented on the game board and by skill cards the players collect each turn. Actions include drawing more cards, launching and controlling fighters, firing Galactica's guns, repairing ships, voting in a new President and a ton more.

Each turn a player draws a set of skill cards based on the character they are playing. These cards are used for resolving skill challenges as well as having an ability for each card. The skill card abilities are often actions that a player can take instead of activating a board section and also include a lot of reactionary cards that let you modify die rolls or skill challenges. The skill challenges themselves come up as part of the 'Crisis Card' phase, which is the 'activate evil' part that happens after each turn.

Most Crisis cards are skill challenges. These test the human players by requiring them to play a number of skill cards of certain types to beat a target number of suffer some consequence. The consequences often reduce one or more of the resources that the humans need to win the game. If any of the resources hit 0 the Cylons win. Skill challenges are worked out by players in turn playing a number of skill cards. They can choose to play cards that help complete the challenge or ones that hinder. In addition to this cards drawn from a destiny deck add a random element. All cards are played face down so that the what was played is kept secret. In this way the Cylon players can interfere with the skill challenges and not be instantly revealed.

Other Crisis cards exist which place Cylon, Colonial and Civilian ships on the board. This sets up a space combat aspect of the game. Without going into great detail, the humans can take actions to launch and/or pilot vipers to deal with raiders and the Cylons move about the board trying to wipe out Vipers and civilians. Lost civilians mean lost resources for Gallactica. In addition Galactica itself can be damaged and/or boarded.

The last thing the Crisis cards do is tell you what happens at the end of a turn. Most of the time this means some or all types of Cylon units activate. Raiders attack, Base Stars fire or launch ships, boarding parties try to land. In addition to activation of enemy forces many Crisis cards also allow Galactica to move one step closer to their next Space Jump.

Each Space jump brings the Galactica closer to their goal of Kobal. Eventually the ship must travel 8 'sectors' away and make one more jump. If able to do so before running out of any resources or blowing up, the Humans win. To make things interesting, after Galactica has moved 4 sectors another set of loyalty cards is dealt out. This increases the chances of more Cylon players being present and can often result in a player 'changing sides'. Along with this, in a game with an even number of players, a Sleeper agent enters the game. Brilliantly the sleeper agent generally sides with which ever side is loosing at that point in the game, helping to balance the second half of the game.

In addition to all of this there are also rules for jumping between Galactica and Colonial One, for Cylon players to reveal themselves and take on a different role in the game, for players to send out Raptors on scouting missions, and a ton more. Politics is also a part of the game with one player being assigned the role of Admiral and another being assigned the role of President. Each role giving special 'powers' to these players. A line of succession exists if these people loose their roles.

All of this is a lot harder to type about then it is to understand while playing. It's all rather elegant and simple to get once you have it all in front of you.

The Good:
This is a team game and not a co-op game, which I like. Unlike Shadows where you may all be good guy and generally most players are on the same side, it's possible for this game to be an even split of human and Cylon players. This adds a ton of tension at the beginning of the game before the Cylons reveal themselves. The fact that you get new loyalty cards near the middle of the game is brilliant, as is the sympathizer rule for game balance. It makes it very interesting to be a human during the first half, as you want to do well, but not too well because you may be a cylon for the second half. I really like the skill system, it's a great way for players to play against each other without giving away their sides. Overall there are lots of great gameplay elements. I really like that the Cylon players have quite few options to choose from once they reveal themselves. This one thing makes this game way better then Shadows, where the Traitor is a pretty boring role once revealed.

This is genuinely the best team game I have played. Along with good gameplay you have the excellent Fantasy Flight production values. Nice miniatures, great looking game board, nice full colour instructions etc.

The Bad:
Cardboard Basestars. This is a minor beef, but all the other ships are nice plastic, why not the Basestars. Interestingly I mustn't have been the only one to be bummed by this as the Expansion for the game comes with Plastic Basestars. This ones a bit hard to explain (as I'm sure you can guess from the summary above), which means it's not the easiest to pick up and play right away. I find it particularly hard for any new player who also ends up being a Cylon. Now this is only a problem the first game or two but still it would have been nice to have maybe an intro game with no Cylon players or something to 'break the ice' for new players to the game. I was disappointed by how few different Skill Cards there were. When you first get a mitt full of these they seem really cool and varied, on your third turn though you will realize you will just keep seeing the same cards over and over.

The Ugly:
I personally hate the way Fantasy Flight write their instructions. They always do this thing where they explain the entire game on a couple of pages. Then then explain it again over like 10 pages. Then they summarize the first half of the game over a few pages. Then they go into specifics on the phases of the first half. Then they summarize the second half, then specifics on the second half, and so on. I find it generally means that there are all kinds of little rules hidden all over the place. They even have a section in the back 'usually forgotten rules'. I don't think they would need that if they could just organize better. An index might have helped as well. What this generally means is that you will need the instructions nearby the first few games and after you play a couple times you will want to re-read them and figure out what you missed or have been doing wrong. I also would have liked some type of 'player summary' cards or something that have some of the core concepts spelled out that can be given to players. In addition a card or sheet with the rolls required to destroy or damage a ship.

This is the best team game that I own. I have greatly enjoyed the games I have played of it so far. It's very well balanced and the roleplaying aspects of the game combined with the bluffing of the cylons makes for an excellent social experience. Just don't be fooled into thinking this is a co-op game with a potential traitor, this are and will be cylons each game, probably multiples, this is a Team game, not a co-op game. I definitely recommend this one and expect my copy to get plenty of use at Games and Grubs events.

How I feel now 3 and a half years later:

Well I've got to say that not much has changed. I pretty much nailed most of it on the first review. It's still my favourite co-op/team game that I own. I still hate how few skill cards there are. I now use the plastic Basestars from the expansion every game. I have found the game has gotten easier to explain.

I think the biggest change for me over the last three years is that I've now seen the series. This is both a boon and a bane to playing this game. You definitely don't need to have seen the series to play. Actually having seen the series can really make the game shine. You know who these characters are, you know how the Cylon infiltration went and you can empathize better with the human side. The problem I've found though, especially in my most recent play is a tendency in some players to want to try to re-create the series. Some players can get caught up in playing Baltar from the show instead of playing a new Baltar from the game who may or may not have Cylon connections. Some fans of the show also start off automatically assuming that Cylons from the show will be Cylons in the game.

I think it's well worth while spending some time discussing how this is a board game and not an RPG and that we are trying to re-create the feel and tension of the show and not the exact plot and story. 

So overall more than three years in my copy of Battlestar Gallactica is still hitting the table and I'm still really enjoying it every time I play, even if some players mess it up a bit ;)

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