Posted on October 3, 2008 by Flames
When I first heard about the Battlestar Galactica boardgame, earlier this year, I was interested in the game but not really dying to buy a copy. Sure, the Shadows Over Camelot-like approach to the game sounded fun, and the theme interested me, but I wasn’t so excited that I kept a close eye on rumors and new about the game. And when presented with an opportunity to buy the game at GenCon, I let is slip through my fingers (unlike The Black Goat of the Woods, which I immediately snagged). It wasn’t until I started hearing about the gameplay that I directed serious attention at the game.
At PAX, as soon as I saw Fantasy Flight only had a few copies remaining, I grabbed them both, fully intending to buy the last two copies. Just as I was about to spend the money, though, someone else came by searching for a copy so I handed him one of the two I had; everyone else in the office who wanted a copy would have to wait for the game’s official release.
So what’s the game? As if you don’t already know. Still, let me knock out some introductory text just in case you really don’t know what the game is about.
Based on the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica series, Fantasy Flight Games’ Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is a competitive/cooperative game in which the players play against the game itself. Their objective? To escape before the Cylons manage to reduce one of four resources to zero. Unfortunately for the players, one or more of their number may secretly be Cylons working to counteract their actions.
My experience with the Battlestar Galactica series is limited to watching the first eight or nine episodes of the series. While entertaining, the series didn’t capture my attention long enough for me to continue past that point. The fun I’ve had playing this game, though, has me reconsidering my opinion of the series and thinking about watching all of the episodes that are now available on DVD. The game is that much fun. What makes it fun? Well . . .
Cooperative Play. I’m finding that games like Arkham Horror and Pandemic — games in which the group is working together to win — make for a tense, exciting session. Some of the most fun I’ve had with board games over the past few years has been during cooperative games with six or more players. (It’s unfortunate that Pandemic can’t handle large groups, but the game’s fast playing time more than makes up for that one flaw.)
Traitors. As exciting as cooperative games are, the interaction at the table becomes a lot more interesting in games in which there are one or more secret traitors hidden amongst the group of players. In the Battlestar Galactica games I’ve participated in, this element of gameplay has been more exciting than our most knock-down, drag-out games of Shadows Over Camelot. The fact that the game is difficult for the players to win without hidden Cylons just makes the accusations stronger, more frequent, and louder (Will screaming at me after I called him Cylon about three thousand times was pretty funny; especially since I was the Cylon). Whereas in Shadows Over Camelot an accidental move by a player will result in some mild teasing, an accidental move in Battlestar Galactica is always followed by a few minutes of harsh, brutal accusations and name calling. I love this.
Fast Player Turns. Most turns never take more than two or three minutes, and those that stretch out to five or six minutes are those that involve all of the players and build tension – most of the time these are turns in which more Cylon ships appear on the board and/or turns in which the Cylon ships activate. With a game that can last up to three (or more!) hours, fast player turns are important to holding everyone’s attention and Battlestar Galactica does an excellent job in this area.
Update After Last Night’s Game: Yes, the player turns in this game are fast. Shadlyn and Fox joined us last night and this was their first time playing the game. After a couple of rounds both of them were blowing through turns in two or three minutes. I hope Fantasy Flight Games takes a close look at the player turns in this game and works to keep fast turns in future games.
With those points – and my own opinions – in mind, let’s take a closer look at the game.
Secrecy is so important to the play of the game that there’s a section of boxed text in the rulebook that addresses what information players may or may not share with each other during the game. The game encourages what it calls “blind” accusations, with a note saying: “Although these blind accusations have no game effects, they can help, or confuse, the human players in their hunt to find the Cylons.”
Unfortunately, as important as secrecy is to the game, this particular box is shoved all the way back on p. 20 (of a 32-page rulebook). Before your first play, I recommend that one of the players read this box aloud to the group. Your game will be more fun if everyone has a clear idea of what is and is not allowed before the game starts. And encouraging the players to accuse each other of being Cylons is worth the effort, since that can only lead to a more enjoyable experience.
Like many Fantasy Flight products, the Battlestar Galactica game is packed – in one of their standard (approximately) one-foot by one-foot boxes – with several high-quality components. Inside the box you will find:
Gameboard. This quad-fold board expands out to almost two-foot square and depicts the Galactica and space around it, Colonial One, Cylon locations, spaces for different card decks and human ship reserves, and tracking devices for the four human resources. The board requires a little assembly before the first game – the resources use dials to track their current values – but this only takes a few moments of your time and once completed is ready for all future games. The board appeared fairly sturdy at first, but is already starting to split on one fold.
Character Sheets and Stands. Ten total, one for each character. The cardstock character sheets show each character’s skills and special abilities while the character stands are used to show each character’s current location during the game. Some characters are pilots, and also have a small disc that is placed under a ship when they are piloting. The cards are attractive, though there was a misprint on one. FFG had replacements available, so it wasn’t a huge problem, and it sounds as if this problem is fixed for the actual release.
Chipboard Bits. There are a lot of pieces used to represent damage, civilian ships and Cylon basestars, nukes, and other assorted bits that will be needed during the game. These are all linen-finish bits and I have no complaints with the quality.
Plastic Ships. Four different ship designs – Vipers, Raptors, Cylon Raiders, and Heavy Raiders – and a total of 32 ships. The Vipers and Raptors are limited and once destroyed/lost, there’s very little that will bring in a replacement. Cylon ships, once destroyed, are returned to the pool; it’s as if there’s an infinite number of these ready to attack the human players.
Cards. A mix of small cards and large cards, divided into six different decks (plus a few one-off cards). The card decks are: Skill Cards (five different types), Destination Cards (used when the players manage to jump the ship), Quorum Cards (political cards), Crisis and Super Crisis Cards (these are very bad for the humans), and Loyalty Cards (are you a Cylon?). These are the same physical quality as cards found in most Fantasy Flight products. (This means, these are nice cards.)
Die. Yes, the game uses one d8.
Overall the components are nice, but not at the same level of “Wow!” that you get when you open up some of the other Fantasy Flight products (I’m specifically thinking of Descent and Starcraft). For $40 – and for what the game needs to function – the components are excellent; better quality than what many other companies provide these days.
Gameplay, Setup and Player Turns
Before the game starts, the four resource dials are set (the rulebook includes a default setting and recommended settings to make the game easier or harder for the human players) and each player selects a character and places his stand in the starting location specified on the character sheet. Loyalty cards are then dealt to the players (face-down, and kept secret), and one player is selected to take the first turn. It’s actually a very simple setup that only takes five to ten minutes, depending on how anal you are about separating and bagging the individual components. (Randy was around when we last packed the game, so my set is separated and bagged a little more than most of my other games, though not to the same extreme as Randy’s copy of Starcraft; he’s got a problem.)
Each player’s turn, as I’ve mentioned, is fairly short. Players take the following steps on a turn:
Skills. At the start of each turn, players draw a number (and type) of Skill Cards depending on the information on their character sheet. The five skills (and thus, five Skill Card types) are: Leadership (Green), Tactics (Purple), Piloting (Red), Politics (Yellow), and Engineering (Blue). These Skill Cards are vital to the game’s Skill Check mechanic, see below, and may also be used for actions.
Example: The “Strategic Planning” Tactics card may be played as a 3 value Tactics card during a Skill Check or it may be played for its card effect, which reads: “Play before any die roll to add 2 to the result. Limit of 1 ‘Strategic Planning’ card used per die roll.”
Revealed Cylons may draw only two cards (of any color).
Move. A character can move to another location on the board where they then act.
Action. Players can perform actions depending on where they are on the board, special abilities offered by their character sheets, or actions on Skill Cards. While each player may take only one action each turn, some actions activate other actions (sometimes for other players).
Crisis Card. This is the heart of the conflict each turn, as the Crisis Cards represent the “monkey wrench” that gums up the players’ plans every turn. Many Crisis Cards require a player to choose one of several actions (all bad) while others just occur – Cylon ship placement – and still others require the humans to succeed at a Skill Check, see below, or else suffer some terrible consequences. Out of all of the different elements of the game, this one feels the most suited to expansions (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Fantasy Flight Games released a card expansion for this game some time in 2009).
Cylon Ships. (Not always.) At the bottom of many Crisis Cards are various icons that represent basestars launching Raiders, Raiders attacking/moving, basestars attacking, and other ways in which the Cylon ships on the board can disrupt the human players’ day. Cylon Raiders are the real nasty bits, since there can be so many of them on the board at a time, as they move from space zone to space zone destroying Vipers and civilian ships. The loss of a Viper is painful, but not as painful as the loss of a civilian ship; the civilians’ ships are represented by tokens and when one is destroyed it is flipped over to reveal the result (most often population loss). It’s a simple, elegant system that really increases the tension as the population dial sinks lower and lower. Fortunately, one of the locations on the Galactica gives players an opportunity to communicate with – check out the reverse side of – a civilian ship before it is attacked. This can be very useful, and sometimes spell the difference between loss now (or loss later), since it helps the human players determine where to spend their actions (should I launch Vipers this turn or deal with the Centurions that are boarding us?).
Jump. (Not always, though the players will start to wish they could jump on each turn.) Also on some Crisis Cards is a jump icon, which advances the fleet token on the jump track. Once the token reaches the end of the track, the Galactica jumps and the human players move just a little closer to winning the game.
Jumping and Destination Cards
On the gameboard is a jump track which advances, as Crisis Cards are played, through six stages. The first three stages are just time keepers – the token moves a step – while the last three are when the players can interact with the jump track. Stages four and five allow a player to use the FTL Control location to force the fleet to jump, though there’s a chance that population will be lost, while stage six is an autojump.
When the Galactica jumps, the Admiral player takes the top two Destination Cards and secretly chooses one to play. Most of the cards are bad for the humans – “Asteroid Field,” for example, forces the humans to lose 2 fuel and 1 random civilian ship – while others are very bad – “Cylon Ambush,” for example, forces the humans to lose 1 fuel and Cylon ships are placed on the board. When the Admiral is a Cylon, he can cause serious damage to the human players’ cause. And since the second, unused card is placed on the bottom of the deck and not shown to the other players, there’s no way for them to prove that the Admiral didn’t make the best choice for the human side. This is one more way in which the game helps build the tension during the session. (And having been a Cylon Admiral, I can say that it’s a lot of fun to act as if you’re forced to choose between two terrible options when in fact you’re lying through your teeth.)
Gameplay, Skill Checks
Throughout the game, whenever a player attempts an action on some of the board spaces, or during the resolution of most Crisis Cards, the players will enter into Skill Checks. Whenever a Skill Check is attempted, two random cards are drawn from the Destiny Deck – a small deck of 10 cards created from two of each of the Skill Card types – and placed face-down. In turn, clockwise from the active player, each player may then add zero to his entire hand of cards to the check; again, all cards are placed face-down. The active player is the last to add cards to the check and then shuffles the cards and resolves the check.
A check is always a target number – anywhere from 6 to 24 – that must be reached with a specific set of cards. Any cards not of the designated types count negative toward the value.
Example: The Crisis Card “Network Computers” has a Skill Check value of 11 with Yellow, Purple, and Blue cards counting favorably for the human players. The values printed on any Yellow, Purple, or Blue Skill Cards played on this check are added together and then the values on any Green or Red cards played on this check are subtracted from the sum of Yellow, Purple, and Blue. If the total, after the negative card values are subtracted, is equal to 11 or higher then the humans increase the Jump track by 1. If the total is 10 or less, then bad things happen.
Skill Checks are a great way to watch for Cylons. If a total of seven cards are played to the check, and four of them are bad for the check, then you know someone (or someones) added two bad cards to the mix; it’s possible that the cards from the Destiny Deck were bad. This interaction, more than any other, has led to wild accusations during the games I’ve played in.
There are a lot of Skill Checks during the game, so players need to keep a close eye on their Skill Cards. Play too many in a check and you won’t have any to contribute to future checks until you get another turn. Play too few, and you may be accused of being a Cylon. It’s a brutal choice to make almost every turn, but the result is fun.
Gameplay, Revealed Cylons
So you’ve got a Cylon card and you’re ready to show your true colors. It’s easy – just reveal the card on your turn as an action – but be aware that your options in the game are going to become severely limited. In my opinion, based on only three plays of the game (two as a Cylon) it’s best to hold off on revealing your Cylon card until the humans are very, very close to losing the game.
As a Cylon, a player may take the following actions:
Skills. A Cylon player no longer draws the skills on his Character Sheet but, instead, draws any two Skill Cards each turn.
Move. There are four gameboard locations specifically for Cylon players.
Action. Cylon actions are limited to those on the four Cylon spaces. Unfortunately for the humans, all of these can have nasty consequences. (In the games I’ve been in, Cylons usually stick to the Caprica location, where a Cylon can draw two Crisis Cards and choose one to immediately play.)
And that’s it for revealed Cylon options. I haven’t encountered it yet, but I can see where a Cylon player could grow bored with the game if he reveals himself too early.
As the human’s resources slowly drop, the group can start to feel the game coming to a close. Once any resource drops to 3, all players – human and Cylon – need to start unloading with everything that they’ve got; the humans working to protect (and, if possible, boost) the low resource while the Cylons do anything in their power to hammer that resource.
I’ve noticed that the endgame tension grows rapidly, with each Crisis Card – and every player action – building to the final seconds of the game. In the most recent game I was in, Fox played his “Bomb on Colonial 1” Super Crisis card which is a 15 Purple, Red, Blue Skill Check. I was the only human player able to add a card, so we failed the check; the “fail” result was just enough to knock our morale resource to 0 so the humans lost. When I looked at my hand, and saw what I was holding, I knew we were doomed. And even though I lost the game, the interaction between all of the players – I was certain Shadlyn was the Cylon so when I had a chance to see one of her Loyalty card, and saw it was a “Not,” I kept acting like she was a Cylon because I was positive her other card was a Cylon card – made the two hours that we played so much fun that the time was well worth it.
My advice? If you’re a human, take any opportunity you get to boost any resource, whether or not it’s low at that exact moment. And don’t be so sure of yourself when you decide that another player is a Cylon; that line of thinking is, in my opinion, what led to the loss in the last game. If I had listened to Shadlyn and directed some of my attention to Fox we would have caught him and thrown him in the Brig; the damage he caused before he was revealed is a lot of what led to the human loss.
If you’re Cylon, choose another player and take every opportunity you get to call him a Cylon. Do anything in your power to sway the other players, to get them to start thinking like you do. And, once everyone agrees with you, toss that unfortunate player right into the Brig. Once there, he can inflict less damage to your cause and keep the accusations away from you.
This is by no means the only review of Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game that you can read online. Several others exist, including one by Scott H. at BGG.com and one by Mr. Bistro at Fortress Ameritrash.
Scott H. writes in his BGG.com review:
“When I first heard about the hidden cylons, etc., being in the game I immediately though(t) it was going to just be a Shadows Over Camelot clone, a game I don’t really care about. It’s not.”
I had the same thought as soon as the game was announced. And while it does have some of the feel of Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game takes the paranoia and backstabbing to a new level; the game session sometimes feels like it’s going to go off the rails as the anger rises and the players throw curses and accusations left and right.
Mr. Bistro writes in his Fortress Ameritrash review:
“Playing BSG is a fantastic experience, but one that depends heavily on the players. An idiot Cylon player can make things too easy for the humans, either by not doing enough, or by being revealed too quickly. Humans who aren’t on their toes will find themselves without hope faster then they may like. And of course in a game like this, it’s all about milking the tension and mistrust for everything it is worth.”
I can agree completely with the first sentence, since it is a game built completely around player interaction. I don’t agree that an idiot Cylon player can make the game to easy for the humans, though. The board – and Crisis Cards – are nasty, and having the right mix of Skill Cards, at the right time, can sometimes decide whether or not the humans win or lose. And unlike many games I’ve encountered, the game appears to play faster – and the humans definitely have a higher chance of success – with more players.
In the same review, Mr. Bistro’s conclusion gets right to the point of why I think this game is one of the greats of 2008. In his review he says:
“The first time I played, and my group faced its first crisis, and after we revealed the cards that had been played and realized someone had without a doubt sabotaged us, we all swore. But then we started laughing, because at that moment we all became suspicious, sneaky sons of bitches in each other’s eyes, and we knew we were in for some fun.”
Hell, yes, Mr. Bistro. Every other player’s a Cylon until proven otherwise.
Review by Philip Reed