Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Battlestar Galactica

5 Feb 2009. Carcasean boardgame cafe. Chong Sean, Han and I played Battlestar Galactica, one of the hot new games, and a semi-cooperative game, a game with a traitor element. There were only 3 of us. The game is probably best played with 6. But we were keen to play and went ahead even though we didn't have the ideal number of players. This was the first time for all 3 of us.

In Battlestar Galactica (which is based on a sci-fi TV series), the players are humans trying to escape from Cylon (robots) attackers by finding a way back to Earth. There will be crisis after crisis occurring and the humans need to work together to survive them. Cylon spaceships will catch up with the humans, and will attack the human spaceships. Some Cylons will even board the human spaceships. The humans can perform hyperjumps to shake off the Cylon spaceships, but if Cylon boarding parties have invaded the spaceship, these of course will hyperjump together with the spaceship. They need to be defeated in combat quickly.

Then the twist - the traitor(s). Well, strictly speaking these are not traitors but spies. Among the humans are at least one Cylon pretending to be human, who will need to stop the humans from reaching Earth. He can operate secretly, sowing mistrust and sabotaging human efforts resolve crises. He can reveal himself at the right time, and thereafter work openly for the Cylons to try to harm the humans. Some players will find out (secretly) at the start of the game that they are Cylons. Some may only find out in the middle of the game that they are Cylons. The latter are sleeper agents, i.e. they are Cylons programmed to believe they are humans, until some programming triggers them to realise they are in fact Cylons. Something like that. I have not watched the show.

So the game is very much about a spy (or spies) in the midst, while at the same time trying to solve crisis after crisis and trying to survive the challenges that the game system throws at you.

The 10 possible characters that you can play as in Battlestar Galactica. I learned from Han and Chong Sean that in the TV series many of them turned out to be Cylons.

The very many game components. Quite typical of Fantasy Flight Games. This is probably already less than some other even more complex games from them.

In our game, we struggled through the first half trying to learn the game, having to refer to the rulebook many times. I was human. Han and Chong Sean seemed to be humans too. We were all working hard trying to solve the crises. Some were rather nasty, making many Cylon fighters (I forget the name) and Cylon boarding ships (I also forget) appear. Thankfully we always managed to hyperjump before any Cylon boarding parties come onboard our spaceship.

I was the Admiral, and one of my duties whenever we hyperjumped was to draw two cards showing the distance jumped and the penalties / benefits (usually the former), and then choose one without showing the other to the rest of the players. This mechanic is obviously something designed to sow mistrust. Since the other players don't get to compare the two cards, they can't know for sure whether I have chosen the better one. If I was the Cylon I could have chosen the worse card and lied that the other one was worse. If I was human and really drew two bad cards and had to choose one, then the real Cylon (still unrevealed) could accuse me of being the Cylon. Anyway, I happened to draw reasonably good cards, which allowed us to make medium distance hyperjumps, i.e. good progress towards Earth.

The came the mid-game human/Cylon check (I want to refrain from saying loyalty check). We drew our cards. I wasn't a Cylon. Then Han used the once-per-game special ability of his character to look at Chong Sean's loyalty cards. Immediately Han declared that Chong Sean was the Cylon. I looked at Chong Sean's expression, and decided that he was the Cylon. Of course Han could have been the Cylon trying to make false accusations. I had no hard evidence, and just relied on my gut feel. We threw Chong Sean into the brig, where his actions would be very limited. This would minimise the damage he could do to our crises and also prevent him from revealing himself as a Cylon and gain the Cylon abilities to more directly harm us. Chong Sean pleaded repeatedly that he was actually human, but I wasn't convinced. Han and I continued to resolve crisis after crisis, mostly quite successfully. The humans progressed well towards Earth.

Then came the bomb. When we were one turn away from hyperjumping to victory, Han revealed himself as the Cylon, used his reveal-Cylon-one-time-power to throw me into the brig (ouch), and reset the hyperjump readiness track (OUCH!). I was completedly surprised. Chong Sean was probably screaming inside "I TOLD YOU SO!!!". Now the Cylon was at large, and both the humans were stuck in the brig. It took us quite some effort to get out. We used up many skill cards. Han used a crisis card to bring our morale level down to zero, which means game over. Aaarrgghh... I have failed humanity.

Battlestar Galactica is a little challenging to learn at first. Similar to many thematic Fantasy Flight Games, there is a lot of details, special abilities, text on cards, etc. A little overwhelming at first. But actually once we played a few rounds, it is actually not very complex. The skill cards (which you draw five at the start of your turn) actually do not have that much variety. There are not many types so there is much repeating. Once you are familiar with them you just need to see the card name and you'll remember what it does. I think that's good. You spend less time reading text on cards. One thing about such thematic games is sometimes there are rules / special situations / cards / mechanics included for the sake of invoking the theme, rather than for the sake of good gameplay. Different people will have different views of how much of this is acceptable / tolerable. For Battlestar Galactica I feel there is some of this chrome that probably could have been omitted. Sacrifice some thematic element for faster / simpler gameplay. E.g. other than the main spaceship Galactica, players can move to another smaller spaceship to carry out some special actions. I'm not sure how often that smaller spaceship is used. Maybe that could have been omitted. Or maybe it need not have been treated as a separate spaceship, i.e. players need to pay a skill card to move between the 2 spaceships.

Well, I have only played the game once, and I have never watched the show, so my argument is completely based on gut feel. That said, I do not think Battlestar Galactica has too much chrome. I'd say most of the mechanics are just right.

One thing that annoyed me was the need to keep referring to the rulebook for die roll results. Having that table on the board would make things much easier.

Now I'd like to play Battlestar Galactica with 6 players.

1 comment:

Wan Kong Yew said...

Having played a six player session of this last week, I think it plays best at five. One odd thing about this game is that the game has a fixed length, more or less, so the more players there are, the less actions each player has over the course of the game. Plus, the sympathizer role is anti-climactic and somewhat gamey.

Our problem with playing it at CarcaSean is that we get the same players over and over again, so it gets easy to spot people playing differently when they're a Cylon compared to when they're a human. You really need to brush up your acting skills for this one.