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Paranoia at its Finest

July 14, 2009

One game just barely missed the cut to be one of the Final Five in my Best in Show article last month highlighting my favorite games from 2008. It's a game where you play the people just as much as the game itself, if not more so. It's a game that you simply have to experience and go along for the ride, and it's one of the most group-dependent games, meaning that your experience will depend in much greater part on the other people involved than in most other games. The game is Battlestar Galactica, based on a television series that ran from 2004 to 2009, which in turn was based on an older television series from the 1970s. The game was designed by Corey Konieczka and published by Fantasy Flight Games. It's nominally for 3 to 6 players, although the consensus seems to be that it's better with more players, with some I've talked to preferring 5 players and others opting for 6 players. I've tried it with 4, 5, and 6 players, not with 3 yet, and enjoyed it with all of these player counts. There were advantages and disadvantages to each player count, which I'll delve into a bit later.

Werewolves in Outer Space

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief

Battlestar Galactica has a lot in common with the more well-known group game/activity Werewolf (also known as Mafia, among other names), but with a more objective basis for the accusations that fly around the table. In Werewolf, each player is secretly assigned to a team, either villager or werewolf, and the goal is to determine the members of the opposing team and kill them. Each turn is divided into two phases - day and night - with all of the players discussing and voting on a player to kill during the day, and with the werewolves secretly selecting a villager to kill during the night. It's part game, part social experiment, as the participants all claim to be a villager during the day, since the werewolves are greatly outnumbered, and the actual villagers try to discern who among them is lying. Werewolf is an enjoyable experience with the right group of people, but the accusations of who is a werewolf are fairly subjective and fickle. Consequently, the "right group" won't spend too long endlessly debating who is a werewolf during the day since there isn't actually anything to base the decision on except intuition and poor poker faces. Battlestar Galactica is different because there is an actual game underlying the experience on which players can base their accusations. At the beginning, players are secretly assigned to a team, either human or cylon (think android that is physically indistinguishable from a human, like Daneel Olivaw from Asimov's Robot and Foundation novels, or the androids in Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and the players on the cylon team must claim to be human because they're outnumbered and aim to subvert from within. Sound familiar? If you enjoy Werewolf and the Battlestar Galactica television show then this board game is really a no brainer; if you enjoy one of those things then this game is worth a shot; and if you enjoy neither then you'd do well to stay far, far away.

The game underlying the experience in Battlestar Galactica upon which the accusations and banter are based is a fairly complex and lengthy game of card/resource management and tactical combat. The humans simply aim to survive for enough time so that sufficient turns elapse for them to reach their destination, the mythical planet of Kobol. The cylons on the other hand try to prevent that from happening by draining the human's resources (i.e., Food, Fuel, Morale, Population) and/or by attacking the human's spaceship (either by shooting it or with a boarding party). There are many ways the cylons can win and only one way the humans can win, although the game appears fairly balanced between the two teams (and the rules mention an easy way to modify the game if your group finds one side winning much more frequently than the other). The game itself hinges on a fairly abstract mechanic called "skill checks" (which represent various crises) in which players secretly contribute cards with a number and color to try to achieve a target total number, with some colors helping and others hurting. This is a great opportunity for the cylons to subvert the humans, but it's also repetitive and there are many, many skill checks throughout the game. Unless the players are able to immerse themselves in the theme and appreciate the crises which the skills checks represent then this abstract element will become boring long before the game draws to a close.

On Pins and Needles

There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief

Paranoia is the name of the game in Battlestar Galactica. Just as in Werewolf and the Battlestar Galactica television show, the players/characters are constantly paranoid about who among them is actually a traitor, merely feigning cooperation. Moreover, the cylons can often unleash a particularly nasty attack when they reveal themselves to be cylons, so the human's anxiety is increased by anticipating this painful yet inevitable betrayal, but not knowing when it's going to come.

Yet another source of tension is the fact that halfway through the game, all of the players receive a second secret role card indicating whether they remain on their current team, or whether they switch from the human team to the cylon team (the reverse cannot happen, cylons never join the human team). This is based thematically on the concept of "sleeper agents" from the television show (i.e., cylons that are programmed to think they're human until they "wake up" and realize their true nature). This is an excellent element of the game because after roughly 90 minutes, just as the players may have finally determined who is on each team, the game throws everyone a curve ball by reassigning roles.

The uneasiness and tension that you feel during the game is what makes the game what it is. Yes there's an actual game underlying the experience unlike in Werewolf, but it's not compelling in its own right and not something you'd want to spend 3 hours playing without the paranoia of secret traitors in your midst.


"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke

Bring Your Own Players. Battlestar Galactica is only as great as its players. Many modern board games are better when playing with a good group of people, but are still enjoyable with just about any group (e.g., Princes of Florence, Goa, Amun-Re, Tikal). This is due to the indirect player interaction (also known somewhat misleadingly as multi-player solitaire) that dominates many games. Battlestar Galactica is a different beast entirely because the game merely provides a framework for your enjoyment, and your group needs to supply the substance of that enjoyment. The players make or break the game because the real game is the discussion that goes on during those 3 hours sitting around the table. Tikal would work in silence, Battlestar Galactica certainly would not. The real game is the accusations and denials that overlay the mechanics. If the players don't get into the spirit of the game and become detectives snooping out the cylons (or cylons leading the humans astray with false accusations and minimal concessions of assistance), then the game will drag on and on interminably. Even when the group really immerses itself in the theme, the game can still overstay its welcome a bit, lasting slightly longer than it probably should, so if the group fails to dive in and let the accusations fly then it will undoubtedly overstay its welcome and then some. Be wary who you sit down to a game of Battlestar Galactica with because that will have a far greater impact on the experience than in most other games.


There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

2008 was the year of the cooperative game, where the genre really came into its own with the breakout hit Pandemic, followed shortly thereafter by Ghost Stories, Red November, and Space Alert. All of these purely cooperative games (except for the minor traitor element of Red November) have built on the previous ideas of Lord of the Rings and Shadows over Camelot, bringing us more complex and engaging cooperative games over the past year. This new trend has allowed me to discover some great games, but Battlestar Galactica is not one of them. There are countless GeekLists on BoardGameGeek listing all of the cooperative games and it seems as if almost all of those lists include Battlestar Galactica. This doesn't make any sense to me because Battlestar Galactica is the furthest thing from cooperative I could possibly imagine. Yes, you work with a few others who have been assigned to the same team as you, if you can even figure out who is telling the truth and actually on your team. But Battlestar Galactica doesn't feel anything like Pandemic, Ghost Stories, Space Alert, etc. Those purely cooperative games are essentially like puzzles. They're enjoyable puzzles, but puzzles. The players put their heads together and come up with the best solution for the puzzle set before them. Battlestar Galactica (and also the card game Saboteur for that matter, which also seems to get mistakenly lumped into the cooperative genre) is really the antithesis of Pandemic and its brethren. The essence of Battlestar Galactica revolves around secretly undermining the opposition, around playing people off each other in order to bend them to your purpose, and around manipulation and deception. If you've played any pure cooperative game like Pandemic then you'll surely know that this doesn't sound anything like Pandemic. And if you've played both Pandemic and Battlestar Galactica then you'll surely recall that the experiences and games were entirely incomparable. They're both good, but they're worlds apart.

Thus, I'd caution anyone against buying Battlestar Galactica if you're looking for a cooperative game to add to your collection. On the other hand, I'd recommend buying it if you're looking for the exact opposite.

Required Viewing

But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate

When I first played Battlestar Galactica I didn't like it at all. It seemed boring, repetitive, and overly long. A few months later a friend recommended that I try watching the television show upon which the board game is based. I started with the miniseries pilot episode and was instantly hooked. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I was also eager to try the board game again because watching the show had given me new hope for the game. I gave the game a second shot and it was an entirely different experience from the first time. It didn't feel like a torturous 3 hours, but rather the 3 hours flew by much more quickly. I understood the background and setting for the players' actions, which made those actions far more meaningful. In addition, since I could identify the characters and events in the game, I could connect with them. Since that much improved second playing, I've begun watching the rest of the series, and played the game a few more times, and I've found that there's a feedback cycle whereby watching the show has improved the game experience and playing the game has improved the watching experience.

I created a thread and set of polls on BoardGameGeek to investigate whether others had encountered the same benefit from watching the show and playing the game in conjunction. While there are certainly dissenting opinions, it appears as if the majority of people have found the same thing as me. I encourage you to check out that thread and set of polls, and to vote and comment as you see fit in order to flesh out the opinions there.

I certainly recommend watching the television series in order to enjoy the board game to its fullest. It may be a good game without knowing the backstory and characters, but it has the potential to be a great game with that knowledge and familiarity.


So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

The game takes too long. As I've mentioned above, even when the group gets into the experience and the game is in full throttle, it still has the tendency to overstay its welcome by a bit. I have no problem whatsoever with long games. I enjoy a nice long game of Die Macher, Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Bonaparte at Marengo, and Twilight Struggle. I have a problem with long games that drag and last longer than they should. Battlestar Galactica has enough game to it to fill 3 hours, but if and when the experience exceeds that and takes 4 hours or more, then there's simply not enough there to hold my interest.

First, the game is inherently repetitive. Every turn you draw skill cards, move, take an action, and draw a crisis card. Every turn. The skill cards are all the same, the actions are not very diverse, and the crisis cards also don't differ much. Despite all this, the game works well, if the players keep it moving and don't dawdle. Second, the downtime between turns has the potential to be painful. If you're playing with 6 people, it can seem like forever before your turn comes around. This depends on the dynamic of the group though because you can be involved in the discussion and debate during other people's turns. Third, revealed cylons can be bored out of their synthetic minds. At some point during the game, the hidden cylon players will want to reveal themselves to cause damage to the ship or crew. But once they've done that, they obviously remain revealed for the rest of the game. They still get to do actions to interfere with the humans, but their range of actions is more limited and they have nothing to do on other people's turns since they can't constructively engage in the discussion among the humans. They have a tendency to disengage at that point and eagerly look forward to the game's conclusion.

The severity of these downsides varies with the number of players involved in the game. As I mentioned before, each player count seems to have advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of playing with 5 or 6 players, which seems to be the generally preferred player count, is that there will be multiple cylons. If you only play with 3 or 4 players then there will only be one cylon working on their own (with the exception of the possible Sympathizer card in a 4-player game). It's nice to have multiple cylons because they get to work together, cover for each other possibly when they're still pretending to be humans, and strategize together once they're revealed as cylons. It's not really a team game unless you have multiple cylons, otherwise it's just 3 on 1, for instance (like Descent vaguely). On the other hand, while playing with 5 or 6 people allows you to have multiple cylons to face off against the human horde, it also means the game will take longer and the problem of downtime between turns will be exacerbated. It's a tricky balancing act figuring out how many people to play with, but 5 might just strike the right balance.

Inevitable Expansion

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

Since it's a Fantasy Flight game, I suppose the upcoming expansion was inevitable. The publisher has announced the Pegasus Expansion for release in a few months. I have high hopes the expansion given the company's track record with expansions. Fantasy Flight has a history of drastically improving their games with subsequent expansions (some might even say fixing the games with necessary additions/modifications), such as the Clash of Kings and Storm of Swords expansions for A Game of Thrones, and the Shattered Empire expansion for Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition. Fortunately I don't think Battlestar Galactica needs a fix, but it could certainly be improved and hopefully the Pegasus Expansion will do just that. Little information has been released about the expansion so far, but it's going to include new characters, crises, and boards, which makes it very intriguing. Battlestar Galactica is clearly a very expandable game, given the plethora of fan-made home brew expansions already available on BoardGameGeek, including new characters and boards, just like the company has announced. However, the one thing the company's expansion will have that the fan-made expansions don't is cylon leader characters, which will hopefully give the revealed cylons something more interesting to do in order to keep them engaged with the game once they've revealed. The new characters, crises, and boards may add interesting variety, but they don't have the potential to fundamentally improve the gameplay like the cylon leaders might (except perhaps the new boards if they alter the structure and flow of the game, which the New Caprica board might, while the Pegasus board seems less likely to do so).

Regardless of what lies in store with the upcoming expansion, the base game packs more than enough in there to keep you busy for a while. It's not a flawless game, but it's certainly a memorable experience.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)