Battlestar Galactica ★★★★
Social deduction games, in which traitors try to subvert a group, tend to be very short. A match of The Resistance, Among Us or Werewolf can be completed in less than half an hour. The average game in the genre is a light affair, as easily played as put away in storage.
Battlestar Galactica, however, isn’t. It’s a serious game, taking two to three hours to play. Its length, seriousness and complexity make it stand out and make it one of the best titles in its field.
Battlestar Galactica is a semi cooperative game in which the remnants of humanity, trapped inside the namesake spaceship and its fleet, try to reach a safe destination amongst the stars. With limited supplies, chased by the enemy Cylon fleet and with traitors on board, their survival is in dire question.
All this is, of course, themed after the TV show, which I’ve never seen. However, even without any point of reference the game produces a strong thematic experience, fraught with difficult choices and a tense atmosphere. It’s willing to play hard, giving it an emotional edge that safer designs lack. Constant attacks, treachery and the occasional dice roll keep us at the edge of our seats.
The game is simpler than it seems at first glance. At the start of each turn we draw five cards. Then we may either play one of them or use one of the spaces on the board. The spaceship is always in need of repairs, under the assault of infiltrators or offering an opportunity for a political shakeup. After making our choice, then we draw a crisis card and the fun begins.
Crises take away from four dials, listing population, morale, fuel and food. If any of them reach zero, humans lose. To prevent this, humans must try to match the number on each crisis card by putting cards facedown. Depending on the nature of the crisis, certain cards add to that number and others take away from it, opening the possibility for sabotage.
Here’s where things get interesting: Often, not even beating the target is enough. The Galactica will keep getting hit and resources will dwindle even in the most optimistic of scenarios. Hence, humans must start making choices: How many resources is it acceptable to spend? Is allowing the president to send another player to jail a sacrifice or a purge?
The way the game works drives conversation. Most of the time spent playing Battlestar Galactica will be spent talking, trying to figure out the best course or subtly nudging the humans towards oblivion. And since the game is long, the consequences of your actions aren’t immediately evident. They must be weighted, not in the present, but in the effect they’ll have several turns from now.
Of course, this is all done with Cylon traitors at the table. Traitors who have an incentive to collaborate until the knife would be fatal and which will slowly poison your crisis response. Traitors who can’t be allowed to be the President but which will make you look suspicious if you try to take their title away.
Taken on their own, the mechanics of Battlestar Galactica are not engaging and, on the whole, rather slow. As players, our actions are limited and only require the most basic card play. There’s a shooting minigame and a handful of questionable places to go. The whole drawing and dumping cards is hopelessly mediocre.
The best example of this is dogfighting. Players can take control of fighters to fend off the Cylon fleet. This is a basic means of defense for the humans and there’s a whole class of character, Pilots, who are specialized on it. But all you do as a pilot is move towards the enemy and roll a die.
There are also a bunch of minor imperfections. The way Cylon attacks work leads to feast or famine situations where too many attacks get grouped together or nothing happens for long. Some characters are much more useful than others and, as a human, there’s really no reason not to cooperate.
But the talking is so good that I don’t mind going through the motions. And not all mechanics are poor. There are some small, but clever twists. First, the traitors don’t know each other. In fact, they might not all be in the game from the start. And once revealed, they aren’t knocked off the game, but keep working against the humans with their own set of actions.
Each character is unique, with an advantage, a drawback and a powerful ability that can only be used once per game. You can vote for President and get access to the powerful Quorum cards or control the ship’s nuclear arsenal as the Admiral. Traitors who aren’t imprisoned may use their special reveal ability for maximum damage.
I think the reason why Galactica remains engaging is that you cannot afford to be brash. In other games decisions are easy because there’s little consequence. There’s not much to lose if I get the wrong person excluded or killed. At worst, the game will be over in a couple rounds so you can be sure to try again.
But in Battlestar Galactica, sending someone to jail is difficult. There’s no automatic vote to get rid of traitors, you have to spend your meager resources trying to imprison another player. Resources that could be spent repairing the ship or solving a crisis. The game is already hard enough on its own to lose more cards. Get it wrong, and the consequences may prove fatal.
Normally, I would be happy killing or excluding a player based on very low odds. If there’s a 30% chance of you being a traitor, I’m sorry but I’m going to make things difficult for you. But in this game, the risk is so high that I would rather endure a traitor laughing to my face than getting it wrong. This results in a tense, gruelling experience far beyond the confines of its mechanics.
The art direction is typical of Fantasy Flight games of its time: Overly dark, a handful of unnecessary miniatures and stock pictures from the TV show. Some of the decisions are a bit baffling. For example, we can use the Flight control space to try a faster-than-light jump. But the jump indicator is located at the other corner of the board. The game’s cards are very small, perhaps a third of a normal size, and filled with tiny text.
But they are all minor annoyances. As a critic, I’m very aware of its flaws. But they have never proven an obstacle in play. The game absorbs me completely and never gets in the way of treachery and trying to keep the spaceship alive. All my matches have been great, tense, fun. Sometimes it goes too long or the outcome is based on luck but I don’t care. The experience is worth it.
One day, I might come back to this review and find it naïve. I might feel the game has become dated and that its flaws have taken it over. But that day isn’t here yet and 12 years after release, Battlestar Galactica remains a game I would gladly play, every week, with anyone.
|BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE BOARD GAME (2008)|
|DESIGN||Corey Konieczka||ART||Kevin Childress Andrew Navaro Brian Schomburg
|PUBLISHER||Fantasy Flight Games||LENGTH||150 Minutes|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||5-6 (Best with 5)||SCORE||★★★★|