Unfathomable vs Battlestar Galactica: Which one is better?
In the 13 years since its release, Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game has become a cult classic. Its fate, however, was tied to that of the TV show. After the license ran out, it became increasingly expensive and hard to find. Now it returns as Unfathomable, with slightly different mechanics and set in a Lovecraftian world. Which one is better, and why?
EXPANDING THE ORIGINAL
Unfathomable is a close reimplementation of both Battlestar Galactica and its expansions. Unlike other remakes, it doesn’t stray far from its source material. Rather, it closely mimics the design of the original, diverging only to improve on well-known flaws. Were it released under the same name, it would have been considered a second edition more than a separate title.
The largest changes strive to create a more coherent experience. All actions now take place in one ship, instead of several ones. The game no longer locks some of its players into one-dimensional fighter roles but allows everyone to partake in battles if needed. Above all, revealed traitors now stay on the ship and can actively sabotage it instead of merely repeating the same two actions.
Balance has also been improved. Those useless spots on the board have been done away with or significantly improved. All cards are useful now and Executive Order, which gave a full turn to another player, has been toned down. This is important because Unfathomable takes elements from Galactica‘s three expansions, which didn’t integrate perfectly with the base game.
For example, Pegasus‘s engine room provided a way to increase the ship’s speed. This was a great addition, which added to the game’s depth. However, it also acted as a damage sponge, taking away from other areas. By integrating its design from the start, Unfathomable captures one of the high points of the expansion without its pitfalls.
The only mechanic I miss from Battlestar Galactica is the possibility of making an interstellar jump before the fleet is ready for it. This extreme measure, which risked the lives of up to a third of humanity, created highly memorable moments. Sadly, it would not fit the new Lovecraftian setting. Understandably, was removed from the game.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
In Battlestar Galactica a large number of game effects target players directly. The results of a crisis can send players to jail, force them to discard or even have their secret role checked by the President. These consequences promote debate and paranoia, as targeting the wrong person could be disastrous for your side. They carry a great part of the thematic charge of Galactica and drive its themes of trust and sacrifice.
In total, I count 21 crisis cards with these kind of effects, almost half of the deck. However, only 8 out of the 70 cards in Unfathomable are this way. Moreover, half of them only trigger if a certain character is in play, which reduces their frequency even further. This is not the only change. The Keeper of the Tome cannot send players to jail like its Galactica equivalent could.
This represents a shift of perspective. Unfathomable is more focused on the actions taken on the board. It’s a more cooperative experience and keeping the ship free of enemies takes a larger role. It is harder on the humans and knowing the traitor’s identities is not enough to prevent the ship from sinking. While management is an important part of both games, it’s more central to the remake.
The problem is that this has never been where the appeal of either lies. The heart of the experience is in the talking, the suspense and the small trickle of treachery. Despite its many enhancements, Unfathomable does not make improvements in the game’s central area. It’s cleaner and better designed but not any sharper.
Still, player targeting has not been removed altogether. One character can send another to jail and another checks loyalty cards, just like Gaius Baltar did in Galactica. Items provide some selfish value and the improved balance makes it harder to spot traitors. However, the fewer opportunities for drama shows Unfathomable is not a strict upgrade over the original.
Alongside its mechanical differences Unfathomable brought a change of setting. Now inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, the spaceship was replaced by an ocean liner and the robotic Cylons for fish-like “hybrids”. Sadly, this change responded more to commercial reasons than artistic ones, resulting in an awkward fit for the game’s themes and mechanics.
The core of the issue is that Battlestar Galactica was a heavily political show, while the horror of Lovecraft is personal. That is, the scary part of Innsmouth is not that fish people try to pass as humans. It’s the fear of becoming subhuman. Even ignoring the racism inherent to the concept, it’s poorly suited to a game about politics, trust and limiting civil liberties in the name of security.
Unfathomable tries to compensate through a diverse cast including non-binary, deaf and albino characters. Most have backstories that touch on racism, colonialism or bigotry. Yet, this turns them into outsiders, rather than the authority figures reflected by the game. Ultimately, attempts to make a progressive game out of 1920s Lovecraft are a fool’s errand. The nature of the setting is at odds with it, no matter how many minorities are featured.
Despite this, Unfathomable represents an improvement over Battlestar Galactica. The enhanced mechanical framework and better balance are enough to compensate for its new flaws. Still, it’s not a huge difference. Were I an owner of the original, I wouldn’t feel pressured to upgrade. In the end, the main benefit of the remake lies, not in its changes, but in the way it brings back a board game classic.