Unfathomable ★★★★ | Review
The might of science and the steam engine might have changed the world but, lurking below the sea’s surface, countless horrors remain unknown. As the S.S. Atlantica sets its course to Boston, a horde of creatures known as Deep Ones prepare to attack. The horror world of H.P. Lovecraft and the humanoid, fish-like hybrids that inhabit it set the stage for Unfathomable, a game of cooperation, crisis management and treachery.
Unfathomable is a remake of Battlestar Galactica, a previous game by designer Corey Konieczka based on the namesake TV show. This earlier iteration was a bit of a classic, standing out in the sea of social deduction releases by its length and seriousness. Like it, Unfathomable is a semicooperative title in which a group of survivors must overcome both the perils that assail their ship and the hidden traitors that try to sink it from within.
At the beginning of the game, and halfway through it, players are given a secret loyalty card. Human players must make sure the ship gets safely to Boston, which is a long distance away. The allegiance of Hybrids, on the other hand, lies with the attackers. If at any point the ship runs out of resources, all passengers are killed or too many rooms are destroyed, they’ll win the game.
Each turn, players draw five cards. We may spend them to fight monsters or chart a course, but also to aid in critical situations. At the end of every turn, a new crisis is revealed which risks damage to the ship, its equipment or crew. Sabotage and angry tourists may take a toll on our supplies while supernatural events can drive sailors mad or push the ship further away from American shores.
Most crises have a target number and a series of skills that solve it. For example, if the crisis concerns a ritual, arcane knowledge and observation will contribute to solving the crisis, lessening its negative effects. All other skills, however, contribute negatively. And, since cards are played face-down, paranoia and the threat of sabotage permeate the whole experience.
This is a middling mechanic that nonetheless creates a tense experience. At every step, players must discuss and decide what to do. It’s impossible to beat all crises and some are much worse than others. Every solution must come through careful management and cooperation and with two hidden traitors that’s easier said than done.
The genius of Unfathomable lies in not presenting problems with a clear solution. The question is rarely whether players can beat a crisis but whether they should do so at all. Drawing cards and then dumping them face-down is a mediocre mechanic and almost irrelevant. The actual fun comes from discussing what to do, knowing very well that some players are traitors.
Depending on the situation, some sacrifices are more palatable than others. Damaging the ship is rough, but it’s easier to justify it if it’s in great shape. Fuel can be rationed and while Human players don’t want anyone to suffer, keeping passengers safe often comes at a lower priority than preserving their own well-being. Knowing where one is better than the other is the main skill in this game.
After all, some crises don’t require cards at all. Rather, the Captain or the current player takes a decision for the rest of the ship. Bestowing players with that much responsibility allows them to prove their loyalty or do incredible damage. It allows the game to center on cooperation rather than the admittedly middling game of cards and actions.
The other interesting bit is how difficult it is both to be a traitor and deal with one. Unlike Secrets or Werewolf, a match of Unfathomable takes a long time. Jailing an innocent or revealing yourself as a Hybrid will have consequences for hours. They cannot be taken lightly. Bidding our time and waiting for the most opportune moment is, almost invariably, better than reckless action.
This results in a tense, grueling experience far beyond the confines of the mechanics. Deception grows more painful the longer it’s allowed to exist. It doesn’t help that jailing a player is its own drain of resources. Unlike other games, Humans must activate the vote manually and then spend cards facedown to bring it to fruition. Hybrids don’t have it easy, either, even the smallest inefficiency can reveal their evil intentions.
Unfathomable does get bogged down in a bit of whack-a-mole once traitors are revealed, though. There’s no player elimination and hybrids can break out of jail. Hence, much of the end-game revolves around both sides bumping each other. It’s more engaging than it was in Battlestar Galactica but still dull. Ultimately, if you only have two actions per turn, spending them in moving towards an enemy and rolling a die isn’t all that great.
The original Battlestar Galactica was highly successful, but its ties to the TV show made a reprint unlikely. Hence, Unfathomable took the science-fiction setting of the original and tried to replace it with the works of horror author HP Lovecraft, particularly his novel The Shadow over Innsmouth. Sadly, this move answered to commercial reasons more than aesthetic ones, resulting in a mismatch.
Battlestar Galactica was a political work discussing civil liberties and terrorism. These are not ideas found in Lovecraft’s work, who saw society with suspicion. Rather, his horror focuses on the personal. That is, Innsmouth is not about being attacked by fish-people but the fear of becoming one. Sadly, this personal horror includes the author’s racist attitudes, including the fear of miscegenation.
Fantasy Flight tried to counter these negative aspects by featuring minorities and adding anti-colonial bits to crisis cards and character backstories. But it doesn’t quite work because they address the horror at its source. Above all, a spaceship is not that similar to a 20th century ocean liner. This leads to strange situations, like the ship’s firemen going on strike while monsters are attacking it or random passengers being in charge.
What is an improvement are the components, which are eminently more readable than Battlestar Galactica ever was. Still, some choices are baffling. There’s a space on the board for the waypoint deck, but not one for the crisis nor the cards you pull from both. The text on each location is incomplete and dividing the rules in two different books is as awful as ever. Personally, I would have also happily traded the miniatures for cards of a more reasonable size.
Despite this, Unfathomable remains a great game and even a slight improvement over Battlestar Galactica. The tense play experience, and the immersion resulting from it, put it at the head of its genre. And despite the age of the original design, it still stands out as one of the few long, heavy social deduction games. Like its predecessor, I would happily play it every week.
Fantasy Flight Games
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||5-6 (Best with 5)||SCORE||★★★★|
Yeah, the theme doesn’t fit very well. If you didn’t have to worry about commercial aspects, what theme would you chose? (Other than Battlestar Galactica, of course.)
I don’t really know. Personally, I would have simply made the setting generic. That is, I would have set it in a spaces colony trying to find a place amongst the start. I would have just removed the bits that made it Galactica to focus on the core premise. That said, I’ve been thinking about it and many settings could work as long as they keep three features intact:
1) A closed circle – Humans cannot get in or out. There’s no alternative or plan b.
2) A political structure – The power of decision-making must come from within the group, not an external hierarchy.
3) A justification for the “travel” mechanic.