Battlestar Galactica: The Worst Board Game I Ever Role-Played and Enjoyed!

Battlestar Galactica Board Game Box
Battlestar Galactica Board Game Box

Normally I stick with role-playing games on this blog, but I have to come out of the closet; I play board games too. With that in mind Haaldaar picked up a copy of the “Battlestar Galactica Board Game” from Fantasy Flight Games and rounded up 6 players for a full game last Saturday. I hesitate to call this a review. A session report is more accurate, but liberally scattered throughout are my thoughts about the game.

Fantasy Flight is noted for their high production values and BSG is no exception. Every component is well made and durable. The link above has a complete parts lists, but basically the box contains multiple card decks, some miniatures for combat and the game board. Right out of the gate, this thing looked complicated. Haaldaar had the foresight to have several of us read the manual before game day. While not psychotically complicated, the game requires study. Here is a shot of the game board a couple of turns in to the game.

Battlestar Galactica Board Game During Play
Battlestar Galactica Board Game During Play

The point of the game is simple, but the execution is quite complicated. Each player chooses a character from the BSG universe and performs actions with them in various location aboard Galactica. These actions further the sole goal of the game (for most players): to save humanity by escaping the Cylons and reach Kobol. Escape before you run out of food, fuel, morale or population. There is a small problem with this goal. Some of the players are Cylons working towards failure…and they can be anyone!

At the game’s beginning, cards are passed out to determine you human/cylon status. This information is kept secret and the game turns proceed. The game primarily hinges on random events that the human players have to overcome. A common obstacle is a Cylon basestar and raiders attacking the fleet. The human players work together to defeat the basestar and/or jump to safety. Each character has different skill sets that make them better at certain activities. I was Galen, the engineer, so I spent a lot of time fixing vipers that were damaged by the basestar. The players with Adama and Tom Zarek spent the game playing politics and Starbuck was very good at shooting down raiders. That is not to say that I was stuck in that role. The game allows players to take positions, like president or admiral, by “bidding” in a secret auction. This secret auction forms the heart of the game. Since auctions allow only specific card colors to count for a specific auction and other colors subtract from the total (there is a target number), then players can sabotage activities without revealing their Cylon/human status by putting the wrong cards into an auction. Assuming you succeed in overcoming the obstacles you “spin up the FTL drive” and jump to a new location, hopefully closer to Kobol. This is an incredibly abbreviated summary. There is a lot going on each game turn.

Negative results from battles and other random events reduce your fuel, food, morale and population. Sometimes even being success consumes resources, ie burning fuel during a jump. When any one of these indicators hits zero, the human race dies. For the record, the human race died in our game. Bummer.

Now for the really bad news. As a board game, BSG is really sub-standard. At 3 hours or more for a game, it took too long to get through each turn, even after we were comfortable with the rules. There are also tremendous game balance issues. The humans get clobbered practically every round with some new nightmare and the cylons never have a setback. At one point we ran out of raider miniatures because we kept drawing the “launch more raiders” card. The pilot characters spent more time in sick bay after getting shot down than doing anything useful. Sick bay is similar to “going to jail” in monopoly. You character cannot die, but it is tedious to get back in the game and you do not get as many cards to bid on various activities. Frustrating.

The final item is the “secret cylon” aspect of the game. We had miserable luck and the Adama and the President were both cylons! By the time we got the admiral out of office, he proclaimed his “cylon pride” and went to the other side. His damage was mostly over, but the president continued to do…nothing. The player in question really hated the fact that his best move as a cylon was to sit on his hands and not help. Honestly, I think his inactivity did more damage than the cylon admiral. The player wasted cards or simply did not use his abilities and generally seemed bored.

I was particularly frustrated by the overwhelming hopelessness of the game. The humans faired poorly right out of the gate and never caught up. At no point during the game did I feel it was “winnable” by the humans. Considering the time invested (about 4 hours), I felt as though I wasted my time.

We finished the game and went home, somewhat disappointed. It was on the way home that I had an epiphany. Battlestar Galactica is a miserable board game, but it is a great role-playing game. In fact, I would go so far as to call it an “episode simulator.” Board games are about winning and BSG is so weighted against humanity that it destroys any kind of game balance. Check out “Puerto Rico” for an example of a fun, balanced board game.

That said, if you reject notions of winners and losers and play the characters on the board as the show characters, then you will have fun. Haaldaar enjoyed himself immensely as Tom Zarek whenever he made a move for the presidency. The fellow playing Starbuck rightly spent his time in sick bay, after repeated suicidal attacks against a superior force. I just was too busy trying to win the game to notice.

When we play it again, I think everyone will have  much more fun with the BSG role-playing game than with BSG the board game. I look forward to frakking a few toasters at the next session.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

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trask

Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

10 thoughts on “Battlestar Galactica: The Worst Board Game I Ever Role-Played and Enjoyed!

  • February 25, 2009 at 11:35 pm
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    We’ve never had the cylons win… cooperative board games have to pile on the bad events to make it a challenge. Playing it again will probably yield a vastly different experience.

    I agree it’s a bit too long, but it’s certainly not a poorly designed or miserable board game.

  • February 26, 2009 at 12:09 am
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    Trask is right, I had a great time playing Zarek! Win or lose, I was hell-bent determined to die as the President of the fleet!

    As I have argued with Trask behind the scene, I don’t think the game is unbalanced. I think the game has an EXTREME random component. And if the tides get turned on one side or the other early in the game, they will have a heck of a time winning.

    Having the Admiral and the President as a Cylon out of the gate killed us. The Admiral made sure we tool the “slow boat to Kobal”. The President with held the aid or the people. And by the time we got the both out of office, the damage was done.

    I think Dave is right. Playing it again will probably yield a vastly different experience. And I also think Trask is right. This is a board game meant to roleplay!

  • February 26, 2009 at 12:28 am
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    My main complaint is balance. In relation to other board games, ie Cataan, Die Macher, Puerto Rico, BSG’s game balance is terrible. Randomness is too powerful within the game. I may change my mind after playing it again, but for now I will treat it like an RPG and enjoy it as such.

  • February 26, 2009 at 1:04 am
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    Even though you hesitate to call it a review, that’s as good of a review about a game that I’ve ever read. You invested a lot of time into playing it and told us all about it. Extremely informative post actually.

    To be honest, the entire premise of the board game sounds pretty awesome. I’m a huge fan of Fantasy Flight Games as well. But the things you point out about it actually make sense. Still, reading your review about it actually did sound a lot like a roleplaying game. Very interesting…

  • February 26, 2009 at 7:00 am
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    Actually this is not a good review of the game and I appreciate the author’s honesty when he talked about a session report. The fact is that a single evening playing the BSG boardgame will not give you an accurate impression about the game. I played this boardgame 6 times and every time the session developed in very different directions, so much that it represented a totally new experience. Also the win/lose ratio for each “team” (cylon/humans) was about 50/50.

    You say:
    “The final item is the “secret cylon” aspect of the game. We had miserable luck and the Adama and the President were both cylons!”

    Well, the “human team” REALLY had miserable luck! When a situation like this arises at the beginning of the game, humans are really in BIG trouble and their chances to win go down dramatically. But you shouldn’t mistake an uncommon series of unlucky coincidences with a feature of bad design. Most of the time the game plays out in a balanced way and the outcome is not decided until the very end.

    I agree that one of the best tactics for cylon players is to waste actions and resources on unimportant threats and to encourage their buddies to make similar “mistakes”. It’s much more effective than actively sabotaging skill test, because “mistakes” draw less suspicion. But I can assure you that once players become more familiar with the game they will start to look for (and notice) “patterns of systematic inactivity” and they will soon grow suspicious of such behaviours. At that very moment the game will start to fly, drawing sustenance from the “trust issues” and paranoia developing among the players! Being a good cylon player requires subtlety, patience and a little “art”, especially when the character occupies a position of responsability (President or Admiral).

    (Sorry for my English, I’m not a native English speaker and I tried to do my best to be clear…)

  • February 26, 2009 at 10:27 am
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    @Leonardo: Thanks for the comment, your English is better than most of my friends…and they are American. 😉

    You are, however, making my point for me. You said, “But you shouldn’t mistake an uncommon series of unlucky coincidences with a feature of bad design.” My argument is that any game that contains the potential for such a series of coincidences is badly designed. I am sure that many game of BSG are balanced and fun, conversely, many are not because it is all left to chance.

    Trask, The Last Tyromancer

  • February 26, 2009 at 11:26 am
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    @Leonardo – if I had a dime for every time some fan told me you can’t assess X on a mere four hours’ exposure, no no no, you have to spend at least six times that amount replaying the game/mastering the controller/watching seasons 1 and 2/reading the wiki and fan-fic before you can form an opinion… why, I could probably afford a lot more Fantasy Flight games in my budget.

  • February 27, 2009 at 6:01 am
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    Hi Trask!
    Now I understand your perspective much better! And I also understand what you mean when you say that this boardgame can play as a good role-playing game. I don’t think anymore we disagree very much about the analysis, now I just think that we assign a different “subjective weight” to the importance of some aspects of the game (but I still don’t think that the game is weighted too much against humanity… this doesn’t match my experience).

    Joshua, my considerations are a little more involved than that. I’m sure you can decide if something you have tried only once is worth the effort and the time you would have to spend if you want to keep doing/watching/practicing/whatever any longer.
    But most people cannot judge the quality nor the value of an activity until they have developed at least a little serious experience about it. I’m sure I can’t. Not because I’m stupid, but because almost all activities have some important aspects and subtleties which are not easy to spot until you are confronted with them (especially when these activities are quite different from the ones you are used to).
    I lost count of the number of high quality TV series or comics that were underrated by critics on the basis of a superficial analysis of the first few episodes (I’m still “mourning” the suspension of Touching Evil US (2004), starring Jeffrey Donovan and Vera Farmiga, at the end of the first season… I think it was one of the best and deepest shows about human nature that ever aired on TV…). This is the reason why I appreciated Trask saying that this was a “session report” and not a review. Now that I have a better understanding of the the idea he was trying to convey I find absolutely nothing wrong at all with the post. He made a clear statement: “I think that a boardgame design should account for an unlucky series of coincidences during setup. Otherwise I consider such a boardgame badly designed”. Such a statement is perfectly reasonable, even if I don’t necessarily agree. It’s an interesting point of view. 🙂

  • February 27, 2009 at 3:50 pm
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    @Leonardo–Thank you for the understanding!

    Trask

  • March 10, 2009 at 4:22 am
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    @Trask: Monopoly is not badly designed because you happen to play a game where one of the players lands on Park Place and Boardwalk in the first round.

    You seem to be fundamentally confused on the entire concept of random chance (as your later blog regarding random encounters also demonstrates). Random chance is, by definition, random. And in a situation with losers and winners, random chance is — by its very definition — going to have an impact on the outcome.

    @Joshua: If you just want to give an opinion (as Trask does) or just make a personal choice about whether to keep playing or not, go for it. But if you’re going to actually review something, then you have to actually take the time to experience it an analyze it.

    For a movie that means watching the whole movie. If someone tells me that they turned the movie off after 5 minutes, that’s an opinion (and one that might be very informative). If someone tries to review a movie after only seeing 5 minutes of it, I will laugh in their face.

    In the case of a complex boardgame, playing the game a single time is simply not demonstrative of the complete gameplay.

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