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.
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