I’m a little late to this particular party, but I finally had a chance to play the new Battlestar Galactica a few days ago. I was conflicted going into the game: the reviews had been good (they usually are), but Fantasy Flight Games’ track record isn’t always, and I love Lord of the Rings but hate Shadows over Camelot. I also wanted to like the television show, but couldn’t.
So I was some combination of surprised and relieved when BSG was pretty fun.
The game actually makes a bit of a bad first impression, unfortunately. It beats you over the head with a lot of complexity, from the traditional overwrought FFG rulebook to critical references that should be in an easy-to-see place on the board but aren’t (it’s not like there isn’t plenty of dead space) to a lot of critical rules detail that can only be found in tiny type on the board and simply cannot be seen if you lack a high-power spotlight, are viewing at a distance of greater than one foot, or are over the age of 30.
But, if you get past this, there are good ideas here. The foci of the game are the hyperjumps the Galactica has to make as they plot their course to Kobol. These are checkpoints where the board is periodically cleared of threats and the game timer resets, and it is a great way to segment the game and manage tension and ensure a semi-regular restart so the players don’t get into a death spiral the way they do in Shadows over Camelot. The hidden loyalties are well-executed for the most part – dealing them out in two batches, at the beginning and mid-game, similarly ratchets up the uncertainty and tension and avoids some problems (and is true to the show).
Where BSG struggles, though, is with pacing. The game is just too long and gets too repetitive, is too much of a kitchen-sink type game and so has too many moving parts, and is too much at the mercy of the draw deck for its tension. Some stages will be terrific as Cylon raiders pile into the Galactica in waves while food shortages develop in the fleet and morale collapses. Some not so much, as you spend half an hour dealing with relatively uninteresting crises that never develop while waiting to jump. The system of crisis cards, where each turn the players draw a crisis from the show which they must resolve using skill cards, is clever but is simply not enough to reliably deliver tough and interesting decisions on its own. Things only really get fun when you have bad guys swarming and interesting crises going on at the same time, and for this to happen, you need things to come out in the right proportions, which they too often don’t.
In general, there are just too many moving parts which are not tight enough. To be grossly general, to the extent that we’re willing to call games art, they are the art of decisions. Music generates feelings and emotions through sound. Literature is the art of words. Painting is visual art. Games create their impressions, feelings, and emotions through the decisions they ask you to make. Every complaint people make about games ultimately boils down to a problem with the decision-making (i.e., too much luck = my decisions don’t make enough of a difference; too much downtime = I make decisions too infrequently; brain-burner = the decisions are too hard; the theme is a paste-up = the decisions I make don’t seem authentic; and so on).
In Battlestar Galactica, the players manage many more resources than they do in Lord of the Rings. BSG has food, people, morale, fuel, fighters, transports, dual-use skill/action cards, cylon fighters, cylon mother-ships, cylon boarding ships, cylon boarders, nuclear weapons, and political cards. Plus every player has a once-per-game special power. In Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, the players “only” have skill cards, action cards, ring tokens, life tokens, shields, and corruption. And despite the fact that BSG goes on for 3-4 times as long as Lord of the Rings, and even though it has so many more resource types, it still seems to manage to generate fewer interesting, really tough decisions than Lord of the Rings.
Now, part of this is because the players are secretly split into loyal Human players and Cylons, and much of the tension in the game is figuring out who is who. And that more or less requires a fair number of small decisions for the players to look at, so loyalties can be revealed over time. To the extent that the game succeeds – which is not insignificant – it does so in this aspect of it, as each decision is scrutinized for signs of treachery, and players banter around accusations, threats, and general paranoia. Not unlike in the show. But you simply can’t create an interesting game out of a lot of uninteresting decisions, and here the decisions – whether how to resolve crises, or figuring out who the traitor is – are not reliably interesting, compelling, narrative, or evocative. At the end of the day, I can’t help but think this game could be much improved if it were the euro that in its heart of hearts it really is, and wasn’t trying to be the overwrought super-themey sort of thing FFG specializes in – stuff that always delivers a boatload of rules but doesn’t always deliver a plausible theme or a plausible game. Usually less is more, and this applies to theme as much as anything else. Here as much as anywhere, a tighter, tenser game would be thematically far stronger than this kind of kitchen sink game.
As long as we’re talking about BSG the game, I can’t resist putting in my .02 on the show. One of the reasons that the new Sci-Fi Battlestar Galactica ultimately turned me off was it really only had one tone: grim. It completely lacked any emotional range. Real people are sometimes funny and crack jokes when they’re under stress. BSG characters always take themselves so excruciatingly, painfully seriously. This was especially funny in context of playing the boardgame, where each character from the show is brutally, and totally effectively, boiled down to three traits, a characteristic, a special ability, and a flaw. When you put it like that, BSG the boardgame becomes a rich mine of humorous possibilities, and if only the show had been able to capture some of the humor we found in the game, maybe it wouldn’t suck.