Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Battlestar Complexica

This past weekend, between games of Dominion and Pandemic, we played the Battlestar Galactica boardgame from Fantasy Flight. I'm still trying to figure out if I truly liked it or not. It was a lot of fun, but it was also needlessly complicated.

The game plays a little bit like Shadows Over Camelot, in that it's mostly cooperative, but has traitors (in this case, they're Cylons).

Yet, they don't feel alike. In a typical game of Shadows, you're keeping an eye out for the traitor, but mostly everyone's trying to solve the challenge of the game. There's one Traitor card amidst all the Loyalty cards, so in a 5-player game of Shadows, it's not unheard of for no one to be a traitor. Happens fairly often, actually.

In Battlestar Galactica, the math is a little different. In a 5 player game, you use a loyalty deck of 11 cards, 2 of which say "Cylon". At the half way point, you add a "Cylon Sympathizer" card to the deck, and deal out the remaining cards - everyone gets a second card, and if it's a Cylon card it overrides your previous human card. So, a 5-player game could actually have more Cylons than Humans after the half-way point, and it's actually impossible to go the entire game without a "Traitor". That certainly captures the feel of the show, but I haven't played enough to figure out how well it works mechanically. There's a traitor for certain, so you should be even less tolerant of shady behavior and poor decisions. However, I could also see it be a lot less tense, since there's no false hope that we might be traitorless this time.

As I said, the loyalty system certainly scores well in the "recreating the feel of the show" category. So does the space combat system. Galactica gets ambushed, spools up her jump drives, waits till the last civilian ship jumps (or is destroyed), manages viper squadrons, etc. That part of the game is incredible. I wish the whole experience were as good.

Where it fails for me is the cards. There's tons of cards in this game, which should be a plus. Most are based on events from the first season of the TV show, and have photos and quotes that reinforce the flavor of what's happening. Problem is, you never read them. The rules require reading the quotes out-loud, and certainly the game will be more fun if you're in-character, but it's hard to see it as anything but a diversion. The problem is, the cards are too complex. They're bordering on overwhelming, and the flavor text is only distracting.

I'll describe a typical Crisis card. At the top of the card is the name of the event, below that is a picture, below that is a quote. On the left hand side of the picture is a number - this tells you the target number of the skill challenge. Below the number are 2 to 5 colored blocks, corresponding to various decks of resource cards. Below the quote is a section that tells us the results of passing the skill challenge, and of failing the skill challenge. Below that is an icon indicating which Cylon ships act, and what they do. To the right of that is an icon telling you whether or not the jump drive spools up this turn.

Let's deal with just the skill challenges for a moment. In order to pass the skill challenge, the group needs to play resources of the right colors and combined number value. Every player has access to different resource decks (and thus different colors), so sometimes you just won't be able to help the group complete a challenge. The cards vary in power from 1 to 5, as well, so knowing that 4 cards have been played face-down on the challenge so far means you're at a total of anywhere from 4 to 20, which isn't much to go on when the skill challenge has a target number of 13.

However, cards of the wrong color count negative, and, you'll recall, there's at least one cylon hidden amongst the crew. So, really, 4 cards having been played means a total of anywhere from -20 to +20. It all depends on who the Cylon is, how many there are, how subtle they're being, and who's got what color of cards. And then two random cards from a destiny deck get added as well, bouncing the number by another +10 to -10. In other words, you really don't have a fuzzy clue whether or not you'll accomplish any given skill challenge.

I haven't yet mentioned the resource cards don't just have a color/suit and a value, they also have a special power. So, when deciding what to contribute to a skill challenge, you have to weigh it's value in the challenge against it's potential value as an action on your turn. Guess wrong and you'll squander a resource that will prove vital later.

A lot of times, the Skill Challenges will have decisions that can be made by one particular player. Sometimes it's the President, sometimes it's the Admiral, sometimes it's the active player. Often, these decisions let you skip the skill challenge entirely, and sometimes they let you pick between two different outcomes if you succeed.

Like I said, it's a little overwhelming. Trying to judge the severity of a given Crisis card is really tough. You have to factor in all those details of the Skill Challenge, it's consequences and the potential gains to Cylon traitors who chose to sabotage. It doesn't stop there, as the commands at the bottom of the card concerning Cylon attack fleets and the Galactica's jump drive can make an otherwise non-critical card absolutely devastating at the wrong moment.

Everyone plays a character. All the characters have special powers. One of them is "once per turn, look at the top card of the Crisis deck and either put it back or put it on the bottom of the deck." There's so much data for them to consider, it easily doubles the length of their turn, and they'll probably miss some important factor that makes the card more or less dire than it appears. I don't ever want to have that power! It'd be terminal information paralysis, I suspect.

This complexity permeates the game. Even the loyalty cards are over-complicated. Each different "traitor" card includes a different power you get to use if and when you're revealed - but if you stop to read yours, everyone will know you're a Cylon. Knowing what your power can do, however, would let you know when the right time to make your move is.

The game didn't need to be that complex. It could have been just as flavorful and more enjoyable without so much data being shoved down the player's throats. If so, it would have been a better gateway game for converting BSG fans into gamers. It also would have played much faster, and been a lot easier to master. The learning curve is so steep. If we didn't have so much data to parse, we'd be more impressed by the quotes and eye-candy - so it'd actually be more flavorful. It just feels like it had so much more potential - if only the skill challenges and crisis cards (and everything else) were just a little less byzantine and subjective, you might feel like you had a hope of actually making a better than average play once in a while. Honestly, the characters in the rather bleak show have more hope of making a difference than players of the game do.

Yet it still manages to be fun. (It would have been more fun if it weren't so darned complicated and fiddly, but I think I've already made that point.) I'd gladly play a second game of it, I'm just not sure I'd buy it. Luckily, a friend owns it, so I'll likely get another play or two without having to fork up cash myself.

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