Sunday, January 4, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

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.

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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.

15 comments:

  1. Good to have you back Chris. I hope to see an Unhappy King Charles review soon. :)

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  2. Hmm... I might want to give this a try then. I was reluctant to try the game because I didn't like the show (but really wanted to).

    My peeve with the show - bad acting, which combined with the overly serious tone of the show, just means one hour of over-emoting and histrionics which passes for drama. :)

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  3. BTW, your profile page at the Geek links to the old blog.

    The new Blogger comment form is a major improvement.

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  4. Yeah, as much as I love the various *other* iLife and iWork tools, iWeb really suckered me. You can do all this cool page layout and media stuff so easily, but absolutely key features - like easily entering and tracking comments and managing RSS feeds - are horrible.

    Anyway, so far I like Blogger. We'll see how it goes. But it almost has to be better.

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  5. Having played BSG a couple of times, my impression is much the same as yours, I think. I like the game, but I am not blown away. There's a lot of good stuff going on, and I am not too bothered by the complexity (at least it's thematically related, so I feel it is easier to remember).

    But the game is long, and repetitive. As much as I would like to think that the game is all about player decisions and interaction, I have a sneaking suspicion that the way the crisis cards are drawn is what really drives and determines the game.

    Downtime is horribly long, but on the positive side it's the kind of game where downtime isn't as bad as it might be - you are still involved even when it's not your turn.

    So, I am undecided. I have liked my games well enough so far, but I don't have any pressing desire to play it again right now. I still don't know whether to keep my copy.


    I am a couple of episodes into season 2 of the show so far, but it is tough going - it took me the better part of a year to make my way through season 1. To me, the series ranges from good, exciting entertainment (when it's best), to downright awful. It's grim, yes, but to me the worst flaw is that it takes itself so damn seriously. To this European, it is also a very *American* show and it is amusing to think that the writers' vision of humanity's distant future is something so close to modern-day USA. And don't even get me started on the annoying use of "frack"! (To circumvent any foul-language related ratings, I guess).

    Add to that the fact that many episodes seem to want to hit you over the head with a moral of some kind, and the show is really a mixed bag to me. It does action and tension very well, but for, er, frack's sake spare me the seriousness and the faux-American morality. ;-)

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  6. I never watched the show and I pretty much felt the same way about the game as you did. I felt like all this effort and tension was put into finding out who was the cylons... when in reality discovering who was who didn't seem to matter much.

    What is much, much more important are the event card draws.

    Plus it's very boring to be a non-cylon non decision maker (aka pilot).

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  7. Ah, Chris, glad you are returned! And I entirely agree with you about BSG; I thought it middling while most of my friends were writhing orgasmically over quotes and situations from the show. FFG has never met a license they didn't like and make money from; case in point. But it is the designer's best game yet, so that's something. I just don't think it has much staying power, but then I've said that about lots of FFG games before.

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  8. Two things stuck out in my mind after playing BSG. One was that you really, really don't want to be exposed as a cylon, because once you've gotten past the decision of when to play your supercrisis, things get boring in a hurry—you watch everyone else fret about their little problems, and when it gets back to you, you choose between two crisis cards and you're done. Maybe I'm missing something, but it seemed to me like you would always want to pick between the crisis cards rather than steal cards from people's hands...it's like the difference between sabotaging a ship from the bridge and the galley.

    The other thing that was going through my mind is what a cop-out it is to have one of a player's choices be "give your action away to someone else." Pandemic does this and I think it's lame there too. Battlestar Galactica is already a game with a lot of down time, and so to be put in a position where the best move for the table is to cede your turn is a bit much to ask.

    On the other hand, I think that the way that the card play allows players to perpetrate sabotage with the possibility but *not* certainty of revealing themselves is fairly neat.

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  9. Joe, thank you for that observation re giving away your turn. I spent most of my game as the BSG President giving away my turn and making no meaningful decisions whatsoever. The other players were grateful, but I was bored. I hope this mechanic is stifled in its crib; we don't play games to give away our turns.

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  10. I dunno. I'm not thrilled by the "give away your turn" mechanic in BSG, but to the extent there is a game here, it's in the group discussion and decision-making, so I'm not sure it's as egregious as all that. I like the Dispatcher in Pandemic, even though you're moving other people's pieces, the role is powerful so you're always involved in the discussion and planning, which is where the game really is.

    BSG is a different story, though. It's tough to be a Cylon and have Leadership skill cards (I think?), because it's hard to stay unrevealed without giving away your turn with some frequency, so you might as well reveal and have done with it. But the game becomes a lot more boring when people reveal.

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  11. I love the show but your review of the game has me feeling like I will avoid it. Thanks.

    The show did have its very dark moments but I feel the acting was wonderful, the music was engaging, and the CGI excellent. As a vet the show felt authentically military at times and the use of FRAK just cracked me up.

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