First Impressions: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica has been pretty high up on my board gaming to-do list for a while now. A heavily thematic social deduction game with hidden traitors — that’s right in my wheelhouse. So a couple of months ago when a new friend mentioned that he owned a copy of BSG, I scheduled a time to play it ASAP.

Before jumping in though, I had a lot of prep work to do. And by “prep work” I mean “watching the entire first season of Battlestar Galactica”.

Note: It’s totally not necessary to be familiar with the show to understand or enjoy the eponymous game. Nonetheless, I felt that this was necessary research that I needed to conduct, for you, my dear readers.

Playing BSG

We had originally intended to get five people together to play the game, as that’s the optimal player count suggested on BGG, but we had one last-minute cancellation that left us with four players. So, just to be clear, this is merely a “First Impressions” review and I have only played BSG with four players.

After laying out the game and scarfing down some pizza, the first step was character selection. I will say that this is one area that may be more interesting if you’ve seen the first season of BSG. For my character, I chose Gaius Baltar, because one of his special abilities makes him twice as likely to be a Cylon (traitor) at the start of the game. I was REALLY hoping that I would get to be a Cylon. Alas, I did not draw a Cylon card.

IMG_3065
Each Cylon card gives the player a particular power they can use upon revealing themselves.

The game went pretty smoothly for the good guys early on, as all players seemed to be working together pretty well. We weren’t always as efficient with our cards as we could have been, and part of that is likely due to the relative inexperience of most of the players. Or perhaps someone was just playing dumb?

Midway through the game, we were clicking like a well oiled machine and were all relatively sure that none of us were Cylons. But once your fleet has gotten at least halfway to Kobol, players draw a second round of cards, potentially converting one or more Human players to Cylons. We had managed to get one of our resources just into the red “danger” zone, which made it so that only one Cylon would be introduced rather than two. One other player would draw a “Cylon Sympathizer” card, but this only sent him to the Brig rather than making him a Cylon.

Yet again, I sadly failed to draw a Cylon card. However, I hatched a plan that would assure a Human victory. Thinking I was so smart, I explained to the group how I would use one of Gaius’ abilities to look at another player’s loyalty cards and figure out who the Cylon was. The idea was that we all knew who the Cylon Sympathizer was and that he was still a human. So with just myself and two other players, I knew that regardless of which player’s cards I viewed, I would be able to identify which one is the Cylon.

The caveat, of course, was that I had to convince the other Human players that I was not a lying Cylon myself, but my argument was that I wouldn’t go to the trouble and risk of this plan if I was the Cylon. Whether it was a watertight argument or not, the other Humans bought it. And with that, my plan worked. We correctly pegged the Cylon and threw him in the brig; he soon had no choice but to expose himself.

However, there was a flaw in my plan. We spent so many cards on keeping the Cylon in the brig that we failed a challenge that landed an invader on the ship. We subsequently had a bad run of luck in drawing cards that advanced the invader and a complete inability to get the die roll we needed to repel the invader. Before we knew it, the Cylon player had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

My Thoughts on BSG

Based on that initial playthrough, here are my thoughts on BSG that you mind find helpful if you’re considering trying this game for the first time:

1) If you can convince your group to briefly review the rules beforehand, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a long game to begin with and will drag out even more if an initial rules explanation from scratch is necessary. At a minimum, at least one player should be familiar with the rules and able to answer questions to avoid having to frequently stop and search through the rulebook for an answer.

2) If I was to do it again, I would have tried to identify and imprison the Cylon traitor in a more patient and covert manner. For one, this might have saved us some cards. But more importantly, BSG is just not as much fun once the hidden traitor is exposed. That moment feels like the crescendo of the game, and everything from that point forward is without the same tension and uncertainty. If we had made it through that initial stroke of bad luck with the invader, it would have most likely been a slow and methodical march to victory while the Cylon player looks on somewhat helplessly. That wouldn’t have been  exciting for anyone.

3) I know this is easier said than done, but try to just enjoy the game and don’t agonize about making all the optimal moves. BSG shines when it’s moving at a steady pace and there’s entertaining banter about questionable decisions – the quickest way to suck the fun out of the game is to make everyone wait as you painstakingly consider the relative merits of every available action. Don’t be afraid to just go with your gut, or think “what would my character do in this situation?”

Conclusion

Battlestar Galactica is a nice implementation of a hidden traitor mechanic in a cooperative game. As a social deduction game with a heavy dose of theme, it’s naturally somewhat dependent on the group you play with. If your group enjoys this genre, I think you’ll appreciate the design — it’s well balanced and full of tension throughout. As previously mentioned, the main flaw I encountered is that revealing the traitor too early can deflate some of that tension. However, I can see how this issue is likely more of an exception than a regular occurrence, especially since at higher player counts there are multiple traitors.

In summary, I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica enough that I would absolutely play it again. There’s a lot of variety to explore with the various character abilities, and I’d love to experience the game from the Cylon point of view. My friend Luke also has the Pegasus expansion, and I’d be eager to check that out as well.


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