Board Games 101: Battlestar Galactica

Welcome to a new column in which Alex covers the essentials of tabletop gaming.

Welcome to a new column! Board Games 101 will cover what I consider essentials, the games that I've played more than any others during my descent into tabletop gaming. Hopefully it will become a resource that helps you build up your collection. We kick things off in the emptiness of uncharted space...

You look around at your friends, lingering for a while on each of their faces. You know that one of them is a Cylon. You’re not sure who, but someone has been slowly sabotaging the ship. The last time you all faced a crisis some food went missing, and the Admiral doesn’t look like he’s been jumping you in the right direction, burning through your fuel reserves at a ridiculous speed. It’s possible that you’d have the votes to throw him in the brig but if you do that would pass the title of Admiral to you, and you know how shifty that would look. But you’re human - you know that you are. Or are you?

Welcome to Battlestar Galactica, perhaps the finest board game adaptation of an established property ever made. It emulates the paranoia of the reimagined TV series completely, leaving you constantly second-guessing people’s motives and actions, checking their faces for tells while you yourself try to keep your poker face on. It’s certainly a complicated game with lots of fiddly bits and tons of rules (and the ever-daunting Fantasy Flight rulebook) but once you get into everything it’s all about rooting out that goddamn toaster and making them pay for their crimes.

You’ll all choose characters from the show printed on one of those trademark pieces of paper with the edges cut off. (Is that ever explained? Seems like a hassle for printers of the future.) Each character has their own unique special abilities and detriments. For example, Saul Tigh can throw someone into the brig more easily than anyone but since he’s a lousy alcoholic if he has only one card remaining he has to discard it. Helo is a great officer that can reroll a die but since he starts off stranded on New Caprica he skips his first turn. You don’t need to worry about spoilers about who’s a Cylon (although seriously, it ended four years ago, watch the damn show already!) because any character can be one. You’ll figure out who you are when you secretly draw a card at the beginning of the game that explicitly tells you such. The fun’s not over yet though - halfway through the game you’ll draw these cards again, and even if you thought you were human you can turn out to be a Cylon sleeper cell.

Your choice of character will determine the line of succession. If someone picks William Adama he’ll always be the Admiral, the same with Roslin and the Presidency, but if these characters aren’t chosen (or are ousted) during a game it goes down the list to the next successor, which would be Tigh and Baltar, and so on. These two titles are super important- the Admiral has two nukes that he can launch against Basestars in dire times and he controls where you go when you make a jump; the President gets access to powerful cards that can help the colony out immensely. Sometimes the Crises you face will be decided by one of these two characters, so you want to make sure that the person with the title isn’t a Cylon, because they can really mess your shit up if so.

The humans win the game by getting to Kobol. They can do that only by making numerous FTL jumps and fleeing from all the Cylon ships on their tail, and making sure that the various dials on the board that reflect the status of their population, fuel, food and morale never go down to 0. To show you how hard it is for the humans, the Cylons need only knock ONE of those down to nothing and they win. It’s incredibly rare to be able to regain any resources and you’re constantly forced to make hard decisions about which of two resources to lose. You will do this every turn, too. Every single turn the current player has to draw a Crisis card, which, as you might assume from the name, is never good. This can be anything from a terrorist attack to a food shortage to a riot, and every player will have to try and combat this issue by playing skill cards. Since these cards are played in secret (and you also add cards draw from a random deck) you’re never sure just who is playing what, and it’s here that the clever Cylon can sabotage things. You’ll want to make the humans fail but do it in moderation to avoid drawing attention to yourself. You’ll just have to remember not to smile too much as things fall apart... not that you can feel emotions, you fracking toaster.

All while your group is dealing with these nonstop crises and trying to figure out who is who you also have ships on your tail. Instead of a Crisis a Basestar might jump in, sending out waves of Cylon Raiders to attack. They’ll go after your civilian ships and decimate your population while the Basestar blasts away at Galactica, possibly damaging rooms and sending your characters careening into sick bay and wasted turns. Heavy raiders can also appear and offer another way for the humans to lose, for if they launch a boarding party deep into the ship that’s it, game over. Pilot characters like Starbuck and Lee can jump into Vipers and defend the ship before the next jump and they’ll generally be expected to, especially because the enemy numbers are overwhelming and if you lose a viper it’s gone from the game for good.

So yeah, things are bleak for the humans and they’re constantly dealing with new challenges but isn’t that just like the show? The difference here is that it’s tremendously entertaining. This is the kind of game you want to play with lively friends who are going to yell and argue with each other, forging alliances and vocalizing their theories about who the Cylon is. While there is dice rolling and pieces to move around a board the real game here is one of psychology. The mob mentality is familiar to anyone who’s played Werewolf and it's perfect for the game.

Oh, and playing that Cylon? There’s nothing like it, especially if you play it nice and smooth. There’s nothing like orchestrating a witch hunt against an innocent. Best of all, if they catch you you can simply commit suicide and wake up on the Cylon Resurrection ship, where you can command the Cylon forces against the humans directly, throwing new Super Crises against the poor humans. The successful destruction of the human race has never been more satisfying.

This is one of the games that got me into board games, a perfect introduction for anyone looking to see what they’re capable of. The theme can easily drag in fans of the show and once you’re in, you’re not coming out again anytime soon. So say we all.

A note about expansions- there are two out for the game right now- Pegasus and Exodus- and one more on the way, Daybreak. You don't really need these unless you play the game a lot. I own Pegasus and while the new characters, cards and Pegasus ship add some variety (and the pointy plastic Basestar beat the cardboard ones included with the base game), it takes out Kobol as a destination in exchange for an entire new game mode set in New Caprica. While this part can be fun it adds another hour or two to the already-lengthy playtime, which can take from three-five hours depending on how familiar everyone is with the game and how sneaky the Cylon is. The core game is all you need for many nights of gaming.