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Cardboard Children: Battlestar Galactica

Hello, youse.

I’ve heard from the rest of the RPS guys that you’re all horrible people, so I’m going to be talking about a subject that is probably close to your heart in this week’s column. I’m going to be talking about betrayal. I’m going to be talking about being The Bad Guy.

When I play board games, and these days I seem to play them at least two nights a week, people always expect me to The Bad Guy. The Scott Hall. If we’re playing Risk, if someone has drugged me with Rohypnol and is operating my dice-throwing hand with puppet strings and has me playing Risk, then I’ll be the guy people expect to stab them in the back while cackling (snoring). If we’re playing Diplomacy, I’m the guy people expect to break a treaty, even if it doesn’t benefit me. People expect me to be bad just to be bad. People see me as the guy who’ll drop bodies just to do it. Like Marlo Stanfield from The Wire.

Now, I’m not always that guy. Sure, I enjoy being The Bad Guy, and I’ve had some historic Bad Guy moments in my board gaming life. But in board games, as in life, your reputation can cause you to have some tough times. No-one trusts me, which makes any game involving diplomacy a bit of a nightmare. I’m also the guy people like to take out early. If we’re playing a game that allows people to gang up and wipe someone off the board early doors, they’ll all do it to me, as a pre-emptive measure. There seems to be nothing I can do to rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the people I play with. It’s the reason why no-one wants to play Operation with Gunther von Hagens.

All of which brings me to the game we’ll be looking at this week. It’s called Battlestar Galactica, and it’s all about being The Bad Guy.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or ROBERT IS A CYLON

I’ve never seen Battlestar Galactica. Allow me to clarify. I have never seen the new version of Battlestar Galactica, nor the original version of Battlestar Galactica. Sure, I’m aware of the Cylons from the old show, I remember seeing those stiff-looking robots in some repeats when I was a young guy – but I’d be damned if I was going to sit and watch a show starring the dick from The A-Team and the old fucker from Bonanza. The most recent show passed me by, despite loads of people telling me to watch it – “You’ll like it. It’s up your street. It’s really depressing.” What I did know, however, was that the humans in the new show regularly turn out to be Cylons. Bad Guys in disguise. That makes for a good board game, right?

Battlestar Galactica, from Fantasy Flight Games, is designed by the bold Corey Konieczka. We’ve spoken about him before. He’s a genius. The game sees the players taking the roles of various members of the crew of Battlestar Galactica. Your mission is to co-operate as a team, dealing with whatever threats arise, as you prepare the ship for Faster-Than-Light jumps home. But here’s the kicker – one or more of you is actually a Cylon. And secretly, the Cylons are sabotaging the mission.

The key mechanic of the game is the Skill Test. In every turn you need to handle some kind of Crisis, drawn from a deck of cards. That Crisis could be, for example, a water shortage or some kind of political unrest. Some of these cards come down to a decision for the President or Admiral, but most of these cards call for a Skill Test – if you pass, there’s usually no effect. If you fail, the ship is punished – you lose food or fuel or some other vital element. Each Crisis card tells you what kind of skills are necessary to pass the test – an Election Looming card might demand the use of Politics and Leadership skill cards. Everyone secretly plays, face down, cards that will help Galactica pass the test by hitting a target number – relevant skill cards, of varying values. This is when the Cylon player can secretly play skill cards that aren’t relevant. The value of any skill cards uncovered that aren’t relevant to the task in hand are deducted from the value of those that are. And that’s how sabotage happens. And that’s the exact point in the game where every bastard accuses me of playing Engineering cards into a Political test.

The human team wins if they see the game through to its conclusion, by jumping Galactica all the way home. The Cylons win if they cripple Galactica, either by running down resources, or blowing it to hell.

Mechanically, the game itself is very simple. It’s a firefighting game. You’re leaping all over the ship, doing repairs here, firing at some Cylon ships there. Every turn a crisis crops up, and everyone promises to help out. And every turn someone is lying. Accusations start being flung. You shout a lot when you play Battlestar Galactica. You roar across the table at each other.

PLAYER 1: He’s a Cylon!

PLAYER 2: What? I’ve just shot down four Cylon ships!

PLAYER 1: That’s EXACTLY what a Cylon would do!

If you suspect someone IS a Cylon, you can try to get them sent to the Brig. When a player is in the Brig, he can’t have much impact on the game. The problem is, it takes a Skill Test to send someone to the Brig. A vote, essentially. And the other Cylon isn’t going to let it happen. Unless the other Cylon knows that Brig-bound person isn’t a Cylon, of course.

Here’s some dialogue that actually happened in my most recent game of Battlestar Galactica, after my girlfriend Joanne had caused chaos by coming out as a Cylon. We all needed to know who the other Cylon was. And fast. We were almost dead.

RICHARD: I want Robert in the Brig!

ROBERT: What? I killed those two Centurions! Why would I do that if I was-

RICHARD: I want him in the Brig!

ROBERT: Look, I’ll go and vote you President, Richard. I trust you. I’ll-

RICHARD: No, that’s it! Robert, it’s you! I don’t trust you! You always do this!

ROBERT: It’s Louise!

LOUISE: How could it be me?

ROBERT: Please, look – I’ll back you as President. I believe both you and Kenny are human. Kenny, will you pass the Presidency to Richard?

KENNY: Sure, aye.

ROBERT: It’s Kenny! He’s a Cylon!

KENNY: What?! Fuck off!

RICHARD: I want Robert in the Brig! I WANT HIM IN THE BRIG!

While this madness was going on, everyone red-faced and bellowing, Joanne was sitting with the Rules Manual, reading over the new abilities she could use as a revealed Cylon, with a big shit-eating grin on her face. When she revealed herself, she also simultaneously bombed two areas of the ship, losing us fuel and food. She’d fucked us.

There was a sweet moment, in the middle of all that shouting, when I stepped out of the scene and saw it for what it was. Proper role-playing, like the kind you hope for in an RPG, happening in a board game. Four people accusing each other (but mainly me) of being a secret Cylon, while the revealed Cylon sat with a satisfied smirk. Five people totally feeling it. Five people totally on that ship, stranded in space.

That experience, of the game lifting off the table and into the room and into your head, is the one that proves a board game a classic. Not just “a great game” or a “huge amount of fun”, but a classic. A game you’ll talk about the next day, the next week.

JOANNE: Remember when I persuaded you all it would be better to lose the food than lose morale? The food that ultimately ran out and lost you all the game?

We all remembered.

The game even starts with a classic moment, as those loyalty cards are dealt. YOU ARE NOT A CYLON or YOU ARE A CYLON. Everyone keeps a straight face. Let no emotion betray you. If you smile, or look at all suspicious at that moment, you’ll probably spend the first few turns with your arse in the Brig. Cleverly, there’s a second loyalty phase halfway through when someone who thinks they aren’t a Cylon could suddenly become one. The tension is constant. But it’s not a negative tension. It’s fun tension. Thrill tension.

Weirdly, for a game that is co-operative most of the time, I think Battlestar Galactica will go over better with a very competitive group. It’s the game that roots out all the preconceptions other players have about you. It’s a game that will establish exactly who your friends think The Bad Guy is. It might very well be you.

Oh, and there are space battles in it too. And dice rolls for combat. Do you need anything else? It’s on Amazon. What more do you need me to say?

THE BOLD BEN HOGG

The bold Ben Hogg of board game distribution behemoth Esdevium Games got in touch to ask me to point you in the direction of this website.

He’d noticed that quite a few of you were unsure where to buy and play board games. Check the website out and put your details in. My favourite find is that there’s a “Compendium of Burnley” in Burnley. That makes me laugh. Not sure why.

Ben’s a good guy. He sends me games and stuff. Go and find out where your games shops are and get some games bought, so that he gets a big bonus.

NEXT WEEK

Next week, I’m moving on to a big old card game that I love. But I’m doing a special request too – if there’s a particular game you want the lowdown on, or just an opinion with some swearing attached, let me know in the comments section below.

Oh, and by the way. I wasn’t a Cylon.

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Robert Florence

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