When justifying buying legacy games, I’ve often heard the argument, “What board games have you played twelve or more times?” This generally doesn’t count things like Love Letter; they mean the big boys. The first place my mind goes to when people ask this question is Battlestar Galactica, a game which has definitely seen its’ value for money with me. A game with cards which had to be sleeved as they were beginning to wear down. A game where the board has deteriorated and torn into two pieces. They’re perfectly usable, thankfully.
For those not in the know about it, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) was a television show which ran for five seasons and gave Sci-Fi (now Syfy) a brief moment of cultural legitimacy. It was a remake of a frankly not-great television show from the long-long ago. The modern version updated the cast and the concepts playing off of modern fears, attempting to pass as a military drama and acting as a massive ‘fuck you’ to the strict rules of writing latter day Star Treks. The finale still has a lot of people up in arms, as do the later series but I still enjoyed it (I’ve already admitted to liking the Lost finale on this site, so you know there’s no saving me). The thing is, you don’t really need to be a fan to get into this game. There are a handful of cards with spoilers which I remove if anyone’s not seen the show as a lot of players from my table have gone on to watch BSG after playing it.
The board game is a perfect distillation of the television show, being a military drama filled with suspense and betrayal, a million things to do and limited resources. You burn everything around you just to reach your destination a burnt husk of a battlestar which looks more like a heavily-used ashtray than a spaceship.
So let’s start with the base game. You all get a character with a good ability, a bad ability and a once-per-game power which they codify later but are fine here. Those characters are all working together to fight off enemy ships, protect stray friendly ships which have fallen out of formation, stoke the engines and jump to the next location on your course home. The game is almost Pandemic level at times and you all have to contribute skill cards anonymously to challenges, or trust your president to best decide whether you can survive losing more people or more fuel. It’s gruelling, so what do they do to make it worse? If you thought ‘traitor mechanics’, you were right, damn you.
There’s a deck of cards which are fiddly enough to arrange that there’s an app as well as a guide in each rulebook. You have several, “You are not a Cylon” cards, a couple of, “You are a Cylon” cards and a “Cylon Sympathiser” cards. The Cylons are the robot bad guys who look like us, they appear human and then they do something awful like become admiral and misuse a nuke, maybe they blow up the hangar bay just as enemy ships appear or just chuck a blue card into a challenge when you needed purple and red. They are utter bastards and some of the group might be them at the start of the game. Yes, might. There are twice as many loyalty cards as there are players but this isn’t like Dead of Winter where the odds are stacked in favour of you not having a traitor, they might be a sleeper agent.
Half way through the game, once you’ve jumped enough distance, you deal out the other half of the loyalty deck so suddenly you might find that you’re going against all that good work you put in during the first part of the game. We’ve had a quiet moment before dealing the cards out, realising that this is the last time we’ll all be friends.
In your turn you can move and do something from either your current location, your cards, your character sheet or you could just reveal you’re a Cylon and do something awful. It’s an easy turn structure which is fairly standard for FFG’s massive games. You then draw an event card in a phase which we just call, “doom us all!” You get a challenge which is often a decision from the admiral, a decision from the president, some ships appearing to attack you, or a skill challenge. The skill challenges as you to put coloured cards in anonymously with a numerical value from one to five. The colours on the challenge help you and anything else counts against it, which is a way that Cylon players might be able to screw over the group as long as they’re smart and don’t get caught. A smart way of helping this is the destiny deck, which is made from two of every skill type, just to make sure that when a card penalises the group it means that it was either a Cylon or it was just their destiny.
I remember when the president was stuck in the brig and a pilot was having to hot-foot it from the med-bay into the hangar to fly out and shoot down Cylon ships who had just appeared. Then we discovered we had a food shortage. The president would have to discard some of the cards which would help him break out or we would lose a ton of food. Or when we had one pilot left and they revealed they were a Cylon so we had to run to the Galactica’s guns as they were the only defence we had left. Or the admiral so useless we were certain he was a Cylon, but he was just buckling under the pressure. There’s so much tension in the game and so many memories that can be made, as long as you and your friends are able to cope with the constant paranoia throughout the game. The main flaw I’ve found is the runtime for the game, which can last four hours or so depending on the actions which take place. It’s worth carving an afternoon out for though, more than a lot of its’ contemporaries.
There are three expansions which add plug-and-play elements to the game, some of which I would say are near essential to it. You can get a lot of fun out of BSG itself, but here’s the overview of the expansions:
This game introduces the concept of Treachery cards, a skill card which is useless for everyone but the Cylons. That sounds bad and kind of is, but some of the mechanics which go with it are fun. For Cylons the skill cards in their hands are just number but Treachery are little treats which can be used to harm humans.
The Pegasus is one of the big additions, being another Battlestar specifically made for fighting. They are a lot more violent on the Pegasus and the location abilities can cause harm as well as good. It might be worth risking it sometimes though, as this is a game of desperate actions in an awful universe. You can also stoke the engines of the Pegasus which guarantees the little ‘jump’ symbols which you may or may not get on the ‘doom us all’ cards. There’s the ability to throw people out of the airlock which is the witch-dunking of testing people’s loyalty. You find out if they’re human or not and the next character they play is also human but it costs loyalty. If you space a Cylon that’s great in the moment but they come back. They always come back. The Pegasus is a Russian Roulette of location abilities and at worst an extra four hit points for the Galactica as you can elect to hit it instead of the ship. I use this as a default add-on to the game.
There are Cylon Leaders who are characters we all know to be Cylons but have their own agendas which may help or hinder the game. They’re a nice addition and their goals often but don’t always give the appearance of helping the side they want to lose. The Cylon Leaders are mercurial and difficult to trust, just like the times they help out in the TV show. The agendas are okay, but will get improved later on.
There’s a new endgame mode as well which is New Caprica. Instead of having a final round you end up on a planet and have to get off while humans and Cylons are all roaming the same mini-board. It’s okay, but not great. The mechanics involve trying to surreptitiously load up ships while Cylons may imprison or harm you. There are definitely better endgame modes than this, but Pegasus is worth it for the other sections.
One of the early episodes of the TV show has a bit of time where the fleet has to jump every 33 minutes as the Cylons catch up. It’s a game of cat and mouse which drains everyone as they flee for their lives. This replicates that sense. You remove the ship cards from the ‘doom us all’ deck and instead the Cylon Fleet gets washed onto their own separate mini-board when you jump. They build up and move around before their ‘pursuit track’ fills up and they rush the board. Anything you leave in space when you run away is coming back for you. The Cylon Fleet has actions which any Cylon who reveals themselves can do, too. It’s far more interesting than the base game’s version and has a new human role of the CAG (Commander Air Group) who can move ships around. This extra mobility is interesting and as the CAG role has an action which demands you hand it to someone else, people who aren’t pilots may end up playing with the little ships, too. It’s a little fiddly when you first play it, but essential to the game once you’ve got the hang of it. The Admiral gets a slight rules change and you even get super-ships which start the game damaged but if you take time to repair them then they’re great.
The next optional module is conflicted loyalties, where the people who aren’t Cylons might have other things to do. I’ve barely played with them but they vary from not noticed at all to really harmful to us. The “Final Five” loyalty cards instantly kill anyone who discovers them while the “Personal Goal” cards give you extra requirements to win the game.
Then there’s a new endgame mode which isn’t compatible with New Caprica, called The Ionian Nebula. In this mode the game is different from the get-go. The Galactica is populated by characters who aren’t being played by anyone, each of whom may have a good or bad reaction to your character showing up. Or they might just straight up kill you. As play goes on you gather the good and bad tokens, then face your destiny before the final round. Players can actually be eliminated by these destinies, but at that point there’s not much game left to play. Sleepers have a hard time as the tokens the Cylons want are generally opposite to the ones the humans are aiming for. It’s less of an arse than New Caprica.
The final Battlestar Galactica expansion is a bit of a mixed selection of new things to round it out, including plastic versions of the last Cylon token pieces in the game (the Centurians who can break into the ship and run riot in the hallways).
The once per game abilities are now powered by ‘miracle’ tokens which can be earned and lost with some of the new characters and ‘doom us all’ cards. There are treachery cards and Cylon Leaders much like in Pegasus, but with different abilities to avoid duplication. Replacing the previous agendas for Cylon Leaders are more fluid ‘motive’ cards which each give you immediate or end-state goals to perform. You get a couple at the start of the game and a couple more when the other players get their second loyalty cards. This way you don’t really know who you’re wanting to win until then as the cards tell you which side they correspond to. A lucky draw might have you able to pick as the endgame nears, or get stuck having to work with the filthy human fleshbags.
There’s a new role of, ‘the Mutineer’ which is a fun new aspect. If you draw the card in the loyalty deck then you have cards which both help and hinder the players. Consider it the ‘tough love’ card. If you keep too many of them then you’re put in the brig, so you kind of have to spend them. It’s great fun, if a little dangerous.
As well as ‘patching’ the original game, there’s the Search for Home option which you can choose instead of the basic game, New Caprica or The Ionian Nebula. You get another extra ship in the Demetrius, which gives humans ways to help themselves instead of just keep on surviving. You get a deck of ‘mission’ cards which you can review with one location action or choose to draw instead of a ‘doom us all’ card. They’re normally a bit more difficult but can permanently change the game in your favour. Or you could be a filthy bastard Cylon who’s told everyone to stock up on red cards and that’s the only colour the mission doesn’t require. These changes are things like having a rogue Cylon basestar as a new location to help either side, blowing up a location on the Revealed Cylon section of the board, drawing extra miracle tokens and more. You have a slightly more challenging end location because you’re supposed to use these missions and some of them add to the distance used. The only flaw I find is that too many people are putting out fires so it often gets forgotten.
This isn’t a real expansion, but we’ve created an extra challenge in this game. If you become President and Admiral then you are the ‘God-King’ of the Galactica. If you’re somehow able to be the President, Admiral and CAG then you are ‘God-King-Batman’. I’m still not 100% sure what to dub the Admiral, President, CAG and Mutineer as it’s super-difficult. If you become the Mutineer then you lose all the titles you’ve gained so far. This means it’s not impossible, but it’s super-tricky. We’ve not had cause to name the next level after God-King-Batman, but please feel free to make suggestions in the comments.
I recommend all of these expansions, but if you have to go for one I’d say that you should get Exodus as it’s that massive a game-changer. In 20+ games, BSG hasn’t got old yet and hasn’t driven anyone to bloodshed. It’s come close, but not quite. Battlestar Galactica is a game whose mechanics really fit the theme, but is highly enjoyable even if you don’t care for the television show. It’s a must-have addition to a game collection and one of my all-time favourites. In case you couldn’t already tell.