Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best. Semi-Cooperative. Game. EVAH.

Matt G hosted this Tuesday, and I brought both Dominion (raved over in my last entry) and the new Battlestar Galactica boardgame. Since we had six players, I managed to ram the idea of Bstar-G down everyone's throats, helped considerably by some excellent buzz on the 'Geek. Helping out with the first playthrough were Alex, KC, Rita, Mike, and of course Matt. 

Bstar-G is a relatively complex game, so I'm not going to go into too much detail on how it works other than to compare it to it's obvious predecessor, Shadows Over Camelot. SoC is a very fun game, but it is played in micro increments - you move during your turn, but that's your sole action if you do. Or you play a card. Bstar-G, on the other hand, lets you move *and* take an action, and you can even give actions to other players, so there's more to do on your turn. Since movement doesn't take long (other than figuring out what areas you should move to, as each gives you an extra choice of actions), the game moves along pretty well once people get the hang of the turn sequence. 

In SoC, you play a Bad Card every turn that makes the game harder for the players. You do the same in Bstar-G with Crisis cards, but the card does several things. First, it will either have a bunch of Cylons show up that you'll have to fight off (or jump away from), or it will provide you with a skill check to avoid some sort of danger. The whole skill check thing is not terribly involved in practice, but takes more time to explain than I wish to take in this entry, so I refer you to one of the many reviews/overviews of the game that are out there. Suffice it to say that it is structured so that the Cylons among you have the chance to do damage almost every turn without giving away their allegiance. 

In SoC, one player *may* be a traitor, it is not a given. If there is a traitor, they know who they are from the very start and it never changes. In Bstar-G, you will *always* have at least one traitor, and with more players you may have two. In SoC, you don't reveal yourself, and others must publicly accuse you at some risk. In Bstar-G, other players can *say* you're a Cylon, but until you yourself actually reveal you are a Cylon, you are free to run around Galactica right up until someone tosses you into the Brig, which requires a skill check and an action to get out of, essentially putting it to a vote. Since some players have the chance to look at other's loyalty cards during the course of the game, the opportunity for fun is very high. 

In Bstar-G, you get a second (or third, depending upon your character) Loyalty card about halfway into the game. If either card declares you to be a Cylon, you're a Cylon. There is also a Sympathizer card that must be revealed immediately that hobbles your character for a time, and may even land you in the Cylon action areas if things have been going too well for the Humans. If you end up with both Cylon cards, there is an action that will allow you to give one of your unrevealed Loyalty cards to another player after you yourself have been revealed. if the other Cylon hasn't been revealed yet, this is another way to sew discord and tension into the game, as it can either turn someone to a Cylon (if it is indeed that card) or at the very least make people look at that person funny and maybe even convince someone to send them to the brig. HiLARious. It's also a good way to make sure that there will be two Cylon players in the game in the rare event that a single player gets both cards. Brilliant design.

Crisis cards also provide an AI for the Cylons in combat, as well as an essential part of the game timer. For those who get to choose two cards from the Crisis deck, you often have the chance to help or hinder depending upon which side you're pitching for. 

Our game took about 3.5 hours, including a limited amount of 'splainin' and quite a bit of looking up rules. The game has a certain amount of reference material on the back page, but it still needs the basic Cylon rules spelled out in addition to other rules so that players may have something to reference that won't give away what happens if they suddenly realize they are Cylons. SoC puts the Traitor rules on the other side of your character card, making it kind of obvious if you suddenly start "wondering" how the traitor works. Just looking! Honest!

In the first half of our game, it was pretty clear pretty early that we were all not Cylons, unless Alex (as Admiral Saul Tigh) was screwing us over on his selection of destination cards, or President Rita Roslin was choosing the more dangerous of the two Crisis cards. It took us three jumps to get five movement points (you need four to get to the mid-game deal of cards), and it was at this time that I became a Cylon. I was loving this game already, because I was playing Baltar and as such got to look at someone else's entire set of Loyalty cards as an action, which I did even though I was stuck in the Brig thanks to a Crisis not being as averted. I looked at Alex's, and even though at that point I knew he was not a Cylon I decided to instead play it straight as I knew the very next turn I'd reveal myself and his allegiance would be in question. 

By this time, we had nearly the entire crew in the brig for various reasons, and it was at this time that I declared myself, heading off to the Cylon resurrection ship and getting a Super Crisis card (woot!). We had barely held off a single Centurion boarder early in the game (when, strangely, I would have lost because I was not yet a Cylon), which are surprisingly difficult to kill. My Super Crisis card put *two* of these bad boys on board, and then when KC revealed himself shortly thereafter, his Super Crisis damaged the Armory which made it impossible to kill the Centurions until it had been repaired, and that was going to require Matt (the Chief) who was fighting to get out of the Brig as well. Things didn't look good for the good guys at all.

However, you don't draw a Crisis card if you are a Cylon or in the Brig, so those cards were coming out less often, so less chance of moving the Centurions along in a timely fashion (and less chance of a jump, which was all the humans needed to win by this point). I did go to Caprica and use that action to draw two Crises and pick the one I wanted to play, and neither moved the Centurions but did advance the jump sequence. The humans didn't have population problems, but they were down to just one food (if you run out of any of the four resources, the Cylons immediately win), and so it looked to be coming down to a couple more turns, first Alex as Saul, then KC. Alex went to the FTL area, jumped, and saved the game for the humans. One more player turn and the Cylons would almost certainly have won by eliminating the last food. 

Compared to the one really great game of SoC I've had (a few months ago at Matt's), I feel that this game was actually better and holds the promise of being consistently more entertaining than SoC for all the reasons I give above, but also because there was considerably interaction, laughter, throwing of meaningless accusations (when Rita put Alex in the brig because he'd just put *her* in the brig, my comment as a revealed Cylon was "Well done, Madame Cylon. Well done!") and other hilarity. Other impressive moments included Mike slapping down an entire wave of Cylon raiders with a single card, killing that lone Centurion boarder one space away from Humans Lose, KC revealing himself after he'd gone out to face pretty much every Cylon unit in the game on the board, and many more. 

However, the game is not for everyone. While I'm very certain I could teach this game to a group of gamers who hadn't played and play to completion within three hours now that I've been through the drill, it was pretty clear that Mike was not enjoying the game much (he played a pilot, and we seemed to jump most of the time before he got to do much). He made several comments that it was a "long game" as the night wore on, which I strongly suspect meant "too long". The fact that he was fifth in player order and the initial turns took a while to get to him didn't help, nor did his inability to get out into a Viper and do some damage - we kept jumping before they did any damage at all, and it wasn't until the very last jump that *any* of the civvie ships were eliminated, much less a Raptor or Viper. If you play with six, you may want to make sure that people are fairly tolerant of downtime, even though it's less of a problem with Bstar G than with SoC. I think he was also a bit disappointed that he didn't get to be a Cylon, even though as Sharon Valerii he got to draw *two* Loyalty cards at the midgame break. 

Everyone else had fun, however, although it did run much later than we normally go (we were packing up at 10:40pm, and we rarely go past 10:15pm at the latest). Like I say, I think I could have gotten the game finished by close to 10pm had I been a bit more familiar with the game and not had to look up a lot of rules and been a bit more efficient in my 'splainin'. As such, this is probably not a Tuesday night pick, although if I have my way it will see play at our retreats (and probably even a night game at WBC-West). Fantasy Flight has managed to take the semi-cooperative game genre and make it work on a consistent basis, while at the same time achieving the not-inconsequential goal of evoking the feel of what has arguably been the best television series of the last four or five years (and one that is coming to a close in March with the final 11 hours beginning broadcast in mid-January 2009). 

To get this *and* Dominion within the last month is an embarrassment of riches, and one unlikely to be repeated. Given that Conflict of Heroes, perhaps the best entry-level wargame every produced, came out in the same time frame, is nothing short of a miracle, at least for patrons of St. Sid Sackson. 

My *only* concern is that our very first game of Bang! was a hoot too, which very quickly turned to tedium in the follow-on sessions. I find this unlikely, as Bstar-G has so many subsystems but keeps them within an elegant design that keeps player interest alive between their turns. In the video-game world, tying a game to a television or film franchise is almost guaranteed to produce a terrible game. I'm very happy to see that in the boardgame world, this doesn't have to be the case. If you almost liked SoC but found the micro-actions and limited Traitor options to be less than you'd hoped for, Bstar-G may be da bomb. And if you are lucky enough to be the Admiral of the fleet - Da Nuke.


Mike said...

> I think he was also a bit disappointed that he didn't get to be a Cylon

I was more disappointed not to be playing Dominion, which was the proposed game and what I was expecting and looking forward to. And also to find out which of the major characters was a Cylon in the series. Major spoiler! :)

I have never been the bad guy in any of the 7 SoC/BSG games we've played. Please bear this in mind next time we play this sort of game - I really am a deputy.

With most of the Crisis cards requiring yellow/green, having a character that draws neither of those colors does leave one with a lesser level of involvement. At one point 8 of my 10 cards in hand were red, and with no Cylons on the game board to fight that left not much to really help with. Yeah, the game did drag a little in the middle for me, but that was largely the way the cards came out.

A lot of the enjoyment and banter during the evening had little to do with the game per se, but more with a good group of friends who are comfortable in each others' company. Last night I think we would have had the same level of fun whilst watching paint dry. (I recall a discussion we had a couple years back after a particularly fun evening as to whether Cave Troll was a good game because we had such a fun time, or whether the fun time was independent of the game being played.) Anyway, the game may not have been totally to my taste, but I certainly had an enjoyable evening.

As to the title of your post, yeah, quite possibly it is. But imo that may just be damning with faint praise.

Dug said...

With six players, it seemed an excellent time to get this game in, moreso than Dominion. I was a bit concerned about time, but it turned out alright if a little on the late side.

BTW, I did not actually spoil anything. Said major character was outed at the very end of the mini-series, not in the first episodes of the series per se. Since you'd seen the mini-series, I am officially cleared of any wrongdoing other than my nefarious Cylon activities.

Mike said...

> Said major character was outed at the very end of the mini-series

I hadn't seen that far. Almost, but not quite. And you were right! Said character is a baddie.

Tim said...

I've not tried BSG, but another cooperative game you ought to try (although I'm not sure how easy it will be to get) is Ghost Stories, just released this past Essen. I *think* Asmodee' is carrying this, so it SHOULD be something you can get...

It doesn't have the traitor element, but it was a lot of fun, and actually felt pretty full of theme.