Saturday, January 24, 2009

Done down by dastardly Donald's devious duplicity!

Battlestar Galatica
Back in December 'My 2009 gaming wishlist #2' outlined my hopes for FFG's new Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game. Andy, Donald and Tony were round on Sunday for 2009's inaugural Sunday session, and none took any persuasion to start with the Cylon menace (or should that've been start as the Cylon menace?).

Will it? Won't it?
Cross-media adaptions of geekery's icons are always troublesome, inevitably alienating some horrified fans as each must. With zero investment in the TV series, my question was whether the semi-cooperative procedural play would be at all interesting. In other words, would the BSG game be less the letdown that is FFG's Arkham Horror, and more the intense test of wit and will that is their Descent?

Arkham Horror's purely cooperative gameplay, in which your opponent is just a slick but simple solitaire engine, lost all interest for me after a couple of games. It was only when I was playing Doom that I realised how intrinsic to my utter boredom in the face of this cult classic had been this collective solitaire feature. The game was an empty cardplay and dicefest of the most pointless sort.

Doom and Descent solved this fundamental problem by personalising the Ultimate Evil, so that the games are no-holds-barred tactical slugfests between the heroes and the relentless evil hordes. Reading that BSG had actual traitors whose mission was secretly to sabotage everyone else's victory condition, I was very interested. Could this particular personalisation of the evil protagonist protect BSG from the pitfalls of the pre-programmed procedural play that had proved so disappointing in Arkham?

I must confess that I was hopeful but not sanguine about BSG's chances, the original Mr. Bistro's effusive praise notwithstanding. The Arkham disappointment still loomed large. I have to report that the game easily lived up to my hopes.

Raising the bar?
As if the still troubled development of semi-narrative semi-cooperative games wasn't enough to worry about, there was also the matter of the glamourous melodrama of the revived Battlestar Galatica franchise that is the game's source. Just contrast the above cast picture from the new BSG season with the prosaic reality of the boardgame, below (and that's from Essen, which is the boardgame as glamourous as it gets!). There's no comparison, is there? How could the game hope to live up to expectations that'll've been formed by watching this show?

Even so, this picture shows how BSG scores well in the first round, just where it needs to: its components are sufficiently rich and various in kind so that non-boardgames geeks attracted to the product because of the BSG franchise should be intrigued, but not overwhelmed. Just as you'd expect from FFG then, the game looks and feels luxurious. But that's easy these days; and in any event, the real challenge with this game would always be creating a game which lived up to the task of making fans of the TV series feel that they're visiting the world of BSG itself.

The Cylon menace
The Cylon menace is at the heart of BSG. The game stands or falls on how the Cylon menace works, and on the atmosphere created by the working through of the mechanics of that system. Sure, there are some lovely little plastic spaceships (Andy wanted some just to play with, exactly as I'd expected!), but more important than that are the rules by which the Cylons are handled. These rules are essentially twofold:
  • The traitor rules.
  • The crisis rules.
The traitor rules are simple. At the start of the game each player draws a card which decides whether or not they're a Cylon. This draw is repeated halfway through the game, with a 'Sympathiser' card added to the drawpile for good measure. The net effect of this is that there'll always be at least 1 Cylon in the game (2 with 5 or 6 players), although you can't exactly be sure when and where they'll happen. It's perfectly possible for someone to play a straight game, only to discover more than halfway through that they're the Cylon after all, and that they have a lot of sabotaging to catch up on. This strikes me as a dilemma that can only get more fiendish with repeated play.

The crisis rules represent the main action that'll take place each turn, giving the game its methods for limiting player downtime, and its primary source of systemic player interaction. You can see 2 sample Crisis cards above. The Raiding Party is an all-too familiar Cylon attack, with a basestar, and raiders to attack vipers and civilian ships, or to land centurions aboard the battlestar Galactica. Colonial Day is a sample of a card with a Skills check (note the difficulty number 10 in the top left, and the yellow and purple bands on the left).

What all these different crises represent are opportunities for the humans to slide ever closer to defeat. There are so many ways for the humans to lose in BSG:
  • If 1 of the 4 primary resources (fuel, food, morale and population - recorded by the moving dials I celebrated last time, and which can be seen top right in the picture above) reaches 0, the humans lose.
  • If Galactica ever accumulates 6 damage (both Cylon raiders and basestars can damage Galactica), the humans lose.
  • If centurions, having boarded Galatica via a Cylon heavy raider, rampage unchecked for 4 turns, the humans lose.
That might not seem that much, but remember that there are 4 resources, so that's 6 ways to lose really. And there's only 1 way to win: get to Kobol, which means you'll have to Jump, several times (you need to accumulate a total distance of 8 before you can make that final jump to Kobol).

This is handled with a neat system demonstrating the merits of the crisis system, and the graphic design that supports it. If you look at that Colonial Day card again, you'll see the icons in the bottom corners? On the left is the Cylon activation icon; on the right, the Prepare for Jump icon. So even as the crisis cards are the slippery slope down which the Galactica is irresistibly drawn, they are simultaneously the only way to escape to victory, because you need at least 3 of those Prepare for Jump icons before you can even consider jumping out. And when you jump? Well, as these Jump cards show: you don't know where you'll end up, how far along the route to Kobol it'll take you, and what it'll cost in terms of your precious and ever-dwindling resources.

What the crisis system does then is drive the game forward by making something important happen every turn, something threatening, which invites teamwork, so providing opportunities for treachery and backstabbing, not to mention simple stupidity. That's the Cylon threat in BSG for you then: ominpresent and essentially irresistible.

The humans
If the Cylon menace is at the heart of BSG, it is through their characters that players' gameplay is defined. There are 10 characters from the TV show in the game (which leaves room for FFG's typical expansion I'd expect?) The picture to the right shows the slick layout of the character cards. Each character has their native ability - usable any number of times; their special ability - usable once per game; and their limitation - which affects them in the appropriate circumstances. These serve to make each character feel quirky and real, as well as being fun to use.

Each character also has their skills set. Skill Checks are a character's main mode of intervention in crises, so will help to determine how useful they are (or should be) to a given team of players.

There are also the offices of the President and the Admiral. As you'd expect, each of these has its prerogatives - 2 nukes in the case of the Admiral.

The skill cards are the essential currency of gameplay in BSG. By 'currency' I don't mean that the skill cards are part of some kind of trading system, because there is nothing like that in the rules of BSG. What I mean is that the skill cards will be the source of most of what players actually do. Skill cards can variously be used as follows:
  • Play as your specified action for your turn.
  • Play as an event card at any appropriate time.
  • Play during a Skill Check to advance or confound the humans' goals.
Skill Checks are very important in BSG. Why? The obvious reason is that it is through skills checks that the challenges of crises are typically resolved, so that skills checks are the activity which will carry the burden of the gameplay. Integral to that, and perhaps more important, is that skills checks are crucial to empowering the hidden Cylon players, so that they also carry the burden of generating the game's atmosphere.

The skill check system is simple. Each test is rated by a difficulty value, eg. the 10 of the Colonial Day test above; and for which of the 5 skill types can add to that test, eg. yellow (Politcs) and purple (Tactics) on Colonial Day; the numerical values of the skill cards are added up, to be matched against the difficulty number. Cards played into a skill test which don't match the appropriate colours are subtraced instead of added. A couple of skill cards is always added at random to any skill check, so that the odd negative card can be passed off as fate. It is only when you see more that you be sure that Cylons were interfering. I won't go into any more detail (the rules are available as a PDF if you want more), but you should be seeing the scope of this by now.

Pretty much everything else in BSG strikes me as competent parts of a slick solitaire engine; important, but not enough in their own right either to make or break the game. The Cylon menace, the human heroes, and the skill checks, on the other hand, are key features of the core system upon which the success or failure of BSG will stand and fall. This core system looks solid enough to me, though that is after just 1 play.

What went down
Well, we got the game running without too much difficulty, which was a feather in the cap of FFG, who have a deserved reputation for rulebooks whose organisation mitigates against the essential coherence and simplicity of their designs. The 6-step turn was easy to master, and we were soon rolling along at quite a pace.

Random generation had given me 1st choice of character, so I'd gone for the presidency, and Laura Roslin. The others were:
  • Andy: Gaius Baltar (IIRC).
  • Donald: Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii.
  • Tony: William Adama (the Admiral).
The relentless crises wore down our resources with disturbing rapidity. I tried an Inspirational Speech to improve Morale, to no avail. For some reason Tony got it into his head that I was a threat to humanity, so he announced his intention to force me out of the presidency. Not a Cylon, and unwilling to be penalised for some bum dice rolling from all sides, not just mine, I therefore took prompt advantage of a crisis whose outcome allowed me to slap someone in the Brig. Petty? You bet. But I wasn't going to be deprived of my presidential powers without a fight. An unexpected consequence of that was that 'Boomer' became the admiral.

It wasn't long after that when a skill check confirmed to me that either Donald or Tony had to be a Cylon, after Andy and I had been more or less convinced for some time that the Cylon wasn't yet among us! Humanity's situation was pretty desperate by now, and we were often forced just to take our losses on the chin instead of risking the challenge of a skill check. Tony's campaign against my presidency continued, now with the added charge that I'd given the Admiralty to an obvious Cylon. I wasn't so sure, naturally enough. I couldn't be.

Tony was proved tragically correct when Donald spared us further grief, using his power as Admiral to control a jump so that its resolution exhausted a resource (fuel or morale IIRC). So, Tony might've been right about the consequences of my action, but then he shouldn't've kicked off in the first place. ;-b

BSG proved to be very popular in our first game. All its features worked well to create gameplay that we all enjoyed, and which we are all looking forward to trying again. I think that this can only be called a hit. ;)

Donald 1
Squabbling humans 0

Much ADO! about...
I happened upon this game by accident while surfing the net recently. Any game with the title Aye, Dark Overlord! immediately attracted my attention. The chance to download and read through the rules in advance meant it was a cinch that I'd take a look at it when I saw it in a FLGS. In that eventuality I was recently pleasantly surprised to see just a compact box suitable for a few decks of cards. So I bought it.

It was easy to persuade the lads to play this. It was pretty easy to teach them it too, because it's an easy game. And was it proved pleasantly easy to get into the spirit of this storytelling game of bumbling minions and their pathetic excuses. This is a game which needs some warming up so that you're in the proper spirit of things. The reception it enjoyed last Sunday makes me feel optimistic that we'll get enough games out of ADO! to realise that.

Expect to hear more! (BTW. No, there was no escaping that pun!) ;)

Tony 1
Me 1
Pathetic, bumbling minions 0

Wings of War
Done to destruction by our own creations in the cold depths of space, we sought solace among those magnificent men in their flying machines that is Wings of War. Andy had his collection of the models, so he sorted out us 4 pairs of wingmen, 2 each from the Allies and the Central Powers. Random selection pitted mine and Donald's German aces against Andy and Tony's British and Americans.

I was flying:
  • Weber's Jasta 54 Albatross D.Va.
  • Ernst Udet's Jasta 4 Fokker D.VII. (Both top right.)
Donald was up in:
  • A Roland CII (so many to choose from that I can't remember exactly whose).
  • Kempf's Jasta 2 Fokker DR.I (bottom right).
Against our aces, the Allies mustered Andy in:
  • Elwood's Sopwith Camel.
  • WG Barker's Sopwith Snipe (top right).
Finally, Tony's pair were:
  • Eddie Rickenbacker's Spad XIII.
  • Cadbury & Leckie's DH4 (bottom left).
Flying the Fokker D.VII, I was really confident and looking forward to the fight, because it's an absolutely brilliant plane, with a couple of really neat manoeuvres you can pull. So you can imagine my disgust when Udet went down to an immediate single-shot kill from the lumbering DH4, of all things. Things really just went from bad to worse after that, although Donald and I gave it all we had.

My Albatross and Donald's Fokker both caught fire early on, with the result that we were drawing damage cards in each of the crucial early turns of the dogfight. Even though all of Tony's 3 MG's were jammed in turn 3, these flames were to prove decisive; first my plane and then Donald's ran out of luck. This left Donald with no option but to flee with a Roland held together by his pilot breathing carefully (it was down to 1 hit).

Surveying the damage cards after the game, we saw that the Central Powers had really been humped that day. We'd lost 4 planes, 3 of which had essentially lost all their hits (that'd be some 40+ damage). Against that, there was:
  • Andy's Camel: 8 hits for 5 damage (that includes 5 0's!).
  • Andy's Snipe: 3 hits at 3 each for 9 damage.
  • Tony's Spad: 7 hits for 4 damage (that's 3 0's).
  • Tony's DH4: 8 hits for 6 damage.
That's a grand total of 26 hits for 18 damage, an average of 0.7. I've no idea what the stastics for the damage decks are, but I've got a feeling that they're designed to average about twice as much as we got from them that day! :-O

Andy 1

PS. Major edit to that last bit there because I completely screwed up my arithmetic. D'oh! ;)

Battlestar Galactica boardgame:
- My 2009 gaming wishlist #2
- The fickle finger of fate
- Toasters, toasters, everywhere!
- A moment to marvel at...
- The end is nigh?
- What price survival?
- Again, the toasters' offensive


Andrew Paul said...

"Andy: Gaius Baltar (IIRC)."

Nah; Chief Tyrol. Although I might try Baltar tomorrow - a supercilious English accent is always fun. :-)

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Well, at least my memory of my faulty memory was good! ;)