Sunday, September 27, 2009

What price survival?

Throwdown round up
I've been under the cosh of the annual D.I. (Depressive Incommunicado) in recent weeks, hence the bloglag. There's been a healthy diet of gaming all the same, as site-visiting readers attentitive to my 'Recently played games' sidebar gadget already know. I won't be revisiting all those games but, for the record (naturally enough):
  1. Sainte-Mère-Église x2.
  2. Utah Beach.
  • Andy, Donald, Gav and I played 6 games:
  1. Chaos in the Old World (unfinished).
  2. Carcassonne x3.
  3. Battlestar Galactica.
  4. Settlers.
Andy Erm, no.
Badger Nope.
Donald Nada.
Gav 3 (2x Carcassonne and 1 Settlers).
Me 5 (BSG, Carcassonne and 3x M44).

Gav's double record-breaking Settlers win deserves special mention; on 5VP with just 3 settlements and the Longest Road he:
  • Swept to victory with a 5VP play; less a sprint than a frackin' teleport- record #1, formerly held by Dave on 4VP.
  • Won by laying down 4 Development cards- Soldier for Largest Army and 3 VP; record #2, newly minted.
What a stunner! I suggested back in July that Gav is the Settlers player to watch. Nice of him to paint a big shiny target on his forehead, don't you think? :-7

No future aboard Galactica?
I continue to have mixed feelings about BSG, which I fear is on the verge of outstaying its welcome at the table to boot. These came together after last Sunday's session to cast doubt on my expected purchase of the Pegasus Expansion; and that despite my last-minute sneak to victory as Cylon from the get-go William Adama. I'm going to look at the whys and wherefores of my blowing hot and cold over BSG, but first...

What went down
I really enjoyed the role this time:
  • Nuking the at-start basestar straight off I was a touch unlucky to draw the 2-hit damage to destroy it outright, so that I couldn't fire off the 2nd nuke next turn; this sent a pretty big signal round the table.
  • I was able a couple of times to throw in a negative skill card which passed without alerting definite suspicions thanks to fortunate Destiny draws.
  • Aware of the growing realisation and deepening certainy around me, I filled my hand of skill cards using Adama's Command Authority; made my position clear with a big negative play into a skill check as the turn sat on my immediate right; then hit the Galactica for a couple of damage when I revealed myself as a Cylon before someone decided that I really ought to be in the Brig after all.
I love it when a plan comes together. Heh. :>

My satisfaction was shortlived: getting the crucial Sleeper Agent Phase ass backwards, I'd deluded myself that I had to push a resource dial into the redzone to win over my sympathiser; I should've been keeping all the dials blue, naturally enough. I was so disgusted with myself that I almost threw in the towel. Pulling myself together I plugged away. My tactics were simple enough: whack the humans with crisis after crisis to exhaust a resource. It was Andy's bad call on Laura Roslin's choice of Crisis cards that clinched it for me in the end. Why he set up a possible loss with that crisis escapes me. Pity? The fool.

So, if I had fun playing Adama the Cylon and won a cheesy victory, why am I still talking about mixed feelings, to the extent that I fear the game's a bogey?

The good: sweet villainous orchestration
Donald should know what I'm talking about here because he won our first game without even having to reveal himself as Cylon. BSG combines quiet subversion and outright betrayal with the midgame dramatic turning point used to such good effect by Richard Halliwell in Rogue Trooper. The strength of these mechanics shouldn't be underestimated:
  • Whether potential or actual, hidden or open, the conflict between human and Cylon gives BSG the competitive edge utterly lacking in Arkham Horror because it is a conflict between the players.
  • The Loyalty cards and the Sleeper Agent Phase neatly distribute the determination of the lineup of these essential conflicts so that:
  1. The discovery and/or revelation of the contending sides is simultaneoulsy dramatic- ie. creates uncertainty and tension; and gamable- ie. is the basis of strategies.
  2. The Cylons enjoy a surprisingly wide range of strategic options in respect of the timing of their reveal.
The net effect of all this is a game dynamic offering the sense of executing an unfolding master plan, which is a very satisfying gaming experience indeed. Unfortunately this experience appears to be open only to Cylons, as witness Gav's complaint Sunday last that he's not played the Cylons yet.

It could be argued that this was more or less inevitable, since the burden of the design is to make the Cylons real in a way that the Cthulhoid threat simply wasn't under the auspices of Arkham Horror's solitaire engine. Speculation aside though, it behooves us to be at least quizzical when confronted by a game whose systems put so much effort into creating a particular mood- with great success; only then to ration and render utterly random players' access to the genuinely exciting depths of the psychology so enabled.

The bad: limits of proceduralism?
Regular readers might remember that the proceduralism of BSG concerned me right from the start and that it has haunted me ever since. I was forcefully reminded of this Sunday last, restricted as I was to the mere 4 locations available to revealed Cylon players. The simplicity of my strategy furthermore left me making pretty much the same play for more than half of the game.

This simultaneously is and is not an extreme case:
  • Is: it reflects the limited options available to a lone Cylon and is therefore not representative of the gameplay players will typically experience.
  • Is not: it is a situation that will arise in all 3-player and some 4-player games, so it is representative of nearly half of the games Cylons will typically experience.
That is to say: this example distills into its most striking form the problems inherent in playing out the same relatively limited decisions over and over again. My concerns about this procedural gameplay remain twofold:
  • As ever: it creates a gamespace intrinsically limited so that gameplay quickly becomes stereotyped and unchallenging so mitigating against repeated play; ie. the game lacks depth.
  • The by-the-numbers turn sequence gives rise to plodding gameplay whose effect is to undermine the psychology the various mechanics work so hard to create; that is to say, the game ends up less than the sum of its parts.
BSG's saving grace here is that I believe Corey Konieczka's design approach is about as good any alternative because it serves to focus the game on its essential theme, namely character interaction as the Cylons seek to foil humanity's drive to survive. I mean to say, if Konieczka had provided a conventional map and playing pieces- so immediately creating a more open gamespace, the game would likely've become one of tactical micromanagement; a game which could've achieved many things, but which would've made it difficult for players to play the diverse cast of BSG.

Likewise, for all its possible proceduralist limitations the crisis system works both both mechanistically- by focusing gameplay so that the game moves at a nice clip; and thematically- by generating a key narrative dynamic of the TV show.

The indifferent: market-rationed product development
I must here note in passing that I believe Konieczka's design is labouring under the burden of FFG's business model in a way which will be familiar to GW fans. Not to labour the point, there are several conditions which can bear down upon the design and development process with less than felicitious consequences:
  • The deadline pressures of a remarkably full production schedule: this has obvious implications for testing and development.
  • Top of the line production values: these will clearly restrict content one way or another, so constraining the gamespace by sheer virtue of there being less stuff than there might be in games whose systems are typically built around a heavy reliance on all sorts of stuff.
  • FFG is in the business of selling not just games per se, but games and expansions: which is to suggest that games released in some real sense 'incomplete'- even if that only means relatively limited replay value, are in the company's self interest (this strikes me as a straightforward enough variant of the planned obsolesence analysed as long ago as 1960 by Vance Packard).
I leave it to my readers to imagine how these conditions might've made their impact felt according to my preceding remarks.

The antidote: opening up the playspace?
Even if perhaps 'unfinished' in the terms outlined above BSG is still a successful design, because the gamespace it creates is interesting if not unique. The Pegasus Expansion is going to expand this in respect of characters, locations and cardplay, which I expect will breath new life into the game. I find myself wondering if this will be enough.

I'm thinking it'd be interesting if the rules were developed in 2 particular directions:
  • Give every player individual victory condition; eg. a card dealt to each player specifying conditions which would determine whether or not players can win an individual victory according to the outcome of the essential human/Cylon conflict.
  • Open up the treachery with rules allowing more Cylon/Sympathiser cards to the loyalty deck; the individual victory conditions above could make this work when the humans are heavily outnumbered.
The aim of these would be to expand on and ramp up mechanics crucial to the paranoia and villainous psychology the generation of which is the strength of the design. Also, they could be implemented as homebrews because any new components would stand alone and so wouldn't have to match up to FFG's production values.

Would this work? I don't know. Will we find out? Only time will tell. ;)

Battlestar Galactica boardgame:
- My 2009 gaming wishlist #2
- Done down by dastardly Donald's devious duplicity!
- The fickle finger of fate
- Toasters, toasters, everywhere!
- A moment to marvel at...
- The end is nigh?
- Again, the toasters' offensive

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