There was a time, not too long ago, when board games based on existing intellectual properties were an immediate pass. They were often seen as cheap or uninspired cash grabs, attempts by the large-scale board game manufacturers to leech off the success of the property upon which their game would be based. Look no further than the innumerable iterations of IP-based Monopoly, Risk, and what have you. The biggest problem was that these themes were just being slapped onto existing board games without much thought to correlation or connection. What part of passing Go with the Death Star made any sense?
Somewhere along the way, that all changed. I can’t say for sure what the catalyst was, but since the renaissance, we’ve been treated to such faithful adaptations like Star Wars Rebellion, Game of Thrones: The Board Game, the wonderful work that Gale Force Nine is doing with the Firefly, Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, Spartacus, Star Trek, and soon the Doctor Who properties, and so much more. It’s not even limited to shows or film – video games have been on the receiving end of some solid, proper treatment. But I’m going onto a tangent far beyond my point.
Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game was released in 2008 as the re-imagined show’s run was nearing its end. It’s hard to say if it was the show’s immense popularity, the continued rise in quality of board games, or a combination of the two and other factors that led to the board game’s acclaimed reception. Whether it was the first or simply the innovator, BSG popularized and perfected the concept of a hidden traitor in a game. Before it, games were either cooperative or competitive. Now, all of a sudden, the idea that in a cooperative game, someone may actually be working against you toward their own agenda blew the doors off their hinges and out of the air lock. And nothing would ever be the same again.
Full Disclaimer: Battlestar Galactica is my favorite board game. There is a 100% chance this is going to be a positive review.
In Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, 3 to 6 players are attempting to jump the titular ship towards its destination of Kobol. Following a devastating extinction-level attack on their home worlds by the Cylons, a sentient race of machines, the remaining survivors of humanity – numbering less than 100,000 – desperately search for a new home away from their attackers. With such a devastating assault come casualties and aftermath. As you flee from the Cylons, you’ll have to occasionally fend off their raiding parties, deal with the growing unrest between the remnants of the political and military parties, repair damaged and malfunctioned ships within the fleet, and maintain a continuous supply of food and water to keep the population safe, all while looking for a new home. But to make matters worse, there may be some among you actively trying to sabotage your efforts – a special class of Cylon that have been created to look identical to humans.
Depending on the amount of players, at the start of the game a number of loyalty cards will be drawn from the deck and shuffled together. Some of these say “You Are Not a Cylon,” but one or two of them will say “You Are A Cylon,” and will also contain a bit of extra text detailing a special action you can take should you ever decide to reveal yourself to the group. In total there will be double the amount of loyalty cards than there are players; in other words, if you’re playing with 5 players, you would ultimately have 2 Cylons and 3 Humans, and the deck would consist of 2 Cylon cards and 8 Not a Cylon cards. The reason for this is a stroke of utter brilliance both in terms of gameplay and as it pertains to the show’s themes.
Half way through the game, at the point when the fleet has jumped roughly half the distance total it needs to arrive at Kobol, a second loyalty phase will begin, known as the Sleeper Agent phase. The remaining loyalty cards that were not handed out at the beginning of the game (in this example, there should be 5 left over) will now be given to all of the players. What this means is that even if you have been playing as a Human up to this point, if you receive a Cylon card, you become a Cylon, and your motives, agenda, and allegiance changes. You now only win if the Cylons can accomplish their mission. If you were already a Cylon but now receive a Not a Cylon card, nothing changes – the Cylon card effectively trumps all.
But how, exactly, do you play the game? How do the Cylons or the Humans even achieve their goals? Well, as I mentioned, the Humans win if they can reach Kobol. That’s it – there is a single, solitary victory condition for the Humans and it is a difficult one indeed, because the Cylons have a variety of conditions in which they can win. The most common way is to deplete one of the four primary resource dials that the Human players must manage and pay careful attention to on their turns: these include Food, Fuel, Population, and Morale. These will often decrease based on the outcome of Crisis Cards or other events that happen in the game, and will very rarely ever go back up. Secondly, the Cylons can also attempt to board Galactica by having one of their Heavy Raider class ships reach a loading dock. If a Heavy Raider activates on a turn while Galactica is being boarded, the track will increase, and if it gets too high, the Humans lose. Finally, if Galactica incurs damage to 6 different locations before being repaired, the Cylons also win.
Each player controls one of a number of different characters from the show, including the likes of Commander Adama, Saul Tigh, Starbuck, Gaius Baltar, and more. Each character is entirely unique, possessing an exclusive active ability that the player can use, typically once per game; a passive ability that gives them slight advantages in certain circumstances; and a negative effect that limits their usefulness in others. Each character also specializes in several different fields, represented by the Skill cards. These consist of Politics, Piloting, Engineering, Leadership, and Tactics. Each character will draw a number of these at the start of the game, and then continue to do so at the start of every turn, respecting the hand limit of 10 (or 8 if you’re playing Chief Tyrol). These cards can be used in a variety of different ways: from playing them as Actions on your turn, to aiding another player when performing a dice roll in combat, or to contributing them during a Skill Check.
On your turn, after drawing cards, you will be allowed to perform a single Movement and a single Action. The Galactica herself is split up into several different locations notable from the show, and there is no movement restriction to them unless of course you are traveling to or from Colonial One, the President’s ship. To do so you must discard 1 Skill Card of your choice. Otherwise, you are free to move to any location without cost once per turn. Then you may perform an Action: this can be playing a card from your hand that lists itself as an Action in bold, your character’s once-per-game ability, or the action printed on the location. The various card actions will depend on the character you play and the cards that you draw, but typically Engineering cards allow you to repair damaged locations or Vipers and Raiders, while things like Piloting give you an edge in combat when battling against an enemy Raider. Locations have much more focused use: the FTL drive will allow you to force the ship to jump even if it’s not fully prepared, at the potential cost of population loss; the Weapons Control will allow non-pilots to issue a command to attack enemy Raiders or even a Basestar; some locations will allow you to draw specific Skill cards not typically allowed within your character’s field, and many more which I’ll leave for you to discover.
Once you’ve completed your character’s movement and action, you’ll draw the top card from the Crisis deck, a vast assortment of cards that are almost always terrible. There will usually be a wealth of numbers, symbols, and other information on these cards, but most commonly they will consist of a Skill Check. On the left hand side will be a number followed by a series of colors, these colors corresponding to the 5 Skill decks. Each player must now decide whether to submit cards, face down, to aid in this Crisis. There is no limit to how many you can offer, and no requirement to do so either. The colors listed are the types of Skill cards that will contribute positively toward the event, and the number is the value you must meet or exceed to pass. Any other color submitted will negatively impact the total. Here is how the Cylon can commit subterfuge without outwardly making themselves known, because not only does every player have the opportunity to submit cards, but 2 cards from the Destiny deck are also added. This deck consists of 2 cards from each of the 5 various Skills, and is shuffled together so that no player ever knows exactly what’s being added.
A clever Cylon player will know when and how to effectively fail or pass these events to accomplish their mission. You don’t want to start failing missions too early because then the Humans will suspect a Cylon player from an early stage. But if you slowly creep 1 or 2 negative cards into the deck over time, and eventually start ramping it up, they’ll never know if it came from the Destiny deck or not. Once the Destiny deck runs out, a new one is made and reshuffled to keep the anxiety going. This is perhaps one of the most tense and effective parts of the game, and captures the feelings of desperation that the show evoked flawlessly.
Whether the Crisis fails or passes, if there are symbols on the bottom of the card, you’ll resolve them afterward. Typically this is when Cylon Raiders will either move across the board or the Galactica’s jump preparation track will advance one step toward an automatic jump. If the fleet ever jumps, whether through the auto-jump or a player’s use of the FTL location, the board is wiped clean of all threats and the Human players can rest easy – if only for a little while. After each jump, the player controlling the Admiral – determined by a hierarchy based on the characters being used in the game – will draw 2 Destination cards, choose one, and place the other one on the bottom of the deck. These cards list a value, and either a positive or negative effect, typically in the loss or gain of the Fuel resource. The number is the most important thing, however; to reach Kobol, the Humans must travel a distance of 8, and then perform the jump action one final time to win the game. When the players have met or exceeded the half-way point – a distance of 4 – the Sleeper Agent phase begins, and the game that you’ve all been playing for the last hour or so has suddenly been turned on its head. Anyone you thought you could trust before might have just become your sworn enemy.
Play continues this way, with each player performing the same steps and drawing a new Crisis card every turn to keep the tension high and the danger imminent. Some Crisis cards aren’t actually Skill checks, but are flat-out Cylon attacks, during which new Basestars or Raiders will get added to the board. To combat these, players can either use Weapons Control, or if you’re a Pilot, head to the Hanger Deck and hop in a Viper yourself. Combat is handled with the roll of a d8, and the back of the rule book contains a chart listing the values you must meet to successfully hit something or be hit. As mentioned, Piloting cards can help aid in combat by either adding a value to a roll or allowing a player to re-roll a set number of times.
There’s little to be said about the game’s production. If you’re familiar with Fantasy Flight, then this looks exactly like a Fantasy Flight game: tons of little cardboard pieces, thick rulebook, coffin-style box insert. Stills from the show are used to represent the characters and various scenes used on the Crisis cards and in the locations of Galactica and Colonial One. The portrait-standees used as the character tokens slide into plastic stands that, if you frequently remove when storing can potentially pull apart and tear the cardboard. A simple remedy is to apply a small piece of clear tape so that the stand slides easily on and off – or, even simpler, just leave them on.
When all’s said and done, Battlestar Galactica is a game designed by people who cared deeply for the source material. It shows in the game’s flow, its use of tension, and it’s high level of stress. Let it be known – this is not an easy game for the Humans. The ratio of Human to Cylon victories leans heavily in favor of the Cylons – as it should. If you’re a fan of the show, then you’ll know there is absolutely little reason why the Cylons shouldn’t have completely obliterated humanity, if not the first time than the countless times after that. But just like the show, perhaps represented more elegantly in a board game, there’s always hope. It’s not impossible for the Humans, it’s just a victory you’ll need to earn. The Cylons are desperately outnumbered; if it were easy for the Humans to win, it would be terribly unbalanced. The result is a game that so beautifully adheres to the show’s themes of betrayal, hope, and desperation, it is arguably the best board game adaptation of an existing property that the hobby has ever seen.
Time: 3-4 hours
Set Up/Clean Up: Long/Long
Component Quality: Good
Final Verdict: Excellent