A Short Review of a Shorter Version of a Long Game
Ever since first playing Battlestar Galactica years ago, the cry of “Cylon!” can often be heard ringing through the burgundy corridors of Château de Thurot. Usually during game night because one of our besties is preparing some horrible machination or another, but it’s not an uncommon shout at other times either. “Will you empty the dishwasher?” Somerset asks me. “Cylon!” I scream back.
The only problem is that we can’t seem to find the time to play Battlestar Galactica anymore. Fantasy Flight’s two-hour playtime estimate doesn’t help, as it’s so conservative it makes the Tea Party look Left. For whatever reason, BSG is just one of those games that always takes a few too many hours to play — so thank goodness for BSG Express from some fine gentleman who goes by the obvious pseudonym of “Evan Derrick.” This version really takes less than an hour to wrap up, and, best of all, you can put it together all by yourself.
Not that I did — put it together, I mean. I’ve got eleven thumbs (don’t ask) and I’m about as talented at crafts as I am at communicating with gorillas. Oh, I know the basics: no eye contact, don’t bare your teeth, all that. Still, I’d much rather have someone else do the gorilla-communicating on my behalf, which is why I got my copy of BSG Express from Andrew Tullsen of Print & Play Productions, which specializes in helping talentless mopes like myself get their hands on custom-assembled print ‘n play games. Alternatively, you could save some cash by going over here to check out the “files” section a little over halfway down the page and make it yourself. Either way, you’re going to want to give this a try at some point.
For anyone unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica (and we’re talking about the 2004 re-imagining, not the 1979 wine and cheese sampler), imagine post-9/11 paranoia colliding with sentient robot apocalypse fiction. Years after a robot uprising (though that’s “Cylon” to you), the toasters decided to finish the job by nuking all twelve human colonies. A few thousand refugees escaped to space in search of a new home and found themselves relentlessly pursued and exterminated. Worse, the Cylons have inserted a bunch of spy-bots into the human fleet, and these traitors walk, talk, and copulate convincingly enough that nobody can tell the difference. Cue lots of debates about the morality of torture and biological warfare, vague prophetical mumblings that are anagrams of Mormon words, tons of space battles between the humans’ last Battlestar (some of you have likely surmised it’s the “Galactica”) and the massive Cylon fleet, and, best of all, the terror of never knowing who’s a friend and who’s a machine in disguise who wants to murder you.
All the other mechanics work well enough, but that constant nagging sense of uncertainty is the trembling maybe-human heart of Battlestar Galactica.
See, everything in BSG Express revolves around continually second-guessing the loyalty of your compatriots. Everyone is ostensibly working together to ensure the survival of the Galactica and the rest of the human fleet as you try to find a new planet to call home, and even if you could count on everyone being a loyal human being, that’s no easy feat, because there’s only one path to victory (by traveling quite a long distance) and three ways to lose.
For one, if enough enemy Raiders appear on the DRADIS display (space-radar), then your defenses are overwhelmed and the robots win. Or maybe everyone gets demoralized at the same time, which prompts the mass-despair and the suicide of the entire human race. Robots win. Or, lastly, the Galactica could succumb to its wounds, leaving the rest of the fleet defenseless. Robots — you got it — win.
To stave off these different types of defeat, you’ll be rolling dice in secret and then assigning them as successes or failures for all sorts of actions. You could spend time commanding the fleet to clear out Cylon Raiders or saving colonial ships, or giving rousing speeches to raise morale, or laboring in the belly of the Galactica to keep it in good repair. You could give other players executive orders to unlock their spent dice, or work on calculating the ship’s FTL jumps to get to your destination faster. And on every turn, some sort of crisis will arise — maybe unrest in the fleet, or more Cylon attacks — and you’ll keep on spending those dice because you’re hoping to hold out for just one more round.
The rub: while everyone’s rolling their dice and contributing happy positive numbers, someone, or maybe two players if you’re playing a five-person game, is a traitor. And when it comes time to count up the dice to see if you’ve avoided taking massive damage from a Cylon Basestar, a couple of your friends reveal a die with a negative number — and now you’re looking at them more closely than you ever have in all your long relationship, and trying to recall exactly how many times this sort of behavior has manifested itself. Of course, they’re both apologizing profusely, and saying they donated the least-damaging number possible. But it’s no use, because now your friends are entirely different creatures from the doting husband or grade-school chum or church-friend that you feel you know so well.
Oh, no. No. Now there’s something lurking beneath that usually-cuddly exterior. Something rotten.
Something rotten indeed.
So, terrified you’re accusing your wife of being a Cylon when she really is nothing more threatening than a really bad dice-roller, you call a vote to toss her into the brig to keep everyone safe from her predations and lies.
Of course, on the next turn your oldest friend reveals himself as a Cylon and screws up your long-term plans, all because you locked up the wrong person and left him free to wander the ship and poison the water supplies.
And, again of course, your spouse’s glare lets you know just how wrong you were.
I’d recommend experiencing that exquisitely shameful moment at least once in your life, and either the original BSG or the Express version will do it for you. Both will also provide the even more delicious moment when you pull off a perfect Cylon sabotage and leave the humans floundering in space.
Deciding which version is better for you, however, is a bit tougher.
The real perks of BSG Express are that you can make it yourself, it takes much less than three hours to get through a full game, and the simplicity of the rules makes it significantly less fiddly. These are hardly negligible upsides — after playing both games, I personally prefer the Express edition. Even so, there are a few ways the original outdoes it.
First, the original game is definitely heavier on theme. Drawing a card that explains precisely what crisis the crew of the Galactica is facing is far more involving than rolling a die that tells you that you’re facing “Unrest.” Furthermore, the theme has been expanded on by multiple expansions, some of which I hear are great (others not as much). So if you’re new to Battlestar Galactica or aren’t confident in your ability to flesh out the theme on your own, the Express edition isn’t going to slow down to explain things.
Second, if you suspect some of your friends are prone to cheating, be aware that in BSG Express you spend a lot of time rolling dice behind a screen and then selecting which to reveal to the rest of the players. Which is to say, it’s really easy to cheat. Not that I have. Ahem.
Third, and this is more of a personal complaint, but I miss the civilian vs military subtext that was so strong in the TV series and hinted at in the original game by allowing players to conflict over whether they supported the special role of the Admiral or the President. In BSG Express, there’s only an Admiral, and it’s a much-simplified role. Then again, it takes less than an hour to finish a game, and this was a logical mechanic to get snipped.
I’ve been meaning to review the original Battlestar Galactica for a long time, and was only hindered by the game’s length, and thus the difficulty of convincing anyone to play it. The BSG Express edition has changed all that, at the expense of some of the original’s complexity and variety. Fair enough, to my way of thinking. Regardless, I’m giving both versions a definite recommendation.