We Call Them Cylons

That awkward moment when a monster out of time decides to mate with your ship.

There was never a chance that Unfathomable would sweep me off my feet. From its very announcement, when news broke that Tony Fanchi would be recasting Cory Konieczka’s Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game as yet another volume in Fantasy Flight’s loosely connected Arkham Horror Files, a single unexpected, uncharacteristic thought barged into my head:

How distasteful.

cosmic horror

I. Advanced Orchestra

You need to understand the context. I’m not the kind of person who spends much headspace on taking offense. Yet there it was. The existence of Unfathomable bugged me.

Like most suburban kids my age, 9/11 was the moment that shook me out of childhood. In a swamp of half-recalled high school memories, that day stands out as clearly as last weekend. I was an early riser, not by choice but thanks to advanced orchestra. As we settled in to warm and tune our instruments, somebody shouted that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center and turned on the news. We were shaken, of course, but that image — more smoke than we’d thought possible, flames like blood oozing from beneath a scab — was so singular, so remote, like watching a story broadcast from another universe, that our heads couldn’t catch up to our eyes. Our conductor, a slightly cuddlier version of Terence Fletcher, turned off the TV long enough to run through forty exacting minutes of practice. When at last his own head caught up, he flipped it back on and we learned that the second plane had struck the second tower. “How could they make the same mistake twice?” someone asked, under the impression that this was happenstance, a cosmic error, anything but an attack. The rest of the day was spent according to the panicked efforts of our teachers. Some threw their hearts into their instruction, thinking maybe we could hide for an hour, for a minute, from the image of airplanes striking skyscrapers. Others felt that there was no looking away. We struggled to pronounce the name Osama bin Laden. We alternated between goofing off and scowling at those who were goofing off instead of giving the moment its proper gravity. We watched those towers fall, and with them our footing in the world.

It didn’t end. There was no escaping it. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. The pretexts were fuzzy. Military recruiters set up folding tables and tried to catch our eye as we passed from cafeteria to courtyard. My best friend joined the Marines. My mother cried and begged me to not to go with him, one of the few times I heeded her in those years. While I was writing editorials in the school newspaper about the abundance of homophobic slurs in assembly skits, my role as news editor pulled in a more patriotic direction. Social issues must be set aside, those years seemed to say. No room for grousing. We must pull together. We must strive against the Other, that nebulous but omnipresent force that seethes at us from the darkness.

Those years taught me something important about the way we consume art, and by extension about my own preferences and tastes. There were two methods for immortalizing a moment. The first was to memorialize it. There were films, parades, songs — oh hell, the songs, those scratchy, wailing, heart-bleeding things that would not shut up about the U.S. of A. They all seemed to lead right back to that recruiter’s table outside my high school cafeteria. As a religious kid in one of the most religious of all religious strongholds, I was no stranger to anthems or patriotic firesides, but the simplicity of it all still egged at me. “They hate us because we have nice things,” my bishop said, sitting in his suit in a circle of teenagers, trying to explain a world he didn’t understand all that much better than we did.

There was a second method for immortalization. Grittier, harder to digest, never quite as confident that the cause of raining terror was as trite as jealousy. These works wondered aloud if maybe we weren’t a little bit culpable, too. Their ruminations on evil struck out in many directions: maybe the worst things in the world aren’t evil so much as ambivalent; maybe we are the monsters to the monsters; maybe the terror will come around again, fashioned by our own hands, our own fears. Maybe we shouldn’t have barged into the forest if we didn’t want its residents to take notice of us.

A trend took shape. The anthems and black-and-white just-so stories prodded at me until I had the survival habits of a crustacean, armored and mean and proactively snapping at every finger that wandered my way. The second brand of stories, those burdened with reflection and doubt, made an even tougher diet. Like a molting they pinched at the joints, made it hard to breathe, had me yearning for that moment of escape. But unlike the first, they made good on their promise. They tunneled free of the skin. They looked into the eyes of evil and saw a person rather than a monstrosity, and in the process turned the long gaze around to look back at myself, at ourself, our country, our history, and recognize the same anger and hatred in my eyes that had always been shown in the enemy’s.

Many works of art were integral to this process. Two stand out today: the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica.

In which space combat mostly consisted of two big ships hurling lots of junk at each other.

Credit to J of 3 Minute Board Games.

II. In My Memory, Battlestar Galactica Was Way Queerer

Developer Ronald D. Moore always claimed in interviews that Battlestar Galactica wasn’t only about the War on Terror.

It was about war more generally, occupation and tribal hatred, Vichy France and WWII and Vietnam, the stuff of all postmodern horror. But we knew better. Many ingredients had gone into its cookery, but its foundation was plain. It was about the horror of an unthinkable attack and the compromises we made to move forward in a world turned upside down. The show’s moral bleakness was praised as a stirring reflection of our own social landscape, dominated as it was by reports of IEDs and sniper attacks. Its religious elements were uncomfortable enough to draw ire even during the height of its popularity, but they were suitable inversions. They asked, when all was said and done, what if the holy war had been fought for the sake of a god as real as the destroyed starships and lost lives, except this god found the wars stupid and pointless? It was a strange and stark reminder that religious fundamentalism is a self-description. There’s never anything “fundamental” about it.

Corey Konieczka’s rendition jettisoned some of the show’s breadth to focus on its early seasons, at least until expansions further padded its ambitions and runtime. As a board game adaptation of a piece of popular entertainment, it managed to identify the show’s essential components, both in its gloss and its hidden apprehensions. On the surface, it featured tactical space battles and pitched firefights between marines and robotic invaders, nick-of-time jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, and the attractively determined faces of the show’s principal cast.

But it was most interesting under the hood. The TV version of Battlestar Galactica had leaned into questions of selfhood and identity. Characters weren’t always who they seemed to be, either to their companions aboard the Galactica or to viewers. Early on, this lent a spring-loaded tension to the series. When a trusted officer turned on Captain Adama, leaving that titanic patriarch fighting for his life, the questions it prompted were wearily familiar. Had it been an accident? Who was responsible? How could anybody do such a thing? Also: why? Long before the show’s identity shenanigans disappeared up their own hindquarters — “Final Five,” my ass — it understood the simmering dread that came from looking around at your community and not knowing whether everybody is on the same page anymore.

The why behind Konieczka’s version seems almost pedestrian compared to the midlife realization that you’re secretly a biomechanical hybrid designed to function as a sleeper agent. You’re dealt a card. This informs you whether you’ll be playing the role of a human or a Cylon. In effect, whether you’re a “patriot” or a “terrorist.”

Cleverly, however, the game permits the equivalent of a mid-season reveal. At around the halfway mark, everyone receives a second hidden role. As the Galactica nears its safe haven, it’s entirely possible that somebody has just discovered they aren’t quite human. The survival they’ve painstakingly maintained through dogfights and ship maintenance and way too many skill checks has been proven counterproductive to their ultimate end goal. In-game, the effect can be disorienting.

I'm pretty sure every possible romantic pairing of the pictured characters happened in the show.

Credit to Marc Davis of The Thoughtful Gamer.

It’s an emotion appropriate to the thematic objectives of both the board game and its televised source material. While we aren’t surrounded by actual killer robots that sometimes wear seductive red dresses, many of us understand what it’s like to grapple with the prospect of becoming an ideological traitor, switching sides mid-stream rather than staying the course. When Boomer wrestles against her true nature, however melodramatically, there’s some shade of the teenager who spent the night getting shouted at by his parents for the article he wrote on their church’s unsustainable views on homosexuality. A good Cylon quickly learns how to stave off accusations. It isn’t enough to be a quiet patriot. They must walk the walk, however distasteful. In a culture where everyone is on the lookout for anybody unlike them, even the slightest misstep can earn the unwanted scrutiny of their peers, or even land them in the brig. Before long, by dint of hiding, the undercover Cylon has become radicalized against the very society they were forced to inhabit.

These thematic touches even work to justify a portion of the game’s weaknesses. The rules that govern the behaviors of an outed Cylon, for example, are nitpicky enough that you’ll be tempted to look at them — but never longer than a moment lest your crewmates decide you’re one of the enemy. Turns are filled with rote actions, and deviating from the most obvious sequences can increase suspicion. Ironically, acting less mechanical may inadvertently reveal your identity as a robot. Even the game’s daunting length comes across as a strength. Unlike One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Secret Hitler and the many other ten-minute social deduction games that crowd the genre, the passage of time generates a true sense of camaraderie between teammates. This only deepens the ache of a betrayal or the alienation of being sent to the brig. Missteps threaten to waste literal hours, not the span of a commercial break. The fussiness of the space battles… well, they were always annoying.

Even so, Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game was one of those rare adaptations that understood its source material as more than an aesthetic. The series understood what it meant to be a patriot in desperate straits, just as it understood what it meant to be an infiltrator behind enemy lines, a critic among patriots, a doubter in the congregation, or a queer person among the adamantly straight. Konieczka coded these anxieties and upended roles directly into the language of play, right down to the empowerment of a well-timed coming out. If nobody has yet written a queer examination of the social deduction genre, there are formidable angles to consider in Battlestar Galactica.

(The same goes for the 2004 version’s appropriation and reformatting of the original 1978 series’ religious sensibilities, which included some very weird perspectives on Mormonism’s already-weird cosmology because its creator, Glen A. Larson, was also a Latter-day Saint. But now we’re getting lost in the weeds.)

It should be noted that none of this would be possible without the deadly attractiveness of being cast as a Cylon. Although the game initially only drew from the first season of the show, in which the Cylons had not yet been portrayed as much more than antagonists and foils for the crew of the Galactica, there seems to have been some care given to not depicting them as stock baddies. The rules never refer to them as “traitors” or “terrorists,” for instance. Instead, the very first line points out that the Cylons were created for servile purposes. In Battlestar Galactica, being a Cylon is an immutable identity, not an ideological choice. That they’re the ones who get to wear all the sexy outfits is a bonus.

Now take Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game and streamline out the space combat and sand away its rougher edges. Also remove its post-9/11 cultural landscape and urgent uniformity. Oh, and the hidden identities are now half-breed fish people straight out of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft instead of sexy robots. If we’re being ungenerous, swap out Ronald Moore’s commentary on xenophobia for traces of Lovecraft’s actual xenophobia.

That’s Unfathomable. And it’s as much an abomination as the murk-dwellers infiltrating its ship.

Why do white supremacists always look like the potter forgot about them halfway?

III. A Pallid Cadaver Enters Chat

Before we dive into Unfathomable, I want to say a few words about H.P. Lovecraft.

The guy was a racist. That’s undeniable. Enough ink has been spilled on that particular discussion. It doesn’t bear rehashing here.

For me, however, his work landed with the force of a revelation, xenophobia and all. It was all connected: the particular cultural moment of post-9/11 America, the alienation I felt from my own community, the repeated fear of the Other that dominated the memorializing impulse of those years. Lovecraft didn’t enter my life in a vacuum. He entered it when I was already nauseated from being fed so much jingo. His fascination with the vast unknowable was an antidote — one of many, but still a remedy of its own — to the simple narratives of good versus evil that were currently flourishing in American society. When he ruminated on terrifying knowledge and the security of ignorance, these were concepts I’d come to know all too well. The same bishop who’d so elegantly explained the War on Terror took me aside for a stern chat about the perils of studying too much. “It only leads one place,” he said. “Away from the Gospel. Away from happiness.”

I never got around to pointing out that if he believed that study would doom your beliefs, then your beliefs were never true to begin with, but that’s immaterial. In my community, knowledge was both desirable and dangerous.

The problem with Lovecraftian board game settings is that we have yet to see a game tackle the barbed nature of scientific inquiry. Tidbits of knowledge have played a role in plenty of titles, of course, usually in the form of keys or power-ups. These are a far cry from the scientific paranoia of, say, designing the atom bomb, the snug bedfellows of evolution and eugenics, the messy realities of medical ethics, or uncovering something so paradigm-shattering that you’re set at odds with scientific consensus. Lovecraft’s vision of the cosmos is amoral and terrifying by default, and science threatens to strip away the pretty fictions that keep our society sane and happy. Here’s the key: knowledge is scary and hard-fought and liable to break our fragile minds, so ignorance is a shield that delays the breach. Including, as more recent authors have keenly pointed out, the ignorance of xenophobia shielding us from our own culpability in society’s ills.

In other words, strike the “cosmic” from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and all you’re left with are some public domain monsters and an awkward heritage.

Good thing I’m really into public domain monsters and awkward heritages.


IV. Public Domain Monsters and an Awkward Heritage

Tony Fanchi’s Unfathomable is probably the better game, if only because Battlestar Galactica’s space combat was always clunky and he had the good sense to throw it out entirely. But if we’re limited to discussing gameplay, the comparison is surprisingly close, and not in a good way. Unfathomable still uses far too many decks of cards, features a laundry list of exceptions for outed traitors, and borders on tediously long. It’s arthritic from old age.

It is playable, though. The conceit is as close to Battlestar Galactica’s as possible. Your ship is oceanic rather than starfaring. There are blundering passengers to protect rather than civilian ships caught out of formation. Monsters appear in the water to clamber aboard and do monstrous things to your bodies and vital equipment. You’re rooted to the deck this time; there are no yachts or lifeboats for paddling out to slap monsters, and what this omission loses in possibility it makes up for with newfound smoothness.

And then there are the hidden roles.

For such a green game, Unfathomable’s perception of morality is as black and white as a chessboard. It provides three roles: human, hybrid, and cultist. The first is the default, bent on surviving this frustrating sailing trip and not much else. The hybrid is a literal human-fish chimera, touched with the Innsmouth look. In Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth, “the look” meant interracial marriage. In Unfathomable, it means evil. Not cosmic amorality, mind you, but the kind of evil that floats alongside a passing ocean liner because it has decided humans look like sausages. “Sanity” appears as a resource, one of four that will spell doom for the ship’s passengers if it bottoms out, but that’s as close as the game gets to pondering the implications of an unknowable cosmos. Otherwise this is a banal sort of evil, existing to arch humanity for the sake of arching them. The cultist straddles the previous two roles and takes the game’s dull view of evil to its extreme — he wants to keep the vessel afloat for a time, only to scuttle it a few knots short of safety. Why? Who knows. To prolong the suffering, perhaps. Why do monsters do anything? They’re monsters. They aren’t a manufactured servile race. Come to think of it, they probably are, but their masters aren’t the humans they’re now bent on consuming.

With so few gameplay differences between them, it might seem a simple thing to assign Battlestar Galactica’s considerations and thematic touches to Unfathomable. Thus far, I haven’t managed it. It’s one thing to understand or even to sympathize with both sides of the War on Terror. Someone facing a foe that cannot be defeated by traditional force of arms, that seems untouchable and implacable, that meddles in your attempts to govern and ruins your best efforts to improve your lot. To pledge a blood feud on those who created you and stripped you of your identity and selfhood, to hound them to the edges of the universe. To become a patriot, only to wonder whether you’re a patriot for the wrong cause. To compromise your values in the name of the greater good. To feel alien among your own kind when you begin to question what that “greater good” is supposed to mean. To remain closeted among peers, working at cross-purposes to their rhythms.

The problem isn’t that the monsters are incomprehensible. That would be significant. It’s that they’re unvarying in their comprehensibility. Unfathomable’s infiltrators are woefully fathomable.

in which the bad guy turns out to be exactly who you thought it would be

Please don’t mistake this for moral balking. I have no problem playing a bad guy. The Cylons were the bad guys. They just happened to be bad guys with a reason, with a connection to the people they were bent on destroying. They were cowering victims and vengeful furies wrapped into one, just as their foes were both innocent recipients of violence and benefactors of a world built on the backs of slaves. They were a reflection of the conflict that defined my adolescence, an exchange of slights that emerged wrathful and imminent from the corridors of history.

Subtract that context and what’s left? A serviceable social deduction game that runs too long. An aging design given a new splash of paint that’s staler than the last coat. A conflict with so little punch that there’s precious little to invest in.

It doesn’t help that Unfathomable can’t settle on a tone. It wants to channel H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror, but only by invoking the genre’s most cosmetic details. It wants to provide a “fun” evening of play, but can’t decide whether it should lean into the horror of the situation or play up some comic relief. Passengers wander onto the deck to stare at the passing Mother Hydra, oblivious to the danger they’ve placed themselves in. Amid killer raids and demented dreams, a litter of kittens must be fed to stave off tragedy. While the boiler struggles to keep the ship afloat, a passing purser demands a player’s ticket. After being confronted with a friend’s betrayal, a character invokes post-Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner, as though the conflict between nihilism and materialism will somehow define how you, the player, struggle against your encroaching doom. Nothing makes any sense. If your flavor text is going to be this inconsistent, this half-assed, this unaware of the reasons audiences seek out particular settings and moods, why bother writing it in the first place?

I’ve expressed my dissatisfaction with how we talk about board games on multiple occasions, in particular the way we use “theme” to mean only its most superficial definition. Rather than talking about board game themes the way novels or films or albums have themes — because they have meanings — our medium reduces the word to its most initiatory: like a theme park. It’s a juvenile assumption, stuck gazing in wonder at the animatronics. Visiting a theme park as an adult is a very different experience. You see the guiderail beneath the water. You wonder if the pirates were always chasing bowls of fruit. You spare some small pity for the teenager stitched into Mickey Mouse’s flesh. This isn’t to say the experience can’t be enjoyable. But you recognize the decorations as artifice. When it comes to board games, the conflation of “theme” and “setting” even leads to misunderstanding. Whenever a designer tries to tackle difficult subject matter, their efforts will be matched by concerns from players who expect a surface-level treatment. And why shouldn’t they? As a medium, we constantly reinforce the idea that board game themes have no more depth than a coat of paint. Unfathomable is an encapsulation of that tendency. This is cosmic horror as a splash of emerald and a boxful of webbed miniatures. It’s devoid of the very things that make cosmic horror cosmic or horror in any other medium.

Battlestar Galactica was one of those rare titles that plumbed deeper while also happening to be a viable commercial product. It embraced both senses of the word “theme.” And look at how it informed the hobby landscape — well enough to get a soulless remake a decade later, anyway. But more than that, it informed the game that best captured the cultural moment after 9/11.

I’m speaking about one of the most underappreciated social deduction games ever designed: Homeland.

This game was such a glorious mess. I mean that literally. As a tactile experience. Moving all those stacks of cards was a pain.

V. Another Show Where the First Season Was the Best One

Sean Sweigart was brilliant at board game adaptation. His talent lay in identifying the core ethos of a particular television series — its “themes,” both on and beneath the surface — and translating them to cardboard. He wasn’t an innovator, nor did he conjure game systems into existence. Far from it. Instead, mechanisms were tools, each with its own use, sometimes with startlingly literal applications. Player auctions standing in for slave auctions in Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, table space enabling space exploration in Star Trek: Ascendancy, escalating threats reflecting the overblown machismo of Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem. Even his twangy, dull Firefly faithfully reproduced the twangy, dull Joss Whedon series. More often than not, Sweigart’s rules commanded players to mimic the fiction as closely as possible. Gale Force Nine’s output hasn’t been the same since his untimely passing in 2016.

Sweigart’s Homeland: The Game was about spreadsheets.

Okay, it was about more than that. Like Battlestar Galactica, its source material was a television series about the heightened paranoia of post-9/11 America. Using the format of a political thriller rather than science fiction, Homeland had similar sympathies and asked similar questions. Its principal characters were constantly hiding in plain sight not because they were Cylon infiltrators, but because one of them was a CIA case officer with bipolar disorder (apparently a big no-no in the world of espionage) and the other was a U.S. Marine who’d been brainwashed into working for al-Qaeda during his time as a prisoner of war. Also, spreadsheets.

Sweigart’s adaptation cribs from Battlestar Galactica in two respects. One, it’s also a social deduction game, and two, it uses copious “skill checks” to evaluate victory and force players to interact and generate mutual suspicion.

Their similarities are pronounced, but their differences are more telling. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that anybody will be a Cylon — sorry, terrorist. However, somebody will inevitably seem like a traitor. That’s thanks to the game’s three roles and how they’re pitted against each other. Loyal agents hope to stop terrorist threats and increase their reputation in the Agency; a self-serving goal, since only one player can win, but still a reasonably honorable one. The potential terrorist player wants the evil plots to succeed, meaning they’ll be slipping failure cards into all those skill checks. Evil, right? But it’s the third role that really messes with the table. Opportunist agents are also on the “good” team, but only to a point. Whenever a terrorist plot succeeds, everybody at the table earns “clout” that can be spent on various assets. For an opportunist, this is their version of a victory point. By extension, they have every reason to sabotage the inner workings of the Agency, at least until American interests are right on the brink. For all intents and purposes, they often appear no different from the terrorist.

This is how I picture CIA briefing rooms. Big neon THREAT ANALYSIS things tallying the score between America and Terror.

Meanwhile, those aforementioned skill checks are brought back. Battlestar Galactica featured one such crisis per turn, representing problems like the lingering damage to the Galactica, Cylon sabotage, and civilian riots. Everybody tossed cards into a pool, shuffled them all together, and then counted them out to determine whether the crisis had been averted. Suspicion arose when the wrong cards appeared. Were they the result of deliberate sabotage, or had they been among the random cards added to the pool? By process of elimination, it was possible to gradually paint a picture of who was loyal. This same system is replicated wholesale in Unfathomable.

Homeland’s skill checks are even simpler. Rather than representing a range of skills, cards either help terrorist plots succeed or stop them from happening entirely. The big twist is that you’re facing an avalanche of crises all at once. Fortunately, they’re given time to simmer. Instead of appearing and disappearing within a minute or two, they stick around across turns and rounds before they’re resolved. Players are free to reconnoiter them with soldiers and agents, both of which have their own advantages and downsides, and add cards over a longer period of time. There’s even an element of commentary at play. Soldiers let you inspect the cards that have thus far been stacked atop a plot, but their involvement causes new complications to arise. In game terms, that means a new card is now added to the inspected stack. Where Battlestar Galactica leaned on a lengthy televised backstory to round out its characterizations, Sweigart uses the game systems themselves to illustrate how your Agency can’t help but stick its thumb in everybody’s pies — only to be surprised when the world’s bakers harbor some resentment at all the thumb-holes.

These elements combined to fascinating effect. Where Konieczka’s Battlestar Galactica dwelled on the corrosive nature of suspicion and unrealized identity, Sweigart expanded that observation to the entire field of intelligence-gathering and espionage. Nobody in Homeland lives in the open. Not the terrorist, not the opportunists, not even the do-gooders. In our most recent play, somebody unwittingly telegraphed that they were a loyal agent. This prompted jealous competitors to tank any case she’d taken command of. Sure, the agency was struggling, but they figured an occasional slip wouldn’t cause the end of the world. The terrorists and opportunists didn’t even need to undermine her efforts; the inherently caustic nature of a self-interested intelligence agency took care of that for them.

In other words, Sweigart used Homeland to deliver a round condemnation of the very concept of a War on Terror. He turned the image back around to gaze on its own folly. Such an enterprise was doomed from the start. Every step taken toward total security placed the finish line one step further from reach. Like Battlestar Galactica, this was no dour message game. There was always a winner. There were thrills aplenty. But its message was clear.

When nobody can trust anybody else, the result is absolute isolation. And how can we get anything done when we’ve locked ourselves in separate cells?

Surprise! The real enemy was the friends you disappointed along the way!

VI. This Stuff Matters

No matter what social deduction game is on the table, we always call the traitors “Cylon.”

I suspect that’s because no other title in the genre has reproduced the emotions that were so effortlessly generated by Battlestar Galactica. As we’ve discussed, a whole range of factors went into them. Time and place. The cultural timbre of the early noughties. The shorthand of that specific backstory. Personal history. How the game’s setting engendered sympathy for its roles. Maybe even some latent attraction to life as a sexy outsider. I grew up as a kid in a community that didn’t understand me. I was an infiltrator. I hope I was as sleek and sexy and, yes, as morally burdened as a Cylon.

Connecting those elements is that ephemeral glue I like to call “feedback.” Rather than wrapping pretty paper around some game systems, Corey Konieczka and Sean Sweigart went out of their way to understand the thematic import of the series they adapted. Settings and systems and artwork and rules fed into one another, all with the express purpose of eliciting specific emotions. These games were memorable. They sparked feelings and thoughts. For those who were willing to dive a little deeper, they delivered messages. Most of all, they were about those feverish years. Fictionalized, yes, but also truthful in the telling. They recalled what it felt to be misplaced, and then wrapped it within a gauze that helped it hurt less. Game design as a cultural liniment.

That’s why Unfathomable bothers me. It’s an unreasonable response, I’ll admit. My experiences are no more sacred than anybody else’s, and the games that gave a shape and a haven to those experiences are as subjective as any other. Game design is cannibalistic by nature.

But was it necessary that this act of cannibalism be so thoughtless? Have we gone numb to such callous repurposing? Unfathomable debones something meaningful and stuffs the innards into a skin it doesn’t bother to examine. It renders a moment of time into gristle. It’s serviceable, in the end. How could it not be, constructed from the remnants of its betters? All that’s missing is the light behind its eyes, the conscience and insight that made Battlestar Galactica and Homeland worth experiencing. We call them Cylons. Maybe somebody will be shouting “Hybrid!” ten years from now. Somehow I doubt it.


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Posted on February 16, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. I always enjoy your reviews, but I find this one quite excessive. It’s quite a lot of words (I mean you do start by mentioning 9/11 and the Iraw war) to basically say that you don’t like the rebranding to lovecraftian lore. I don’t think that the game is half as problematic as you say. Sure, Shadow over Innsmouth’s hybrid look, the Innsmouth’s mask, can be analyzed as a disgust for racial mixing in general (we know that from other novels or from Lovecraft’s letters), but it already requires a degree of interpretation, because in the novel itself, this disgust makes sense: the inhabitants of Innsmouth are a mix of deep ones – frog monsters worshiping atrocious deities – and humans. That’s the hybridation in Unfathomable too: The hybrid deep ones are secretly working for alien sea monsters, Mother Hydra and Father Dagon. After all, the notion of monster is tied to the idea of hybridation and has always been. Medusa is a mix of a woman and snakes, Centaurs are half horse, half-human, fauns half-man, half-goat, and so on. So the hybrids here are half-fish, half-humans – and therefore monstrous.

    To be honest, I would never buy Unfathomable, but it’s because I never shared the interest of many for Battlestar Galactica. First, I find it atrociously long and fiddly for what is basically another spinoff of the classic traitor game like Shadows over Camelot (just noticed the similarity with the Lovecraft title writing this). And second, even though I understand that the people who watched that series enjoyed the quality of the adaptation, I never did watch it, and Cylons mean nothing for me, like all the characters and concepts in there. I can’t care less for this theme and if I had to have one, I’d rather take the lovecraftian spin-off…

    • Sorry to hear it, Jay!

      I will note, I tend to find Lovecraft significantly less “problematic” (I don’t like that word) than some of my peers. While it’s true that a number of Bronze Age mythologies reflect the cultural anxieties of newly-mixing cultures, there are plenty of monstrosities, both from myth and more recently, that are not, in fact, hybrids; I would be wary of drawing such a definitive connection.

      But I’m actually in favor of exploring those anxieties! A fear examined can become a fear dispelled. As I noted, Lovecraft has been reduced to his xenophobia by many contemporary voices. This does a disservice to other topics also explored in his work. None of those other topics, however, find their way into Unfathomable. The result is that Lovecraft’s xenophobia takes center stage.

      • Thanks for this reply, Dan. I guess that my immediate reaction was that you wrote this because (as I assume), you consider that BSG is a grail game of some sort and it was an ignominy to reskin it with a lovecraftian theme (of all things!). I think that there is a lot to be fascinated with in Lovecraft (and, yes, some things that are clearly abhorrent). Your reply helps me understand that I misunderstood your intent a bit.

      • All good! I’m always happy to chat in good faith. I would be totally open to a redesign of BSG in a Lovecraft setting; I just wish such a remake would engage with what makes Lovecraft’s work compelling instead of using it in such a disposable manner.

  2. That is probably the best game review I have ever read. Very though provoking. The United States is certainly in a position now where your side is good and the other side is not just bad, but actively evil. Everyone who is in your tribe is given a free pass for their actions because you are convinced of the purity of their heart while everyone outside your tribe is a Cylon working in the shadows to undermine our democracy and way of life. Either they are a Socialist intent on bringing Communism to our shores or willing to throw away our freedoms as they are in thrall to a demagogue with designs of dictatorship.

  3. This was a terrific read, Dan. Thanks for writing it.

  4. Pleased to see you mention Doubters and Queers, as there’s a fair number of people living this “theme” each day of their lives, often with the same mid-game change of role. There was a lot of space here for FFG to explore, none of it safe. Lovecraft, in spite of his overt racism, was deemed the most appropriate choice of new setting.

  5. A great piece of game writing.

    I must confess to having not read any Lovecraft since the early/ mid 90s… I must revisit it and see what my modern eyes and mind make of it.

    I did like the original Battlestar Galatica game (and TV show to a lesser extent) but they play styles of the usual group I played it with made it an increasingly less and less enjoyable experience.

    I would play the Lovecraft version though- given the chance.



    • Thanks, Pete!

      You know, I’d be curious to read that perspective. BSG was an excellent game in its day, but it required a specific group to run well. I wonder if the newer version could rekindle any of the appreciation without also revisiting the problems.

  6. This was the first I’d heard of Homeland, and while I didn’t watch the show I think your breakdown of it was a surprise mini-review here.

    Overall an engrossing article. I am not particularly interested in Lovecraft enough to bypass any misgivings I have over his xenophobia to separate the art from the artist, but the breakdown of Homeland made me genuinely consider looking for a copy, as I am always a fan of when a game’s theme is truly baked into the whole experience. Then again, I do already have a small deluge of hidden traitor games…

    Out of curiousity, are your feelings towards the usage of the Lovecraft theme shifting over the years, or is it moreso it’s application in certain titles? Does, for example, Arkham Horror hold a different ranking to you now than it might have done in 2014?

    • You know, it’s been so long since I’ve played Arkham Horror that I can’t rightly recall much about it. I tend to dislike “themeless theming,” to mix my definitions. I’ve been playing a Lovecraft game that I like quite a bit, and which I’ll review soon, but it’s a good example of how to approach Lovecraft as a mood rather than merely as an aesthetic.

      The answer, though, is almost certainly “Yes.” Games are getting better and better about approaching their subject matter with care and deliberation. Sometimes when I revisit a game from even a few years ago, I’m amazed by how clunky it seems.

  7. The really unforgivable thing about Lovecraft is, that he never had a gram of your talent, Dan. Normally I run a mile when it is about Lovecraft. Your piece was pure joy, as always.

  8. Fuck Dan, this review made me cry. I lost my brother to Afghanistan. He came home, but he wasn’t the same dude I grew up with. After a while he started into meth. One of the last times I talked to him he said he didn’t feel like a person any more. He was a robot like from Terminator. I didn’t get it. At Gen Con a group needed an extra player for Battlestar and I joined, but I couldn’t do it and left. They were so mad lol. I think this is the first time I’m putting it together. It’s worth it just to think about him and feel like I get him better. Thanks, man.

    • Holy smokes. Huffman, I’m so sorry about your brother. May he rest in peace, and may you find some measure of peace as well. What an awful thing war is. It takes and takes.

  9. Dan—

    As a board game review in the style of the BGG standard template (intro, rules, components, thoughts, score)——this article is terrible.*

    As a piece of board game criticism that elucidates the (actual) themes of a genre, wrestles with complexity of context and philosophy across media, and says something powerful about your own (and, this, vicariously, our own potential) human experiences with this game——this article is a triumph.

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to do what you do.

    * (I hope this is understood as the compliment it is.)

  10. Thank you for an interesting review, I especially enjoyed the distinction being drawn between theme and setting, it’s not something I had really thought about before but it’s an excellent little nuance. It gives me a tool in analysing how I feel about most sports board games – they often mimic setting, but never really explore what kind of thoughts that people would have in that moment. It also makes a good question about how many genuinely thematic games there are out there – Freedom: The Underground Railroad arguably delves in to the compromise between helping individuals and changing the system when you don’t have enough resources to do both. Fog Of Love deals with competing ideals within a relationship. I can’t say many other games are jumping to mind for exploring serious thoughts. RPGs have been doing this for a long time but maybe it’s something about what the medium best supports – board games are just that bit more abstracted. I played Game Of Thrones and the rather forced nature of the continual betrayals in that, along with the limited strategic planning made me wish I was playing Total War on my PC instead – it just lacked any real political manoeuvring for me

    I’ve been strongly ambivalent about Unfathomable since it was announced – I find the Cthulhu mythos rather dull in concept so have never felt compelled to play many of the titles (especially since trying to pronounce monsters which appear to have names typed with someone’s elbows just gets tiring too quickly), and while I was willing to forgive the clunkiness of BSG because of the show, I don’t have the same relationship with Lovecraft. By the sounds of your review, I really need to steer clear! I’m not against reskinning the game and refining it (in my second game, I got the President role and the CAG which was waaaayyy too much), I just wish it had been with a setting that felt fresh and has scope for going to interesting places.

    I’m partly intrigued by the Homeland game, but I found that the TV show got somewhat contrived, and actually greatly preferred the original Israeli show Hatufim although I can’t remember why at this point since I’ve not seen it for maybe a decade. To be honest though, I don’t know if I want a traitor themed espionage game, the thing I want to explore in terms of spy-craft is the questions of amoral actions in pursuit of moral goals. What do you tolerate to allow you to stop a greater atrocity? I also like the idea of trying to retain identity when undercover (so maybe someone needs to do a game based on The Departed/Infernal Affairs…). I’m more inclined to give the game a play after your review, but have no intentions at the moment to buy it to try it.

    Again thanks for the thoughtful review – now I’m off to ponder whether a game that gives you perspective would be thematic, even if it didn’t make you think about ‘theme’ in the literary sense. Something like Bottom Of The 9th has that great mental battle between pitcher and batter, but doesn’t go deeper than that

    • Thanks for reading, Neil.

      You know, I think that’s one area where board games might have a leg up on other mediums: inserting you into a particular mindset. That’s one of the goals of what I call “feedback.” What do we call it when a game evokes the feelings or perspectives of its setting? To me, that is feedback.

      • I think that is true of gaming in general by the nature of it being interactive, though I’d say there are things that are better suited for particular media within that. Jump scares in a horror game for example aren’t something that a board game can handle like video games do, but on the flipside, I don’t think you can get fraught negotiations in a video game like you can in a game like Dead Of Winter where the group get invested in the group of survivors. Either CGE or Portal are producing a board game about being a soccer manager (bizarrely with a cheerleader on the cover…), and I just don’t see that capturing anything like the feel and still being satisfying compared to a video game like Football Manager. I feel like board games do better when you have clean, discrete decisions, video games are better at giving someone agency when a lot of work needs to be done with the environment around the player. I’ll be honest, I’m REALLY interested in what happens with My Father’s Work from Renegade which sounds like it may be a hybrid between both of those (and whether a reasonably loose morality to play with)

  11. A thoughtful and excellent review. As someone who never watched the BSG reboot or played the OG game AND who loves Lovecraft’s fiction (despite his obvious issues even by the standards of the time) I’d still be open to playing Unfathomable.

    What I would love to see in hidden traitor games is a player aid, given to all players, that only needed the rules for the traitor. That way everyone had one to review whenever they wanted. It would be even better if it was a card that was kept mixed in with a player’s hand of cards that couldn’t be distinctly identified from the back. Then it would be even harder to identify when a player was reviewing the traitor rules.

  12. That’s quite the essay (I don’t really even think of it as a review). Yeah for the appreciation of Homeland, the only of three games covered here that I’ve played (but I do own BSG).

  13. I found your introduction to be quite powerful in its own way, especially as it prompted the reader to engage their own memories of that fateful Tuesday morning.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention PHG’s Dead of Winter, a commercially successful entry that effectively employed the hidden traitor role while preserving its apocalyptic theme. While I loved BSG the few times I played it, DoW offered a similar experience that was more approachable and required less time.

    • I love Dead of Winter, and considered including it… but it didn’t quite fit the post-9/11 topic, and at this point another thousand words would further justify the folks complaining about this piece’s length.

  14. Perfect review. Too perfect …for a human. 😉

  15. Great points made here. I’m extremely conflicted with unfathomable. As a person who grew into boardgames just as BSG became mythical it was hard not to look at Unfathomable as a pure opportunity to not only try the BSG game but one with a few kinks removed. It felt win win win to me.

    But yeah the context from which the original BSG was made and how it was made just doesn’t seem to exist anymore (although I think the designer is currently trying to be really interesting in the lighter space at their new studio so that’s nice). I guess the closest we have now is the large amount of licences games that cater for the lighter weight market (like Groundhog Day or Willy Wonka) but are also generally better than the licensed games of the past. Maybe overall it’s better now?

    The peak era of a big big box Fantasy Flight gambling on things like The Adventurers, Android and Rex seems to be finished and that company seems kind of a husk of interesting relying on stuff it already has and tweaking it a bit here and there.

    I made a joke the other day about how a good Cthulhu game is might have some effect similar to someone (probably someone external to the game) flipping the board in a game of monopoly.

    • The weird thing is, I feel like we’re finally in a place where we could do cosmic horror properly! A table-flip isn’t far off. I’d like to see a game lean hard on our current board game enculturation. For the most part, hobbyists understand the basics of all these different systems. Let’s lean on that.

  16. Interesting view of the game. I really enjoyed the read. Thanks!

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