Battlestar Galactica: or ‘how to legitimately take out all of those secret grudges you had on your friends with bullying and wild accusations’

Pairs well with: Space whiskey for the humans, some kind of oil-based fuel for the toasters

1

In a fit of hostility we’ve decided that it would be a great idea to take on a traitor game two weeks in a row. Who can say why? Perhaps because once you’ve started stirring the resentment-pot then you might as well keep going until you have a delicious broken-friendship-soup. Or perhaps it’s because games with a traitor mechanic are bloody brilliant.

2As far as traitor games go, Battlestar Galactica is one of the greats. A familiarity with the television series isn’t necessary, but is a good idea regardless of your position on board games since it’s pretty damn good. (What’s that? Strong female characters? More than one?! Don’t mind if we do!) As such, we’ve always found it a good game to whip out with a group of friends no matter their gaming experience or level of nerdiness. We have all kinds of gateway drugs board games here.

3A willingness to play along when it comes to shouting at each other always helps, though. Like with a lot of traitor games, a lot of the real fun comes from player interaction, rather than clever mechanics and strategies. But that’s good, and there’ll always be space for those sorts of games too in our board game collections. Be wary about playing it with a room full of very quiet people though: we’ve all had mishaps where we have been the only person in the room accusing, thinking ‘maybe if I get this going, everyone will join in…’, when ultimately the room silently and awkwardly judges you. We have instead worked out through trial and error that you will require at minimum of two louder people (three if possible), who are poised and ready to create a shouting, energy-fuelled, accusatory positive feedback loop between themselves. As they get louder, and the claims get wilder, the other players in the room are drawn in like the event horizon of a black hole.

Pick a loyalty card, any loyalty card!
Pick a loyalty card, any loyalty card!

It doesn’t even matter if their accusations are true – say literally anything to gain the room’s unyielding attention. ‘I put it to you could have stolen that cargo before you baked the innocent unicorn into the birthday cake!’

Continuing, the theme is a really well-done sample of the well-trodden trope of “human-makes-artificial-intelligence. Artificial-intelligence-thinks “fuck-this-I’m-a-mother-fucking-bad-ass-robot-I’m-having-you-all-for-breakfast-except-I-don’t-even-eat-meat-because-I’m-a-robot-so-I’ll-just-kill-humanity-and-mount-your-squishy-heads-on-my-wall-as-a-trophy””. Humans are the “good guys” (say The Humans) and Cylons (or “robots” or “toasters”) are the baddies. There tends to be one or two toasty traitors per game, depending on numbers, and traitors will discover their role secretly with hidden cards that are given out at the beginning and in the middle of the game.*

Dr Photographer is a good guy. This time!
Dr Photographer is a good guy. Not in real life, maybe, but in this game.

No matter how much you sit your friends down and tell them to please, carefully read the page in the instructions about what to do if you’re a Cylon, and please all make sure that you understand it all and ask any questions before the loyalty cards are handed out and the game begins, there’ll always be one person who picks their loyalty card, looks at it, looks uncomfortable for five minutes and then has to meekly ask to see the rulebook and shiftily hide which bit they’re reading. This is not a subtle Cylon strategy and we recommend avoiding it if possible.

The sympathiser
The sympathiser

One downside that this game has, (at least, nobody we’ve ever played with has seen it as an upside, that’s for sure) is the way that it deals with certain numbers of players. Camelot, for example, makes the brave move of always having only zero or one traitor per game, no matter the number of players. (It also leaves you with this nifty ability to introduce and lose players mid-game if people suddenly want to join in- genius!) Battlestar has this determination to balance things out, which maybe goes a little bit too far. The Resistance does this to a lesser degree, but still it’s super fucking difficult when everyone is shouting ‘BAD GUY’, and half of the room actually is…

More players (5+) means more Cylons. Fair enough! That can be kind of fun. There are still more good guys than bad guys and there’s an extra level of fun you can have with two Cylons working together to defeat the pesky noble humans.

Playing Battlestar with 5 players is excellent! Two Cylon traitor cards and a lot of fun. Playing Battlestar with 3 players is pretty good too, one Cylon traitor and still enough people for a bit of the ol’ shouting and accusing. With four or six players the game starts worrying that maybe it needs to add more bad guys but also there aren’t enough players for more bad guys, so it says “Shit! We’ll introduce this sympathiser to add instead!”

Let me out of the brig!
Let me out of the brig!

Nobody wants to be the sympathiser. The sympathiser is a poor player who gets dicked over at the ‘halfway’ point of the game. If the human team are close to death then the sympathiser is a Cylon who sympathises with them, and gets put in the brig but is still on the human team. If the human team aren’t quite teetering on destruction yet then the sympathiser is a dastardly human who sides with the Cylons but can’t do the full range of Cylon moves. So in attempting to balance out the human vs Cylon ratio the game just selects a player and shits on them a little. Boo, sir.

A team that’s getting along fairly well might find themselves trying, on purpose, to lower a resource to a required level so that the sympathiser that’s about to be chosen will side with them. How does that translate into plot? It doesn’t, it definitely doesn’t.

“Why are you chucking all of that food out of the airlock, Sir?”
“Oh, I was hoping that if we get a food shortage then the Cylons will start to take pity on us.”

I don't mean to worry you all, but this card says
I don’t mean to worry you all, but this card says “Ambush”…

Is there also something a little shitty about being a regular Cylon who only gets their traitor card halfway through the game? After you’ve been trying so hard to stay alive this whole time? Maybe, but that does kind of work as a mechanic. You realise your programming, you realise you’ve just been trying to blend in with the fleshbags and earn their trust, and now it’s up to you to make them pay.

Shit's going down
Shit’s going down

The plight of the humans is pretty damn difficult anyway, as it should be in any co-op game. You don’t want victory to come easy, you want all of your games to be a painful and horrible slog, clawing hopelessly at all your resource dials and trying to stay just about afloat in time to reach the end of the game. Our photographer bought this game over one evening when we’d requested a “small-to-medium sized game”, and he insisted against Lizzy’s protests that it would totally be fine. Several hours later he confessed that, actually, it was just so rare that he’d survived long enough during a game that he barely knew the full length of it.

The card appropriately titled
The card appropriately titled “Loss of a Friend”

Perhaps Lily the dog had the correct tactic when she just waltzed in and knocked everything over. Good girl, Lily.

The gameplay itself has two important rules that aren’t mentioned explicitly in the actual official rules set. Firstly, whenever someone does anything it’s important to determine why, assume that makes them suspicious, and to yell at them for probably being the traitor. This is particularly the case when it’s something that you know they had no choice over.

“OH! You just happened to draw THAT random card, huh? Just what the Cylon would do.”
“OH!! You’re going to the bathroom NOW, huh? Seems like you’re all too keen to convince us of your human functions, huh? cough cough CYLON”
“I saw you touch the toaster this morning, to get toast huh? Lies. You don’t like toast. More like communicating via instantaneous up-link the invasion plans back to the general!”

THEY'RE EVERYWHERE
THEY’RE EVERYWHERE

Secondly, it’s important that you make the appropriate noises when you’re trying to blow things up. Every time one of us forgot to make the appropriate “pew pew” noises as we rolled a die to destroy a raider, we failed. COINCIDENCE?**

Appropriately for a team of misery farmers and their friends we ended up losing from too much misery. Losing any one of your four main ‘resources’ will end the game. It’s pretty clear how this works in terms of running out of population (“Guys? Where is everyone?”), food (humans need that to survive, apparently) and fuel (“Ok, ok, we’ll just float around in space… let’s see…”) but it’s not as clear what’s happening when you run out of morale. Mass apathy? Everyone just goes to their room and has a little sulk? Riots, perhaps?

Too much misery
Too much misery

Whatever it was, it got us good. It was an apt representation of our real life selves, as Sophie was just starting to fall asleep in the corner.

It’s a great game for several players and several hours, as long as you have a good team of people keen to accuse each other. Good luck, brave humans. Get your accusatory pointed finger at the ready.

*of course saying that traitor cards are handed out in ‘the middle’ of the game is a generous but loosely-used description. It’s the middle of the game in theory, if the mighty humans are heading for a full game and a victory. It is, unfortunately, also possible for the game to not even reach the point of handing out the second round of cards before humanity gets blasted into oblivion. It maybe wouldn’t be too shocking if this happened when there aren’t even any traitors on board yet.

** Yes.

Credit to Adam “Not the cylon for once” Photographer-friend for the photos. (Usually about 50% game and 50% hamster these days)

Twilight Imperium: Friendly Space Race

By Bob and Lizzy

Brutus rating: 9 zingy lightsabers in the back out of 10
Pairs Well With: Slurm! Romulan Ale! Anything pumped with sugar and caffeine

Look at this magnificent shit. You know you’re in for some intense game-time when the box art is this expensive and epic.

The story of the Misery Farm and Twilight Imperium begins with Bob and Christmas. Bob spends every Christmas with her family and a number of close family friends (as South Africans the lot of them are constitutionally incapable of negotiating ‘small, quiet’ events). There’s lots of food, wine, dogs, excited children and merriment.

It’s hell.

Initial plans were to go from family home to Reading for new year’s eve with the friendly robot boyfriend (FRB) before looping back round to the blessed isolation and wonderful silence of home in Southampton. Then the kids got an honest-to-god noisemaker as a Christmas present. The electronic kind, which plays loud, tinny jingles and farty sounds at the push of a button. Far from being a form of passive-aggressive punishment inflicted by child-free friends on their parents it turned out that their mum (!) had actually bought this thing (!!) herself (!!!) as a gift for her own kids (!!!!).

Naturally, Bob wanted to leave as soon as humanly possible. Unfortunately there wouldn’t be room for her at the FRB’s house until the late in December, and he had planned an all-day Twilight Imperium 3 game on that day. But there would be a constant supply of tea and biscuits if she was interested. Sold!

She had no idea what she had gotten herself into.

First port of call if you need a game overview is of course the blog Shut Up and Sit Down. If you are living under a rock and are somehow reading this without having heard of them, then know that they are nice young men who combine informative game reviews with a quirky and funny presentation style (so pretty much the opposite of us). Their review of the game as fun, complicated but not arduous, and epic in both scale and style was encouraging, and Bob proceeded to download the rules with a view to getting a rough idea of the components, win conditions, and what a turn generally looks like (the holy trinity of basic game understanding).

Here she hit a snag. Having only recently become the kind of special, habitual nerd who can visualise a game to any sort of degree just from reading the rules, these presented something of a challenge. It wasn’t the length of the rules which intimidated her, nor their complexity, poor structure, or incredible, gasping dryness. It was more that better things to do than reading them seemed to repeatedly crop up. Taking a nap, for example. Eating all the Christmas jelly beans. Re-watching Star Trek, Frozen, and the Muppets Christmas Carol (with all the scary bits fast-forwarded so the kids wouldn’t have to hide behind the sofa). If she weren’t under strict instructions from supervisors to Chill the Fuck Out and Take a Holiday then some work might even possibly have gotten done. Maybe.

This wasn’t entirely unfair, in hindsight. TwImp heralds from an era of Fantasy Flight games (i.e. their entire history) when writing down the rules was considered an unfortunately necessary afterthought to game creation. The amount of text in the FAQs on their website exceeds that of the written rules by a factor of about fifty, and even the super handy-dandy cheat sheet on board game geek (second port of call for the game explorer) is twelve pages of tightly-packed and colour-coded terror. Bob refused to be deterred though, forging bravely ahead. It was either this or another day of confiscating her mum’s 11am gin and being forced to watch a ten-year old play Pokemon Platinum* on their shiny new 3DS**. To some long-term gaming buddies this mission to Read the Damn Rules seemed one step away in terms of desperate foolishness from considering a career in crippling heroin addiction. Eventually even Bob had to admit defeat at page 14, and instead downloaded the TI3 app***.

Game day rolled round with an inauspicious start. Bob arrived late and without all the necessary supplies of crisps, cigarettes and sugary beverages that would make a ten-hour game bearable. Luckily the FRB has excellent friends. Ones complete with mandatory nerdy graphic Tshirts and an exquisite layout of appropriate snacks including Gagh (gummy worms), Slurm (Mountain Dew), and a handy supply of delicious codeine and Marlborough Reds to alleviate the crampy terror brought on by driving. FRB did his part by making Bob two whole cups of tea without complaining more than 6 times.

Delicious caffeinated sugar water.
Delicious caffeinated sugar-water.

And it only took an hour to set up the game and go over the rules. Briefly: a central planet IMG_0414(Mechatol Rex), the seat of political power in the galaxy now mired in civil war and petty bureaucratic struggles. It is surrounded by planet and space hexes, which generate resources if you invade take them under your wing. You play as a race fighting for dominance according to certain objectives. First to ten victory points wins. You can usually get a point per turn, and a turn takes an hour. No joke.

Okay, so this game. This game, guys. It’s insane. No one playing it for the first time can
possibly have any idea what the hell is going on. Going over every single rule would be exhausting, and remembering them all on the first try is impossible. It’s entirely plausible that everyone was cheating the entire way through but the fact that we were playing with two extra expansions (and therefore a whole bunch of new and expanded rules) meant that no one noticed or really knew what was going on themselves.

Luckily it’s definitely the kind of game that can be played without a fully-fleshed strategy as IMG_0419long as you have a rough overview of what you might want to do on a turn, and there’s someone around the table willing and able to walk you through the fine points. Some things, like spending resources, invading planets, and building technologies and spaceships are very knowledge-dependent, unfortunately, and messing them up can really ruin your turn. Mercifully the sheer size and duration of the game makes it weirdly forgiving until the very last few rounds.

Some parts are refreshingly simple, such as the straightforward dice-rolling ‘pew pew’ of combat. On the other hand some elements, like playing a political action card in order to pass a law in the galactic senate, are almost like bizarre meta/minigames in themselves, as you try to bribe each other for votes while assassinating other players’ delegates. Sometimes, if another player is particularly annoying you with their piractical trading methods or pointed demilitarisation of strategic planets, you can even assassinate them twice*****.

Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.
Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.

The potential for greatness is there (and beginners can do just as well as experienced players with a bit of strategic placement and luck), but it is absolutely exhausting on your first time round. After having your ass solidly kicked across the galaxy by the Winnarian traders you might even swear off it entirely.

But then find yourself thinking, at odd moments, how you could improve your strategy to finally conquer Mechatol Rex and really show those damn space-lions who’s boss.

As you play and get comfortable with the rules (which can take several long, long games) it all starts seriously picking up in terms of mad, bonkers, shooty fun. Despite its enormity the strategic elements are reasonably flexible. Alliances are made and broken based on objectives and the layout of the planet hexes (ah, that nebula of hugs sure looks protective. Wait, guys, why are you launching that dreadnought? Guys…?). You learn the particular skills and weaknesses of your race and start to posture with great big spiny hedgehog death stars war suns.

This. This is what posturing looks like.
This. This is what posturing looks like.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. 'Pointing the wrong way' apparently.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. ‘Pointing the wrong way’ apparently.

Bob’s first race comprised spooky space ghosts who love wormholes and for some reason have a super-90s-wildstyle-graffiti-looking symbol/crest thing. They have the unique ability to build an enormous flagship which then acts as a wormhole itself, allowing fleets of warships to pop up all over the map (entertaining but not recommended for beginners). Incidentally the flagship looks an awful lot like a fish with antennae bits all over it. Bob assumed this was to streamline it so that it might effectively fly through the massive friction and air resistance of outer space, but it turned out that she did in fact have the ship flying backwards. Other races include incredibly combative swarms of cockroaches led by a shadowy matriarchy (who for some reason no-one trusts. Damn speciesists), clouds of fungal spores, lion-people with civilisations built on the backs of elephants slowly traversing their desert home-planets, cyborg remnants of the once-ruling race spreading their mindnet low-cost broadband internet through the galaxy.

All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.
All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.

This game is fun, and mad, but very very long. Set aside a full day for it, and don’t play it without an experienced player to guide you through.


*Sidenote: Pokemon game names are really dumb and not-intuitively chronological. Dem crazy Japans amiright?

**Sidenote 2: This kid wouldn’t let Bob take a turn and had the bloody cheek to tell her that an Umbreon was a kind of Pokemon in a tone of voice usually saved for the hopelessly elderly and out-of-touch. Since being informed that we had in fact had Pokemon when we were kids it’s been non-stop Poketrivia quizzing of seemingly every Pokemon except the original 152. She calls them the Pokemon from ‘back in your day’.

*** More useful than the 12-page cheat sheet**** by a factor of about 300. It helps you keep track of what technology you’re building and are able to build, and keeps an eye on your various battle stats.

**** This is a ridiculous fucking thing anyway. It expects you to print out the pdf on legal paper and then fold and staple it into a booklet. What is this, 1963? It has the potential to be amazing but only if it were turned into a beautiful, easily-navigated hypertext doc. With a fucking contents page and some kind of fucking recognisable structure. One day. In the future.

*****Sorry Chris. That’s what you get for not letting me invade Mechatol Rex.


Photos courtesy of Nick Lanng and Chris MacLennan