There comes a time when every person must come to grips with the fact that they never truly know any person, even their closest friends, for within us all lie secrets, motives, and desires; some grandiose, some mundane.
And there is nothing on this earth save for various illegal forms of torture that can reveal this fact quite like a game of Battlestar Galactica.
I recently had occasion to sit down and play a session of this game with some good friends, and it proved to be one of the best games I have had in my time as a gamer. The players were:
• Mr. Bistro – William Adama (Admiral)
• Skyknight – Saul Tigh
• The Guru – Kara Thrace
• The Fattest Ninja – Gaius Baltar
• Jim – Galen Tyrol
• Truth – Laura Roslin (President)
Skyknight and Fattest Ninja were new to the game, so I explained the rules (which are really quite easy to grasp – it is the player interaction that is so hard), we set up the board, and started the game. Like any tumultuous explosion of furious weather, it was preceded by a quiet lull capable of fooling the ignorant into thinking everything was just fine. The game started as normal with the ship under attack, and the six of us seemingly capable of working together. I was a human, and the admiral, so I was determined to prove that I was trustworthy, and guide the new players. I had played Battlestar Galactica previously with Truth and found him to be exceptionally devious, so I was keeping an eye on him from the beginning. There were the usual jokes one encounters early in the game (“I think you should go to Weapons Control and fire on the raiders.” “Of course you do, toaster”), but I was dismayed when this phase of social interaction quickly evaporated and was replaced with actual paranoia. Now any Battlestar Galactica session is going to have paranoia, but in this game it started before the initial cylon attack force had even been dissipated. We were questioning the actions of every player, and often eyes would lock as individuals probed their compatriots’ pupils in the hopes of discovering their motives. The level of tension was palpable, myself being suspicious of the two new players. Their actions were odd. Skyknight was accusing every person of being a cylon, even though he was too new to understand the nuances of certain strategies. Fattest Ninja, normally a loud and boisterous player was uncharacteristically silent, and seemed to be avoiding eye contact with anyone. I kept reminding myself they were new, and therefore more likely to stand out, but something seemed off. This was a six player game and therefore it was statistically likely that there was at least one cylon, and possible there were two. But who was it?
Whenever players get suspicious, it ends in a witch hunt, so to protect myself I opted to make several extravagant moves that might help encourage my peers to believe I was human. I nuked the starting basestar. While a risky early move, in only a few rounds of the game the ship had disgorged many swarms of raiders, as well as a heavy raider. We hadn’t scratched the beast, and we faced a raider swarm so large, that if it made it to the rear of the ship, it would be impossible to protect the civilian fleet located there. I also used Adama’s Command Authority ability to collect discarded Skill Cards at a critical juncture when everyone was low. It was a great move that saved our collective butts on the Crisis Cards that followed, and I tried to make it obvious how much I was helping. But Skyknight wasn’t having any of it. His accusations began to focus on me, and soon I found myself defending everything I did, and it wasn’t long before I was convinced that he had to be the cylon. His actions didn’t go unnoticed, and soon the dance of accusing eyes changed to something else – Skyknight was acting weird.
(Skyknight: Bistro threw a nuke in the first few rounds. If I was a cylon I would have tried the exact same thing. I was really thinking he had it in for us.)
(Jim: I haven’t yet played enough to get the subtleties of “when is the right time” and “when is the wrong time” to use a nuke. There were way too many raiders on the board, and they were all in the first quadrant with the basestar, so it didn’t seem like that bad of a move to me.)
(The Fattest Ninja: I was the one who persuaded Bistro to drop the nuke (not being a cylon at this point) because we were swamped and I saw no way of us pulling out otherwise. And because I was Baltar and had two Loyalty Cards people were already accusing me of being a toaster.)
The game paused for a brief but excellent dinner, the fleet only having jumped a couple of times. The two new players quickly went upstairs for food, but several of us hung back to discuss what was going on. After the obligatory “just because we’re having this conversation doesn’t mean I trust you” disclaimers, we were mostly agreed that either Skyknight or Fattest Ninja was a cylon, or worse they were both cylons. When we returned from dinner, there was something in the air, and now people were ready to act. Sort of. In Battlestar Galactica you can be suspicious as hell of someone, but if you accidentally throw a loyal human in the brig, the results can be disastrous for the rest of the ship. And so many of us were ready to turn against Skyknight, but still there was the lingering thought that he was new, and this might be the cause of his behavior.
(The Guru: Bistro is right. We all knew it - Skyknight and Fattest Ninja were not themselves, Ninja resoundingly so. He was so quiet, and I have never seen him like that. I was convinced my brother was a skin-job, but what was I to do?)
(Jim: Fattest Ninja was almost silent during the game. Anyone who knows Ninja knows that he is not a quiet person. That itself was suspicious. At the same time, neither Ninja nor Skyknight had ever watched the show, so their behavior might have been them absorbing everything and not really being sure what to do.)
(The Fattest Ninja: I was convinced Skyknight was a cylon and my silence was due to studying his every move. He was acting very fishy, constantly joking about being a cylon. I knew he was a fracking toaster.)
But then something happened that no one was prepared for. Fattest Ninja won the ability to look at another player’s Loyalty Card, and he chose Skyknight. We all wanted to check Skyknight’s loyalty, but now it was being checked by another player we were suspicious of. All eyes were on Fattest Ninja as he looked at Skyknight’s card, handed it back, and fell silent. I immediately demanded to know what he had seen, but Fattest Ninja said nothing, as if he was thinking about what he should do. More players demanded he speak up, and I began to worry. Was he a cylon, and now knew he had a compatriot? Was Skyknight, despite all appearances, really a human? I again demanded to know what had been on the Loyalty Card, and Fattest Ninja looked at me and said, “What do you think dude? He’s a cylon.” Time froze. I had the seen the look, and so had everyone else – Fattest Ninja was lying. I looked at Skyknight’s face, and the nervous smile he had been wearing all night was now lost in honest shock and the truth was unmistakable. I do not recall who went to the Admiral’s Quarters, but soon after looking at that loyalty card, Fattest Ninja found himself in the Brig, protesting his innocence all the way. An interesting thing occurred during the vote however. Fattest Ninja turned to Guru, his brother, and said, “Dude – what about brothers?” The cry of “brothers” from one of these two is an interesting thing. It’s a deal they have, like the bat signal, where when one of them declares “brothers” the other, despite any reason to the contrary, must respond and help the other. I was probably the only one at the table who knew what this meant, and knew how seriously they took this pact. I immediately turned on Guru and began applying pressure. I could see him wavering and wondered; it was obvious his brother was a cylon - was he a cylon too? Would he let this pact go against common sense? I applied more pressure as did the others, and eventually Guru laid his cards down with a crestfallen face. Fattest Ninja was on his own.
(Skyknight: Ninja’s face was the ultimate declaration of guilt. You could see it dripping off of him and I knew we had him at that point.)
(The Guru: All eyes were on me. Ninja was a skin-job and we all knew it. Why then did he invoke “what about brothers”? The Brothers Clause is sacred and must only be used to prove that your choice is the right one, overriding anything else. How could he invoke brothers if he knew he was a cylon? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. My brother was falsely accused. However, everyone at the table thought he was a skin-job. I was the only ally he had. If I blew all my resources to try and save him (knowing it was doomed to failure), I wouldn’t do anyone any good. No. I resolved to myself that I would free my brother, when the time was right. We would save Galactica together as he was the only one I knew was not a cylon now. I didn’t turn in any cards because I knew there was no way to save him now, but my time would come….)
(Jim: When Ninja looked at the loyalty card and handed it back, his head dropped. He wasn’t sure what to do. I don’t think he realized that he could talk about what he had just seen. When pressured, and when he told us, there was no doubt he was lying. Suspicions confirmed. He wasn’t learning how to play the game or absorbing what the show is about; he was a toaster.)
(The Fattest Ninja: I was 100% sure Skyknight was a cylon at this point so when I looked and saw he wasn’t I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. If I said he wasn’t a cylon then obviously everyone would assume we were both cylons and I was saving his ass. If I told the truth however there was a possibility I could continue to help Galactica and could make it up to the innocent Skyknight later.)
Now we all felt pretty good about this, thinking we had foiled the plans of a treacherous skin-job. But then came the fateful moment. The fleet jumped again, and this time we were far enough along to usher in the Sleeper Agent Phase. Once again, each player received a second Loyalty Card, just as the possibility for trusting each other was beginning to show promise. And I received the Sympathizer card. A brief rules discussion followed (I misunderstood what was going to happen to me), but the facts were unmistakable – all of the fleet’s resources were above half, thus meaning I was now a human who supported the cylons. At first I was numb with shock – I had just worked my ass off to help the humans, and now I… had to betray them? My admiral title was stripped and went to Skyknight, I lost most of my Skill Cards, and my character was moved to a Resurrection Ship. As a cylon-loving human I didn’t get a Super Crisis card, nor did I have the ability to take charge of the cylon fleet. My only solace was in knowing that somewhere out there were probably two other players aligned to my cause who were lurking onboard Galactica. But who were they? My only clue was a flicker in Skyknight’s face when he looked at his second Loyalty Card, and then asked a couple of odd questions. Could it be him? I could swear his attitude changed slightly, but it was possible it was just the heightened paranoia I was feeling.
(Skyknight: I did not even have time to read my Loyalty Card as it caught me completely off guard. It did take me a second to recover from the initial shock of discovering I was now a cylon.)
(The Guru: All bets were off now. “What about brothers” was wiped away and I’d have to watch my brother carefully now to ascertain his intentions. All I knew was that I was truly a human, and saving Galactica from the cylon scum was my only goal. Bistro could do whatever he wanted; we were going to reach Kobol.)
(The Fattest Ninja: At this point my cylon programming was activated and I knew the only way I could survive was to lay low and moan out my innocence and utter frustration, constantly accusing Skyknight and saying they were all duped.)
And so the game changed for me. My best option was going to Caprica, and from there I beleaguered the humans with Crisis Card after Crisis Card. My goals were in this order: slow down their ability to jump, focus on wearing down their Morale and Population levels, and hit them with fresh cylon swarms whenever I could. But I was going to need help. One of the first things I did was openly ask Fattest Ninja if he was a cylon. He had been languishing in the Brig for awhile now, and I was worried that as a new player he might not realize the best option was to blow his head off, and join me in the cylon portion of the board. Sure, I was outing him in a way, but if he was a cylon he needed to move on. His response was negative. But as I turned back to my cards, he slipped a hand under the table and there gave me a thumbs up sign. So there was one compatriot. I had no idea why he would want to stay in the Brig, but I had little choice but to trust him, and hope he didn’t have the second You Are a Cylon card.
Things were looking good for the humans – when the Sleeper Agent Phase arrived they had only lost a few points from the dials, and lost only a raptor or two. In fact it was one of the best performances I’ve seen from human players in any session. Yet this fact seemed lost on them. A sense of panic was rising, not helped by the Crisis Cards I was sending their way from afar, and the blind accusations (and the last nuke) began to fly. Now Skyknight who had been the number one source of suspicion before was Truth’s buddy, and the two put their backs to each other sure that they were the only trustworthy humans present. Guru began to hurl accusations at Jim, a move which surprised me, since I was fairly positive Jim was not on my side. At first Jim merely defended himself, but soon he began redirecting the accusations back at Guru. And now Fattest Ninja jumped in and began to protest his innocence in full force. He pointed out each time there was a Crisis how he could have helped, were he not in the Brig. Skyknight and Truth, unsure of whether they could trust Guru or Jim, began to falter. Guru began to campaign for Fattest Ninja, sure he had thrown his brother in the Brig for the wrong reasons, and I decided to help out. I began to gloat how the humans had helped me by throwing one of their own in jail, how every action of Fattest Ninja showed his loyalty and they were too paranoid and to see it. And then something brilliant happened – a Crisis Card was played that if failed, would prevent loyalty checks from happening for the remainder of the game. This caused a stir, and I threw in my best card to help it fail, but as a cylon Sympathizer one card was all I could do, and Fattest Ninja faced the same limit being in the Brig. The cards were shuffled and turned up, and the results were overwhelming – fail. Another player had obviously made his voice heard, and my heart leapt – we were not alone, and now the humans could never have proof of who it was.
(Skyknight: It was excellent when Guru began his campaign to save his brother. There was no doubt Fattest Ninja was a Cylon and Guru’s desperate pleas made him seem guilty through association. I was able to completely shift all suspicion his way at this time. I was secretly forcing Galactica to make small jumps and Mr. Bistro kept hammering the ship.)
(The Guru: Jim had shifty eyes! He leaned over to look at the spaces on Galactica, and since he was directly across the table I could see that his eyes darted to read the details for the Cylon locations. Jim was studying - studying so he could join his toaster brothers. Jim was a CYLON!!! However, screaming my accusations did nothing but point the blame at me as Colby and Rod were all buddy-buddy. Did they not realize I was out there every round shooting down those fracking toasters?)
(Jim: There was a point during all of this when Ninja was stockpiling cards that would help him get out of the Brig. During this time, he took cards of the wrong color. He claimed it was an accident, thinking it was the other color, but that was naturally what a cylon would say. Meanwhile, Truth hadn’t yet left Colonial One, and Guru seemed to be trying too hard to be a human (he had somehow failed a skill check that he should have been able to pass, after all). It couldn’t be that they were both cylons, so which one was it?)
(The Fattest Ninja: It should be noted that we later discovered that Truth saw my gesture to Bistro, which makes one of his later choices utterly hilarious.)
The game reached a fever pitch. I was hammering the humans and had succeeded in significantly lowering their Population. I launched a fresh attack of cylon ships at them, but it became clear to me that my side was going to lose. I openly called for unrevealed cylon players to turn now, that we were losing, but my words seemed to have no effect. Fattest Ninja was still in the Brig, and the unrevealed player was still bumbling around doing little good for the cause. And then everything exploded. Guru went to the Admiral’s Quarters and openly accused Jim of being a cylon. A vote went down, and the humans wasted more resources, but Jim used his Blind Devotion ability to negate one of the card types needed for the vote, and he managed to stay clear of the Brig. So now people were suspicious of Guru and his campaign to free his brother. It was down to the wire. If the humans could jump again they would win the game. Cylon raiders began to destroy civilian ships, and Population dropped further. Truth, in an act of desperation, played an Executive Order card aboard the Colonial One and asked his buddy Skyknight to man Weapons Control and fire on the cylons. Skyknight instead went to Communications to secretly look at the civilian ships. The humans yelled in protest, sure he was making a stupid move, and then Skyknight used his ability to move the civilians – into the same space as the invading cylon raiders. Time paused for a moment, and then the realization of Skyknight’s intent hit them all. They were betrayed.
(Jim: I sighed, shaking my head and putting it in my hands, and just sat there with a sense of utter despondence, having had to exhaust my special ability now, rather than use it at a more opportune time. Okay, I had Ninja and his brother pegged as cylons. When Truth used the Executive Order, there was some confusion if Skyknight got a move and an action or a move and two actions or what. That’s okay, it was his first game, we just needed to explain that he could move and do one action, because he was not in Weapons Control. When he moved to Communications, I told him that he did not get to move twice either, so he should have gone to Weapons Control. Then he looked at the civilian ships, and I thought that we might buy some time if they were moved -- INTO THE CYLONS?!?!? Oh no. Was it Ninja or Guru who was really human? My money was on Guru being the toaster.)
(The Guru: Truth made the right move. He told Skyknight to go to Weapons Control, but when he moved to Communications instead, I weighed the positives. There was more than one raider coming and looking at the civilian ships and either leaving one there, or moving both away was a good move. Skyknight looked at both ships and grinned. He went to put them back on the board, but he put them in the wrong quadrant. What was he doing? He was supposed to move them away! Why would he put them in the same quadrant as the raid- OH MY GOD. SKY IS A CYLON!)
(Skyknight: The look on Truth’s face as the pieces came together was absolutely wonderful. As everything fell into place his eyes grew wider and wider at what had just happened. At this point Guru chucked all of his cards to the back of the room, now realizing that I was holding all of the chips. The whole time we were making jumps in the second half of the game, I had complete control. I threw away all of the large jumps and let us jump at tiny increments, fully convincing my comrades of what a tough decision I was making.)
(The Fattest Ninja: I knew I had to get out and take Galactica for the cylons, so I instantly started cursing Skyknight and screaming about how nobody believed me and I was a martyr.)
I let out a victory cry and Skyknight and I cackled with glee. The humans realized they were in big trouble. Though Skyknight was clearly a traitor, they were low on Skill Cards and hard pressed to throw him thrown in jail. Resources were low, and with other cylons there to sabotage their chances, things looked grim. The Admiral of the fleet was a traitor and there was nothing they could do about it. At this moment Fattest Ninja spoke up, and the others quickly scrambled to get him out of the Brig. Clearly they imprisoned the wrong person. Another vote passed, and Fattest Ninja was free. Skyknight however, wasted little time. He accused Jim of being a cylon, and using his special Cylon Hatred ability, made it easy to toss him in the Brig. And now Fattest Ninja, free after a long stint in the Brig, revealed the card up his sleeve. He was a cylon, and as a parting gift for his brother’s betrayal sent him to join Jim in the Brig. The cylons were crowing at this point, giddy with the knowledge that all of our plans were coming to fruition.
(The Guru: We were betrayed, and the betrayer had all the power. Fattest Ninja had helped us as much as he could, so this was the time to save him. When the vote came up I threw in whatever I could. Now was my time to shine! Brother, I have saved you, and now we can fight this skin-job! The next thing I knew, I was in the Brig. My brother was a toaster and he had used his dying moments onboard Galactica to get me locked away. All seemed lost, and the Brothers Clause was dead to me.)
(Skyknight: I now also used my Martial Law ability to strip Truth of the Presidency. Not only were all the humans aboard Galactica in the Brig, I was President and Admiral, and I held the final nuke (which I wasted on a silly shot). The beauty of Jim’s imprisonment is that I was using Cylon Hatred to lock them up, and I was the cylon. The irony was not lost on them.)
(Jim: Frack. Not good.)
Truth was the only human left who was free, and cylon raiders destroyed even more civilians. It was down to it – if the humans lost another point of Population they would lose the game, but if the Jump Counter moved once more, they would find Kobol and win. And so Truth, seeing the writing on the wall, made a terrible gamble. He paid cards to move from Colonial One to Galactica, and spending the rest of his Skill Cards to overcome his Terminal Illness, manned the FTL controls and jumped the ship. The fleet was not fully prepared, and so it came down to a die roll. If Truth rolled a 1-6, civilians would be lost and the cylons would prevail. If he rolled a 7 or 8, the remainder of humanity would be spared, and the race would be won. To say that already frayed nerves were screaming at this point, would be an understatement. One die roll would determine the outcome of the game, yet this seemed like a perfect way for it to end. The humans had played a hell of a game, yet the cylons had done a great job of exploiting the fears and paranoia of their opponents by the endgame. With 75% odds of success we stood an excellent chance of winning. Truth stood and dropped the die on the board. It was a 7.
(The Guru: I couldn’t do much from the brig. However, as the only pilot, and with luck on my side, I had a few Piloting Skill Cards that forced raiders to re-roll hits on vipers. Those cards saved us as I was able to use them on three separate attacks to save the vipers and thus save the civilian ships in the same quadrant. The moments leading up to Truth’s roll were intense. This was it. This is what we had fought for. All our chips were on the table. We knew who we could trust, and we knew we had no options left. Truth ran to the FTL, spun it up and rolled. What happened after must have woken up everyone in Skyknight’s house because the screaming was so loud. We had won!)
(Skyknight: Incredibly bad luck. A basestar attack had shut down Communications so I could not move the civilian ships, even though I was the only active player. Cylon raiders missed five attack rolls to destroy vipers and then I had to choose between two big jumps on top of Truth’s lucky roll. Command had also been damaged, otherwise I would have ordered the vipers to move away from the civilian ships.)
(Jim: We had no choice in the end. We were at 1 point of Population. The next turn would certainly see a civilian ship (or more) destroyed. We were at -3 to jump, a 75% chance of failure. But it was our only hope. All I had in my hand were a few low value repair cards (funny how we were doing so badly, yet through the entire game no viper was ever damaged).)
(Truth: A note of interest that must be mentioned is that as Laura Roslin, I never moved my cancer-riddled butt off of its starting space for the entire game. When I finally got up and moved on the last turn of the game, my actions saved the human race from extinction.)
The table erupted in a flurry of cheers and chains of expletives. I remember jumping out of my chair and throwing it behind me as I realized the cylons had lost. Yet in a way I think we all felt an enormous rush of relief. We had just spent hours completely on edge, our hearts thumping in our chests, and now it was all over. Looking back over the game, we recounted what had happened. We all talked about our reactions when Skyknight chose to reveal his traitorous allegiance to the enemy. We laughed about Fattest Ninja escaping from the Brig only to seek revenge on his brother. It was also revealed that both cylons only became cylons after the Sleeper Agent Phase – all of the finger pointing, accusations, and lies that ate up the beginning of the game were for naught. There were no cylons during the entire first half of the session. In retrospect the proof was right there in front of our eyes – the dials were all well within the blue, the humans having only lost a few points here and there. The overwhelming feeling of suspicion this game can arouse, was so strong, we turned on each other right away despite all being on the same side. Truth later remarked that it would be interesting to monitor people’s stress levels while they played Battlestar Galactica, and we all agreed. The feeling of impending doom is great, as is the notion that everyone else is plotting against you. It was an amazing experience, so great in fact that we considered immediately playing another session despite the late hour. I can only conclude that those who don’t like the Battlestar Galactica board game are not playing with the right people. When people who like fun get together to play this, it truly shines as a masterpiece of game design. I would never have imagined I could get this kind of experience from a board game, and it was incredible.
(The Guru: We found out after the conclusion that Fattest Ninja had not become a Cylon until the Sleeper Agent Phase. Luckily, while my brother did stab me in the back after we freed him, what was left of him was human enough not to have defiled the Brothers Clause. We will live to fight another day.)
(Jim: Both people that we had initially suspected as being cylons turned out to be cylons, though neither one was at the time we had suspected it. And both cylons were the rookies and also had never seen the show. After the game, Skyknight added Battlestar Galactica to his Netflix queue, and Ninja says he will start watching it as well. I can’t wait to play with them again after they do.)
(The Fattest Ninja: I’m starting my marathon watching as we speak. Awesome game.)
(Truth: I don’t know how a board game can demand such an emotional investment from its players, but because of that emotional attachment to the situations that spring up through the course of the game, Battlestar Galactica plays out its theme perfectly.)