Pegasus Expansion – Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

26 11 2010

[Reviewed by P.G. Bell]

Pegasus Expansion - Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game. Designer: Corey Konieczka. Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games. Price: £25

Pegasus is the first extension for Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game, adding new rules, characters and playing boards to the original game. The Colonial fleet is no longer alone in its quest for Earth – the redoubtable Battlestar Pegasus is on hand to lend additional firepower and facilities. Nor is the action confined to the fleet, as players must endure the oppressive Cylon regime of New Caprica and make good their escape to claim victory.

Fantasy Flight Games have once more succeeded in capturing the tone and narrative structure of the TV series and fans of the second and third seasons in particular will find a lot to enjoy here.

In defiance of the extensions’ title, the addition of the Pegasus has very little impact on proceedings and is mostly used to maximise the human players’ defensive abilities during combat. It’s the additional characters and amended rules that alter the game’s structure, albeit subtly, encouraging players to be more ruthless in pursuit of short term goals whilst jeopardising the broader sweep of play. Admiral Caine can force a faster-than-light jump whenever she pleases, for instance, but should expect to lose civilian ships (and the valuable resources they carry) in the process.

More drastically, characters suspected of being Cylon infiltrators can now be executed. This is treated in the same way as a Crisis card, with players contributing their various skills to beat a target score. If a character is put to death, that player must reveal their Loyalty cards – if they are indeed a Cylon, they are banished from the fleet and must continue the game without any of the special abilities usually afforded revealed Cylons. If they are human, the fleet loses precious morale points and the player chooses a new character to play with.

Most striking is the addition of an entirely new character group: Cylon leaders. Operating unlike any other character in the game, they make no secret of their origin and must fulfil an independent (and secret) agenda in order to win. That agenda could depend on either the humans or Cylons eventually winning but will usually demand sacrifices from both sides. For example, the player’s Agenda card could call for the humans to win, but with the bare minimum of morale points remaining. Or it may cite a Cylon victory, on the condition that any hidden Cylon players are uncovered and their characters executed. Diplomacy and a good poker face are both essential.

These new features all serve as interesting embellishments to the existing gameplay but it’s the New Caprica phase, which now closes the game, that is the real “format breaker”.

Abandoned on the struggling colony world, the players must liberate the stock of surviving civilian ships from Cylon hands, readying them for evacuation before the Galactica returns to mount a rescue. It’s a short, sharp race against time as the Cylon occupation – in the form of a new deck of Crisis cards – moves to destroy the ships and incarcerate the players.

Complicating matters further is the fact that revealed Cylon players have a more direct and powerful influence on New Caprica than in the fleet, with as broad a range of actions and movement as their human counterparts. It’s also easier to execute characters during this phase of the game.

All hell breaks loose when the Galactica returns. Civilian ships are moved back to the main board one turn at a time, and must survive the massive Cylon fleet surrounding Galactica. Any characters or ships still on New Caprica once the game ends are automatically destroyed, and any subsequent resource points deducted from the humans’ total. To make matters worse, the Admiral can order the end of play at any time, so it pays to be absolutely certain of their loyalty to avoid an embarrassing last minute rout.

The Pegasus expansion is quite versatile and can be played in several combinations with the original game. On the downside, the extension modifies many sections of the original rule book, meaning you now have two manuals to consult as you play. It also increases the set-up and playing time; our session clocked in at over four hours.

Physically, it’s a shame the Pegasus board is so small (less than half the size of Galactica) but this is offset by the arrival of two moulded plastic Basestars, replacing the cardboard cutouts supplied with the first game.

Pegasus is a well judged addition to an already engaging game. And with Exodus, the second extension, due out soon, the Battlestar Galactica board game family looks set to go from strength to strength. It may be time to invest in a bigger table.


Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

24 11 2010

Review by P.G. Bell

'Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game' by Corey Konieczka, Fantasy Flight Games, £30

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game sets itself the seemingly impossible task of recreating the tension, intrigue and action of the Emmy award winning series on a humble square of cardboard. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Players take on the role of the beleaguered Colonial survivors, fleeing the destruction of their homeworlds at the hands of the robotic Cylons and working together to pilot the Galactica and its fleet to the safe haven of Earth. But all is not what it seems; at least one of your number is a Cylon infiltrator, bent on bringing the fleet to ruin. Crucially, you could be a Cylon yourself and not even realise it.

Fans of the show are at a definite advantage when it comes to the board game, as it mirrors the series’ central concepts very closely. The game begins with players selecting a character from one of several classifications; political, military, pilot and technical support. They also receive a Loyalty card, kept secret from the other players, denoting whether they are human or Cylon.

Each character has access to different combinations of skill sets (represented by cards), allowing them to perform vital functions within the fleet, from dispatching scouts to chart upcoming dangers, to repairing areas of Galactica damaged during combat. These skills are also vital in overcoming the Crisis cards that are drawn every turn. These outline the latest disaster to befall Galactica, from Cylon witch hunts that can confine players to the brig (where they will be powerless to help overcome future disasters) to sneak attacks by the pursuing Cylon armada. A specific combination of skills is needed to overcome each crisis and players contribute their cards anonymously, allowing Cylon players to sneak counterproductive cards into the mix, deducting from the humans’ total. Failure to beat the target score on a Crisis card can quickly spell disaster for the humans, usually through the depletion of their essential resources; food, fuel, population and morale. If any of these is exhausted, the Cylons claim victory. Crisis cards also allow the fleet to prepare for faster-than-light jumps however, bringing it one step closer to Earth.

In a stroke of sly genius, the game deals a second round of Loyalty cards once the fleet has made it half way to Earth, meaning players who were previously human could suddenly be “activated” and switch allegiance. Certain characters receive a third loyalty card, meaning those players must fight even harder to win their comrades’ trust.

In fact, some of the most entertaining elements of the game take place off the board, between the players themselves. It certainly pays to know who your friends are; suspicions mount as the stakes are raised, resulting in ill-founded accusations and bids for power. If the President, with her suite of additional powers, isn’t seen to be effective enough in protecting the fleet’s interests, she may find herself voted out of office by her fellows. Similarly, the Admiral can be deposed in a coup and the Galactica’s nuclear deterrent placed in “safer” hands.

The political tugs of war only stop when the Cylon fleet appears. Then it’s all hands to the guns, in an effort to keep the enemy Raiders from destroying precious civilian ships. Combat is dealt with in time honoured tabletop fashion – with the die and miniature figures; in this case, lovingly detailed recreations of Colonial Vipers and Cylon Raiders. It’s a stronger will than mine that can resist staging miniature dogfights between turns.

In fact, all the physical elements of the game are of very high quality. The show’s aesthetic is present throughout, from typefaces to underlying designs and every card carries an appropriate image from the series.

Tying itself so closely to the show does mean the game limits its audience, however. I’ve played several times with people who didn’t know the series and, although they got to grips with the game’s structure, they struggled to understand the relevance of the characters, ships and situations.

The game is also quite a complex affair, requiring a lot of fiddly set-up before you can get started. It takes several rounds of play to fully master and, even then, you’ll find yourself constantly leafing through the rule book, checking minor details.

It’s well worth persevering though as Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game will reward you with challenging, immersive and constantly changing gameplay. Grab some fellow fans, slip a soundtrack CD into the stereo and take the fight to the toasters. So say we all!

‘Never Again’ edited by Joel Lane and Allyson Bird

20 09 2010

'Never Again' edited by Allyson Bird & Joel Lane, 294pp, Gray Friar Press, ISBN: 978-1-906331-18-4, £10.00UK/$18.00US

Reviewed by Peter G. Bell

I tend to be cautious when it comes to stories with a cause. Not that they can’t be brilliant – To Kill A Mockingbird, The Colour Purple and A Clockwork Orange spring instantly to mind – but writers too readily trip themselves up by focussing on their message, rather than the means by which that message is conveyed. Without due care and attention, the writer simply creates a soapbox from which to preach an agenda. At best, such tales are little more than sermons for the converted. At their worst, they come across as smug and self-congratulatory. So it was with mixed feelings that I approached Never Again, the new anthology of short fiction from Gray Friar Press.

The book describes itself as “an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance.” In more concrete terms, it gathers together stories with anti-fascist and anti-racist themes. While this is certainly a worthy cause, the lengthy introduction probably overstates its case a little; can there be many writers (or readers) of fantastic fiction who support fascism and racism? There must be, somewhere, although they’re surely in the minority.

But what of the stories themselves? Editors Joel Lane and Allyson Bird have succeeded in compiling an extremely strong list of talent; any anthology that includes work by such figures as Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Gary McMahon and Rob Shearman is not to be sniffed at.

Unsurprisingly, many of the tales draw on the Holocaust for inspiration, choosing to present fascism in its most overt and organised form. There are a couple of stand-out stories in this category: Nina Allan’s Feet of Clay provides a subtle and haunting opening to the book. Matt Joiner’s South of Autumn takes the unexpected step of weaving folkloric fantasy through the familiar tropes of barbed wire, tattoos and gas chambers, resulting in a satisfying blend of the romantic and melancholic.

Others are less successful. Volk, by rj krijnen-kemp, succeeds in building an oppressive atmosphere but left me confused and searching for any real meaning in its structure. And Lisa Tuttle’s In the Arcade starts promisingly but feels too hurried, never quite giving its engaging central character enough room to breathe.

The anthology spreads its wings as it progresses, encompassing more liberal interpretations of the central themes. Consequently, we’re treated to the wry bizarro fiction of Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes, who has obviously had a run-in with the TV Licensing Authority at some point in the not too distant past.  Alison Littlewood’s In On the Tide is a powerful, sometimes uncomfortable demonstration of the deep hurt that casual racism and the thoughtless inaction of those in a position to help, can cause. And Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to create one of the most profoundly discomforting stories I’ve ever read, without leaving the confines of a modern British café, in A Place for Feeding, my pick of the bunch.

But what good is raising awareness if it doesn’t lead to action? On this front, Never Again puts its money where its mouth is, with profits going to a trio of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The book also contains contact details for a diverse number of anti-fascist and human rights groups, allowing readers to take the next step under their own steam.

While a few tales do fall into the trap of letting the story serve the theme, and although I would have enjoyed just a little more variety in tone and setting, Never Again is a thoughtful reflection on one of the world’s most enduring social spectres. Its most affecting stories are those that move beyond the idea of fascism as an external force imposed on us by others, and focus instead on the grubbier aspects of human nature that, when left unchecked, give rise to oppression, fear and hatred.

It has made me realise how lucky I am to live in the time and place that I do. And that, I think, can be counted a success.

‘Cursed’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

23 08 2010

[reviewed by Peter G. Bell]

'Cursed' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 214 pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, ISBN: 978-1-933293-86-8

I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened Cursed, the latest novel by Jeremy C. Shipp, but I’m happy to say that my faith was rewarded; it’s been a while since I read a book that so consistently surprised and confounded me.

The story is narrated by Nicholas, a man with a guilt-ridden past whose fears of abandonment are realised as, one by one, his friends, family and even perfect strangers turn against him.

His one hope for salvation is Cicely, an oddball acquaintance who believes the fate of mankind has been placed – quite literally – in her hands and that she and Nicholas have been cursed by person or persons unknown. They determine to track down the culprit, but can Nicholas prevent his curse from driving them apart?

The plot is actually quite simplistic, but this only becomes apparent in retrospect as it’s almost devoid of the usual literary crutches designed to keep the reader on track; there are no signposts or clues littered about for us to find. Shipp doesn’t ask us to solve a puzzle – he makes us share Nicholas’s growing sense of helplessness as his curse manifests itself, one day at a time. Narrative twists, when they come, are unexpected and jarring, and usually explode any notions we might have been forming about the nature of the characters’ plight.

The pieces all fit smoothly together though, with the possible exception of the climax, which bundles together a few too many new concepts in too short a space, resulting in a grinding of mental gears. It still provides a solid conclusion though, and I can guarantee you won’t see it coming.

I’m suspicious of self-described “weird” or “bizarro” fiction. While I don’t mind a healthy dose of the surreal in my prose, I’ve read too many pieces that feel forced or pretentious, and usually end up distracting from their own stories. Not so here. Things may happen without rhyme but Cicely’s assertions that they never happen without reason helps ground the more outlandish and offbeat moments in a solid (if uncomfortable) reality, even if we don’t always share her suspicions.

And perception is key. From the very first page it’s clear that the titular curse is likely nothing more than a few unfortunate coincidences, fuelled by a guilty conscience. As one character puts it, “If I’m not insane, then the world is. I don’t know how to handle that.”

Subsequently, Cicely’s determination to blame her bizarre behaviour on another can easily be interpreted as an outright denial of reality and personal responsibility – she has invented a scapegoat for her personal failings and spiralling neuroses. Nicholas, meanwhile, is more reluctant to let himself off the hook. Again and again he blames himself for others’ behaviour towards him; he is damaged and can’t help damaging those closest to him.

This might not sound like a barrel of laughs but the story is refreshingly light on sullen introspection and Shipp ensures a steady supply of off-kilter humour and charm to counteract the story’s more disturbing undertones.

And it does become very disturbing indeed at times, punctuated by a few moments of sudden, shocking horror. Even here though, Shipp demonstrates a commendable restraint, preferring the prospect of unpleasantness to outright blood and guts.

But the book’s real power lies in its characters, all of whom are sparsely but expertly drawn. This is especially true of Nicholas; Shipp never gives us more than the bare minimum of information about him but he coalesces from a few quick, masterful strokes into a fully formed person within a handful of pages.

Perhaps the key is that we are given enough room to invest him with our own anxieties. His sins are never fully revealed so we substitute our own; who doesn’t have things they’d rather keep to themselves? Subsequently, his fear of exposure becomes our own as well.

This is where the novel excels – I don’t think I’ve read anything that so effectively captures the creeping dread of inadequacy.

But then, Cursed isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s scary, delightful and surprising, all in one. Full marks to Jeremy C. Shipp for making it look effortless.