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!

‘The Woman in Black’ review

16 10 2010

Looking Back at the Woman in Black

[written by author and Ghost Appreciation Month team member, P. G. Bell]

When I was ten years old, my mother took me to Cardiff’s New Theatre to watch the touring production of The Woman in Black. I think I’d pestered her – our high school English teacher, always keen to encourage participation in the arts, had been rhapsodising about how scary it was. A life-long fan of ghost stories, I hardly needed the encouragement, although I suspect now I only half believed her. After all, the theatre was a place for musicals and amateur productions of Shakespeare. A play couldn’t really be scary, could it?

Clearly, I knew nothing. Like the story’s hero, the unassuming Arthur Kipps, I quickly found myself ensnared in the dark and shuttered halls of Eel Marsh House, fighting to solve its morbid puzzles while my body tensed at every silence, flinched at every sound. For ninety minutes I lived in absolute dread of the ghastly, malignant presence of the woman in black.

The experience marked me for life. Even now, twenty years later, the interpretation of the word “ghost” is the rustling of crinoline and the creaking of floorboards.

The play is now in its twenty first year and its success has eclipsed its source material to such an extent that the novel’s author, Susan Hill, reminds visitors to her website that “The Woman in Black began as a book, my first ghost story, and will always be a book, as well as everything else.”

I was surprised to learn, as many people are, that the story is less than thirty years old and not a product of the Victorian age at all. This is due to Hill’s meticulous distillation of essential ghost story ingredients, including location (“A haunted place. A lonely house or church.”), atmosphere, weather (“fog or mist, disk, twilight, drizzle…”) and, most importantly, the ghost itself (“There has to be a motive for the hauntings. It is not very interesting if a dark-robed monk walks through walls or a veiled lady drifts up and down a staircase frightening people but doing nothing much else and without any reason or purpose.”)

In less skilled hands, such tropes would no doubt become plodding and predictable, but Hill uses them to weave a story that stands shoulder to shoulder with the output of M.R. James or Dickens. Indeed, the assistant she employed to type up her handwritten first draft soon refused to work alone, such was the effect of the story on her.

Given the success of the play, it’s surprising that the story’s only screen adaptation to date is so little known. Produced for ITV in 1989, with a script by Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame and the equally chilling The Stone Tapes), it met with a good critical reception but was only repeated once, in 1994 (when I happened to stumble across it) before being tied up in a series of copyright issues that not only led to its deletion from VHS and DVD, but ensured it would never receive another network airing. (So yes, if you are watching it as part of Ghost Appreciation Month, you are technically breaking the law!)

It’s an adaptation that deserves to be seen. Although it lacks the raw chill and immediacy of the stage version, director Herbert Wise delivers one of the creepiest dramas to grace British screens in the last few decades. The titular Woman in Black is particularly well handled. The vague and nebulous figure of the play is given solid, terrifying life by Pauline Moran, whose piercing gaze radiates malice through the screen. Other changes seem a little superfluous – names and locations are altered to no real purpose and the ending takes the story a step further than is perhaps necessary, but the spirit of Hill’s tale remains intact.

Of course there’s no escaping the news that the newly resurrected Hammer Films is currently producing a big budget adaptation for the silver screen. Directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake), with a screenplay by Jane Goldman (Stardust and Kick Ass), and starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, it’s already building up a head of marketing steam and will probably be inescapable upon its release in 2011. While such a roster of talent is reassuring, I still can’t fathom the decision to film the story in 3D – it smacks of someone chasing a bandwagon that may in fact be a hearse.

Will I watch it? Of course I will. Like poor, doomed Arthur Kipps, I’m feted to encounter this ghost again and again. She still scares me witless at each meeting but I can’t help loving her just a little for it.