A few months ago back at the Niagara Boardgaming Weekend Sara asked me while in a teaching game of Battlestar Galactica which side was favoured to win. I was playing something else at the time so I gave a pretty basic response: cylons win more when people are first starting; humans win more when people know what they're doing. I didn't elaborate any more (I wasn't asked to do so, and I was busy) but the idea has been spinning around in my crazy little brain ever since. I played a game of BSG last week with Sara, Duncan, Andrew, and Byung which the cylons won, but I feel like Andrew made a bizarre human play that pretty much caused it to happen. He figured I'd post about it, and I don't want to let him down, so I'll try to weave the two together...
At any rate, BSG is a game where any individual player can be in one of three states, each with their own goals and decisions to be made. You can either be a human, a hidden cylon, or a revealed cylon. The play behind each of these states evolves as you get experience with the game, and I feel like these evolutions are what causes the favoured side in the game to change over time.
First off, human players are at their very core playing a resource management game. You have access to a lot of different resources and have to make decisions about which ones to lose at which points in time. The whole goal for the humans is to survive until the end of the game. The biggest resources humans have to contend with, and one most people don't really think about, is cards in hand. Frequently over the course of the game the humans are given options to trade cards in hand for other resources to prolong the game. I've found that rookie players often feel like they need to try to pass every skill check that comes up and will throw cards into lost causes. Alternatively, and just as bad, they'll throw way too much into a skill check. If you need to get your total up to 10 it's great to end up in the 10-12 range. It's fine to end up around 15, or around -5. It's terrible to end up at 7, or at 25. When you end up at 7 you've thrown a bunch of cards away and still lost your skill check. At 25 you've thrown even more cards away. Giving up, staying at -5, is actually fine. You're going to fail some of the skill checks in the game. You can still win. So there's a lot of play involved in figuring out when to pass a skill check and when to intentionally fail it. New players don't have this ability. They won't be able to predict whether a skill check will end up at 0, 7, 12, or 20 without their help. They aren't going to know which resources are critical to protect and which can be sacrificed for the common good. A game with a lot of new human players is therefore going to be more inefficient with their resources than a game with a lot of experienced human players, and efficiency is pretty much everything for the humans. You can use up most of everything and still win, you just can't go critical on any one thing.
Revealed cylon players tend to have a pretty easy job regardless of their game experience. There are very limited numbers of actions they can take, and a limit impact they can have on skill checks. For the most part they exist merely to slow the game down and bleed off human resources. You can certainly be a better revealed cylon if you know what you're doing, but the difference between a passable revealed cylon and an awesome one isn't very big. For the most part it's pretty hard to target down a specific human resource so the revealed cylon is just trying to do damage anywhere they can, and that's an easy thing to grasp. Especially when pretty much anything you do will cause some damage somewhere! Certainly some games get won or lost based on the revealed cylon being able to shift gears at the right time and focus on a critical weakness, don't get me wrong... But a mediocre revealed cylon isn't apt to make big mistakes. A mediocre human player can make huge mistakes.
Unrevealed cylons are tricky. You'd think having a lot of experience with the game would have a big impact on how much secret damage you can inflict as an unrevealed cylon but I haven't found that to be the case at all. The thing is that as the humans gain experience with the game they become better and better at noticing strange plays. It's the start of your turn and you're the CAG... If no one knows what they're doing it's easy for you to 'forget' to use the CAG special ability. Probably everyone else will forget too! And if they notice you can easily feign ignorance and then do the action. I can't pull that off with experienced players. If I'd tried to 'forget' to use my CAG ability the jig would have been up. I probably wouldn't have gotten executed for it, but the spotlight would be on and I'd never be able to get away with anything. In the game last week I actually gave the CAG title away so I wouldn't get caught using it poorly. (As Apollo I could also use Duncan's CAG activation to reveal out of turn!) But now that I've done that once, I don't know that I can do it again. Now, maybe I'm just bad at being an unrevealed cylon but I find my best play is just to do blatant damage and reveal ASAP. Flipping up more jump prep on crisis cards only helps the humans out, I feel. Regardless, I think that the humans gain more in cylon detecting with experience than an unrevealed cylon gains in stealthiness. At least in games I play I find the unrevealed cylons have to go to great lengths to take pro-human actions or I'll sniff them out.
Which reminds me of a game a long time ago at Andrew's place where a brand new player was an unrevealed cylon. She made brutal misplay after misplay which hurt the humans. Everyone else at the table was convinced she was just new to the game and making mistakes. I knew she was a cylon, but I was playing as the cylon leader who wanted the humans to lose so I saw no reason to rain on her parade. It was glorious, and the humans got obliterated. But if the humans had more experience with the game at the time, or if she had more experience and couldn't play the newbie card, it likely wouldn't have worked at all.
My feeling is the humans get a lot better at managing their limited resources and at uncovering unrevealed cylons as they gain experience. This in turn makes the job of an unrevealed cylon harder! (Especially if you take into account human players who will track card colours in people's hands and in the destiny deck.) A revealed cylon can get better, but not much better, and the unrevealed cylons actually feel worse to me in an experienced game than in a newbie game. All of these things combine to make it more likely the humans will win with experienced players, and I think they contribute enough to shift the balance of power from the cylons to the humans.
And yet, the cylons won the game last week. And not by a little bit... Sara and I were in a dominating position. Four damaged sections of Galactica, 3 boarded centurions, and all four resources in the red. I don't know if the humans would have won one way or the other, but Andrew made certain they couldn't win. The sleeper phase went off at the end of Byung's turn, giving everyone a new loyalty card. I was already a revealed cylon at this point, so I gave my extra card to Andrew who was the admiral at the time. Duncan was next, and used an Ionian Nebula character to throw Andrew in the brig, taking the admiral title. Duncan then put out a new Nebula character, into the brig, and could either make Andrew discard his hand or let him out of the brig. Duncan then took a fairly human action and ended his turn. Sara went next, drew two Quorom cards, and said go. No skill checks came up on either turn. Andrew was next, found that Duncan had let him out of the brig, and decided that meant Duncan was human. Sara hadn't revealed, so obviously she was human. Therefore Byung was a cylon. So Andrew threw him out the air lock. Andrew spent 5 cards to pull it off and managed to convince Duncan that this was a good idea so Duncan chipped in a card as well. Byung was not a cylon. This cost the humans a morale, and it cost them all the cards in Byung's hand, and it cost them the 6 cards they spent. I think Sara and I also threw in a card. All told it was something like a 14 card loss, and a resource lost, and Andrew didn't take a real action on his turn. Oh, and we were playing with the 'set aside' loyalty card, so Andrew gave me a 50-50 chance of getting a cylon friend if it happened to be the shelf that was the extra cylon.
Byung hadn't taken a single action. Not that he hadn't taken a pro-human action... He hadn't done anything at all! I was convinced Andrew had to be a cylon because he took that action, but no. It turned out Sara had just punted her first turn in the hopes of getting a good skill check to sabotage before revealing. I'd say it worked out pretty well!
I was the next player in line, and since Andrew had killed Byung instead of letting Duncan go defend the space areas I was able to take my turn to shoot down 3 civilian ships. Which in turn cost the humans enough population that Duncan couldn't pick a far away planet on their next jump as it would have cost too much pop to pull off. Which gave the cylons enough time to decimate all the human resources. The game goes very differently if Andrew doesn't throw away a ton of human resources for no reason. But even though I had an awesome start to the game (I was revealed with 2 base stars in play and their jump prep track was still at the start) it was by no means in the bag.