Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Battlestar Galactica: One Cylon

A couple times in the last month Sara and Duncan had me over to play Battlestar Galactica. They have both expansions for the game and play with a mix of the rules variants from the expansions. In particular the games have used Pegasus, treachery cards, the cylon fleet/CAG/super vipers, and the new method of building the loyalty deck. They have not used the conflicted loyalties or the final five loyalty cards. Prior to playing these games there had been a Facebook thread discussing a wonky game a few months ago that only had one cylon which had people suggesting rules variants to 'fix' the issue. Having never been in a game with only one cylon I didn't really have anything to add to the discussion at the time.

It turns out both of the games I played recently also only had one cylon. Both games were trivial victories for the human players. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise since it feels like a 4-1 split should be heavily weighted towards the humans. A 3-2 split is supposed to be somewhat balanced, after all, and a 4-1 split is a massive power swing. It's hard to really quantify, but you're going from a game where there are 50% more human players to one where there are 300% more human players. In both cases I think the cylon player didn't play perfectly, but the humans won by such huge margins both times that I don't think even perfect play would have been anywhere close to good enough. In both games the single cylon appeared in the sleeper phase, which is even better for the humans, but I feel like even a single early cylon doesn't have a ton of play. I think that game isn't unwinnable by any stretch, but it feels like it should slant heavily in the humans favour.

I think part of the problem is with the way the game is 'balanced' in general. I feel like the game is built such that the expected value over a long series of games will result in a relatively even split of wins between humans and cylons, but that any individual game can suffer from uninteresting blowouts. Assume for a minute that a 3-2 split is tilted slightly in favour of the cylons. Then throwing in the occasional 4-1 split can help make the long term balance between the sides even. The problem with this fix is that the 4-1 games aren't nearly as fun as the 3-2 games. I have a similar problem with the cylon leader mechanic. I think including the cylon leader makes the game more fun for whoever is the cylon leader but can make individual games less fun for everyone else. So if you played enough games, and let everyone rotate in as the cylon leader, and everyone was happy with tons of fun 1 in 6 games then it's fine. But if you play sporadically, or if some people don't like being the cylon leader, or if people want a constant fun level it's pretty bad.

At any rate, I think the ruleset we've been using is flawed. So do the other people who were playing most of those games, since apparently they've had a real rash of 1 cylon games. It'll happen 18% of the time (unless the humans play suboptimally) so it's not actually that rare of a thing. I want to fix this issue. I think the best way to approach the problem is to identify what is added to the game by using the new loyalty deck rule and then trying to find a solution that keeps those additions while reducing or eliminating the 1 cylon problem.

So, what is the new loyalty deck rule exactly, and what does it accomplish? The original rules for a 5 player game involved shuffling 2 cylon cards in with 8 not-a-cylon cards, shuffling them up, and dealing one at random to each player at the start of the game and another at the mid point of the game. If you have a cylon card you're a cylon. If you don't, then you are a human. There's a rule in place to handle what happens if the same player gets dealt both cylon cards (they can give the extra one away) so after the second set of cards was dealt out it was a guarantee that you'd have 2 cylons and 3 humans. The new loyalty deck involves shuffling 2 cylon cards with 9 not-a-cylon cards. Deal them out the same as before, but you have one extra card lying around. The twist here is that if someone gets killed off they get to respawn as a new character, but they have to get a new loyalty card which is either the set aside card or a random not-a-cylon card.

This twist is the key, and accomplishes a couple of things. The first thing it does is allow the conflicted loyalties cards to work out. The second is it prevents the human players from obtaining perfect information regarding the cylon status of specific players, in particular the admiral. You see, in the first expansion they added an action to execute another player. When this happens they have to reveal if they are a cylon or not. If they are a cylon they become a revealed cylon and give away their other loyalty card. If they are not a cylon they reveal all of their loyalty cards, the humans lose one morale, and the player respawns as a new character. A new, guaranteed to be human, player. It quickly became known, at least at Andrew's place, that a strong tactic was to execute the admiral right after the new loyalty cards are dealt out regardless of how shifty they've been. If they were a cylon you desperately needed to get rid of them since a cylon admiral can be a real disaster. If they were a human then you lost a morale, which sucked, but it let you know for sure that the respawned player was human. And if they were smart (and we were) they'd choose someone who would get assigned the admiral title when they respawned. This would guarantee that the admiral was human, which ensures that you always jump to a pro-human location, and that you get the right choice made on the 'admiral chooses' crisis cards, and that you have access to the nukes when you need them. It also gives the humans a safe target for the executive orders card, so they can go hit the FTL button when needed.

Guaranteeing a human admiral is a huge deal, and there wasn't a logical argument the admiral could make to avoid this from happening. As a human admiral I'd advocate for executing myself, because of how awesome it was for all the human players to gain the information. I actually was strongly in favour of executing as many people as possible. You gain information each time you do it, each time you miss you get more likely to execute a cylon the next time you do it, and I'd much rather execute a human (and lose a morale) than send a human to the brig which I feel sets the humans back too much. Losing 1 morale and a few cards is nothing compared to lose out on jump prep from crisis cards. It made it hard to play as a cylon admiral, since if I was human I'd be trying to convince people to execute me!

With the new loyalty deck this is no longer true. When you execute the admiral, and they were human, they're going to respawn as a human 50% of the time (new not-a-cylon card) but they'll respawn as the set aside card the other 50% of the time. 18% of the time that card is a cylon card, so you could well be trading in a human admiral for a cylon admiral. Only 9% of the time, to be fair, but it's still a chance. And since they were only 18% to be a cylon admiral anyway (assuming they were human going into the sleeper phase) you're not actually making a huge gain. Losing the morale, the action, and the cards to not get perfect information is rough. Add in the fact that you may be throwing away a guaranteed human win (when the cylon card is set aside) by getting that card back into play and it becomes a bad idea, I think. If the admiral makes a sketchy play then you should absolutely still kill him, don't get me wrong, but it's no longer the strictly right play to execute the admiral as the first action after the sleeper phase.

The problem here is you're removing a strong human tactic by replacing it with an even stronger human tactic. Having the game end with a 4-1 split is super strong! It's so strong that even if you're using the conflicted loyalties cards I think the humans don't want to achieve those goals early on just to preserve the chances of keeping the 4-1 split! Inexperienced human players will still work at them, and it will cost them, but I don't think balancing the game around people making mistakes is a good idea. And regardless, we're not using that rule anyway.

So the new loyalty deck exists primarily to increase uncertainty. Someone who respawns can't be trusted for sure because they might be a cylon! I like this idea in general, but the specific implementation is bad. It's too easy to keep the extra loyalty card out of the game entirely, which gives the humans an 18% instant win. I do think the goal of keeping an easy human admiral out of the game is a good one. How else can we solve that problem without just throwing the humans a win 18% of the time?

We could force the set aside loyalty card to come into the game at some point. Duncan suggested giving a revealed cylon the option to give another player that loyalty card. Having it cost a full action seems a little weak, though. Maybe tack it on as a bonus to one of the other cylon actions? Whichever of the 4 is the 'worst' one? Maybe if you activate the 'give a crisis' space, and don't play the super crisis, you can give the set aside card out unseen? This way the cylon player gets to decide if the humans can have a safe execute or not.

Alternatively, you could force the card to go out, randomly, after a set distance. Say if you hit distance 7 or more? This could be really unfortunate for whoever turns into a cylon at distance 8, though. They'd go from what seemed like a sure win to a sure loss. So maybe you'd need to do it at distance 6+? Then to get screwed the humans would need to jump from 5 to 8 in one go. And in that case they're probably going to win anyway? On the plus side this would open up one more time to accuse people of being cylons, which is one of the best parts of the game.

An idea I suggested after out last game was to reassign titles instantly when someone dies without waiting for them to respawn first and remove the new loyalty deck rule entirely. So if you execute the human admiral they'll come back as a guaranteed human player, but they won't be the admiral. That will pass to one of the other players instead, who is 50-50 to be a cylon. (Assuming no double-cylon action... In which case they should reveal and give the other card to the new admiral anyway!) So while the humans can guarantee a human player, they can't guarantee a human with a title. Not without putting in even more effort, by then executing the new admiral too. Or tossing him in the brig, I guess.

Another option would be to make executions harsher. I feel like this plan makes it so the humans really want to avoid executions and the cylons really want to pop one off. Like if you lost 2 morale for executing a human with a title or something like that. Make it bad enough that it isn't an auto-do for the humans.

One idea I had while waiting for the bus is to build an extra loyalty deck. Stick 3 not-a-cylon cards and a 3rd cylon card into a pile and shuffle them up after the sleeper phase. Then if a human gets executed, give them one of these cards. This makes executions into a very scary proposition. 25% chance that the game becomes 2-3 instead of 3-2, which is very, very bad for the humans. It also adds some uncertainty back in. The new character who respawns might be a cylon! Again, this makes it so cylons really want to see humans get executed. And probably ends up skewing the game too much the other way when it happens.

Maybe use the extra loyalty deck from above, but only give one out to someone who respawns with a title? Then all the crisis cards and such that execute people don't swing too much in the cylon's favour. If a titled dude gets him with one of those they can just respawn as a support or something, unless maybe they want to be a cylon? I guess they always take that option, since either they become a 3rd cylon or they get a title.

I feel like assigning titles before respawning might make the most sense. I like that it removes any chance of a 4-1 or 2-3 split no matter what happens, which makes the game feel more like the initial BSG. It kills off executing people to gain immediate perfect information, but it still makes executing humans decent for both sides. The humans lose a morale, which is bad, but they gain less useful information, which is good. It also adds a bit of a twist where the next in line for a title has extra incentive to bump off the current person since they're guaranteed to get the title off of them no matter how they respawn.

Thinking about it more I also like the 'revealed cylon can give out the set aside card' rule. I don't think it should be their entire action. Ooh! Maybe you shuffle in a new not-a-cylon card with the set aside card and hand it out as the add-on to their other action. Then executions are going to maintain the slight uncertainty no matter how far into the game you go. It also has potential if you're using the conflicted loyalties cards, since then the cylons can try to funnel as many of them into the game as possible!

What do other people think? Anyone else had issues with the single cylon spawn? Have you tried any solutions to fix the problem?

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