Friday, August 30, 2013

Revisiting Cylon Leaders

The 3rd expansion for Battlestar Galactica came out recently and I got a chance to play a game of it today. We had 6 people, which isn't optimal for BSG, but they made even more tweaks in this expansion to try to balance things out more. A mutineer option which pits 2 cylons against 4 humans, but makes one of the humans particularly volatile and forced to either spend the game in the brig or take suboptimal actions every now and then. And a revamp of the cylon leader system. I really liked the idea of the cylon leader when it first came out, but the first implementation had some flaws. So I was eager to see what they'd changed and if it worked any better.

As initially released the cylon leader starts the game as a more powerful revealed cylon. They have abilities, drawbacks, and once per game abilities like any other character. They have the ability to 'infiltrate' the humans and go pretend to be a slightly weaker human character. They can take most of the standard human actions and can do what humans can do, like get thrown in the brig or play positive action cards. To direct the actions the cylon leader takes they would be dealt one of six agenda cards. Each card would indicate which side needed to win (humans or cylons) and extra conditions that needed to be met. The extra conditions were designed such that the cylon leader would want the humans to ultimately win the game but take a lot of damage along the way, or that they'd want the cylons to ultimately win the game but in a trickier way. The idea being that the cylon leader would need to both help and hurt the humans as the game progressed, making the game into a 2.5 v 3.5.

The problem was the extra conditions weren't actually well designed. A couple of them were really trivial, so the game would really shake out as a 3v3 or a 2v4 and not really be a terribly interesting game. It also felt like adding the cylon leader would make the game more fun for that specific person, but was worse for the other players. Possibly because having 1 in 6 or 1 in 3 games just be a blowout was terrible. (It's a similar reason to why I hate the 'extra loyalty card' rule added in the second expansion. Having 2 in 11 games get screwed with only 1 cylon just wasn't very fun when it came up even if it was slightly fairer in the long run.)

What did they do in this expansion? Well, instead of having one deck of 6 cards and giving the cylon leader a single card instead there is a deck with 14 motive cards and you get dealt 4 of them. 2 at the very start of the game, and 2 more during the sleeper phase when the rest of the players get their second loyalty card. Each motive card lists an extra condition on it, and a winning side. In order for the cylon leader to win they need to satisfy at least 3 of their 4 extra conditions, and among the conditions they satisfied they need at least 2 of them to list the correct winning side.

This changes a few things. For one, the cylon leader may not know what side they want to win the game from the beginning. In the game today I was the cylon leader and my initial two cards were a human wins card and a cylon wins card. If my next two cards were human wins then I couldn't have the cylons win the game. On the other hand if they were both cylon wins cards then I couldn't have the humans win the game. So I actually had to play the start of the game right down the middle. I couldn't let one side or the other get too far ahead or I might have no way to win. Assuming the deck is half of each type this situation will come up 54% of the time. On the other hand you'll double up 46% of the time, and doubling up may be really bad for game balance. Can the humans win if the cylon leader starts with a pair of cylon wins cards? I feel like it's going to be really hard for them, which may be terrible...

Another thing that changes is it becomes a lot harder for the other players to figure out what the cylon leader is trying to do. With only 6 potential options in the past it wasn't that hard to figure out the goal of the cylon leader by deduction. Now there are 1001 different options for what the cylon leader could hold. Maybe you could piece together one or two of them, but maybe not. This should make it harder for one side or the other to spite out the cylon leader, which I like.

The end result of the game today was I got dealt 2 cards for each side. I managed to achieve 3 of the 4 cards (and was really close to the 4th one) and the right side ended up winning so I won too. Woo! It felt more reasonable than most of my games with the old cylon leader rules. I spent the early game trying to keep either side from getting too far ahead, and trying to work towards the two conditions I knew about. In this case it was lowering population to 6 or less and making sure the humans jumped at least distance 7. So I was trying to keep the humans from falling behind early, but I was also trying to work over their population and was trying to slow them down once it really looked like there were no starting cylons.

But is it actually a good thing in the long run? I'll need to see it play out a few more times. In particular, I need to see what happens when the cylon leader gets dealt a pair of 'cylon wins' cards from the start. I also need to see how it plays out when I'm a regular player in the game with a cylon leader. Is it still the case where being the cylon leader is more fun, but being in a game with someone else as the cylon leader is less fun? Would it be reasonable to force the first two cards to be one of each, and then shuffle the remaining 12 cards up to deal out the last 2? This would certainly make it even harder for the cylon leader to win, but would prevent the blowouts I fear. Or maybe the conditions on the 'cylon win' cards are harsh enough that even with 2 of them at the start you need to play both sides? Only more tries will tell. At the very least I think it's worth future testing. Which is a step in the right direction, since using the old cylon leader rules was not very appealing to me.

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