Tag: Battlestar Galactica (page 1 of 2)

The Lived-In Universe

Couretsy LucasArts

For a long time, space travel in fiction was predominantly shiny. Long, slender, cigar-shaped rockets predominantly made of chrome blasted off towards the stars. More often than not, equally shiny flying saucers spun their way towards our suburban homes to shower our Sunday barbecues with death rays. I am exaggerating a bit, but what I’m driving at is there was an aesthetic that remained largely untapped until 1977.

Just before then, the shiny sci-fi aesthetic extended to both realistic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and episodic television such as Star Trek. Roddenberry, in particular, envisioned the future as a utopia, peaceful and squeaky-clean. Then along came a little movie called Star Wars. From the very beginning, it was something different. The Star Destroyer was enormous, imposing, and definitely not peaceful. The Tantive IV, said Star Destroyer’s prey, was battered and utilitarian. Mos Eisley was both visually and ethically dirty. And the Millenium Falcon? What a piece of junk!

The galaxy far, far away as envisioned by George Lucas is the result of literally thousands of years of history. The worlds and ships are used and lived-in. Even callbacks to earlier times, the tales set in the Old Republic, have worn edges and is painted with shades of gray morally and aesthetically. It was this, not the shiny utopian vision, that informed the immediate followers of Star Wars, such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Gene Roddenberry tried to resist this trend. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a big, bold utopian statement, to the point that Roddenberry himself said that there should be no interpersonal conflict on the gigantic new USS Enterprise. This lead to early seasons of the show often feeling pretentious and sterile. Thankfully, later seasons moved past this to have the crew behave more like real people than Federation pontificators, and Deep Space Nine pushed things even further. That show was concurrent with shows like Babylon 5 and FarScape, both of which introduced universes that were both brand new and familiar in their dynamics and feeling of history.

As fun as it is to envision a shiny, utopian future, the fact is that a more lived-in universe is more accessible to a wider audience. We picture ourselves more easily in a galaxy with some history, some mileage, and some rough edges, because it’s closer to the world we actually live in. We’ve walked down a street like the one we see in Mos Eisley. We’re familiar with being elbow-deep in our vehicle trying to get it to behave. We’ve had conversations with very stubborn, well-reasoned people, and tried to fight back against things that we feel are wrong, even if it’s an uphill battle. These are universal elements to good storytelling, no matter what the ‘verse in question might be – looking at you, Firefly.

What are some other instances of science fiction feeling lived-in and familiar, despite being set in galaxies far, far away?

Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ’emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?

Let’s Get Together

A sample setup of Archipelago. Sort of.

I’m finding more and more that the games that I truly enjoy playing with other people aren’t necessarily straight-up competitions. Oh, I still enjoy a good game of Magic, don’t get me wrong. And Blizzard’s collectible game Hearthstone scratches that particular itch while having a purchase system that makes you want to buy packs to both explore and collect, not just to “buy power” as you can in other free-to-play games. But with JayCon approaching, I figured I’d gather up the games I plan on taking which might get played, and I noticed that all of them have at least some level of cooperation.

Both Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Elder Sign are fully cooperative, with players rolling dice together to overcome the obstacles presented by the game. Elder Sign is perhaps best described (if somewhat derogatorily) as “Arkham-themed Yahtzee”. Players are investigators in an old museum whose exhibits are making it easier for some sort of horrific elder god to awaken. The investigators must gather the mystical signs and defeat monsters to prevent the end of the world. There is a ticking clock, and investigators have limited amounts of stamina and sanity. Escape, on the other hand, is a game played in real time. Instead of taking it in turns to explore the temple, battle its curses, and unearth its treasures while looking for the exit, players move and act as fast as they can roll their dice. The game comes with a soundtrack, which both provides atmosphere and audio cues as to when players must race for the safe room before losing one of their dice permanently. It’s a great, intense little burst of fun and adventure that only takes ten minutes to play, and it’s even fun to take on solo.

I’m sure some people are tired of me going on about The Resistance: Avalon and Battlestar Galactica, cooperative games with hidden threats. Player cooperation is not so much encouraged as demanded, and the fact that one or more players are intentionally deceiving the others adds an entirely new wrinkle to the gameplay. It’s entirely possible that two completely different levels of cooperation are going on simultaneously, all without direct communication, and that makes for a great time with friends who you may end up resenting because they were so good at fooling you. But perhaps the game I’m most eager to play (or play more of, I tried it out Tuesday night) is Archipelago.

I don’t have enough experience with the game to write up a full review, but the game is fantastic. It takes a series of various game mechanics – player bidding, worker placement, card drafting, and so on – and chains them together into a rotating arrangement of ever-evolving depth and complexity. From a relatively simple starting point, just a couple of turns in, the game explodes with choices and challenges. Each turn sees a problem on the islands that must be overcome through a combined effort of everyone involved… but not everyone has to participate. In addition to all of its other systems, Archipelago gives each player a personal, private objective. This could be as simple as having the most money or building the most churches, but it could also be supporting the natives in a war for independence. The fact that the players do not know what each other’s objectives are, and can interpret the actions of an obstinate player in multiple ways, lends even more depth and nuance to a game that is already keeping several plates spinning at once. I’m very curious to see how the game players with more than two players, especially if one is aggressive and ambitious, or if one is manipulative and keen to whatever fears may be sweeping the islands at any given moment.

Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to this weekend. Be it rolling dice, dealing cards, or buying local beef to export pineapples to Europe, it’s going to be a great time at the tables.

The Hidden Threats

Courtesy Universal Pictures

There are many board games where all of your information is public. Monopoly players can see just how badly they’re boned with a glance around the table. Many other games prefer to keep a player’s information hidden. In any classic card game, from poker to rummy, it can be difficult to determine how good or bad the hand of an opponent is at any given time. Some games mix an element of the unknown into their gameplay. Lords of Waterdeep keeps the true identity of its players hidden until the very end, as does Archipelago from what I understand. And then there are the games where hidden information and deception are a focal point of gameplay, a system without which the game could not operate at all.

I’ve recently been playing Mascarade at lunch with the dayjob crew. Technically a party game, Mascarade distributes a number of role cards to its players, each with an ability to earn gold coins from the stockpile in the middle. Some, like the King and Queen, generate wealth on their own, while others, such as the Bishop and the Thief, take that wealth from other players. Not only are these roles hidden from all players, but the main action of the game is in swapping roles. The swaps happen out of sight of all players, as the swapping player must execute the swap under the table. A player may not know what role they have until they either spend their turn looking at their card, or get challenged by another player when they try to use their assumed role’s ability. In addition to requiring deductive reasoning and a decent poker face, it’s a good test of memory skills as well: did you actually swap your Witch card for that guy’s King card, or did you lose track of which card was which while they were under the table?

I’ve mentioned The Resistance: Avalon here before, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Another game of hidden roles and deductive reasoning, Avalon‘s sole focus is on making the most of scraps of information gathered through observation. You have to pay attention, actively, to what other players are saying and doing, to either determine who among you are the traitors, or shift and deflect blame like some form of deceptive judo. Avalon adds the roles that The Resistance lacks to give the game an additional layer of deception and deduction: if the traitors can determine who Merlin is, they will win even if the loyal players succeed in their missions. It requires a great deal of concentration.

I think the pinnacle of this use of hidden threats may lie with Battlestar Galactica‘s board game adaptation. The game is, essentially, cooperative: players take on roles of the Galactica’s crew and characters, from hothead Viper pilots like Apollo and Starbuck to well-reasoned leaders like Adama and Roslin. Every turn, players will face a crisis that either requires them to work together, presents the active player with a choice that could sap the group of precious resources, or places Cylon forces on the board that must be fended off while the Galactica prepares to jump to the next system. The game could function well enough with just this system, but on top of this is the fact that one or more players around the table could be Cylons themselves. At the start of the game and at about the halfway point, Loyalty cards are dealt to each player to tell them what side they’re on. A player can reveal themselves as a Cylon at any time, activating a special power that can cripple Galactica or cause other kinds of trouble. However, an effective Cylon will remain hidden for several turns, perhaps working to sabotage a crisis here and there to make victory all more the difficult to attain for the humans. Savvy players must then try to discern who at the table might be a Cylon at the same time they’re trying to keep the civilian population safe and the Galactica’s supply of Vipers repaired, all while searching for the route to Earth. I’ve only played the game once as of this writing, but given how much fun I had in spite of the rules confusion and other factors, it’s safe to say I will definitely be playing it again.

Willing To Explain Why You Suck

Courtesy leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com

Internet criticism is certainly nothing new. In fact, just about anywhere you turn along the so-called “information superhighway” you will come across critics of one form or another, even if an argument made against a particular point only takes the form of a lolcat. However, some Internet critics have carved out niches for themselves either through focus, format or both. Three come to mind, for me, and act as something of an inspiration for my IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! reviews.

sfdebris

Chuck (again, not Magic Talking Beardman Chuck) has spent quite a lot of time assembling what he calls an ‘opinionated episode guide’ for Star Trek. Specifically, he started with Voyager. He later began to cover Enterprise as well as the British sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf. He also wrote a sweeping fiction series crossing Star Trek with Star Wars, for which he won an award. No, really. And this was before he started his YouTube channel.

In addition to being comprehensive and funny, Chuck often reminds us that his criticism of a given episode, series or movie is just his opinion. He welcomes discussion and even opposition to his ideas. He, like my next critical exemplar, encourages the audience to think, rather than sit back & switch off higher brain functions in order to take in some shallow, pandering, distracting colors & sounds that call themselves ‘entertainment.’

Confused Matthew

Rather than focus on a particular series or even genre, Confused Matthew went about his video reviews of films with thoughts like “Why did people like this?” or “How did this movie even get greenlit?” While these lines of thought have caused him to add to the many critics pointing out the things that went wrong with the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels and Star Trek: Generations, he’s also gone on the record as saying that The Lion King is a pretty terrible film and that Minority Report is awful despite the ringing praise of critical luminary Roger Ebert.

More often than not, when Matthew begins a review, he establishes a basic premise as to why the work is fundamentally flawed. As the premise continues to be referenced, he becomes more and more annoyed. While this drives home his point, it also makes the reviews more hilarious. He takes turns chewing out Lucas, the Wachowski Brothers and Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of Deep Space 9. “Come on!” Matthew pleads. “You’re better than this!” His confusion is our comedy.

Red Letter Media

I just recently was introduced to this critic, and all I can say is it needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Comprehensive, researched and merciless criticism of science fiction films is paired with an old man’s ramblings about pizza rolls and other less family-friendly subjects.

I don’t want to give away any more than that so, if you’ve the mind, head over in that direction. His Phantom Menace review stands out. It’s 70 minutes long, but worth every one.

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