23 February 2021
We talk to Corey Konieczka about bringing the action, suspense and suspicion of the much loved sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, to our tabletops
In 1978 the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica hit American television screens. Its premise was nothing remarkable by the standards of the genre: humanity found itself under attack by the Cylons – warlike sentient robots intent on wiping out any potential opposition to their dominion over the galaxy. But the programme’s creator, Glen A. Larson, mixed far-future tropes with religious symbolism in a way that captured viewers’ imaginations, and while it was cancelled after a single season, it retained a loyal fanbase for decades after its last episode was aired.
In 2004, the programme was revived in an ambitious reboot helmed by producer Ronald D. Moore. As a former Star Trek writer, he was a veteran of science fiction television. But the new take on Battlestar Galactica was darker and bleaker than anything he’d previously written – or the original 1970s series.
In Moore’s reimagining, the Cylons were mechanical servants created by humans to assist in the colonisation of the stars. After rebelling against their makers, they launched a devastating coordinated attack on all of human-occupied space. The only survivors were a rag-tag group on a fleet of spacecraft protected by a single ageing warship. With the odds stacked against them, the remnants of humanity embarked on a desperate journey, trying to outrun their murderous enemies while seeking a new world to claim as their home.
But while their situation was already dire, the remaining humans faced an even deadlier threat. In Moore’s vision, the Cylons had taken human form. With spies and sleeper agents embedded in the fleet, the survivors fell to rampant paranoia, threatening to tear themselves apart under the strain of day-to-day survival.
The new series was a hit, and in 2008 US publisher Fantasy Flight Games released a tabletop adaptation that aimed to capture its blend of action, suspense and suspicion. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game cast players as characters from the programme, battling to repel the Cylon threat. But while some players portrayed humans, others became secret Cylons, subtly working to sabotage the crew’s attempts at survival.
The game proved massively popular, with fans praising its faithful recreation of the show as well as its tense and at times acrimonious atmosphere, and it remains a favourite more than a decade after its first release. We spoke to its designer, Corey Konieczka, to find out how he adapted an iconic piece of TV science fiction to a board gaming classic.
Corey Konieczka was a passionate gamer from an early age. Originally from Salem, Massachusetts, he grew up playing mass-market board games as well as hobby hits like the fantasy dungeon-crawler Heroquest and Sid Sackson’s business-building game Acquire. He was also a keen video game player, and enjoyed developing his own digital games.
“I used to program my own video games as a hobby and I dreamed that one day I’d do that for a job,” he explains. “After a few years of college trying to get my computer science degree, I realised that this was not what I wanted. I left that school and got a graphic design degree instead. All the while I was designing card and board games to play with my friends. I didn’t think it would ever be more than a hobby until I applied to Fantasy Flight Games in 2005.”
The US publisher had previously produced hit games including the space opera epic Twilight Imperium as well as English-language editions of hit European games like Reiner Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates. Now the company had secured the rights to produce a licensed Battlestar Galactica board game, and Konieczka was keen to take on the task.
“My boss, Christian T. Peterson, told me that we had the license and asked if I wanted to work on the game,” he says. I was a huge fan of all things sci-fi, so I jumped at the opportunity. I remember first talking about our game ideas on a plane ride to some business meeting. We agreed that we wanted a character-driven game about paranoia and betrayal. These were core tenants of the show and sounded like a really fun game experience. I don’t remember discussing many mechanics at that point, but I’m sure we tossed around vague concepts of what sorts of things you can do in the game.
“I don’t remember whether I had already watched the show or if this assignment got me to watch it. I have a vague recollection of the original series from when I was a kid, but nothing concrete. I think the reboot was so popular because it was well-written, had memorable characters, and a story that kept you guessing. It was a cultural phenomenon that got people talking about it like Lost or Game of Thrones. Even today, just hearing the intro music gets my adrenaline pumping.”
His design revolved around a simple mechanical core. On each round, the players collectively faced a different mission to complete or crisis to overcome – destroying ships, carrying out rescue operations and dealing with emergencies such as water shortages. In order to succeed, they had to play cards representing different skills from their hands. But a Cylon player could attempt to deliberately undermine the group’s efforts by withholding useful cards, causing missions to fail and edging Galactica and her occupants closer to destruction.
It set up an atmosphere of uncertainty and accusation. A player who didn’t contribute cards to a crisis might be doing so because they were secretly intent on sabotaging the group, or they might genuinely not have the cards needed to address a particular situation. It meant that anyone who didn’t appear to be pulling their weight immediately came under suspicion, and clever Cylon players could even accuse others they knew to be humans, directing everyone’s attention to innocent members of the group, persuading them to confine loyal players to the ship’s brig while plotting nefarious schemes for later in the game.
“The game was designed with the idea that even if no player is actively working against you, there is the perception that someone is sabotaging you,” Konieczka says. “The game is meant to constantly play to your sense of paranoia, which is a very human emotion. Even shy people can feel this paranoia, and it will alter their behaviour. I can’t make anyone jump out of their seat and yell out accusations, but I can make them feel something inside. Even if you’re not pointing fingers at your friends, you’re watching them differently and reading their facial expressions at every crucial moment.
“The real trick was designing systems that give imperfect information. You should rarely ever know that someone is a Cylon. Instead, you can feel 90% certain, with a chance that you’re misreading the situation. It was a difficult balancing act, but I think we succeeded.”
Appropriately enough, the designer from Salem had created a carefully engineered tabletop witch hunt, and it was important to him that Cylon players should have as much fun as their human counterparts.
“Even if there was no Cylon player in the game, it would be pretty challenging,” he says. “We aimed for the Cylons winning 60% of the time so that the humans felt the stress of the situation, which in turn stoked the paranoia. If you’re good at lying to your friends and keeping a straight face, you’re probably a good Cylon. The choice of when to make your move strategically is key, so I always recommend to player to focus on staying hidden if they’re unsure what to do. That being said, I think anyone can have fun being a Cylon and have a fair chance at winning.”
This “hidden traitor” approach was a compelling core for the game, and other releases including The Resistance and Secret Hitler have gone on to adopt similar elements in their designs. But what was equally important was that the game should feel like Battlestar Galactica, and a big part of that lay in capturing the fast-paced fighter ship combat from the TV programme. The game board featured the hulking Galactica in its centre, with Cylon raider craft attacking unpredictably throughout the game.
To repel their aggression, the players engaged them in zero-gravity dogfights using plastic Viper fighters. Any attackers which made it through the defences could destroy the ships accompanying Galactica, obliterating precious resources in the process. Alternatively, they might damage Galactica itself, bringing its occupants ever closer to annihilation.
Another vital element that the game sought to capture was the cast of characters fans had followed through their adventures on the show, and Konieczka was keen to ensure that playing as each of them offered players’ a different experience – one which reflected their personalities as depicted in the source material. Admiral William Adama, Galactica’s commander, used his inspirational leadership to boost the power of cards in crisis checks. Ace pilot Kara “Starbuck” Thrace could take extra actions in combat against the Cylons. It meant that each player could influence the direction of the game in different ways, but each also came with a character flaw, making certain actions risky or difficult.
“Designing the characters was one of the most fun parts of the job,” he says. “In the show, the characters are all portrayed as flawed individuals, and this is part of what made them so relatable. To bring the characters into the game we simply made a list of each character’s strengths and flaws. We usually started with the thematic idea, and then brainstormed what it should do in game.
“Some abilities designed themselves, such as Guias Baltar’s ability to test someone to see if they’re a Cylon or not. Of course he’s the least trustworthy person in the whole series, so we needed a way to represent that as well to draw doubt to his accusations.”
Another aspect taken directly from the series was the possibility that players might start the game believing themselves to be human, only to discover that they were Cylons later on. It reflected a pivotal point in the story where prominent characters who had been ferociously fighting the robotic threat abruptly discovered that they were sleeper agents, placed on Galactica to ensure its destruction.
“I remember the sleeper phase came out of the original brainstorming session with Christian,” Konieczka recalls. “Since it was in the game from the start, I could design around making sure this was fun. The important thing is that everyone knows that they could become a Cylon during the sleeper phase, and this makes the first half of the game really interesting. Do you play your best as a human even if you’re not 100% sure yet?”
This multifaceted approach to the design set up some dramatic moments and shocking revelations, and another important factor was that Cylons could deliberately reveal their identities to trigger disasters that dramatically worsened the situation for the other players. While revealed Cylons could no longer affect the outcome of crises, these powerful effects could be worth the loss of influence.
“I think the game is more fun when the Cylons are hidden,” Konieczka says, “so I tried to make them less powerful when revealed. As soon as the humans know who they can trust, they can be much more efficient. That being said, there are situations when you’re locked in the brig and can’t do much, so we needed to give the Cylons an ‘out’ for when they’ve been discovered. The special abilities on the Cylon cards are situationally powerful, and potentially game winning if used at the right time. This was meant to encourage players to wait for the perfect time to reveal, and provide a memorable game moment.”
An Expanding Universe of Traitors
From colleagues’ reactions to his design, it seemed that Battlestar Galactica had hit all the right notes.
“Playtesting this game was a blast,” he says. “I’ve never had so many people asking when they could play next. There were lots of changes during development, for example the game board used to have hallways that you’d move down to get to the different rooms. This was too slow and restrictive so we removed them and basically let you move where you want.
“When I was working on the game, I didn’t really feel burdened by fan expectations. The amount of positive playtest feedback was immense, so I wasn’t too concerned. I did not however, know that it would become possibly the most popular game I would ever work on. It was very rewarding to hear that the game resonated with fans and brought so much fun to so many people. I continue to be blown away by fans’ enthusiasm and generosity.”
Bringing a comparatively complex approach with so many moving parts to a popular series might have seemed risky, since Battlestar Galactica fans were by no means all hobby gamers. But Konieczka says there are a number of techniques that can make a complicated game more accessible to newcomers.
“Many of my games are complex, so there are a few things I focus on to help manage this. One is that I make sure the turn structure is very clear and easy to follow. Another is that it’s important to provide a good game reference on the back of the rulebook. And most importantly, the game should feel intuitive. Once you learn the basic systems, everything should feel natural and easy to remember.”
The positive reaction on the game’s release saw a series of expansions released in the following years. 2009’s Pegasus revolved around a new ship as well as a board representing the planet New Caprica, discovered in the course of the series. The next, Exodus, introduced new elements to increase the intensity of combat as well as a collection of non-player characters for players to interact with as they played. Finally, the Daybreak expansion focused on the final stages of the Battlestar Galactica story, letting players negotiate with the Cylon commanders as they played out humanity’s desperate last-gasp effort to find a safe home for their species.
Each new addition worked as a bolt-on module, meaning players could tailor the game to their own preferences, fine-tuning its atmosphere and degree of challenge. That’s part of the reason that, despite another TV reboot reportedly being in the works, Konieczka isn’t in any rush to bring out a new edition of the game.
Instead, he’s focussing his attention on a new game development studio, Unexpected Games, established as part of the gaming giant Asmodee group to focus on innovative and original new designs.
“At Unexpected Games, we’re focusing on innovative experiences that stand out in today’s crowded marketplace,” he says. “I’ve made over a dozen games in my career, and now I plan to only design and publish games that add something new to the gaming industry. I’m hoping that these games are generally more accessible than what I’ve worked on in the past, but they also need to have strong themes and clever mechanics. I want games that make people feel different things and remember the experience for the rest of their lives. I’m already neck deep in our first project, and I really think it’s going to get people talking about it. I look forward to announcing and releasing it next year.”
Words by Owen Duffy
This How We Made feature originally appeared in Issue 39 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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