It Took 10 Years, But We Finally Have a Good 'Battlestar Galactica' Game

It's got the great look, style, and tactics of the show. The only thing missing is the heart.

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Sep 28 2017, 7:00pm

screenshots by author

Battlestar Galactica was in a large measure a series about nostalgia as salvation from fear. The first scene aboard the Galactica called attention to the ship's intentionally archaic equipment: "Galactica is a reminder of a time when we were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backward for protection."

As a show, BSG looked back to a lot of different eras, never quite settling on one thing that it was nostalgic for and so opting for a pastiche of all of them. Galactica was at once a World War 2 aircraft carrier and an 18th century man-of-war. It was guarded by marines in modern battle dress, but its pilots were cocksure aces straight out of Top Gun. It was commanded by the stern and remote parent-figures uniquely haunted the Baby Boomer generation. It was a show where our imagined forebearers returned from the past with the weapons of their youth to save us from a strange new enemy and, maybe along the way, finally grant their children approval.

Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock, from Black Lab Games and published by Slitherine, finds in the show's grab-bag of military history the perfect inspiration for a dramatic and inviting turn-based naval wargame that expands on the show's setting while remaining faithful to it. Where it fails is in exploring the show's other themes and subtexts, presenting a much more straightforward military sci-fi adventure that doesn't always feel like BSG.

Deadlock doesn't retell the story of the Syfy TV series, as it takes place decades earlier during humanity's first war against their mutinous robot enemies, the Cylons. The war has turned into a bloody stalemate, and the loose alliance of human colonies is starting to coalesce into a federation… provided the newfound Colonial Fleet can prove its worth and start making meaningful gains against the Cylons. That's where you come in.

You play the fleet's new field commander, with a small budget and a mobile shipyard at your disposal. On Deadlock's strategic level, you'll a situation very reminiscent of XCOM: You have multiple territories to defend from Cylon aggression, all of which contribute resources and bonuses to your war effort. You can respond to multiple attacks each turn, provided you have a fleet in the area. But there are a few factors that limit your mobility: Fleets have a limited jump range and it takes at least two jumps to get from one region of the map to another, so you're limited in how quickly you can respond.

The more important obstacle to responding to Cylon attacks is the familiar one: You cannot be everywhere at once and if you try, your fleets will get rolled-up piecemeal by the increasingly powerful Cylon fleets. On the other hand, larger fleets with better warships require more experienced officers to lead, so you do need—especially in the early game—a farm team of small squadrons. For the most part these pressures and constraints do a good job of keeping you from just building a few super-fleets and wiping the floor with the Cylons. In a word, sometimes I had the fleet I want, sometimes the position I wanted, and sometimes the enemy I wanted, but rarely did I have all three.

There are also story missions and other bonus missions that pop up on the map, and the story missions often have a special scripted structure as opposed to the straightforward tactical battles that comprise most of the engagements in Deadlock. These tend to be the missions featuring twists like objective changes or surprise reinforcements, which can also make them the most tactically interesting, since they hit you with the unexpected.

For the most part, however, each battle involves two fleets sailing toward each other, and then maneuvering in combat in order to maximize firepower and minimize exposure. It's a lot like the old Age of Sail games, where each warship had a cone showing where its broadsides could fire. The crucial differences here are that Deadlock takes place in three dimensions, a bit like Relic's Homeworld or Blendo Games' Flotilla, and like both Flotilla as well as Frozen Synapse, it employs a simultaneous turn system. Furthermore, its ships have very different roles and abilities.

For instance, the other night I had an incredible battle that started from an awkward mismatch. The entire Cylon fleet was comprised of four heavy missile cruisers guarding a single Basestar, which acts a bit like a cross between an aircraft carrier and a space station. The Cylon lineup was built around just battering me down with waves of missiles, while my fleet was about getting in close with gun turrets and heavy artillery, maneuvering into the Cylon ships' blind spots, and shattering them with a few salvos. I had a couple corvettes—fast and lightly armed gunships that behave a bit like attack helicopters—a small carrier frigate that can throw a decent broadside, and a mighty Battlestar.

In other words, I wanted a slugging match where I cornered my opponent and crushed them with a few heavy blows, while the Cylon fleet was able to stand at distance and just throw jab after jab after jab. I'd be worn down to nothing before I ever got in position. So I made an oblique approach: For several turns, my Battlestar presented its left flank to wave after wave of Cylon missiles while, to its right, my entire fleet huddling for protection, waiting for the distance to close. I activated the Battlestar's flak guns and watched as a wall of fire formed between the Cylon missiles and my ships. The waves of missiles couldn't get through, whether they were targeting my Battlestar or its allies. Like Snorlax, it was helping everybody.

But it paid a heavy price. For several turns it was the only ship exposed to enemy fire. By the time it had brought the fleet into close range, the Battlestar was a shambles: Its navigation system was out, so I couldn't maneuver issue anymore moving orders. It just continued to plow forward, guns blazing, systems failing.

The rest of my fleet came out from behind its protective umbrella, however, and unloaded on the missile cruisers that had been tormenting them. It looked, sounded, and felt like a great episode of the show. Missiles criss-crossed the spaces between the fleets, the flak cannons sounded like a hundred steam pistons going at once, and ships ruptured into pieces, their burned husks drifting through space for the rest of the battle. I narrowly won the battle, but it cost me all my heavier warships as well as my best admiral.

The best part, however, was watching my battle replay. One of the nicest touches in Deadlock, each battle lets you watch the entire thing as a continuous movie, complete with a procedural "action cam" that mimics the vérité style of the show—lots of shifts in camera focus, restless zooms, and sudden pans to capture something else. Most of the time it's a clumsy but endearing attempt to mimic the show's style, but there are also times the virtual editor and director really make it feel like you're the star of a new episode of BSG.

[BSG] was about the toll that endless, hopeless warfare takes on its fighters and their society, and the tension between pragmatism and hope. It was never just about ships and weapon loadouts.

The battles are generally demanding and evocative, though they do get a bit repetitive and the auto-resolution option tended to result in much higher ship losses than I'd sustain if I were in command. While the battles get more varied as the campaign goes on and more ship types become available, I did find that the game is generally too friendly to "kiting" tactics and punishing to bolder approaches, which can cause battles to drag on while each side just fires long-range missiles for turn after turn.

My larger complaint with Deadlock is that it doesn't really do much to evoke that theme outside the battles themselves. The plot mostly involves recycled and off-brand versions of familiar characters—like your CO, the cold martinet Admiral Cain, who is a poorly drawn shade of Michelle Forbes' unforgettable character on the show.

There's a tonal and textural issue here as well. Battlestar Galactica was about the flawed humans inside those machines of war. They weren't just looking back on earlier technology for security, but longed for the imagined clarity of those pre-lapsarian days. It was about the toll that endless, hopeless warfare takes on its fighters and their society, and the tension between pragmatism and hope. It was never just about ships and weapon loadouts on BSG, but those are largely what Deadlock takes away from the show.

Go back to that image of the doomed Battlestar breaking formation, out of control, still raging at the Cylon fleet. It had my highest-ranking admiral aboard it, basically my version of Commander Adama. It was the first Battlestar in my fleet and had fought in a few battles. But there was no weight of history there, nor any feeling of connection with the ship or its officer. I can't remember the name of either. All I can tell you is that the Battlestar cost about 700 resources to replace, and I lost an admiral with 5000 command points.

Battlestar Galactica is a great naval wargame and a no-brainer recommendation for anyone who was into that TV show. But it's in those dramatic tableaus, with ships exploding and tracers streaking across the starscape, that I become most conscious of how close this game is to real greatness, to being a true adaptation of the show. But all that violence, all those losses, can't just be about resources and things. A truly faithful Battlestar Galactica game would also be about people, shared past, and our flawed, subjective impressions of both.