If you’re not a fan of Battlestar Galactica, then the game probably isn’t for you; many of the mechanics make sense only in the context of the show. If you do enjoy the show, however, you’ll be happy to know that the board game captures the feeling of the show quite well. (Of course, I also know people who have started watching the show because they liked the game, so YMMV!)
Each player selects one of the characters from Galactica; the characters each have abilities in several different skill sets (politics, engineering, tactics, piloting, leadership), which is represented by the ability to draw cards of the appropriate color. Each character also has a regular special ability, a once per game ability, and a disadvantage; for example, Starbuck gets two actions instead of one if she starts her turn in a viper (because she’s an excellent pilot) and can discard and redraw a crisis card (to be discussed later) once per game, because she has a secret destiny. However, she is insubordinate, which makes it easier to throw her in the brig.
On your turn, you draw the cards indicated by your skill set, move (if desired), take one action, and then draw a crisis card. Most characters will spend their time on Galactica itself (which has eight locations you can move to, plus Sickbay and the Brig), but pilots will move around in space on their ships and the president will generally stay on Colonial One, which has three spaces offering political actions. There are also four Cylon locations which are not accessible to humans.
Ahh, the Cylons. Fans of the show will know that the Cylons are machines created by humanity; they rebelled and a blood war was fought. Now they have returned, but rather than being simply metal monstrosities, they now look human, and some even believe that they are human. At the start of the game, each player receives a loyalty card, informing them whether they are human or cylon. However, the other players won’t know how many cylons there are, or even if there are any at all; halfway through the game, another round of loyalty cards is dealt out, and anyone with at least one cylon card is a cylon. (Certain characters receive extra cards, representing their questionably loyalty – or actual cylon affiliation – on the show)
The meat of the game is in the crisis cards that happen at the end of each turn; generally this is a test that the players have to pass, or else Bad Stuff happens. Bad stuff generally takes the form of losing one or more of the four items being tracked: fuel, food, morale, and population; if any of these reaches zero, humanity will be destroyed and the cylons win. They can also make you discard cards, send people to sickbay, place cylon ships on the board, and activate those ships. Resolving the cards is simple: each card generally has a difficulty and a set of colors. Two random cards are put in a pile (face down) and everyone adds as many more cards as they like; those cards are then shuffled and revealed. Cards matching the colors on the card are positive, while others are negative. Since two of the cards are random, if two or fewer bad cards show up, you don’t know if it was just bad luck or cylon sabotage.
Some crisis cards also have the jump symbol, which moves you closer to Kobol. Once Galactica has reached a certain spot on the jump track, she can make an early jump (at the risk of losing population); finishing the calculations lets her jump risk-free. With enough jumps, humanity can reach safety and win the game.
Of course, the cylons aren’t limited to just sabotaging skill checks; once they feel the time is right to do the optimum amount of damage, they can reveal (often damaging Galactica or sending another character to sickbay in the process) and move to the resurrection ship, where they can start sending nasty things at the other players. Much of the game is actually spent trying to figure out who the cylons are; players are unable to work at maximum efficiency because you can’t trust anyone. Anybody could secretly be a cylon, and (if it’s the first half of the game) they might not even know it..
I would definitely categorize this as an experience game: you play it for the sense of paranoia and the fun of trying to figure out who the cylons are, rather than the (rather simple) gameplay itself. Battlestar Galactica is the game that replaced Shadows over Camelot for me; while it’s not one of my favorites and doesn’t hit the table more than occasionally, it’s a decent semi-cooperative game.
And with the expansions, you can finally throw those fracking toasters out the airlock..