Weekly Little Big Planet: my enemy, myself

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An online friend sent me a message after E3 asking how excited I was about the upcoming LBP karting game. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he made me miss LBP. I took a break to highlight Trials Evolution community tracks in this space for a couple of weeks, and while I love the game, it is somewhat limited in creative scope when held up against LittleBigPlanet. Motorcycles are cool, but are they really as cool as a helmet that shoots cupcakes? I’m a pie man, and even I’d have to say no to that.

Sadly, firing up LBP after a few weeks is going to mean updating. Not a problem with my Xbox, even when it has been similarly dormant. Somehow that works through the process without a hitch. But my PS3 updating LBP? That’s always going to take at least two days of various rebootings and the entire home network falling to pieces. So…

This week’s Trials Evolution track is Heavy Machinery 1.1. It was designed by Fruity Gudness. Yes, the Escher part took me about fifty tries to get past, but I love the shifty loopiness of this track. It brought to mind the orange Matchbox Car tracks of my youth. More importantly…

After the jump, fear of a chrome planet

Game night. I love game night. We call it Shoot Club and it’s one of the highlights of my week. On this night I get to not be on alert. Not that my life is so crazy. My son is old enough to sleep through the night. His guinea pig is totally chill at night, unlike the demon hamsters I had as a kid, running on their wheels of loud hell. The cat tends to keep herself together. Even our new puppy sleeps through the night thanks to the wonder that is crate training. I really shouldn’t complain. The thing is, as the night owl of the family, I’m always on alert. Always listening. Always first responding.

So when it’s time for game night, while I have my phone on just in case, I don’t really have to listen in real time. It’s one of those moments during my week when I can let down my guard and truly relax. No worries. Just video game mayhem with my friends. Bliss.

Except…

“You are coming to Shoot Club tonight, right?”

“Yes. I’m just making sure the puppy gets her exercise and then I’ll head on over. You want me to pick up some coffee?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Oh, and just so you know, there will be Battlestar Galactica action tonight.”

I made some lame joke about us all sitting around and watching the show together before we got off the phone as I processed the fact that we would definitely be playing the BSG board game this night. Excellent news. It’s probably my favorite board game. I love Endeavor, and really like Carson City. There are a few others I’d throw in if you pressed. But when it comes to nailing a group dynamic, no game gets it better than BSG for my money. It nails competitive collaboration better than any other game I’ve played.

And it totally freaks me out.

I suppose this isn’t going to make much sense to most folks who have played this great game. I’m with you. It doesn’t make much sense to me either. I love the game. And yet every time I play it I do so with a sense of dread.

This makes no sense. It’s stupid. I love this game. I love playing it when I’m playing it. I love the story of the game. I love the show it’s based upon, or at least the 2.5 seasons of the show I’ve watched. Most importantly I love the people around the table. They are not only friends of mine, but they are among the best people I know. I love being around them, laughing with them and making them laugh. Arguing with them and accusing them, and being accused. Laughing some more. They are those that bring me joy.

Somehow this vanishes when I think about Cylons.

I bet that sounds stupid. It’s BSG. Of course there are going to be Cylons, you dope. Man up! Thing is, I’m not afraid of Cylons when I consider playing the BSG board game. No. I’m afraid of being the Cylon.

Terrified.

One of the earliest things I remember about learning to play the Battlestar Galactica board game is that the Cylons always win. Always. The game is totally stacked in their favor. Humans cannot win the thing. There’s plenty of reasons for this. You can play the game to find out what these reasons are, but suffice to say, the Cylons always win. The game designers have tried to find ways around this in the expansions, but by and large the Cylons overcome those obstacles. They’re resourceful little fuckers.

I don’t know what it is about my psyche, but every time I play the game I’m sure that I’m going to be the one guy who gets dealt the Cylon card and loses the game. That’s going to be me and I’m never going to live it down. Oh the humanity. Or rather, the non-humanity. Almost paralyzing. But it’s not strictly the fear of losing that stokes my dread. Becoming the Cylon means I’m going to have to get active in the game, when I tend to get the most pleasure out of hanging back. Worst of all I’m going to have to stop helping my team, and actively hurt it, and that really goes against my nature.

Because I’m a nurse. There. I said it. Nurse. When I play games I’m a nurse.

Is this tied into the fact that I’m a stay-at-home dad? Hmm. Paging Dr. Freud. In the real world I’m most at peace when I’ve looked after my family. On Father’s Day my wife was sick, so I couldn’t exactly run off for a round of golf, and that was fine with me. It happens. As it turns out in the world of collaborative gaming I’m most content when I’m in the support role. I love to play the medic in almost any game where that’s possible. While I can do pretty well as Unclean Beast in Demigod, I’m much more useful as Sedna. While I’m happy to wipe out zombies in Killing Floor, it’s really better to have me dash around with the MP7M (or even just the syringe) and keep the team healthy. And when it comes to Battlestar Galactica, you really want me in engineering. Specifically playing Chief Galen Tyrol. There’s no one better at getting Vipers repaired, not to mention judiciously doling out Executive Orders to give my crewmates extra actions.

When we sit down to play Battlestar Galactica we generally start with an extensive tutorial for the new players. This also serves as a useful refresher for folks like me who might not have played the game for a few months. After this we pick characters. This can involve a certain amount of haggling, but generally shakes out with me playing Chief. Tom, usually our most experienced player and tutor, seems to find his way to Gaius Baltar, and somebody or other ends up playing Starbuck. The other characters fall into place around this in a way that ends up feeling somewhat organic. Not this time. This time we all decided to randomize the character selection in the tradition of Arkham Horror. Rather than choosing for ourselves, we decided we would deal each player two character cards, have that player read through all the details on each card, and let him choose from those two. If one of his possible characters was of a type chosen by a previous player, that is a pilot, a political leader, or a military leader, he would get dealt another card until all three of those types were represented. What all this meant was that I probably wasn’t going to get to be Galen, and in fact wouldn’t get to be support at all. Which is exactly what happened.

I got Starbuck. Uh-oh.

Don’t get me wrong. Starbuck is super cool. She gets to pilot and gets to be CAG, which gives her more flexibility than my usual support player. Problem is, of course, that as an inveterate support player and instinctive turtle I was being pushed out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t going to get to hang back on the Galactica and repair shit, I was going to have to get my ass out in space and hunt down Cylons and escort civilian ships. Getting to pilot a Viper is every boy’s dream, at least for men of a certain age. I remember spending hours playing a pencil and paper “game” where I’d draw the Galactica and scores of Vipers and Cylon Raiders surrounding it, place the tip of the pencil on a ship and then push down and shoot it across the paper, the line of lead signifying a laser blast. Kids fantasize about flying a fighter, be it a Viper or an X-Wing or a P-51. They don’t fantasize about being some lunkhead mechanic (sorry, Chief). Getting to play as Starbuck should excite me.

In point of fact, as the game gets going it does, especially after we are dealt the loyalty cards and I flip mine to find Gaius spreading his arms wide to inform me that I’m not a Cylon. Phew. If being responsible for attacking the Cylons makes me nervous, the idea that I’d be responsible for bringing down the fleet and destroying humanity makes me positively panicked. On the inside mostly. I’m not a poker player. I have no poker face. If you’re the Cylon, you’re gonna need one of those.

I set about immediately launching myself in a Viper and start tooling around in space. I start to relax into the game, talking through the crises and skill checks with my fellow humans and watching my other players, keeping my antennae up so I can start to get a sense of who among my fellow humans is a traitor. I’ve only played BSG a few times, and in sessions past I was totally focused on my own actions in supporting my other humans. This time I was determined to watch the cards laid down during skill checks, to pay attention to the colors my fellow players were drawing and what was showing up in the skill-check pile as a result. As Starbuck I felt this extra level of wariness was appropriate.

As we played through the early turns it quickly became apparent that we didn’t have a Cylon in our midst yet, or, if we did, we had an extremely inept Cylon. This happens sometimes, but as we got closer to the halfway point of the game it was clear that was not the case. Even the most inept Cylon couldn’t be this inept. The humans were doing well, proceeding on their course to Kobol with very little resistance. Even the crisis cards were kind, showing more jump icons in a very short time than I can remember from previous sessions playing the game. In no time at all–relatively, we’re still talking well over an hour here–we were ready for the second round of loyalty cards.

At the halfway point in BSG, the second batch of Loyalty cards goes out. This is the game doing its part to make sure a Cylon is seeded into the group. We were playing with what we consider to be the optimum number when playing BSG: five. Therefore we had a deck of ten Loyalty cards. Eight not-a-Cylons and two Cylons. Each player gets two cards from that deck, one in the first stage of the game and one dealt in the second stage of the game. So there is always going to be at least one Cylon in every game of Battlestar Galactica. That is key to the game’s awesomeness, of course.

Second round of Loyalty cards dealt. We all waited to flip them at the same time, agreeing to stare at our cards for a full thirty seconds no matter what was on them. While it only takes a split-second to read the not-a-Cylon card, it takes much longer to process the opposite because being a Cylon is complicated. So to even it out each player had to at least pretend to read his card for a full thirty seconds, no matter what the card said.

I flipped my card. I was going to need my full thirty seconds. Damn it.

At this point I know two things. 1) I am a Cylon. This means a couple of things. I have to start sabotaging my ex-fellow humans and I have to do it without letting them know I’m doing it for as long as I can so that I keep my toaster ass out of the brig. I want to be out of the brig because eventually I’ll be done with my secret sabotage and will reveal myself and if I’m in the brig I won’t be able to use my special power, which in my particular case is choosing five damage tokens and picking two to apply to Galactica. I want that power, therefore I have to keep my identity secret. 2) I know there is another Cylon at the table who is not me.

I force myself to calm down. Relax! I yell inside my head, which hardly helps. I’ve been dreading this moment since I started playing this board game more than a year ago, and now that it has arrived I find the dread was largely misplaced. The opportunity to thwart the humans is suddenly exhilarating! Ha! Who knew I was going to feel that? I gaze over the board to get a sense of where things sit. That fuel dial looks awfully low, guys. Earlier in the game, back when I still thought I was a human, I used one of my actions to risk one of our Raptors–basically a scout ship–in a die roll that would give us one more tick of fuel. I succeeded, but the humans are nevertheless in the red at this point in the game. Not so good for them. That’s probably going to be the key.

Question for me, then–and where some of the dread returns–is how long do I draw out my covert sabotage before revealing myself? I’m really nervous about this. This decision will be my make-or-break moment. If I reveal too early I won’t be able to do as much damage. The humans will know who to actively thwart. I’ll be able to do other kinds of damage, but they’ll know to counter me. If I wait too long that increases the chances that I’ll make a mistake and let on that I’m a Cylon, at which point they’ll put me in the Brig and I’ll lose my special one-time attack. If the one really vocal player at the table figures that out, and is not also a Cylon, he will be able to engineer this easily. I’ve seen him do it before and not only is he not shy about imposing his will on the table, he’s really good at it.

I decide to give myself a couple of rounds before I reveal. See how things shake out. This will be tough as Starbuck. I can’t futz around on the ship. I have to be out in the fray as the Cylon ships are really starting to stack up. Fumbling about out there in space and messing up attacks is no way to stay covert. How am I going to do this?

As it turns out, I really don’t have to wait long before the decision is pretty much made for me. On an early crisis-card skill check our most experienced player–the vocal one I mentioned above–decides not to play a card toward the skill check. There’s nothing weird about this. Sometimes you can help with a skill check, and sometimes you can’t. This time he can’t, and no one thinks much of this. Five lousy cards show up and we (they) lose something fairly inconsequential. I don’t even remember what. Oh well, moving on.

“Wait a second,” he says.

“What?”

“That was five bad cards.”

“Yeah. So?”

“Who played cards for that skill check?”

The other four of us who played cards tell how many we played. They were played face-down, so this doesn’t really matter. Except it does. The game helps hide the work of the saboteur by providing two cards from something called the Destiny Deck. Those are dealt into a skill check first, face down usually, to give Cylons a bit of cover. If a crappy card shows up, you can always blame it on the Destiny Deck.

Except now we can’t. And because one guy did not play a card, we have narrowed down our Cylon choices significantly.

“I just want to make it clear,” he says with a certain amount of righteous glee in his voice, “that there is absolutely no way I can be a Cylon.”

Shit. Players are free to lie about this sort of thing. In fact, Cylons spend most of the game doing so. That’s part of the game. Constant accusations of “Cylon!” followed by repeated denials either in the form of serious reasoning, or joking, “Yep. I’m a Cylon. Sure. Whatever. You’re probably one too.” Lying is entirely appropriate in this game, and obviously not the case here.

“Unless someone made a mistake and played the wrong card.” I fake a sense of earnest annoyance as I say this. We were floating this theory in the first half of the game when we thought Cylon ineptitude might be happening.

Everybody gives me the idiot look. “I know,” I allow, sighing.

An accusative finger gets pointed at the four of us in succession. “Again, just to be clear–”

“We’ve got it. You’re not a Cylon.”

“Damn straight.”

Again, shit! The game has just changed. How long is it going to take him, and the other two, to figure out who we are? What are the chances that I’ll be able to hinder them without being found out, that is to ask, how long can I be expected to sabotage them before I fuck up and give myself away. Because I’m going to. I’ve never been a Cylon before. I have no idea what I’m doing. I need to read all those Cylon dealies on the game board and really concentrate on them to figure out my strategy going forward, but I can’t! I can’t focus on those panels because that will totally give me away.

Grr. The turn token takes its journey around the table, making its way back to me. Should I? It’s awfully early for a Cylon reveal. Yes we are in the second half of the game, but I only just found out I’m a Cylon. I’m 99.44% certain my fellow Cylon just found out too. We’ve barely started our work. But the humans are doing exceptionally well. The jump counter is moving faster than I’ve ever seen it move, and they could conceivably make their penultimate jump before victory in the next turn or so.

I don’t have a choice.

My turn rolls around and I look up at my fellow players. “Enough of this running shit,” I declare, and flip my card.

I’m all in now, and it feels so fucking great. I’m telling you. It’s liberating. I take my damage tokens and end up dealing Galactica more fuel damage. Yes! Suck on that, humans.

But will I be able to close the deal? Remember, I really have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ve declared war on everyone else at the table. The humans might pull this out, and I’ll go down in the annals of Shoot Club as being the Cylon who couldn’t. That would suck.

I needn’t have worried. The game had my back.

The humans got as good a head start as I’ve ever seen them get when playing this game. Jump tokens aplenty. Counters, except for fuel, still in the blue. Almost no civilian ships lost. If they were going to win, this was going to be the round.

But alas, no. It was not to be. Even though my Cylon compatriot accidentally outed himself and got brigged, we still were able to rid the universe of humanity. There were just too many Cylon ships on the board and he wisely chose to activate our raiders all at the same time on what turned out to be his last turn. And boom goes the dynamite. One-by-one the civilian vessels of the humans were destroyed, and we decimated their population counter in one fell swoop. Fuel didn’t even figure into their final demise.

I high-fived my fellow Cylon and sank back into my chair, relief flooding through me. I felt a little bad for my ex-fellow humans. Seeing it from this perspective only reinforced how unfair the game is. By all rights the humans should have prevailed. They really should have.

Ha. I’m a toaster. You think I care about fairness?

Suck it, humans.

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