Babylon 5 Component Game System

Designed by Henry Schulte
Published by CGS Inc
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£25 ($35?)
4 player core set
3-4 hours plus

Occasionally, putting off a review has its advantages. Months ago I had intended to write about Twilight Imperium from CGS Inc. in tandem with the impressive Throneworld from Prism Games. But, in that way I have, I never quite got round to it. Saving my bacon is the ostentatiously named Babylon 5 Component Game System Limited Edition 2258 Core Set (!) which uses similar mechanics to Twilight Imperium. It also has a rather more recognisable theme, being based on the unaccountably popular and rather byzantine TV show of the same name.

Babylon 5 is, as I'm sure you've worked out by now, a science fiction game. Your aim in life is to build up your production capacity, build bases and ships to explore and fight, and to control the Babylon 5 starbase through diplomacy, might or both. The components in this so-called 'core set' (a bookcase box with sufficient parts for four players) are very good. Counters are nicely designed, the segmented map is attractive (using the quick but powerful Bryce terrain modeller for graphics, a technique that I feel we will see much of in the future) and the rule book is generally well done, even if we had to work out our own rules for turn initiative - I couldn't find the official version anywhere. Play drives off of a rather long and convoluted sequence of play, which one plods through religiously, and play proceeds at less than breakneck pace. There is little chaos on offer here.

The central idea in Babylon 5, drawn from Twilight Imperium, is that as each turn starts "votes" can be proposed and passed at the council. These may be trivial matters, medium weight issues affecting the economy for instance, or wide ranging developments such as trade agreements, alliances and so on. This is a good feature, driving each turn, keeping the game fresh and allowing interesting power shifts from the right cards. But. Council votes are generated from voting crew characters (you lay these in front of you) who are quite uncommon and, oddly, by each ship you have docked at Babylon 5 station. This rule means that the early part of the game is spent moving ships from your home planet or remote bases towards the great galactic marina that is Babylon 5. It doesn't seem to matter if you dock a small freighter or a massive dreadnought, just that you are there taking up one of the slots - "Welcome aboard Commodore Siggins, here is your voting card". Can that be right? There doesn't seem to be much preventing unseemly squabbles breaking out either, which can be at the "you stole my parking space" level, or full blown las-cannons at dawn. Anyway. If you don't get enough ships in or cards out, you don't have any say at all. If you have a low key presence, you may find yourself able to ally with other minnows to gain leverage - bribes are allowed to encourage support. Otherwise, one powerful player proposes the motion, votes it in with his working majority and on he goes with his plan. It seems a little odd, to say the least, and until someone builds an effective opposition the dominance continues. The situation didn't seem to improve with four. To give you an indication, one player held sway for the entire first game, and 'won', which left the others rather miffed.

The best part of the game is that the board is made up of face down large hexes marked with smaller hexes for movement. Babylon 5 is in the middle and the four main faction bases are around the edges, usually with outlying colonies - you need to find more of these to increase your economic wealth. Everything else is unknown. As you enter one of the face down hexes with a scouting ship, the tile flips, revealing what is on the other side. Not all hexes are used in every game, and set up is random, so this could be almost anything. Black holes, meteorites, new planets to exploit, wormholes, supernovas, gravity waves and so on. Each one has a different effect and everyone enjoyed turning them over to reveal their fate, good or bad. Anyone share my fond memories of Magic Realm? Now there was an original game with scope and excitement let down only by the fact that no-one actually played the same game rules. But I digress. The point is that later in the game, players were content to use resources just to survey undiscovered hexes - yes, they might get a new base out of the deal, but the main appeal was the exploration. I think, as I have suspected for some while, that there may be something in this idea. Balancing this fascinating feature is that the board is rather small so everything important is explored and thus known to all within three or four turns (probing those fringe areas is interesting, but not always strategically feasible), and that movement is rather slow unless you use stargates or more exotic means of transport. I'd have much preferred a larger board, with quicker movement rates to give that sense of the unknown. I suspect the reason this is not possible is that a larger board would have thrown the home bases too far from Babylon 5, and also widened the gaps between players - a necessary device to encourage interaction, as we shall see.

On the upside, the game allows you to build stargates for quicker movement, lay mines to protect important holdings and generally make like Starfleet Command with a range of ships varying between the tiniest scout to massive killer ships. Each vessel has a distinctive selection of armaments and shields, and the feel is good. Until you realise that each ship needs to be facing in the right direction to use its weapons. Excuse me? A ship is free to move several light years using highly advanced engineering, ready to deploy its deadly lasers and long range rockets, but once it arrives at the scene of a battle it is often unable to actually turn to face the enemy. This even applies when docking at Babylon 5, which can take two turns to arrive and get aligned. Hello? It gets worse. The normal result is that some puny little corvette shoots away at the exposed rear of an enemy because he is pointing the wrong way, but finds that not only that his lasers are too weak, but that his mate in the equally rated battleship is as well. You normally need two such battleships to overcome the armour of a rival ship. No dice, just straight numerical comparison. Combined with the facing, this all seems very non science fiction. The result is a curious form of intergalactic chess, where you need two pawns to beat one as long as they are turned in the right direction! Not impressed.

In a sense there is no money in Babylon 5, but in reality you have income from your bases, deductions for your ship upkeep costs and net income which arrives every turn for you to spend on new hardware, cards, bribery or hairdressing bills for those odd Centauri chaps. The system uses the number chits supplied, but as the rules suggest, a series of d6's works rather better - turning them to show changes in the three categories. This is as quick a way as any to record the resources and was not too troublesome. Added though to the ship and base purchasing every turn, making adjustments when losses are suffered or ships are rebuilt and generally mucking around with counters and dice and one-off bonus income is enough to make you think "Mmm. Fiddly" after about half an hour. It is far from intolerable, but you know how these things work. Your forces grow on the map, you forget to add something on, ships get overlooked and so on. Babylon 5 is no more fiddly than many resource based games, but it is a factor you should be aware of. Medici this isn't.

A key part of the game, and reflecting the problems I spoke of earlier, is the fact that you play a Babylon 5 faction and use a specific action card deck. These are both tailored to your faction's strengths and weaknesses and enable you to perform various tasks during the game and add to the atmosphere. More importantly, they contain the character cards which give you votes at the council as mentioned above. The difficulty is in knowing which cards will be useful in the game (you get to choose a starting hand) and a nagging suspicion that the cards represent a sub-set of a bigger set that we may be allowed to see in the future. If this is the case, I am once again very annoyed. If I pay 25 quid for a boxed game, not exactly cheap you'll agree, then I'd like the full set please. No confirmation of this accusation is to be found anywhere, but I have a strong hunch that it is the case - you only need look at the card mix to see what I mean, but I could be wrong and this may just be an uninspired selection. Presumably expansion sets will have more cards allowing you to construct more useful decks. This is one punter who won't be buying.

One problem inherited from Twilight Imperium is that when you boil the system down and strip away all the chrome of different ships and agendas, it is a game of elimination, picking fights and being picked upon. In short, a wargame, albeit one won by money. This is largely prompted by the map dispositions encouraging conflict over good bases and tactical hexes (neighbours are such troublesome things) and also by the faction alignments. In Twilight we often reached the situation where player A had to attack player B, much to the joy of Player C who would pick on the weakened winner, while Player D was far enough away for all this to be academic. Much the same occurs in Babylon 5. There is also the not uninteresting posturing at the central hex when two battleships turn up together and wait anxiously to see if the Minbaris are here for war, or just to pick up their weekly shopping and vote at the council on the way back. This is, as far as I can work out, fairly true to the TV series. The problem occurs not so much in the skirmishing, which everyone likes to do, but in the outright wars and blood feuds.

I'll admit that this very much depends on who is playing, but most players in my groups have reached that thirtysomething, effete, easygoing stage where no-one attacks, or at least attacks unwillingly. Not for fear of losing, but for fear of spoiling the game for someone else in a sort of misguided, liberal, caring nineties kind of way. And I am probably the worst of them all. I don't much care for games that put me in this position, especially if the result is elimination for one of us, but I realise, without too much debate, that this is not good for games designed with 'interaction' in mind. So for Babylon 5 we agreed to go for it, and that was important. There are, as far as I can work out, several reasons for this weird phenomena, but broadly speaking we have become so soft, and so used to German games that permit involvement right to the end, or at least a very short period of elimination (as the game is short anyway), that the old-style American game ethos (where you need to clobber Johnny for all you are worth before he does the same to you, probably with a bazooka) feels rather incongruous. I recall one game of Twilight coming to an embarrassed end because it was obvious who had to attack who, but they were both carefully ignoring the inevitable and getting on with the housework. The game ground to a halt, prompting a much needed what-if post mortem, and it was agreed that all had had a good time but wouldn't it have been better if there were another way to win apart from military superiority! This may not be as daft as it sounds and I for one will champion a modern boardgame (Age of Empires on the PC makes a valiant stab) that manages to offer multiple varied and balanced routes to victory - so that the explorer can have as much chance, and fun, as the panzer generals of this world. Too much to hope for?

The upshot of an extended and detailed sequence of play, slowish movement, caution over rivals and an essentially fiddly build system is that Babylon 5 is a longish game. Add to that a victory system that is inherently balanced yet requires one player to move substantially ahead to win, and it could have all the makings of an epic. In our first game we played for four hours with no conclusion beyond awarding the token win to the 'permanent' chairman of the council. Admittedly we were learning and the game couldn't have been that bad to survive that long, but not a lot happened for the time spent. Game two was played to a time limit, three hours, and we were no closer to finishing.

The idea of "component games" strikes me as an excellent one as long as the execution is good. If such a game has a sound central core, and ideally a pretty quick one, then it is reasonably simple to release a series of add-ons to add increasing layers of detail, new rules, variety and tactics. I think a little known game called Magic may have set the ball rolling here. Good for the producer (testing should be easier) and for the buyer who finds a favourite game enhanced and freshened up every few months. I'll admit that as I laid it out on the table, I was thinking about bigger maps, new starships and interesting effects. The hook was in... but rapidly came out again as I played. Not for a moment am I suggesting Babylon 5 is comparable, but for some reason my mind returns to the nightmare of expansion that was Supremacy.... it never struck me that the core system worked at all well so quite why we needed another 23 add-ons baffled the hell out of me. Hands up who owns them all? And could you volunteer an explanation as to why please?

If this is a game, like too many CCGs before it, that requires a number of extra purchases to remain interesting, or even work properly, then that is a sad state of affairs indeed. The key marketing device here would have been to deliver a stable (even very simple) foundation, that worked well enough to satisfy buyers of the basic package (a novel concept in this post-CCG age) and to titillate sufficiently to encourage further purchases. Personally, that hasn't been achieved and this game marks the end of my spending on this particular component system. This is largely because I can't foresee a solution to the facing anomaly, nor the unbalanced voting, and I am certainly not about to start buying more cards and building them into decks just so I can play a boardgame. If I have missed something here, please let me know because the game is a fundamentally good one, it has just been hamstrung by some very odd design and balance choices - perhaps largely due to shoehorning an existing game to fit the theme.

The irony of Babylon 5 is that it is not such a good game as its parent, Twilight Imperium, and really fails to capture much of the feel of the TV series - a feat performed much better, albeit with similar time requirements, by the Precedence CCG of the same name. Each faction has its special skills and the cards add some flavour, but essentially it is all rather homogenous. The result is a run of the mill science fiction slugfest that has some good elements and some strange ones. My feeling is that the game is rather fiddly, too long for the interest on offer and spoilt drastically by the inappropriate facing rule - sadly unavoidable unless the counters are redesigned. That said, I have played far worse science fiction games, it might be fixable or even acceptable to others and if the series appeals to you more than it does to me, then this is probably still a buy. The hex system/exploration/movement sub-game is very interesting, as are the council votes if re-balanced, and there is much evidence of a design that has been at least thought about. That it takes so long to get anywhere and has those curious, but annoying, flaws will probably see me put this one on the sale list. Those of a more charitable nature should wait to see where the expansions indicate the system is heading, or indeed if any expansions appear at all. So, in conclusion, Babylon 5 CGS is a mixed bag and one that I would commend only if the above comments have not put you off. Otherwise steer clear and pull your copy of Throneworld off the shelf for that is a far better game.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell