There is one thing mankind has not yet perfected and that is artificial intelligence. In Duels of the Planeswalkers, a lite-version of Magic the Gathering, the computer always uses the same tricks. Attacking with a small creature against my bigger defenders with a green deck. Oh dear, might there be perchance a Giant Growth in his hand? I don’t block, and the computer plays the Giant Growth, dealing four irrelevant damage to me and wasting a spell that every Magic starter says you should use to save a creature from destruction. Fighting AI is tedious and predictable, mostly because they only use the one strategy they have been programmed with.
Playing against people is more fun. People take stupid risks, they make mistakes and are generally unpredictable. And mostly I like when the game trancends its rules and becomes a battle of wits against the other player him or herself. Spy is a game like that; Instead of moving game pieces with the most efficiency, the game is about getting inside the opponent’s head and influencing his decisions from the start. Victory not through superior gameplay, but due to superior metagame.
Yesterday I destroyed the trust between three players of the opposing team. They all knew that I was an enemy, but they did not know who my ally was, masquerading as a member of their team, set to ruin their game at the most critical juncture. I knew who that player was, which made my life easy. I made observations of my opponents’ play, questioned their choices and was generally annoying. And right to the end they still did not know.
The game is called Battlestar Galactica. The basic premise of the franchise is that after achieving sentience, Cylons, robots created by humans, rebelled against their overlords. After a costly war the Cylons retreated to their own territories, behind an armistice line. They evolved, creating new models that look exactly like human. Some of them are even programmed to think they are human. Using these replica Cylons, they infiltrated the human colonies, disabled their defences and rained nuclear fire from the skies. Now, only a ragtag fleet of human ships remain, guarded by a single battleship, seeking a new home away from the Cylons. The players assume the roles of the most important characters in the fleet, and at least one of them is secretly a Cylon.
The game is good enough for me to invest into a copy and an expansion set. The game dynamics are cunning; Although the game is co-op, you can never be certain that your allies have the good of humans in their heart. At the start of the game a loyalty deck is constructed. There are two cards per player, of which one to two are Cylon cards. At the start of the game, everyone is dealt one card. If a player receives a Cylon card, he or she is a Cylon until the end of the game. And then, at halfway through the game, everyone is dealt another one. Therefore, at the first half of the game, everyone might be a human. Some characters are dealt more than two cards, making them more likely to be Cylons.
The humans must win the game by jumping the fleet towards Earth. There are Cylon space assaults, political crises and all sorts of problems hindering their progress. Most of these are Skill Checks. In the skill checks, players can put cards into them to either aid the check or sabotage it, depending on their affiliation. The cards are shuffled so no-one can be sure what the players played and then counted to see if the Sill Check succeeded. These moments are loaded with excitement: If there are over two hostile cards present, it most likely is an indicator that there is a Cylon aboard.
The Cylons can sabotage the humans by making bad choices and putting hostile cards into the skill checks when undercover. But if the Cylon is ousted, he or she can reveal the Cylon card. That means that the character kills him or herself, resurrecting at the Cylon fleet. There he or she can play powerful (if situational) Cylon abilities, but cannot influence the skill checks effectively anymore.
Unless the players are soulless automatons who count the skill cards in the destiny deck, the game is filled with metagaming. When doing something unconventional, like politicing while a space battle is underway, both a human and Cylon players must explain why they did it. With hot-headed players people are being tossed in the brig for the slighest provocations. Changing the Admiral and President titles causes scorn. The most exciting part of the game is between players: Who can play innocent long enough? Who can manipulate other people to believe his or her words? The best thing in the game is not winning, but making the human players suspect each other and waste resources on irrelevant brig-tossing and trust issues. I hope that some day I can experience the same exhilaration with video games.