How the Battlestar Galactica board game can help your writing

So I’m a big fan of board games, and fortunately so is my darling husband, which means we play a lot of them. What does this have to do with writing, you wonder? Well, nothing usually… But lately I’ve begun to see more of a connection with the Battlestar Galactica board game, which as it happens is a great tool for practicing character motivation and information flow.

But first, here’s a brief summary for those of you who’ve never played the game: You control various human characters on a spaceship containing the last 50,000 surviving humans after a war with intelligent machines called cylons. Some of these machines are human-looking–and some of them don’t even know they’re cylons. The humans are trying to find a safe haven on a distant planet; the cylons are trying to destroy them.

What is funny about this game is that you start out with a secret card telling you whether you’re a human or a cylon. However, half-way through the game, you get another one, so even if you start out thinking you’re human, you may ultimately end up working with the machines. No one else knows what cards you have, so a big part of the game is trying to figure out who may be playing a cylon, so you can try to neutralize their sabotage.

Now to what this has to do with writing! The game is designed to be played by 3-7 players (though in my experience it plays best with a minimum of 5 players). My husband and I often play alone, i.e. we’re only 2. As I love this game, we decided to play it anyway–with multiple characters each.

What does this mean in practice?

Well, it means I might be playing three characters of which one is a cylon, but my other two characters aren’t supposed to know this. I can’t, when I control one of the humans, suddenly start sending my cylon character to the brig. That would break the game. Instead, for each character I have to carefully consider what they know of the other characters. What have they observed of their actions? Have they behaved suspiciously? Or have they just been unlucky with the cards?

Then I have to keep track of this for all three of them. A bit like splitting your brain in three. 🙂

This is very similar to what you need to do when writing. As a writer, you know everything–every secret, every future plot-twist, everything. If your characters act on knowledge they’re not supposes to have though, the book will fall apart.

Controlling information can be trickier than you might think; I notice errors in this from time to time in TV shows for example. In particular, characters who take actions based on information they don’t have (but which other characters gained). Or characters who suddenly seem like mind readers, even if they couldn’t possible understand what someone else knows. Or the flip side, characters who ignore important information for long stretches of time because it’s convenient to the plot.

So for my devious writer-mind, playing these multiple characters in Battlestar Galactica is great fun–and good practice. Of course, at times I’ve had to send my own characters to the brig even if they’re innocent, but such is the way with suspicion. 🙂

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