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Mom and Pop Deep One tower over the cast of Unfathomable as they struggle to, alternately, save or scuttle the ship. Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

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Unfathomable revives an excellent board game lost to licensing hell

What do you hear, Starbuck? Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, of course

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Just as modern board games were hitting their stride in the late 2000s, so too was the modern era of prestige television. Those two worlds collided with Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, designed by Corey Konieczka. Sadly, it went out of print years ago, with even beat-up versions now collector’s items sold at a premium.

But the good folks at Fantasy Flight Games rounded the corner late this year, reinventing that style of game with an entirely new theme. Unfathomable is outstanding, and well worth your attention in a crowded field of excellent new board games.

Unfathomable has a simple premise: You and up to five of your friends are trying to keep a cruise ship, its crew, and complement of passengers alive. Conspiring against you are the horrifying Deep Ones, a mother-and-father team of colossal sea monsters, as well as their brood of damp, drippy freaks. It’s all hands on deck to repel the boarders, keep the engines stoked, and ride out the storm to reach safe harbor.

There’s just one problem. One or more of the three to six people at the table is conspiring with the Deep Ones. As the traitor, it’s fairly easy to keep a low profile. The game’s many challenges can only be overcome by tossing cards into a communal pot. If enough of the right suits of cards show up, you’ve accomplished the goal. The cards are randomized before they get revealed so that no one knows who put in which cards. All you need to do is put the wrong cards in, undermining the other players’ efforts and causing the disaster to get worse.

Alternately, traitors can choose to reveal themselves. Do it at just the right moment, and the damage can be irreversible. Play those cards wrong, on the other hand, and you’ll spend the rest of your trip in the ship’s brig.

Just as in the original Battlestar Galactica, there are multiple locations all around the ship that allow players to pull off special moves. You can stoke the boiler on your turn to make the ship go faster, or rummage around in the hold looking for weapons and special items. Slowly but surely, the Deep Ones will begin to overrun the ship, shutting down those powerful systems one by one. They can even damage the vessel, bringing you ever closer to defeat.

In this way, Unfathomable is a huge upgrade from the original. Rarely in my experience did the Cylons actually board the Galactica, and once they did, it was pretty much game over. Meanwhile, in this Cthulhu-inspired 1920s version of the game, the Deep Ones are constantly in your face. Unfathomable also has a clever mechanic that puts the other, anonymous passengers taking the cruise with you at risk. That, plus the subtly revamped layout of the seascape all around the ship, tightens up the gameplay considerably.

This isn’t just a reskin of a classic game. It’s a tremendously well-conceived upgrade, and designer Tony Fanchi should be commended for that work.

A selection of Strength, Will, Influence, Lore, Observation, and Treachery cards.
There is a lot of reading in this game.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

The only complaint that I have is in the art direction and graphic design of the cards themselves. There is a tremendous amount of text in this game, and the tiny little cards you have to hold in your hand could use more real estate — room for, say, graphics of any sort. Instead, players are asked to absorb a pile of words written in an 8-point typeface. Likewise, the card backs don’t feel cohesive, and they don’t scan well at a distance on the table.

Starbuck does make a cameo. Maybe Kara’s been reincarnated? Either way, she can still bring in the cat no problem.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Those quibbles aside, Unfathomable actually benefits from quarterbacking. As a knowledgeable player familiar with the rules, it’s easy to put the pedal down and keep the game on track for its lengthy two- to four-hour playtime. If you have a dedicated board gaming group, or an ambitious team of newbies looking for a good time indoors, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Unfathomable will launch on Nov. 12, but is available now at some select friendly local game stores. The game was reviewed with a final retail copy of the game provided by Asmodee. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.


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