18th Oct2021

‘Unfathomable’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

The board game industry has a problem that videogames don’t seem to have. When a videogame goes out of print (or more likely these days, gets withdrawn from the respective marketplace) people who have bought it tend to benefit on an evergreen basis. Digital games never degrade, and even a retail game pressed onto a Blu-Ray is very unlikely to degrade or stop working unless someone does it serious damage. Board Games don’t benefit from this longevity – they get damaged, pieces get missed, and because there are fewer copies of popular games produced than there is demand (in most cases), replacements are hard to get.

This problem is compounded even further when a game is withdrawn – permanently – from the market due to the loss of a license or similar. This is exactly what happened to Fantasy Flight Games’ 2008 implementation of Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game. Due to the perfect storm at the apex point between demand for a popular license, quality gameplay and the rarity of age, Corey Konieczka’s intrigue-driven marathon has continued to drive demand even thirteen years after its original release…. However, there’s a new board game on the horizon that reimplements Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (and even some of its expansion content) almost rule for rule – that game is Unfathomable.

Based on the name and the fact that Fantasy Flight Games is publishing Unfathomable, you could probably guess pretty quickly that this is a game that uses the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, albeit thankfully without the racism and bigotry that plagued the original works. Wisely, the characters in Unfathomable are new (at least to me) and don’t draw direct inspiration from other Fantasy Flight Games products (such as Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness.) This gives Unfathomable a unique cast and feel that supports its core concept perfectly.

And what a cool concept it is. The players are trapped on the SS Atlantica, a steamship halfway across the Atlantic on its journey to Boston which is being attacked by Father Dagon and Mother Hydra – two of Cthulhu’s most trusted lieutenants – as well as their army of Deep One monsters. To make matters worse (and depending on player count) at least one person on board the ship will be a Deep One Hybrid – a creature that looks human on the outside, but who is absolutely working against the human players with intentions to sink the ship. For those familiar with Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game these guys replace the Cylons – and work in almost the exact same way.

To save the Atlantica, the human players (who don’t know who is human and who is not) will need to maintain four key resources (food, fuel, souls and sanity) whilst ensuring that damage is minimised (six damaged rooms means a loss) and that at least one passenger (from a stack of about ten or twelve.) Just a bit then? Whether human or otherwise (the Deep One and possibly Cultist players don’t know who is who either) each player takes two actions, then resolves a mythos card which will often come with a communal skill check. Actions include moving, attacking Deep Ones or revealed traitors, using rooms and saving passengers and all are pretty simple to perform in isolation.

The real time sink in Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (which also applies to Unfathomable) is without doubt the mythos phase. The active player (or sometimes a named character or title holder, such as the acting Captain) will read the card and explain what needs to be done – sometimes choosing between two or three options. An example of a skill check is that the players might need to achieve a total of fifteen points from three of the five different kinds of skill (strength, influence, lore, will etc (among cards played from their hands.) Any cards played that don’t match the requirement will count against the success, but two cards will always be drawn from a face down chaos deck that adds two random cards into the mix.

The point of the mythos phase is that usually, something bad will be averted – and very rarely something good might happen. As a Deep One (or possibly the less-used Cultist role which I’ll explain later) you may wish to sabotage these skill checks, using the presence of the chaos deck to cover your tracks and attempt to look as innocent as possible. The mythos phase can take up to ten minutes per turn depending on your group, because there’s often a lot of debate, and because all players are involved in what usually ends up being a fairly tense debate so that people can agree (whether truthfully or not) about how they will behave.

This process of taking actions and then resolving a mythos card is repeated until the players have completed the journey track (driven by icons on mythos cards) enough times to reach twelve points across any number of Waypoint cards which are drawn each time the track is completed. An interesting twist is that when this happens, the Captain always draws two cards and chooses one, so if the Captain is a Hybrid, then chances are they are going to slow you down on purpose – but how will you know? That’s always the question. Similarly, alongside the Captain role, a Keeper of the Tome manages a deck of spells which often provide powerful bonuses at the cost of sanity or worse – so again, a Deep One in this role can drive the players forwards in dangerous ways – but progress is progress, so again how will you interpret their actions?

When the Waypoint cards do total twelve points, the human players need complete the track just one more time – that is, of course, unless they are a Cultist. There is only one Cultist card in the game and it tends to only appear in 5-6 player games, although it can also be used at four. This is the most difficult role to win as, because the Cultist wants to sink the ship just as much as the Hybrid’s, but only once it has already reached twelve Waypoint value – this is thematically because the Cultist wants to swim to shore as the huge monsters pull their fellow passengers down into the murky depths.

Any player can – at any time – attempt to apprehend another player by sending them to the Brig (which requires a skill test.) When a player is in the Brig, they can only contribute one card to any skill check, and they obviously can’t leave without passing a check themselves. An interesting nuance here is that if a player reveals themselves to be a traitor whilstt in the Brig (or was already revealed) then escaping the Brig is easier. This, plus the current game state, can affect a traitors decision to reveal themselves or not – sometimes a traitor might take their jail time on the chin just to reduce the level of suspicion among players in later turns.

A lot of the gameplay in Unfathomable comes down to what is happening off he board, and sometimes (almost always actually) success depends on being willing to suspect the worst of your friends and to act against them (as the traitor, or as a human who suspects a traitor) in a way that might reduce the fun for them. This is just part and parcel of the game, and given as Unfathomable will usually last about three hours (and can go longer) you need to be aware that it can be quite an intense, sometimes mentally draining experience – although to be clear, it is one that I certainly enjoyed.

Overall then, the straight re-theme of Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game actually works really well with the Cthulhu mythos, and as a result I like Unfathomable quite a bit. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done to reduce the game length as it remains quite the imposition at two to four hours and the amount of downtime for players who are out of cards (and therefore can’t contribute to skill checks outside their turn) can be significant – especially at five or six players. The experience is also likely to be too intense for some, but given hidden-role games tend to be very short, I welcome Unfathomable‘s extra weight, and it occupies a pretty unique place in my collection.

**** 4/5

Unfathomable is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.


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