Panic Station (Game Review)

Panic Station tin

Panic Station

Panic Station features a new twist on the “cooperative game with a traitor” genre: The secretly evil character can recruit more players to his side, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers-style. It creates an unusual game experience, as players need to commit to fighting for their current side. A traditional board gamer, whose goal is to win, would be tempted to intentionally let the alien parasite infest them if the humans are losing. If you can get in the mindset to put a personal goal ahead of the strict winning and losing conditions (and shifting goals immediately if you get infected), then this can be a unique and tense experience.

Set on an alien space station, the players’ goal is to destroy a colony of parasites before they are taken over. Rooms are placed, and both players and aliens move through them, in the traditional dungeon-crawler style. This isn’t a new approach to cooperative games (see the popular Dungeons & Dragons board game series), but it is the first cooperative game with traitors that I know of based on this mechanic. It’s a natural fit, though: When the accusations and paranoia start to get too strong around the table, you can just barge in and attack the player you think is betraying you! Of course, you might be wrong…

The dungeon mechanics are well-suited to the game rules. With players having only a few action points per turn, and aliens and locked doors blocking paths off, the station stays very claustrophobic. Characters will keep running in to one another, and every time they do so they must either trade cards or attack each other. Trading is the way that the alien infection is passed. Bluffing comes in to play, as well: If the intended victim trades a gas can card, they are not affected by the infection card and can now identify the other player as a traitor. But because gas cans are also needed to destroy the parasite hive at the end of the game, humans that are too quick to trade away gas cans will lose as well.

Early game situation. The cards define rooms, and the player tokens (plus two aliens) are spread around them.

Panic Station is a collection of good ideas, but unfortunately it takes more than ideas to make a game work. First of all, it’s best with six players, so that the parasite side needs to infect multiple people to really become powerful. But waiting for five other people to finish their turn can be painfully long. Also, despite all the tension and arguments about strategy, the game will most likely be won or lost by a few key moves in which the traitor tries to infect others. Whether other players happen to block with gas cans at the right time will determine the course of the game, and even the side you end up on can feel determined by chance. I think that there is probably a little more strategy and depth to it than my first few plays revealed, but I can’t be sure: My friends have no desire to try the game any more, and I don’t have any good arguments why they should.

Chief among the reasons we gave up on it is confusion over the rules. The rulebook that came with my first edition is, without a doubt, the worst one I’ve ever seen in a professional game. Confusing and incomplete, game designer David Ausloos has admitted that the person who translated the rules to English did so without ever seeing the game. Ausloos has been very active on Panic Station’s Board Game Geek page in response to players’ questions, and he has since updated the rules with major improvements. Now at version 2.2, the game is finally playable and mostly makes sense, though the threads on BGG prove that it’s still not perfectly clear.

The problem isn’t just that the rules were poorly translated. This new version has major changes from the original, including a different game setup and an altered victory condition! It really makes me wonder how well the game was initially play-tested. At times, Ausloos and the games’ fans seem to be limited by an idea of how the game “should” play, and game-breaking strategies are dismissed with the explanation “that’s not in the spirit of the game”.

For example, the initial rules gave everyone a gas can to start with, which meant that no one could get infected as long as people always traded gas cards with each other. If anyone refused to trade a gas can, then the other player would announce that they had found the traitor. The rest of the table wouldn’t know which one to believe, but they could fight off both suspicious characters and proceed to win the game. It’s not a perfect strategy (sometimes it will be necessary to trade other items, but usually not until late in the game), but it’s foolish not for the humans to use it. I’d argue that it’s also in the “role-playing” spirit of the game: Of course the paranoid humans would try to protect themselves as much as possible! The new rules mix up the initial cards to make some people start without gas cans, injecting enough uncertainty to break this methodical strategy, but Ausloos still insists that the players who found this were not playing in the right spirit. I, on the other hand, wonder how this issue never came up in playtesting, and can only conclude that Ausloos simply told his players not to use that strategy. This goes hand-in-hand with other times when Ausloos issues rule clarifications that make sense from a thematic point of view, but seem to contradict previous things he has said.

I finally stopped trying to bring Panic Station to the table when I accepted that this is an exciting amateur work that somehow got published without any of the rigorous polishing that a successful game will need. I know that there is a fun game buried within here, but not many people will find it.

Grade: C-

    • shaun
    • April 18th, 2012

    Wow. I have not had the same experience as you. Panic Station is by far our most played demo copy in our store. This game gets played at the very least once a week since release. When people first started playing it, the infected won most often (probably 3/4 of the time). Then the meta shifted in favor of the humans as everyone became more suspicious and cautious. Now it is at about 50/50 as everyone has learned to play savvy. Games can go either way and the randomness of the cards and map go a long way to alter strategies and break “winning combos”. Introducing new players to the game really effects the meta as well. While I think your criticisms of the original rules and playtesting are valid, my play experience is” A+ WOULD PLAY AGAIN” 🙂 I suggest introducing it to new people, and letting the panic infect them.

    • Thanks for your comments. I hesitated at first to write this review, because I love some of the ideas in Panic Station, and I belive my concluding comment that “there is a fun game buried in here”. But after two separate groups of friends were unwilling to keep trying it, and I got frustrated with the discussions on BGG (I think some of the “you just have to play the game RIGHT” defenses commonly found there really are indicative of poor design), I decided I had to recommend against it.

      I know this article is just my opinion, though, and I’m glad to know that people out there are enjoying the game. The group you play with can make a huge difference as well, and I’d be very interested in giving this another try with people who love it.

  1. April 27th, 2012

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