I’ve had my eye on this one for quite some time. It was on the Essen Canonical list for 2010, with a note that the designer was still looking for a publisher and it was actually expected to come out in 2011. I looked at the game information and was quite intrigued by what I saw. Fast forward a year, and now the game is scheduled to be released. So, let’s look at:
Panic Station was designed by David Ausloos, a Belgian graphic artist who did the art for Stronghold’s reprints of Survive and Confusion. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), this game is being released by Stronghold Games in North America, and White Goblin Games in Europe. The game is for 4-6 players aged 10 and up, and takes 40 minutes to play. The game is “a paranoia-driven partly cooperative game” in which you’ll be trying to hunt down and destroy alien life forms without getting infected by Parasites. To compound your problems, one player is the “Host”, and has a secret objective to infect other players. This means that it’s a cooperative game where you can trust NO ONE.
This is mostly a card-driven game, and comes with 46 search cards (which includes the Host card), 20 exploration cards, 12 character cards, 18 infect cards, and 12 check cards. There are some wooden discs – 12 character discs and 10 parasite discs. Additionally, you get one d4 and a heat check board, which are set to the side for now. At the beginning of the game, you get 2 character tokens and cards of a chosen color, which will be your Trooper and Android. Your character cards are placed with their 4 hearts You also get 2 check cards (one positive and one negative), and three infection cards of your color. The Reactor Room card goes in the center of the table. This is where all players begin the game. Each player gets a gas can card and one randomly drawn card from the search deck (if you get a Parasite Alert card, you must resolve it immediately, then draw again). You’ll then draw twice as many cards from the search deck as you have players, add the Host card, shuffle them, then place them on top of the search deck. As opposed to other traitor-style games (such as Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica), the Host won’t know who they are until the game has already started, possibly until the 13th card gets drawn. The Hive card and Open Terminal card are removed from the exploration cards, and the remainder are split into two piles. The Open Terminal card is shuffled into one stack, and the Hive is shuffled into the bottom five cards of that same stack. The other stack is shuffled and put on top. Choose a start player who will be the start player for the entire game. You’re ready to play.
Play proceeds in a series of turns, and all players participates in turns. Turns have two phases – the Parasite phase and the Team phase. During the Parasite phase, you’ll look to see if any parasites are on the board. If so, the starting player rolls the d4 to determine the direction of movement, which is based on the orientation of the Reactor Room. So, if you roll a 3, all parasites will be moving down. They can’t go through closed doors or walls, or into undiscovered rooms. If they enter a room containing a character, they attack. Black parasites deal two points of damage, gray parasites deal one. Mark your damage by rotating your character card so that your current HP is at the top (you start with four).
In the Team phase, each player (in player order) can spend their current allowance of action points. If a character has 3-4 health, they have 2 AP; 1-2 health = 1 AP. This is indicated by the hand on the card. Your AP for your two characters can combine, so if your Trooper has 2 AP and your Android has 1, you have 3 AP. All can be spent on one character, or you can split them as you see fit. You can spend one AP on any of the following actions as many times as you want during your turn:
- Explore: Draw the top card of the exploration deck and place it adjacent to your current location. The card must be placed vertically, and must be connected to your current location through a doorway on both cards (no walls). The card should be black side up, indicating that it has not yet been searched. If you can’t legally place the card you drew, put it on the bottom of the deck and draw again (you don’t spend an extra AP for this). If you can’t place the second card, you’re out of luck and may not do this action this turn.
- Move: Move from one room to another. Some cards have two rooms, so it’s not from card to card. Some rooms are closed off by security doors that can only be opened using a keycard from the item deck. If you move into a room with a crossed arrows icon, you can move one extra space (provided that there’s another space to move to). If there’s a parasite icon, you’ll roll the d4 and place a parasite token in the indicated room. If there’s no room there, it goes in your room.
- Fire Gun: Only Androids can take this action, spending one AP to shoot one bullet (assuming that they have ammo). Gray parasites are killed with one shot, black parasites take two. Androids can also shoot at team members. Troopers are armed with flamethrowers, which can only be used against the Hive.
- Search Location: If there is an icon in the center of a room, it can be searched. If a room has been searched, you’ll flip it over to the red icon side. You can still search in a room with a red icon, but you would then spawn a parasite (rolling the d4). When searching, you’ll draw the top card of the search deck. If it’s a parasite alert, you resolve it immediately. During the first turn, all players must search at least once. If a room has a circled 3 icon, you get to draw three cards instead of one. If a room has a magnifying glass icon, you can do a team search with up to two players – you spend the AP, and you both get to draw a card.
- Activate Computer Terminal: You can spend one AP to do one of the following three actions in a room with a computer: do a heat scan (check to see if anyone is infected), open all security doors (for one round only), or reveal a location anywhere on the board. Heat scans are done like this: you have a positive and a negative card. On the green side, you’ll place your true identity (positive or negative), and on the red side, you’ll play the other card. This way, you’ll know how many people are infected, but you won’t know who. Afterwards, each player gets one positive and one negative card back.
- Heal in Sick Bay: Heal two wounds in rooms with the sick bay icon. However, when you do this, you’ll either flip the card to its red side or trigger a parasite appearance if it was already flipped.
- Use Item: Some items can only be used once, others can remain in your hand.
When you enter a room with another player, you MUST trade with them (unless you’re in the Reactor Room, or unless you’ve already traded this turn). You both give the other player a face-down card from your hand. This is one way to pass on items, but it’s also the way the Host or any other infected players can pass on the infection. So, if you get an infection card of the other player’s color, you are infected. However, if you passed a gas can or an antidote, you dodged the infection and are still OK. If one of your characters becomes infected, the other one does too, so you’re not playing both sides. You can also attack the other player, but this must be done before trading with them. If a character ever drops to 0 HP, they’re out of the game.
The game ends if an uninfected Trooper plays three gas can cards inside the Hive. This only costs one AP and results in a win for the humans. However, if all players are infected (as proven by a heat scan), or if there’s only one human left with no gas cans available in hand or the search deck, the Host and his infected comrades win. There has been a LOT of discussion on BGG about this point. The basic issue people are having is that everyone wins if everyone is infected, which seems to be the opposite of what this game is going for. People are crying that it’s broken, while others are defending the thematic experience. I’m kind of split in my opinion so far. For one thing, no one has even played the game yet, so I have no idea how it’s going to play. The best I can determine is that this is a game that REALLY requires the right group to play. If you and your friends are going to playing this, I think everyone needs to be clear that you need to play your role the best you can from the outset. I can’t stand when people are actively trying to break a game for everyone else (unless, of course, it’s a prototype where the designer wants that). I would say that this is a game that is about the experience, not necessarily about winning or losing. If winning is really important to you, my guess would be that this is not the game for you.
For my part, the thematic experience seems reminiscent of paranoia-driven entertainment. Ausloos cited John Carpenter’s The Thing as a major inspiration but, having never seen that movie myself, I thought more about Ridley Scott’s Alien. The aspect of moving around and not knowing what’s around the next corner is pretty intense, and adding the fact that there are probably infected people walking around with you amps up the tension. Think Pandemic times eleven in terms of an intense theme. Or Battlestar Galactica with Cylons actively recruiting new Cylons. It’s a game I’m very interested in trying out, mainly for the experience. I don’t really think my wife would be interested, so I don’t think it’s one I’ll want to get. But I definitely want to give it a shot. Thanks for reading!