The Alien Resistance – A Panic Station Review
The old station creaks under the strain of the vacuum surrounding it. A couple of hours have passed since you watched your android gunner be taken down in a hail of surprise suppressor fire by one of your original teammates. You turned and made a break for it, cold sweat covering your brow, and have since made it further into the complex despite those damnable bugs that have been popping up all over. Suddenly, a sound to your left makes you turn and jump. Out of the shadows steps Nina, your most trusted team confidante. “It’s ok,” she purrs, stepping closer, “we’re all in this together.” She slowly extends her hand, an object held tight. “Here, let’s trade – I have something that will help with those wounds.” You pause for a moment, wanting so badly to take her hand, to trust her with all your might. And yet, you hesitate. You rifle through your satchel and choose just the right item – the something you’ve been holding onto since the very beginning that may provide protection. Without further hesitation you draw it, and in one swift move take her item and leave her holding your only protection against the growing infection: a gas can.
That’s right, a gas can. Welcome to the Panic Station.
Placing the somewhat-absurd opening narrative aside for a moment for a brief explanation of the core mechanics, Panic Station is a paranoia-driven social game with a traitor mechanic for 4 to 6 players. The players take on the roles of a group of xeno-exterminators, sent to a remote station of some sort to investigate and eliminate a malevolent alien life form. To do this, they must find the alien nest, collect three gas cans which fuel one of the massive flamethrowers carried by a human team member, and thoroughly torch the room. However, during the mission, one of the group members will secretly become infected by the alien parasite. The infected’s mission: To infect as many other team members as possible, without detection, until all the humans in the team have been assimilated or eliminated.
In order to accomplish their mission, players control two characters – a human trooper, armed with a flamethrower used to take out the alien nest, and an android, armed with an assault pistol which can do harm to aliens, androids and humans, provided the player can find some ammo stashed on the station. Each turn, a player can perform actions equal to their current action limit, typically four. These actions include: move a trooper or android, explore the station (revealing and placing a new room card from the deck), searching a room (taking one or more cards from the item deck), attacking another player or alien parasite, or activating one of the special abilities of a computer terminal. These special abilities include unlocking certain doors, revealing rooms further into the station, and executing a heat scan that will reveal how many team members – if any – are currently infected.
The key mechanic in Panic Station, however, is trading cards held in players’ hands. This is triggered automatically when a player’s human or android token enters a room with other player tokens. Both players must then secretly choose a card in their hand and give it to the other player. The trick is that if one of the players is infected with the alien parasite, the other player may immediately be infected if they are passed an infection card. This passing of the infection can be negated, however, if the uninfected player passes the infected a gas can during the trade. That’s right, a gas can. Confused? Trust me, you’re not the only one.
You see, because gas cans are what are used to power up the human’s flamethrowers and destroy the alien nest, they are extremely valuable. This causes the uninfected players much consternation when they have to give up a valuable source of fuel. Mechanically, the passing of the gas cans makes sense, but thematically, it takes an incredible amount of suspension of disbelief on the behalf of all players involved. And that’s just scratching the surface.
For instance, each player’s human trooper and android are tethered together so that they can somehow share weapons, key cards, gas cans, and all manner of special items, as well as an infection, no matter their location in the station. It all feels a bit like they have access to Skyvault and Centurion exosuits that can beam items down to them at a whim. If that’s the case, however, and they have access to such amazing technology, then why weren’t they sent on the extermination mission with ammo for the android’s weapons? Speaking of weapons, why can’t the human troopers pick up the android guns when desperation sets in? After all, if Ripley can strap on a pulse rifle and tussle with an alien hive mother after all the space marines are dead, you’d think a crack team of bug hunters wouldn’t have trouble squeezing off a couple of rounds after their android bodyguards have been nibbled to death by parasites or bullets.
After a couple of plays, it becomes fairly obvious that the theme may have been reverse-engineered a bit to fit the mechanics. I’m sure that designer David Ausloos wanted a taut social thriller, came up with the concept of the Panic Station and then designed around it. In most cases, I like how those things turn out in games, but here I feel as though the core playtesters were engrossed in a mission of xeno-annihilation and all of a sudden the leader goes “wait – all those cards you guys are trading around? Just stop it. That’s silly. Only one card per trade, and it can’t be something immediately useful.”
I’m not sure that I would feel as strongly about the misstep in theme or mechanics if my Alpha team – my group of hardcore social gamers that have not only braved the best social games but relished every backstabbing minute of them – had not managed to break the game within the first three turns of their first playthrough. Granted, they “broke” the game under a previous rules set that I had been given, but our play brought up a fascinating quandary where we had to call off the game and left me seeking guidance on BoardGameGeek. I soon found that the rules had been revised to account for such a game variation, but the designer himself responded that the situation mentioned had never come up in playtesting. That can often point toward the core game being tested only within a close circle of gamers that played in the full spirit of the game, typically under guidance from the designer or a familiar associate. This could explain the how my group devised a situation that hadn’t come up before if the game had not been properly sent through the gaming gauntlet before launch.
Still, despite the thematic and mechanical shortcomings, every group that has tried the game has been rooting for its success and hoped to play again, albeit under better circumstances. The base elements of the game – paranoia, betrayal and teamwork against the odds – seem to be ones that gamers find universally appealing, especially for the emerging narrative that is created in the cooperative and competitive process. One thing that is certain about Panic Station, though – no matter what the play experience, it’ll keep your play group talking, and constantly looking over their shoulders, for some time to come.
|Gameplay/Replay||Components & Theme||Fun|
|Overall, the core concept of Panic Station won't be alien or difficult to understand for experienced social gamers. However, with both experienced gamers and casual gamers, juggling all the rules restrictions, complex hand management aspects and fiddly card placement while trying to keep a clear poker face might prove a challenge. I played the game with three sets of very different gamer types and all of them made the same mistake in their first game: giving away their guilt the first time they drew the host card. Part of the blame lies in the language-independence of the item cards; most players have to take a break from the game and look up a specific item in the last three pages of the rulebook. The first time someone doesn't look up a card pretty much signals that that player just picked up the Host card since it's really the only card anyone specifically remembers from the rules explanation. This phenomenon fades a bit on repeated plays, but then a heavy flop occurs: the infection tends to spread so quickly that it's almost impossible for the humans to pull out a win. There's nothing wrong with ratcheting the difficulty level in a game, but some players may soon find the extra challenge frustrating in repeated plays, especially considering the length of the game.||My copy of Panic Station was a printed prototype, so I can't speak fully on the quality of components that will be available from White Goblin and Stronghold Games. However, from what I've seen so far online, the artwork is nice and very atmospheric. The player tokens will be thick, wooden discs with the player art and parasites applied with stickers, much like Mr. Jack. That is perfectly acceptable for a game like Panic Station, as the real meat of the game lies in player interaction, not board immersion. As for theme - the story and emerging narrative certainly accentuate the paranoid feeling that permeates each play. No matter the rules complications, the hiccups in gameplay or the confusion on the part of players, this growing paranoia was definitely the highlight of every game.||I will openly admit that every game I played of Panic Station was fun. However, as with many highly-thematic social games, it's sometimes difficult to determine whether the game itself was the engine of joy or the group of players that were brought together for the experience. This can be true of many games, but the base score for fun always has to be rated on the ability of a game to provide an atmosphere of camaraderie, entertainment and lasting enjoyment. Because of these criteria, Panic Station scores relatively high on the fun meter - even if, on some occasions, that camaraderie and entertainment comes about despite the absurdity of passing gas cans to ward off a potent alien infection.|
|Overall score: 13 out of 18 - Best left for the social gaming crowd. Casual gamers: Bring your own gas can.|
Panic Station is a game for 4-6 bug hunters, ages 10 and up, by David Ausloos for White Goblin Games and Stronghold Games. You can grab Panic Station early from Stronghold Games for the next couple of days in pre-order (which also includes a free Survival Pack mini-expansion); after that, you can find Panic Station online at Stronghold Games after Essen Spiel, or at your favorite local game store.
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