GenCon has been a whirlwind. I was hoping to get some time to go discover some new games, but I have been stuck in the Asmodee booth selling the bejeezus out of Libertalia (which, I may have mentioned, is pretty awesome). So instead of telling you about some exciting new game, I will tell you about one I played last weekend and thought was pretty darn fun.
The game was Panic Station, and my exceptionally timely review comes out only a year or so after its release. In terms of board games, that makes it a super old game, and every reviewer worth a pile of warm spit has already reviewed it, leaving me to pull in last like your annoying kid brother saying, 'hey, guys, can you believe the latest Avril Lavigne album?' when everyone else is already listening to Adele. (Please, someone tell me we haven't moved on from Adele yet.)
Panic Station has a team of 4-6 players trying to stop a viral infection from taking over YouTube and posting your homemade sex movies. That, or you're fighting an alien invasion. Honestly, it's probably that second one. The first one would hardly be a family game.
The problem with fighting this alien invasion is that you're in a remote Arctic research station, and one of you almost certainly has a bad case of alienitis. That one person is going to try to infect the rest of the crew, and if he can pull it off, the bad guys all win - except for the last guy who got sick.
Yeah, this is a familiar idea. It's basically the plot of The Thing, except this one has androids for no apparent reason except to be wacky. I mean, the android on each team is the only one who can shoot a gun, even if the human can find one, so he is handy to have around, but the game could have just given you each a scientist and a soldier. Some of the thematic elements don't make a lot of sense, is what I'm saying. It would be like if your team was a hardened killer and Bert from Sesame Street.
Also, the rules are kind of a mess. The publisher, Stronghold Games, has drafted a final, corrected version of the rules, and before you try to read the rules for yours, you should talk with them about getting the new one. The original is so convoluted and confusing that the first time we played, we did almost every single thing wrong. And so we hated it, and I had to go check out BGG to see what I did wrong, and then amidst heavy groans from my friends, we played it again.
And the second time, we loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that we played it twice, and I got requests to bring it back again. It is absolutely not a perfect game, and there are a lot of ways to do it wrong, but when my group is that adamant about wanting to play it again, the game did something right.
What Panic Station does right is paranoia. It has everyone accusing the other players of being shifty and disreputable, of displaying antisocial tendencies, and of having smelly feet. Come to think of it, we're gamers. We might just have smelly feet.
The greatest thing about this particular game of mistrust and deception is how quickly the paranoia can shift. If you are certain that you know which of your friends are trying to kill you, and then another of your friends finds himself in a potentially compromising situation, you will find yourself questioning his motives, even as he attempts to assure you that he avoided the infection. You just won't know who is on your side.
Of course, at some point, it begins to be pretty obvious which players are trying to kill the others. And after that, Panic Station changes into an exciting game about paranoia and turns into an exciting game of tactics and strategy and scheming. The humans have to fight their way through a station overrun with parasites and alien hosts, avoiding infection and gathering the crucial elements they need to burn the nest and stop the alien horde from spreading to the world. At this point, even with certain knowledge of which players are bad and which are good, there still remains an enormous amount of tension, the kind of tension that, when one team finally beats the other, will have you celebrating loudly and proclaiming to your enemies, 'Ha! In your face, alien scum!' until you remember that one of them is your ride home.
Like I said before, Panic Station is not perfect. It is almost too easy for the aliens to win in a four-player game, and not very hard for the humans if they have six. This is easily overcome by the fact that the real strength of the game is in how well it draws out unpleasant emotions like fear and mistrust and a general hatred of stinky shoes. Again, the shoes might just be because someone should be washing their feet, but I am not making any apologies. We play on Saturday afternoons. You guys are just lucky I'm wearing a clean shirt.
Despite a handful of flaws that would seriously ruin a different game, Panic Station is actually really good. It has balance issues, thematic problems, and a confusing rule book, but in the end, it delivers the most important thing a game can deliver - fun. You will scheme and accuse, plan and fail, and probably get a lot of your friends killed. Those might be the ingredients for a really horrible high school dance, but they make a great recipe for a fun game.
Plenty of paranoia
Loads of planning and scheming
Enough mistrust that you avoid the classic cooperative lead-dick syndrome
Pretty darn fun
Rules may cause you to play completely wrong
Odd thematic decisions break the suspension of disbelief
Inconsistent with varying sizes of groups
I am posting this review from my iPad, and it is almost impossible to put in links on this thing. When I get back to a real computer again, I will tell you to go get it at Noble Knight Games.