Sunday, November 13, 2011

Panic Station - I Never Knew Passing Gas To Thwart Alien, Parasitic Buttworms Could Be So Awesome

You enter the computer room and run a station-wide heat scan, only to find that two of your former team members are not what they seem. Their heat signature indicates that they have have been infected by an alien creature, and the infection has spread through the station at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, you have no idea who is infected. Every room you enter with one of your fellow team members runs the risk that they will attempt to infect you, and the only defense you have is either to attack them to keep them back, or to pass gas. Yes, this infection is most certainly rectal. This is the core principle that I learned while playing Panic Station: Beware the insidious buttworms.

Panic Station is a new game from my favorite artist-turned-designer, David Ausloos, who previously reskinned "Survive! Escape From Atlantis" for Stronghold Games. It's a four to six player romp through a remote mining station that quite skillfully recreates the events depicted in the 1982 horror classic, "The Thing", which is not only one of my all time favorite horror/suspense flicks, but has been called "the scariest movie ever made" by many. It has all the elements that one could hope for in a suspense game; thrills, tension, fast turns, tough decisions, and the single most important hallmark of any game, it is absolutely a blast.

Upon hearing about the Essen release of Panic Station, I was optimistic, as I always am, but I was also quite skeptical since this is Mssr. Ausloos' first published design. Turns out that I had nothing to worry about.  I've played this game six times now, and after pre-ordering it from Stronghold, then giving it away to a friend, and then re-preordering it from Coolstuff, I have to say that this game has absolute Game of the Year potential. There are some problems with the design, especially if you're the kind of asshat that needs to be spoon fed every possible scenario in the rulebook or a 30 page FAQ, but to the groups I've played with, it's one that has been perpetually requested and has been universally enjoyed.

The concept of Panic Station is fairly simple: up to six teams of two characters enter a complex that has been taken over by an alien parasitic life form, that has the unique attribute of looking like a big freaky worm, and the object is to torch the hell out of its hive, thus clearing the base. The challenge is that each two-character team consists of a human, who is inexplicably trained to use flamethrowers but not firearms, and an android who is programmed only to use firearms and not flamethrowers. You explore the station by expending action points, whose number is determined by the health condition of your team, to do such things as move, shoot, and expand the footprint of the base by adding room cards to the table. The trick is that every time you enter a room occupied by anyone else, you must trade a card from your inventory with them, or shoot them.

It all sounds pretty simple, but there's a catch: there's hardly any ammunition in the base to shoot people with and when you trade cards with someone, if they pass you an infection card, you're immediately infected and change allegiance. What's worse, the only way to stop from being infected is to pass them a card depicting a gasoline can. Did I mention that you're not always going to have a gas can, and to win, you have to have three gas cans in hand when you reach the hive? The game is just plain nasty, challenging, and instills absolute paranoia in everyone playing, especially if you play with some imaginative friends. I've even been known to paraphrase a dear friend, Simon Müller, by stating in-game, "Who invades my ass at this early hour!?" Fear the nefarious buttworm infectors.

Let's talk about the bits for a second. The first thing that you'll notice is that the game comes in an embossed metal tin, which sounds awesome if you're looking for a new dope stash box, but in reality, the box is non-standard size and thus you will have some heartburn trying to find a proper place on your shelf for it. Once you look inside the box, you'll find a sticker sheet, a bunch of wooden disks in many colors, a big pile of cards, a D4 die, a index card sized cardstock board, and a rulebook. Everything is quite nice, with the exception of the rulebook. While it is easily readable and understandable, the organization could have been better, and it could've used a couple more pages of explanations of key points to defuse the "rules lawyer nerdrage".

I found it to be quite an easy game to learn and play, but if you look at the Boardgamegeek forums you'd think the rulebook contained no words and only a pair of stick figure depictions attempting coitus. Such is the nature of nerd-dom, I guess. Anyhow, everything, including the rulebook, was great in my opinion. My only gripe is that the tin is not a standard size, and is embossed, which makes it harder to store than most games. All that being said, the designer has put out an updated rulebook and FAQ document which alleviates any concerns that one might have, so you can download either and you're even more prepared to take on the buttworm menace.

Before you can play the first game, you need to apply stickers to the disks, which takes 10 minutes or so. After that, the game is good to go, and you can begin to set up. Setting up requires you to pull three cards from the room deck: the hive, the terminal room, and the starting room. The rest are shuffled, with the terminal room put somewhere in the middle of the deck and the hive being placed somewhere in the last five cards of the deck. Then, each player is given three infection cards in their color, their two character cards, two status cards, and their two player disks. You must then pull the Host card, one gas card per player, and two random item cards per player less one. Shuffle these, and hand two each out to each player. Once all of this is accomplished, set the starting room in the center of the table and set the status board off to the side. You're now ready to catch, or torch, some buttworms.

The game is taken in two phases, with the first being the parasite phase. Except on the first turn of the game, any buttworm parasite tokens that are on the board all move in one direction, which is determined by a die roll, and then wound anyone in a room they end up occupying. I'm assuming rectal incursion followed by hemorrhaging is the method of attack. After this has been resolved, the players may begin their turn.

Each player, in turn, may then use their allotted action points to perform tasks, and the action points allocated to them are determined by how healthy their characters are. The default is Actions allowed are determined by what items they have in hand, which room they're in, and other specific instances. A neat thing about this game is that each player has two characters in the game, and the action point allocation can be used by one character or the other, or both.

First, players can explore, which consists of drawing the top card from the room deck and placing it adjacent to either of their character tokens. The room cards are double sided, although the sides indicate the status of the room rather than having unique sides, and thus the players always know which room will be next to be placed. Some rooms have icons on them which depict areas rich with items, rooms that cause buttworms to appear, cabins that allow you to perform actions on a station terminal, and other things. Any room with any icon can be searched, allowing a character to draw items from the item deck, and this is the only way to bring new cards into the game.

Another action type allowed is to move into an adjacent room with one of your character pawns. Even this can be dangerous as some rooms have a buttworm icon which forces you to bring a buttworm token into play. Also, if you enter a room occupied by another player's token or tokens, you must either trade cards with one of them or attack one of them. This is the mechanic which causes people to become infected and the primary way to gather information on your team. Every room has openings on the card that indicate viable passageways, and some doors are security doors that require you to have a keycard to pass through, although a special room will allow you to open all the security doors for a round. More on that later.

Now, as I noted, each player but one starts the game with three infection cards, and two item cards. Chances are that most people picked up a gas can card, which is both a key to winning the game as a human and one of the only ways to defend against a rectal incursion from another player. I mean, since the creatures look like worms and the only way to defend against an infection is by passing gas to the infected player, I've deduced that they are indeed buttworms. I guess I could've explained that earlier, but this is a suspense game and I wanted to keep the suspense going for you. Because of the initial distribution of cards, one player is guaranteed to be the Host, which is the primary antagonist in the Panic Station. His goal is to infect as many people as possible, create as much strife and paranoia as possible, cause as many parasite tokens to enter play as possible, and to attempt to thwart the other player's exploration and subsequent uncovering of the hive location.

Trading cards has some restrictions, though. A player may never trade an infection card of his color unless he is infected, and a player may never reveal his hand to another player unless forced to do so by another player using the hand scanner card. A player may also never trade an infection card of another player's color unless he has absolutely no alternative. The one omission in the rules that caused me frustration is that even in the updated version of the rules, there is no mention of what to do if a player has no cards other than their own infection cards to trade. I can only surmise that the player is forced to take a card and give none in return, thereby completely leaving them defenseless. I like that option the best because it's the nastiest, and the game's spirit is all about nastiness.

Moving on, the next action type you can take is to search a room. To do this, you must simply be in a room that depicts any icon, and draw a card from the item deck. There are all kinds of useful items in the deck, such as heavy weapons which have a higher rate of fire than the norm, ammunition to power the weapons, hand scanners that allow you to look at another player's deck, medical kits that heal your characters, armored vests which defend from attack, combat knives which allow for attack without using ammunition, and finally, gas cans which are truly the coin of this realm. There are also "parasite alert" cards which immediately cause a new buttworm to spawn in or around the searching character's location.

When a room is searched for the first time, you must flip the room card over from the grey, normal side, to the red side. When a room's status is red, if the room is searched again, parasites spawn when the room is searched any subsequent time. This is a very slick mechanic because it allows infected players to simply seem like they're loading up on goodies, since there is no hand limit, when in reality they are trying to force other players to spawn parasites by changing all the rooms to the red side.

The next action you may take is to attack an opponent or a roving buttworm. While a player's Android token is the only one who can use firearms, both characters on a team are capable of using a combat knife. Using firearms requires you to not only have ammunition, but in order to play a card to the table such as ammunition, the knife, or a heavy machinegun, you have to have at least five cards in your hand, plus those you wish to play to the table, at the time. Ammunition cards are four-sided to indicate you have four bullets, and each time you use them you have to rotate the card to the appropriate number to indicate how many bullets you have left. Guns always hit their intended target and always do one point of damage per bullet.

Knives, however, do not require ammunition, and unlike guns, knives require a die roll with a 50/50 chance of scoring a hit. All characters only have four life points, and when any character's life is halved, so is that character's action point donation to that player's action point pool. Thus, a player who has an android with two life and a human with four is allowed three actions per turn instead of four. This allows infected players to whittle away the humans' ability to gather items and explore while allowing humans to weaken the suspect players' ability to cause chaos.

Aside from using weapons, some item cards can be used as an action, and those that cost action points are marked with an appropriate icon. Using the hand scanner, which allows you to look through another player's hand, costs an action. Healing one of your characters costs an action as well. Some items do not require using an action to use them, so they are essentially free.

The final action type that you can take is room-based; in other words, it depends on which room you're in. The rooms with icons in them perform different functions, such as the medical bay that allows you to heal a character. One room allows you to draw three items rather than one when you search, and the icon that has a magnifying glass allows you to search it with others, allowing others in the room to take items without themselves initiating a search. Of all of the rooms available, the most useful are the terminal rooms. These allow you to do one of three things, all of which are critical.

The first is to allow all security doors to remain open until the end of the round. This allows free passage of all players through the doors, which is incredibly handy if all of the keycards are at the bottom of the item deck. The second thing you can do with the terminal is remotely explore, allowing you to place the top room in the room deck in any legal space adjacent to any existing room. The last thing you can do, which is the most important as well, is to run a station-wide heat check. The heat check mechanic allows all players to know precisely how many infected players are in the station.

The heat check mechanic works a lot like a mechanic in the Indie Board and Card game, The Resistance. Each player puts a status card on the "true" area of that little board you set to the side at the beginning of the game, and then puts the other status card in the false pile. If you're infected, you have to indicate that you are by placing your infected card on the true pile. The initiator of the scan then rounds up all the true cards, shuffles them, and reveals the number of infection status cards to everyone. After doing so, the player rounds up the false cards, shuffles them all together, and then hands one card of each type back to each player. Nothing adds tension like the simultaneous realization that someone was infected and not a soul at the table noticed it.

The end of the game comes when one of several situations occurs. If the base has been completely overrun by the aliens, as determined by a heat scan, the Host and his minions win. If an uninfected player has three gas can cards in his hand and on his turn has his human character in the hive room, the uninfected players win. There's another endgame scenario involving being the sole uninfected player and not having the ability to gain the required three gascans, but I can't really see that happening; I think it was put in to avoid a stalemate situation. One thing to note: I immediately houseruled that only the host wins for the infected team so that players have no impetus to get infected, since if you're a douchebag who "has to win", you might decide to just seek out the host and change teams when it's convenient.

All things considered, this is a really tense, fun game. We didn't stumble one bit the first time I broke this out, but the second time I forgot to tell my friends that you can't pass someone else's infection cards during a trade unless it's the last option, and it cost me. I was the host and attempted an anal probe attack, but was blocked by the dreaded passed gas. Unfortunately, when the player I tried to violate was up, he traded with another player and passed my infection card.

Subsequently, both players knew that I was the host, and it reduced my chances of winning to roughly zero. I gave them a run for their money, though, because I kept announcing loudly and with conviction that those two had just traded, and one was the host while the other was the new minion. I almost had them believing it, right up until the next player used the terminal room to verify how many infected players there were. It was right then, that very moment, that I knew I was fucked. Still, it's a lot of fun to be the host.

The only downside of being the host is that you're alone in your quest for malfeasance, and timing of trades is incredibly important, as noted above. Attempt infection too early and you tip your hand. Attempt infection too late and the chances of having your infection blocked by passed gas. The flipside is that if you successfully infect another player, both their android and their human is infected, and the newly-created infected team has three new opportunities to spread their ill will due to that player's three infection cards.

I played another game where I, as the host, expended all of my infection cards without successfully infecting the enemy, all the while convincing the other players that the person I tried to infect was actually attempting to infect me, both through loud protest and spending all my actions attacking that player or "searching for ammunition", which was simply a ruse to buy me time while I turned all of the grey rooms to red.

Being uninfected is fun, too, and far more tense from the beginning on, where the tension only starts for the host when he attempts his first infection. The human player really needs to watch everyone, observe both their demeanor and their board action, and trust absolutely no-one until later in the game. And even then, watch your buddy like a hawk, lest he be turned to the buttworm side of the Force while you're not looking.

Why Panic Station Mines Awesome Sauce:
- The tension of this game is unbelievable
- Great artwork throughout makes this look nice on the table
- Fast turns allow you to play a 5-player game in an hour and a half and offers surprisingly little downtime
- The promo cards from preordering add a TON of cool stuff to the game, unlike the usual "collector" garbage
- You get to make jokes about defending against buttworm attacks with passed gas

Why Panic Station Has Been Buttwormed:
- The rulebook was a little muddled, although highly serviceable
- Tin? Really? Did nobody think that it might be nice to have a box that fits on the shelf like the other hundred?
- If you didn't get the promos, well, sucks for you, because they rock

This is a truly fun, very easy to understand, fast-playing game for anyone who likes suspense, tension, and absolute, unabashed fuckery of the highest order. Lying, accusing,'s all in the tin. All I can say is that it's just a slick, bad ass, nasty little game.

4.375/5 Stars

Learn more about Panic Station at Stronghold Games, here:
Here's the latest rulebook, which will be packed in the second printing, or so I am told:

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