Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Aliens & Infection

In the last five years, the co-operative board game has become a familiar design, one that has regularly made it onto the tables of many gaming groups. Pandemic from Z-Man Games is perhaps the best known design, exemplifying the need for the players to work together in order to prevent the game’s mechanics from defeating them, and titles such as Fantasy Flight’s Red November and the more recent Flash Point: Fire Rescue from Indie Boards & Cards. Another type of the co-operative board game is the semi-co-operative design, one that adds the element of treachery by having player take the role of a traitor trying to undermine the efforts of the other players. It is best typified by Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game and Shadows Over Camelot, both from Fantasy Flight Games, both games that begin with randomly determining which of the players is trying to betray the others. These are now joined by another design, one that goes a step further by having the treacherous player not only working to undermine the efforts of the others, but also attempting to infect them too! The design is Panic Station.

Published by Stronghold Games, Panic Station is set in the year 2220. Contact has been lost with the mining station, Recon-6, and also with the platoon of soldiers that was sent into investigate. Now a special unit of heavily trained Troopers from the Extermination Corps has been assigned to determine what happened, each Trooper being assigned a bio-mechanical Android that only he can control through telepathic means. Despite their training and their equipment, the Troopers were unprepared for what they found – a parasite impervious to their bullets and capable of infecting both themselves and their accompanying Androids. Fortunately, the research staff at Recon-6 had developed ammunition that would the parasite bugs and discovered that the Hive is vulnerable to heat. Now all the Troopers and Androids have to do is scavenge enough bullets to hold off the bugs and enough gasoline to fuel the flamethrowers that will burn out the Hive. Standing against them though, is not only the ever present threat of the bugs, but also the fact that one of their number has already been infected and both he and his Android plans to infect everyone else in order to stop the Hive from being burned!

Designed for between four and six players, Panic Station is a semi-co-operative paranoia-driven board game that can be played through in about an hour. Each player controls one Trooper, armed with a flamethrower, and an Android, armed with a handgun. Both are telepathically linked. Play will see them progressing through the Recon-6 base, its layout randomly determined each time the game is played, scavenging for equipment and swapping equipment, whilst also fighting and avoiding the parasite bugs that scurry around in the darkness. If the Hive can be located and an Android can burn it out with three cans of gasoline, then the players will have won the game.

Unfortunately, one of the players begins the game having been infected by the Hive and as the Host he must keep his status a secret whilst trying to infect or kill the other Troopers and Androids. Infect enough of them and he can prevent the Hive from being burnt out, and so win the game. Only by keeping a careful watch on his fellow players can a player determine which of them of them is the Host or has become infected, although with a heat scan later in the game, it is possible to ascertain the number of players who have been infected.

Coming in sturdy tin, Panic Station consists of two decks of cards – the forty-six card Search Deck and the twenty card Exploration Deck; twelve Character Cards, two for each player, consisting of a Trooper and an Android in matching colours; twelve Check Cards, one positive and one negative, for each player; twelve Wooden Character Discs, two for each player, consisting of a Trooper and an Android in matching colours; ten Wooden Parasite Discs, consisting of five grey Parasites and five black Parasites; eighteen Infect Cards, consisting of six sets of three cards, a set for each player; a Heat-Check Board, a four-sided die, and a full colour rulebook. Of these, the Search Deck contains all of the items that can be found during searches, these include Heavy Guns, Bullets, Armour, Grenades, Fuel Canisters, Keycards (for getting through locked doors), Body Scanners to determine if another player is infected, Energy Boosts to give a player more Action Points, First Aid Kits for healing, Target Scopes that can be fitted to guns to allow attacks into adjacent rooms, and Combat Knives that allow close up attacks. The Exploration Deck forms the locations that the Troopers and Androids will explore. The Check Cards are used during heat scans to detect the presence of infected individuals in conjunction with the Heat-Check Board. All of these components are of a high quality and very attractive.

At game’s start, each player receives the Character Discs and the Character Cards for his Trooper and his Android; two Check Cards, one positive and one negative; and three Infection Cards. All in the same colour. The top of the Search Deck is seeded with a mix of Fuel Canister cards and random Search Cards as well as the Host Card, and each player receives two cards from the Search Deck. Together with his Infect Cards, these two Search Cards make up a player’s hand. It is possible that one of the drawn Search Cards is the Host Card, which would indicate that the player is the treacherous Host and now has the aim of stopping the other players. If the Host Card is not drawn, then it will probably be drawn within a turn or two. The Exploration Deck is also seeded with the Hive card in the bottom three cards of the deck and the Terminal Room in the lower half of the deck. This ensures that one of the last rooms to be found is the players’ objective. Lastly, the Reactor Room card is placed at the centre of the table. It is marked by the numbers one to four to indicate the cardinal directions, these are the directions that the Parasites will randomly move in at the beginning of each round. The Reactor Room is where the Troopers and the Androids will enter Recon-6 to begin their search for the Hive.

Panic Station is played as a series of rounds each consisting of two phases. The first of these is the Parasite Phase in which all of the Parasites on the board attempt to move and then attack any Troopers or Androids in the same room after they have attempted to move. The direction moved is determined by a throw of the die and consulting the numbers on the Reaction Room card. Attacks by the Grey Parasites inflict a point of damage and two points if they are Black Parasites. This damage cannot be prevented unless a character is wearing Armour. At the end of the Parasite Phase, a marker, known as the Parasite Marker, is passed to the next player on the left to indicate when the next Parasite Phase starts.

The Parasite Phase is followed by the Team Phase. Beginning by the player who just passed the Parasite Phase to the left, each player can have his Trooper and his Android act using their combined Action Points. This actually means that the player who just passed the Parasite Phase acts twice before there is another Parasite Phase. The number of Action Points that a player starts with between his Trooper and Android starts at four, but will go down if either is wounded or killed. He can spend these to Explore – add a single location drawn from the Exploration Deck next to his location; Move to an adjacent location if he can – some locations have Security Doors that need to be unlocked, but do have viewports that allow him to look into an adjacent room, whilst others contain two locations instead of one; Fire Guns, either to kill a Parasite or a possibly infected Trooper or Android; Search a location to draw from the Search Deck; Activate Computer Terminal for various effects; Heal in the Sick Bay – up to two Wounds per turn between a player’s Trooper and Android; or to Use Item.

A player can Search, Move, Fire Guns, or Use Item as many times per turn as he has Action Points, but can only Explore, Activate Computer Terminal, or Heal in the Sick Bay once per turn. Of these actions, Fire Guns requires the use of Ammunition and this must be found using a Search action. It takes a single bullet to kill a Grey Parasite and two to kill a Black Parasite. Use Item allows a player to use any of the items he has found with a Search and has in his hand. A Search action allows a player to draw a card from the Search Deck. When a player does an Activate Computer Terminal, he can perform a Perform Heat Scan to see how many of his fellow players are infected; Open All Security Doors until the beginning of the next Parasite Phase; or to Reveal Location, adding a new location anywhere on the map of Recon-6.

Each location card is doubled-sided, and the same on both sides. When first placed, a location card is placed so that the black icon on it is face up. When it is searched or the ability of the room is used, like the Activate Computer Terminal, the location card is flipped so that its red icon is face up. This means that when the room is searched again or its ability used again, a Parasite is attracted by the activity and appears in an adjacent location, ready to move on the next Parasite Phase. There are only five Grey Parasites, and once they are all out on the map, the Black Parasites appear. They take two bullets or two attacks with the Knife to kill, and inflict two Wounds when they attack during the Parasite Phase.

A Heat Scan, performed either with an Activate Computer Terminal action or as soon as the Hive Card is drawn from the Exploration Deck, involves everyone submitting their Check Cards into the correct slot on the Heat-Check Board. One slot is for the players’ true infection statuses, the other is not. This is done with the Check Cards face down and the cards in each slot are then shuffled, all so that it is not clear who played what Check Card into what slot. Then the Check Cards in the actual status slot are revealed, allowing all of the players to know how many of their number is infected, but not who… Afterwards, everyone gets their Check Cards back.

The question is, how does the Host infect another player? It comes down to fact that whenever one player moves either his Trooper or his Android into a location – though not the Reactor Room where everyone starts from – and there is a Trooper or Android already there under the control of another player, he must either attack him or trade with him. The former requires a weapon and ammunition – or the knife, but a trade can be done with any item. Each trade though, is done closed, in that neither participant knows what he is going to receive in return. This means that if the Host or another player who has already been infected can pass another player one of his Infect Cards, then the receiving player is now infected and can attempt to infect others using his Infect Cards. When a Trooper is infected, it also means that the Android he controls is infected, and vice versa. An infected player can only infect others using his Infect Cards, the ones that match the colour of his Trooper and Android. A player cannot use his Infect Cards in a Trade until he is infected, and then only three times because he begins the game with three Infect Cards.

It possible to block an infect attempt in a Trade. This is done by trading away of his Fuel Canisters, which burns away the incoming infection. It also means that the player one less Fuel Canister in the knowledge that he needs three for his Trooper to burn out the Hive. In process though, he finds out who is infected and there is nothing to stop him from denouncing the infected loudly and accusingly.

The humans win if an uninfected Trooper can enter the Hive and use three Fuel Canisters to burn it out. The Parasite wins if all of the Troopers and Androids are infected, as revealed by a Heat Scan, except that is, for the last Trooper and Android infected. They lose… The Parasite also wins if there is only one human player left and there are no Fuel Canisters to use on the Hive, or if all of the Troopers are killed, as the Androids cannot use the flamethrowers on the Hive. Dead players always lose…

Panic Station is a cleverly designed game. It has a great theme, essentially, a combination of John Carpenter’s The Thing with Pandemic. In fact, the theme is effectively implemented, and it does get very tense as the humans try and locate the Hive whilst also searching for enough resources to have sufficient Fuel Canisters to burn it out. All this and the Parasites are coming out of the ducting attracted by the humans’ frantic efforts to find the Fuel Canisters. Of course, the Parasites are the least of the humans’ worries. One of them is a Host and is trying to infect them! And the only way to get infected is through trading, which is also the main means of acquiring Fuel Canisters. The other way, of course, is searching rooms, and that attracts the attention of the Parasite bugs.

Yet Panic Station is game with a few problems. The first one is that the game is hard to teach as the rules in the tin are not as clear as they could be. This has been fixed in part with the free release of a second edition of the rules that anyone can download, but this still does not wholly fix the problem. The Trade rules are particularly awkward to teach, not just in terms of the how, but also the why. This is true of the game in general and there is a lot to explain in order to get the game’s theme across.

The second problem is how the theme has implemented in terms of the rules. It feels counter intuitive to have the Troopers and the Androids use different weapons and not be allowed to use both. Similarly, it feels counter intuitive to have a Trooper be infected by the Host and then have his accompanied Android also be infected at the same time, no matter how far they are apart on the board. It feels counter intuitive to have a Trooper and an Android pairing share the same equipment, no matter how far they are apart on the board. The presence of these limitations seems to be there to enforce the rules and the tension, and not the theme. To some they will get in the way of the play of the game.

Get past these problems though, and it will probably take more than a single play to do so, and then Panic Station sets everything up for an hour’s tense game play. Tense because of the paranoia of not knowing who to trust, but knowing that you have to co-operate in order to defeat a foe that is trying to betray you and eat you! The game’s theme should also encourage plenty of table talk – especially if the players have seen the right movies and can quote from them, Aliens being as good as the aforementioned John Carpenter’s The Thing – and if played right, this should only enhance both the paranoia and the play. If you are in the right mood and enjoy roleplaying the theme, then Panic Station is a welcome addition to the semi-co-operative family of board games.