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Panic Station: Designing a paranoia SF trip part 1
I don't know about you, but when I watch a great movie there is this small portion of my brain (not hijacked by fantasies of Nigella Lawson doing a naked cook-out in my garden) that triggers a potential idea for a game design. I know, it's kind of annoying. Especially when you are watching an arthouse Ingmar Bergman-style romp and subconsialy try to find a mechanic to simulate the sexual frustration of the main protagonist (Knizia, were are you when you are needed?) but it surely can be an inspiration when you are watching, say, a John Carpenter flick. Prince of Darkness anyone?
And yes, a few weeks ago it struck me while watching "The Thing" for the 6th time, without reservation his absolute "piece de resissistance": why isn't there a game that simulates the intense paranoia of this classic?
Sure, I know Battlestar Galactica comes close paranoia-wise, but it's still far away from the claustrophobic feel of Carpenters icy alienation trip.
5 weeks of no sleep, midnight brainstorm sessions in my back yard with my insomniac neighbor and at least 4 gallons of politically correct Ikea-water (you have no idea what that Swedish stuff does with your head) and I had a rough draft for a game. The working title had haunted me right from the start and I wrote it in large cinematographic capitals with a marker on the cover page of my notepad: PANIC STATION.
Again add another 5 weeks of almost no sleep and there it was: the fist rough prototype of the game.
And boy, did it look ugly. It was very minimal, used some politically incorrect clip-art and looked like a first grade project gone awry, but I figured: if people enjoy this version I’m onto something.
Basically the game is amazingly simple to play: 4-6 players control 2 characters each: a trooper send by the totalitarian government to a desolate desert base and a mind-controlled android, helping him out to track down a deadly parasite that has overtaken the location, slaughtering the entire crew to create a hive.
Players guide both characters through the complex (using a limited set of Action Points) which is build on the table while exploring, performing search actions in rooms to gather equipment and eliminating roaming parasites along the way. While the Android has the ability to eliminate the creatures, the trooper must try to locate the hive and destroy it. This is done by playing 3 Gas can cards (filling his Flamethrower) that are very rare in the item deck. But, now comes the trick, the little wicked twist that makes the game: at the beginning when start equipment is divided over the cooperative team, one of the players will secretly receive a “Host” card.
He will be infected right from the start by the alien life form and will do anything to prevent the team from locating and destroying the hive. This is done by “infecting” other players, turning them one by one to his side. As you can imagine, right from the word go the game is riddled with paranoia as nobody trusts nobody but must at the same time work together to complete the main mission.
The core mechanic in the game is a blind trade that players are performing regularly during their explorations. During such a transaction, players pass on an item card face-down in secret to the team member they share a location with. At the start of the game however each player has received a set of “Infection” cards. The host and the other infected players can play this card at any time instead of a regular item. This can be done in secret since they share the same backs.
Panic Station is all about identifying the alien players through behavior, and doing efficiently timed Heat checks of the building that offer team members crucial information of how many human and alien players are currently active. The main dilemma comes from the sparse Gas can cards: they are needed to both fend of infection attacks and destroy the hive, so too much paranoia can seriously lower the chances of the human side to win the game.
Now, when you write down a theoretical mechanic there is this part of you that dreams up what the potential could be for it to work, but it is until your very first playtest that you get the raw proof it actually does. To my own amazement it worked: 5 minutes into the first test there was already nervous laughter, fierce accusations and the kind of paranoia you only find in a girls-only catholic school when a valuable piece of jewelry was stolen during the night.
Since then I tweaked the game to a high degree but the core mechanic has been untouched. After all, my mantra is: never change a winning formula, at least until something better comes up.
So, what now?
Honestly...I’m not sure. At the moment my plan is to self-publish, but the rocky roads of self-publishing are certainly long and wonky. I have been told so many terrifying stories by
small-time publishers that I’m a little reluctant to take the plunge. But that said, I’ve started to ask for quotes from manufacturers and hope to make a decision soon. In a way this game’s a wet dream for any publisher out there: it plays in 30-40 minutes, has a lot of intense decision-making (every spend action can make a difference) and is extremely cheap to produce given the fact the main component is a deck of cards that is partly used to form the board. But you know what, I want to take a risk here. I want to give this plan a go and do it myself.
It might be the result of too much glue spray directly inhaled into my brain building prototypes but what the heck, let’s rock & roll.
To be continued…