My connection between my study of mathematics and board games has always been that they are both simply a list of rules, existing eternally outside of the means (technology, components) we use to study or play. Yet, board games seem to have adopted unwritten rules outside of the rules, about the kind of games that should be made. And it seems to be the goal of French designer, Roberto Fraga, to break them all.
He’s already broken my philosophy that games exist outside their components with titles like Dr. Eureka, which involves moving large plastic balls between test tubes to make a particular pattern, and Spinderella, a children’s game where a spider hangs on a string over the board. But Doctor Panic takes this concept to a whole new level...
Sometimes, I receive games I know very little about, and my first impression of them is literally looking at the box and then opening it. Doctor Panic's box seemed normal enough, although with some fantastic cartoony artwork. Then, I opened the box, and I found some cards and tiles, like usual... but I also found a whoopie cushion, four pairs of tweezers, nine hair nets, and loads of other craziness. It's clear as soon as you open this puppy that this is not your normal board game.
Reading the rules was the next step, and I found that they were clear and concise, with important points highlighted appropriately. The game is a real-time cooperative game for up to nine players, where players form teams of doctors who each have to perform eight tasks in under twelve minutes to save a patient and win the game. There is a soundtrack (done through an app or an MP3) that beeps incessantly to simulate the patient’s heartbeat and occasionally flat-lines or is interrupted by a telephone call (these are handled by the app, or by cards if you are using the MP3).
The concept of the game is simple enough, but what is difficult is remembering the eight types of tasks. They are completely different, and a lot to remember up-front when you first play the game. For the most part, they’re pretty intuitive and do a good job of simulating concepts from an actual operating room, like examining a patient, putting drugs together for an injection, suturing up a wound, and so on. I’ve only played with adults so far, but I suspect it’s a little too much for younger children. The tasks also vary wildly in difficulty and in how interesting (and funny) they are. For example, the suturing with the tweezers is actually pretty funny and fun to do, but making the house of cards to set up the body scanner is somewhat frustrating to accomplish.
Of course, you’re doing this all in real time at an intense speed, so the game oftentimes becomes somewhat hard to “enforce” rules-wise. What I mean by that is, there’s no one really checking on you to see if you did something exactly right, and if you fail to communicate something to the other players when you are the head doctor reading the cards, no one’s ever likely to know. This is perhaps most present in the two game interruptions, the flat-lines and the telephone. The flat-line scenario requires one player to shout out a sequence of numbers and for another player to lay out a set of numbered cards in that order, at which point the first player presses a button on the app to indicate a resuscitation attempt has been made. Meanwhile, another player is supposed to be pushing repeatedly on the whoopie cushion to simulate massaging the patient’s heart. It’s clever and hilarious, but the game will go on if you don’t do it.
Speaking of clever and hilarious, let’s talk about the telephone calls. When these happen, you “answer” the telephone on the app (or draw a card if using the MP3) and do what it says. Examples include things like:
There’s an oxygen leak! Everyone get face down on the floor, cover your head, and count to ten.
There’s a knock on the door! Everyone run to the front door to answer it.
The A/C is gone! Everyone wipe each others’ foreheads. (Yes, seriously.)
These cards vary wildly in how funny they are, and some border on annoying or just a little too weird, but overall I think they add more than they subtract. And certainly with the cards, you could remove the ones you don’t like, which brings me to another point. This game is highly modular, although it’s not as heavily advertised in the game as it could be. You can certainly adjust the difficulty by adding extra tasks or pushing the right button in the app, and the game mentions that. But you could also adjust the telephone deck, and you could also use fewer types of tasks if playing with younger players. While this is certainly a strength, it also highlights the fact that Doctor Panic feels more like an activity than a game.
But, you know what? There are several other activities masquerading as games that rank among my favorites (Telestrations, Escape: the Curse of the Temple, etc.). Doctor Panic seems to be devoid of any kind of traditional strategy, but it still requires quick reflexes, a lot of dexterity, and a positive, silly attitude. I could see this being a smash-hit at a junior high youth camp–maybe even one for students interested in medical school. (Hm, now there’s an idea.) Yet I also know lots of crotchety gamers who would rather push cubes around than completely let loose and act silly for twelve minutes.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell how well Doctor Panic does what it does, because it’s doing something no other game is–but perhaps that’s a recommendation in and of itself. And the other recommendation is that–you know what, I had a lot of fun playing it. It’s not something I’ll go out and request, but if I had kids old enough to play it and they demanded it every night, that would be fine by me.
+ Truly unlike anything else you've played
+ Lots of opportunities for ridiculous humor
+ Doesn't overstay its welcome (no longer than 12 minutes!)
+ Components are impressive, unique, and hilarious
+ Awesome artwork
+ Free app helps streamline gameplay
+ Adjustable difficulty
- Requires the right attitude / group
- Feels more like an activity than a game
- Little strategy involved
- Too complex for target audience (kids)
- Some challenges are much better than others
- Perhaps slightly unsanitary?
Doctor Panic is hands-down the strangest board game I have ever played, and that's saying something. It's too situation-specific and silly to make a broad recommendation, but if you are looking for a silly, hyperactive way to spend time with your older kids, Doctor Panic is a great choice.