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In another thread here I gave some hints how to tackle the problems of playing and teaching Panic Station, and was subsequently asked to put my answers in a separate Thread, so that everyone could benefit from my experiences. So here goes...

But first - what are these problems Panic Station allegedly has?
Well, I tried to tackle these problems in two other threads here (the tactical approach problem) and here (on trusting other players). So no reason to regurgitate all that - you can read it there.
The problems, however, can be summoned as follows:
1. Panic Station tries to implement a strong theme, and tries to be a very thematic game. However, the theme is faulty, as it has a lot of issues that are not explained easily, or ar plain illogical.
2. Panic Station seems to be a tactical game about survival, mistrust and treachery (not unlike BSG). But, viewed on their own, the mechanics are faulty, because they favour the human side.
3. Panic Station IS a metagaming experience, which utilizes the mechanics to unfold its whole potential, and draws upon thematic elements to make it more atmospheric. However, this is not what it seems to be.

The big problem here is that the game IS NOT what it SEEMS. And that can and will (and has already) lead possible buyers and/or players astray. Even if this issue is tackled in the rules on several occasions - what exactly IS a metagaming experience? And how do you implement it - how do you enjoy it? My guess is that most of the gamers taking on this game without having played it first, will not know what they get themselves into. And will therefore try the thematic or the tactical approach. Which can both be disappointing.

So the first thing you have to ask yourself is: What do YOU want from the game?
...and I am assuming I talk to the buyer, owner or prospective teacher of Panic Station...

If you want a sound thematic traitor game, then all the different holes in logic and background will unnerve you, probably up to the point where the game is not interesting anymore. So this game is not for you. Your thing probably is more a game of The Resistance, or the Werewolves of Miller's Hollow.

If you want a tactical game, competing with the opposite team for the best possible win, with a traitor mechanism, and cooperative aspects, then the mechanical hickups will let you judge this game as broken. So this game is not for you. Your thing probably is more a game of Battle Star Galactica, or Shadows over Camelot.

But if you want to experience the game how it SHOULD work, and try to enjoy the metagaming aspect of reading other players, the bluffing, the paranoid atmosphere and the mind games, and you can deliberately overlook the thematic inconsistencies, then this game is FOR YOU.

...and let me assure you, the mechanics, in combination with the metagame, are not faulty at all, but work perfectly...

For you, I write down these suggestions, and hopefully helpful advice to create the experience that the game is meant to be. Because I have been on the other side, trying to get help, because the game did not work out of the box, and because I did not know what we did wrong, and how we could or should play any different then we did in the first two rounds (see threads mentioned above). And because no-one could or would help me, I had to figure it out on my own. Maybe this will make it a bit easier for you.
However, I have to admit that I have only played one more game as of yet. This one worked beautifully, but I can not really talk "from experience". On the other hand, I am convinced that, now that I experienced how the game should work (and does work), I will be able to recreate the experience again. So take my advice with the grain of salt, but do not be too sceptical...



Now, what to do so that the game does not tank...?
And there comes the first bummer - the game is not for everyone. Yes, it has been said countless times in these forums (and also by me, above). But it is true for this game in a particular way. Because if two things are part of your gaming group, the game will crash and burn:

1. You have one or more analytical gamers in your group that are also the more verbal ones. I characterize this type of gamer as someone who:
- will play first and foremost with the goal of winning, and doing everything within the rules to do just that
- will try to see the mechanics behind the game, and try to understand how they fit into each other, how they work and how they can be utilized
- loves strategy, planning ahead, optimizing, and tactics
- is prone to be the head honcho in any cooperative game, the one "calling the shots"
As such players usually dominate the banter at the gaming table, they will easily and quickly infect other players with their tactical approach and cooperative thinking. The game will descend into a tactical planfest, real atmosphere will not be created, and it will (at least to the losing side) feel very disappointing. Although the victorious side will probably judge that the game works. Unfortunately, here the mechanics favour the humans - or at least that is what I deduced.
If this is true for your troupe, then those players can either be persuaded to not play like this, and overcome it. Or, more likely, they do not. In which case the game will probably never work.

2. Your group has one or more gamers that rely on fully logical thematic background, and any problem with that will keep them (and they in turn others) from enjoying the game. If your group has such players, they can either overcome these problems, and play the game as an atmospheric experience, or they cannot. In the latter case, the atmosphere will be killed by repeated jokes or hints and ridicule of hokey constructs, and the game will not work either.

Unfortunately, if those gamer types cannot be persuaded to play differently, or to "suspend their disbelief" (there, I have said it), there is nothing you can do. Put the game away, and play something else. You will save yourself the trouble, the anger, and the disappointment.



Now, let us assume that you have a group of gamers that at least can be persuaded to overlook the problems. Or that are not that heavily relying on analysis of mechanics in order to win. If you can get them hooked before they dissect the game, and find the faulty parts, then you have a chance. The question is - how to do that...

What you have to do is instill doubt in the minds of the other players, BEFORE the game begins. You will not be able to prevent semi-cooperative planning when it comes to tactics on the game board. But you can create an atmosphere of confusion as to what really is or is not possible in the game, and whom to trust.
Yes, this is a smoke screen. Yes, you will have to play with their minds a bit (before the game). But once they had their share of the atmospheric experience that Panic Station is, it will be easier to recreate it, because every player will know what to do in order to get there. In the first game, this is not the case. They will rely on you, the teacher. So teach them the rules, all of them, and correctly. But do not give them time to analyse them, or to look for the best possible approach to winning.

Here's what you do (and if it is contradictory, do it anyways - because it will create mild confusion):

1. Teach the Rules
Explain the game in detail, but do not give them enough time to do the math in the head, to dissect the game and fully understand all the different levers for tweaking or adjusting the mechanics to their optimum. They have to understand everything in order to play the game correctly. But let them find out how it fits together only when the game is up and running...
However, I found that especially the different aspects of rooms can be taught during the game, which shortens the explanation.

2. Mitigate the Trust Issues
Make sure that everyone understands that they cannot trust anyone in the game. But make also sure that there is the problem (for the Humans) of ensuring one's safety, because
- trading gas cans will enable the Host and other Infected players to collect them, thereby making a human win impossible. Also, there is a limited number of gas cans in the Search Deck, and it is impossible to determine when they will be drawn (try to prevent players from calculating probabilities here).
- not having a gas can or losing a gas can due to a trade means vulnerability. A player is most likely to get infected, if he has no gas can. Yes, trading a gas can will secure this one trade. But in the long run the Humans will have to find other ways of working together. To ensure trust.
- trusting in the superior number of the human collective means accepting casualties (i.e. infection). Because it is quite likely that the Host will be able to infect at least one other player before the game is over. Unfortunately, any infected player WILL NOT WIN if the humans win. Therefore, noone can accept even a loss of one. Because YOU could be the ONE CASUALTY. The egotism of every player should be fired up as much as possible, at this point.
These points have to sink in - both the not trusting and the bad idea of trading gas cans too often. So stress these points very often. They will come back to haunt the players during the game.

3. No Player Can Win Alone
Now, after you convinced them that, on the one hand they cannot trust anyone, and on the other the constant trading of gas cans is a bad idea, you have to make them understand that it is nearly impossible to win if everyone fights for himself. This trust has to be gained in a way that has nothing to do with the game. Because, in between trading with someone, he could have been infected at any moment (i.e. other trade).
Draw a relation to poker here.
It is tantamount that the players understand that, through observation of other players' actions on the board, their body language, and their words as well, they have to create an image of these players. And that, based on these informations, they have to choose whom to trust and whom not to trust. These choices can then be secured by actions in the game, establishing the trust. The two important aspects here are observation, and one's own pokerface.
DO NOT tell them that such trust can be betrayed in the game. They will find that out by themselves.

4. Keeping Secrets
The next logical step is to tell the players that it is better to not give away too much information too early. By playing cards on the table, intentions and plans can be given away too fast, and can tell other players too much about the acting player. You have to make them understand that playing cards too early is a bad idea. Again, relate to poker - the bluffing aspect.

5. Know the Enemy
Now explain the possible strategies of the Host.
Name the gas-can collection option again, without going into details.
Then explain how early infection is not a good idea for the Host, because everyone will distrust everyone else in the beginning. The Host should bide his time, because trust must first be established.
Afterwards, explain how too much waiting will also be disastrous for the Host, as the game is nearly over when all rooms are placed, and this could happen very fast (again, not going into details). The Host should weigh the options, and choose when to strike carefully.
Finally, say that probably no player would suspect an early infection attempt, because of your explanation...

6. Attacking other Players
Explain again that, in order to prevent a trade, attacking another player's character in a room is a viable option. You have to stress that this does NOT NECCESSARILY mean that the attacker knows more about the attacked than he lets on. It is, first and foremost, a self-securing action. If nothing else is said explaining the action as an attack on a player.
Do not forget to mention the AP neccessary to attack, and mention that only the active player has this option...

7. The Kill Zone
Finally, explain that it is a totally acceptable way to win by killing off all the enemies. Or killing all characters that could endanger the winning chance of one side (Troopers for the Infected, Androids for the Humans).

8. Start the Game
It is important that the whole explanation is as much a monologue as possible. Yes, players should be allowed to ask questions concerning understanding rules. Questions concerning the mechanics, and other bits should be met with the explanation that these will become clear during the game.
Although it is a lot of info to be put across, try to get to the start of the game as fast as possible. this way you can circumvent too many questions. Sometimes, an impatient player here is the best ally you can have...


The players should be pretty unsure by now whom to trust, and how all the mechanic bits and bobs fit together. This is okay for the first game. If you taught them correctly, they know enough not to make any mistakes (in trading, during a scan, during infection attempts, etc). They should also trust your judgements about how to play (keeping the cards a bit longer, etc), as you are the owner/teacher.

I found out that the first game will work best if there is a slightly higher chance for the Host, due to the station being a bit more labyrinthine. If you want, you can tweak the Room Card Setup a bit for the first game. Take a one-door dead end card, a two-door room, and a parasite room. Now shuffle them, and put them on top of the Room Deck. This should heighten the stress of tactical decisions, and add problems already at the beginning of the game. It is not neccessary, but at least in our session it helped a lot to create panic and tension early on.

Now, what you have to do (whatever side you are on) is to observe the other players, really scrutinize them. Let them realise that you do. This should make them uneasy, and they probably will suspect that you know more than they do. And will, in turn, lead to them watching the other players and you, as well.
If the other players plan the best tactical approach on the game board, keep back a little. Play it closer to the vest, and try to observe more than plan with them.

At some point one of the other players will start accusing another player. This is good.
But then all depends on the other player. If he does not react appropriately, this could throw the whole first game with a Host or infector being too obvious. Then he only has the chance to kill the humans, or put the Hive somewhere remote, again with killing characters, or infecting those that are obviously weak (i.e. no gas cans).
If this is the case, state that all is not lost, and that a Host can still win by killing. To remind the players.

Because you observed the other players, there will come a time when you will have one or more players you suspect of being infected. Whenever this time comes, and if the accusation game has not started yed, start it by voicing your objections. You could do that by just saying that you do not trust them. And do not let them goad you into any explanation! Just state your mistrust.
DO NOT accuse anyone of being the Host just yet, just that.

And then the mind games should start. If they have not until then, they should go nuts, and become paranoid like nobody's business.




It is very important to note that the first game of Panic Station is somewhat like a test balloon. The players have to get into the right mood. When that happens, the game practically runs itself, and will continue to do so the following sessions.
This is the part of "experiencing the experience, in order to recreate the experience".
And I think, the key to get there is to get your players as insecure as possible about how to trust whom, and what the Host really can do. If they are confused about the mechanics, they will start looking for telltale signs in the mannerisms of other players much earlier. And that is where the fun begins.

After the first game, you should explain that the game is really about the emotional experience, the paranoia and mistrust, and the "playing of other players" - just like in a poker game.

Another thing - the thematic inconsistencies will probably come up during the game. If that is the case, try to silence them as quickly as possible, as discussions about such things can easily tank the suspense, and the atmosphere evaporates. Admit that they exist, but delay discussion until after the game, or even state that a discussion at this point would kill the mood. the players should by then understand what you mean. Just do not get bogged down by such minor trivialities...



Now, I hope that this all helps you to get your first game going, and get it to where it should be. I can say that it is worth the try, and also the effort I have put into finding these answers.
I will try to answer any questions you might additionally have. Just bear in mind that I have only played it three times so far...
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John Watts
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Well put Dumon, hope our pms were useful. I have to agree with most of your very detailed synopsis - particularly the suggestion that if you are only interested in playing the game 'to win' by applying and bending all of the rules to your advantage then it probably will never be a game for you.

The only other suggestion i would have is to emphasise the humorous aspects of playing - paranoia can be fun!
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Oh, Panic Station should be fun! Absolutely!
If not - what is the point of playing the game?

On the other hand, too much humor could kill the suspense. I know that from my "job" as GM in horror RPGs. So keep an eye on the humor. If it gets too ridiculous, the atmosphere probably goes on the fritz!

And don't you dare not having fun with the game!
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Clyde W
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Agree with all here. Best bit of advice I've read about this game.
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One small add-on concerning the tweaking of the room situation.

Since the whole room deck is randomized, it can very well be that "dead end" cards, "parasite room" cards and "two door" cards are already on top of the pile, or some of these would again follow the "tweaked" deck, if you used the approach I described above. Unfortunately, this could not only lead to hightened tension, but make the game seem futile and unfun right at the start.

Something like this happened the last time we played (I totally forgot about that), and after five or six totally problematic rooms (2-door, parasite, dead end), we decided to stop and restart.

There are two ways to tackle this problem - either correct the tweaking, or do as we did and stop the game when it seems unwinnable, and simply do a restart.

Adjusting the "tweak" is not easily done.
I would recommend to not only take a dead end, a two-door and a parasite room, but also take a four-door room (preferably not one with only two open doors), mix those four cards and place them on top of the pile. This way, you can ensure that at least one way out of the reactor room is rather unproblematic (at first).

Edit:
So why should you restart, correct the tweak, or tweak at all?
Because this first session is a test balloon (I mentioned it above), and it is tantamount that the other players have fun. Without their fun, the game will most likely tank, and the atmosphere you want will not emerge. Additionally, and this is (of course) true for any game, if the game is deemed unfun by your group, it will probably never again be put on your gaming table...
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Stuart Roberts

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I think you've hit the nail on the head here. PS is a game which you enjoy due to the emotional experience of being utterly paranoid. Once that is clear it really begins to shine.
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...just briefly...
Thank you all for all the thumbs up. This shows me that the effort I put into this is not in vain. I hope, my advice is sound, and will help you tackle the game, especially the first session.

However, in order to make the tread more visible for others, it is better to thumb it on top (for the whole thread), than for individual posts (even the OP).

Now, I do not want to go fishing for approval - I just think you would do other BGGeeks a favor - if you thumb this, anyways, please thumb the title...
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Just one extra comment. I haven't played the game yet with other people, but I strongly recommend that if you bought the game and are playing it cold, MAKE SURE TO DO A SELF PLAY FIRST. This is generally a good rule for gaming, and it definitely applies here.

I did a self play last night and there are definitely enough little fiddly things that would distract from the game play. There aren't many fiddly things, but enough that it is important to get the mechanics down to help keep the setting for a game that is so heavily dependent on atmosphere.
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Oh yes.
This is kind of second nature to me - I do that with all my new games. Test-Session solo, until I get a grip on the mechanics.

And it definitely pays off if you know the intricacies before explaining it. Otherwise stuff gets left out, or is done wrong.

Besides, just played session four, with the first crowd, and this time it worked - with the new and improved teaching method. Not to blow my own horn, but still...
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Just wanted to say, thanks for the help. I introduced it to my group and it went really well! It lasted for 2 hours, but that's because the accusations (and cooperation) started hot and heavy and we had a very good time.

I ended up the big loser, when I saw the last person that I thought could have been an ally sit back after a trade with a wry smile. At that point all I could do is search and eventually get overwhelmed by everyone else coming into the room and trading with me. (Turns out my buddy had been infected for quite some time). Absolute great time.

One thing that worked very well in explaining away the thematic inconsistency of "Android=Gun/Human=Flamethrower" and "all Item belongs to both characters" was saying, "to avoid being BSG-length there had to be some eurostyle abstractions to the game." Everyone chuckled for a moment and then got on with the business of being paranoid. Not sure if it would work with non-gamers, but with hard core eurogamers, it made perfect sense.

Thanks again!
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David Ausloos
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Great to read that your first experience went smooth Justus.
Look forward in reading your first full-blown session report that reads like a SF-thriller
Actually, from experience, casual and non-gamers have (as an average) less problems with the needed abstraction level than hardcore gamers.
The actualt theme of the game is not "a military corps battling an infestation" but above all "paranoia" and "fear", elements that are harder to define but in most sessions dominate everything.




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aaarg_ink, thanks for sharing how it went.
So it seems that my writing novels in the OP was not in vain, and actually helpful. Or did I misread that...?


Anyway, I am happy for everyone who gets this show on the road. For, even if the game has several thematic inconsistencies, it is soooo worth playing!
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Hahaha, no they were not in vain. This game is so much about the experience it helps to have someone's suggestions on what works for them to set the correct tone.

I think the main points are to 1) tell everyone that the game is ALL about paranoia, 2) teach the mechanics as quickly (yet correctly) as possible, and 3) REMIND EVERYONE THIS GAME IS ALL ABOUT PARANOIA!!!

Once they get that, its off to the races.
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Great article Dumon.

Though it has convinced me in my conclusion that the game has serious flaws if one attempts to play it as a game of traitor genre. If the only way for the game to work is to mess up with metagame (which should sprung up from the rules, not "guidelines for behaviour"), it's basically a roleplaying game, or "acting out the designer's core group". What you did in this thread is give out instructions "how to act", but I don't think that's a game anymore. It's an improv theatre.

My current evaluation is that this game is best as thematic tactical game with traitor as the add-on. (What you listed under "Your thing probably is more a game of Battle Star Galactica, or Shadows over Camelot". They're far too overbloated. Panic Station has less chrome and delivers more in less time for this niche).
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David...

...first of all, I think you misunderstood the post by sgosaric. Yes, he pointed out some flaws of the game, or some things he thinks are problematic. But he also makes it quite clear that he also thinks the game works, and has several qualities. So, in his quite short post, he included both criticism and praise...

..and second - although I understand your post, share its sentiment, and back most of your intentions with it, I highly doubt that this is the right place for it. This thread is thought as a guide on how to teach the game to new players, and (more importantly) how to teach the game if YOU are a new player, and have never had the experience yourself.
With your post, though, you invite the old discussion into this thread, which most likely will derail its content, and especially its intention.

My advice would be:
Use your post to open up a new thread. Or include it in a thread that is concerned with exactly the discussion you are talking about (like the "Really???" thread).


And to all possible future commentators - please don't derail this thread by discussing the problems of the game!

[Edit]
Since I am no fan of deleting my posts, and rendering opinions, or follow-up posts obsolete, I just crossed out the parts not in effect any longer. However, I understand the sentiment which led to my pre-poster deleting his, and this is in no way a criticism to his action...

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