Our ticket off this doomed space station had just walked out the airlock. For some reason the escape pods on this ship require an NDA to activate, most likely because of the sensitive experiments that happen aboard. Some of those sensitive experiments can be heard in the metal containment cell near the bio lab. Meanwhile the head engineer just triggered self destruct meaning that in another 5 minutes everyone on board will be an anit-matter explosion firework for his environmental cause. But the joke is on him because one of the maintenance clones just enacted sweet revenge, knocking the engineer out and dragging his body to the only escape pod that doesn’t require an NDA; the one for medical emergencies.
These are the stories generated by just one game of Stationfall. Ion Game Designs latest Kickstarter project. I had the privilege to playtest the game twice in one evening and couldn’t wait to write about my experience. This is by far Ion’s most approachable game yet. For one, it doesn’t have the deep historical or scientific themes that are the Hallmark of their other games. While these games are also great for generating stories as I’ve written about before, the themes can certainly feel dry to some. But here Ion has a brilliant pitch calling this the party game for serious gamers. What could that possibly mean? After playing it, I have seen the light. Just like a party game, you might not really care who ultimately wins, just that everyone has a good time. But the tools to build stories like the ones above seem nearly limitless. So while it is a game about having a laugh, there is some amazing depth to the mechanics here.
The designer Matt Eklund describes the game as Tactical Intrigue, which… is not a genre that exists, but I can understand the challenge, and why he might have made this label up. Stationfall is a difficult game to categorize. Unlike most Kickstarter projects where it fits into a clean category based on games that came before, this game is a strange animal. The basic setup is this: Players are a character aboard a space station that is going to crash into the atmosphere in 15 minutes. Every minute is one turn in the game, and players are trying to accomplish their characters unique goals before the crash. Some of these are noble, like the Station Chief who wants to go down with the ship and make sure their crewmates escape. Some of these are not so noble, like the engineer who wants to explode the antimatter engine aboard the ship to make an environmental example. Anywhere from one to nine players can join in the chaos and many of the goals are directly counter to each other. There are more than just the player’s characters aboard, however. After all, it takes a whole crew to run a space station. Players also have a secondary objective rescue or doom on of these other characters.
But here’s the rub, no one knows who is what character, and everybody can control ANY given character on their turn. Next to the board all of the characters in a particular game are laid face up and players can place influence cubes on any one of them. Once they have influence over a character they can activate them as long as they have as many or more cubes as everyone else. What ends up happening is that players manipulate many of the different characters in the game to accomplish their goals. After all there’s only fifteen minutes and so much to do!
That secret identity aspect gave me pause, and was one of the reasons I did not initially give the game a closer look. I don’t like the genre of social deduction games where players are either good guys or traitors and a lot of the gameplay involves players arguing and lying to figure out who is on what side. Maybe it’s because people think I am lying no matter what but I often find those kinds of games stressful. But another reason Eklund made up his own genre was seemingly to avoid these comparisons. Stationfall definitely has deduction and you are trying to read the other players actions to determine their real motive. But all of the deduction is in observing their play. There is no detecting lies or community votes or any of the other hallmarks of social deduction. But it DOES have some elements of the genre, like the advantages of obfuscating your real goal, and the joy and power of a well timed reveal. You still have to pay attention to the other players to succeed.
Speaking of a well timed reveal the game rewards players for declaring what character they represent by giving them an additional very powerful ability. This creates a marvelous tug of war. It is often best to be sneaky and not let players realize who you are, but there is always a moment in the game where revealing who you are might give you just enough of an edge to pull off your grand scheme. It also stops other players from using your character and so can protect yourself from someone activating them and putting them in harm’s way. However, once your scheme is out there in the open, you better believe everyone in the game will be actively making sure it doesn’t happen, if they can.
There are many other systems to interact with as well, making a rich sandbox to experiment in. In my other game I was playing the astrochimp, an experimental monkey who was born on the space station who just wants to gather all the shiny things and get the heck out of dodge. I had gotten the secret briefcase and the mysterious artifact, but needed to round out my collection of shiny things with a gun. It was possible to print one of these but you needed officer credentials, which an experimental monkey definitely doesn’t have. However if I hacked the main computer and gave myself those credentials I would be all set. The problem was the room with access to the computer was on fire and outside it there was a cryogenically frozen man who had woken up in a bad mood and with a wrench. This is a party game for serious gamers because you are problem solving your way through complex systems, but laughing all the way there. My monkey never got the gun or got off the ship and I ended the game with zero points. And I had a blast. The computer or digital assistant, by the way, is another character in the game, with possibly devious goals of its own.
And this is just a snapshot from two games. There are twenty seven different characters of which only a subset are in any given game. Depending on what characters are in the game and what characters players control there are countless ways this story could play out, although all of them end poorly for the space station itself. The best way I can describe it is like a chaotic improvisational episode of Deep Space Nine, minus the license and with quite a bit of added goofiness. The genre of tactical intrigue, although it doesn’t exist, makes perfect sense. Given how chaotic it is, most of your moves are tactical, and it’s difficult to plan with the chaos of the other player’s turns, especially considering that unless you have revealed your identity any other player can control the character you are most invested in. But the intrigue part makes sense as well. You are often trying to be clever or oblique with your actions so that other players don’t figure out your true intentions. The game’s inherent complexity is what gives it enough layers to have these actions remain unclear. But this game is still much more approachable than just about any other game this company has put out. It is much easier to pitch someone on a game where they might be a space chimp than one where they are a Renaissance banker. I am excitedly all in on this new design, and now the challenge will be waiting the six plus months to get a physical copy to play in person. If the stories above intrigue you I highly recommend taking a look.