I Can’t Help Stationfalling in Love With You
I have a pet theory that board games are great at enabling humorous moments but terrible at comedy. Humorous moments are singular: a joke, a misstep, a callback. Comedy is sustained. That makes it harder because even a single flub can ruin the whole thing. Ever played a party game that was funny for a few minutes but quickly grew dull? Or something like Munchkin, with the occasional cutesy card but agonizing gameplay? It’s one thing to provide prompts and let players riff. Another entirely to keep the humor coming. There’s a reason funny games are usually short. They exist to enable humorous moments, not real comedy.
Hence my personal metric: It isn’t enough to be funny. A great comedy board game has to be funny even when you’re losing. By that metric, Matt Eklund’s Stationfall is the latest addition to my personal pantheon of games that never fail to make me laugh.
And then, in the same shotgun fashion as Dick Cheney’s brand of coturnix interruptus, there’s that image. One million icons. Two billion lines of text. Three billion questions about the rules. I get it. The first time I played Stationfall, I also despaired the prospect of learning this thing. But there are two things you need to know before you write off Stationfall as too byzantine.
One. It isn’t as bad as it looks.
Two. Specifically, it isn’t as bad as it looks because the core systems have been folded together so naturally that they soon dissolve into the background. Sure, there will be the occasional question. No, you never cross some theoretical event horizon from playing a game to acting out a lucid dream. But for the most part, it’s only a round or three before players shift into thinking about what’s happening in narrative terms rather than picking through strictly mechanical systems.
I have about fifteen examples. Let me give you just one.
Ten minutes. Not in real-time the way Space Alert did it. Call them rounds, if you prefer. Whatever they’re called, ten of those until this station’s orbit degrades and begins scraping the Earth’s atmosphere like palms dragged across a cheese grater.
Most people would very much like to be off the station when that happens. Not me.
I’m a Cyborg, a product of accident and modern science. In the fashion of every monster who ever had a Dr. Frankenstein, I’m a little bit peeved at my creators. That’s half of my goal here. If I have anything to do about it, any officer involved in my creation will die on this station. Hopefully by fire, because something got switched in my gray matter when the probes went in. Now I see a certain lyricism in the flames. Don’t mistake me for a creature without a conscience. The same contamination that cored my innards must perish with us. For the most part, the best way to keep it from leaving orbit is by finding everybody who’s ever meandered through that damnably infectious biolab, conking them over the head with a wrench, and dragging them down to the showers outside of the locker room to decontaminate.
Hey, I never said I had an elegant solution.
Here’s the good news. When the sirens started screaming, everybody made for the lifeboats. Only the things won’t launch unless you sign a corporate NDA stipulating you’ll never squeal about what we’ve been doing up here. Now everybody’s chasing down Legal, our handy attorneybot, to put their name on the appropriate forms. In the confusion, it’s easy to manufacture a chemical bomb and set the forward ring on fire. To lure another toward the conflagration. To murder two of the station’s officers by blackmailing unwitting patsies over the shortwave.
Even easier to overlook the Telepathic Rat. You’d know him if you saw him. Little guy. Furry. Has a vendetta like mine. Too bad he doesn’t have the ganglia necessary to figure out an alliance. After tickling the Microbiologist’s brain into raising his arm and shooting me dead — dead-ish — and having the poor sap pop himself, the showers are getting crowded with bodies. I could reboot at any time. A side benefit of the torture they inflicted on me.
But why bother? I’m surrounded by the bodies of my tormentors. Not a single one of them is contaminated.
Here’s how Stationfall clicks.
Forget about the big picture. Lean in close. Zoom in if you’re stuck using Tabletop Simulator. In your hand there are two cards, a character on each. There are twenty-eight or so in the game, probably upward of a dozen in any given match. For now, though, you only need to consider the two you’ve been dealt.
One of these is going to be your character. Their goals will become your goals. Many want to escape the station. Others don’t. Some want to save others or destroy evidence. Some want to steal something. If you’re an attorneybot, you mostly want to pass out NDAs. Whatever your goal, this sets the tone for the next ninety minutes to two hours. Maybe you’re here to cause a ruckus. Maybe you’re undertaking a heist. Maybe you’re a Corpsicle and you need somebody to thaw you out and help you stagger toward a lifeboat. Maybe you’re an item or a string of data that must be copied and carried.
The other card gets flipped upside-down. This is a secondary goal. Somebody else you need to save or kill. Simple as that. The very fact that you’re holding their card is also a tidbit of information. Because you’re holding it, somebody else isn’t. Unless you happen to be holding one of the Doctor’s two personalities, in which case it’s entirely possible you’ll be wrestling for control over a single body. But that’s an edge case. Most of the time, if you’re holding a card, that tells you that nobody else is in direct control of that character.
Keep that in mind, because here comes the trippy part.
You might be thinking that Stationfall sounds like a social deduction game. That isn’t too far off. Sometimes you’ll deduce which role a fellow player is inhabiting. It’s even possible to muck with their plans. Notice that somebody is dragging a lot of people down to the showers for decontamination? There’s a good chance they’re a Cyborg. March somebody through the biolab and toward the escape pods, and you’ve just created an additional complication for anyone trying to prevent contamination from reaching Earth.
But while social deduction can play a role in Stationfall, it isn’t essential. At least while you’re getting up to speed, your own goals come first. But rather than sprinting your character toward their nearest objective, it’s crucial to note that you can influence any character in the game. Why put yourself in harm’s way when you can get somebody else to do your dirty work?
It works like this. Every character on the station has a card on the table. Everyone has their own pair of abilities to go with their goals, but in the earliest stages proximity and a few basic tricks of legibility are enough to get started. On your turn, you get to activate one character. For maximum efficiency, it’s usually beneficial to activate somebody who hasn’t already been activated that round. The process functions like a miniature bid. You can only activate a character if you have the most influence cubes on it, with friendly ties making it possible for multiple players to have the “most.” So you bid as much influence as you like, place your activation disc, and take a couple actions with that character.
That’s the basic idea. There are particulars to consider, such as characters who fudge the rules a bit or the ability to overbid influence to block other players from activating a character you plan to use more often. Eventually you’ll likely want to reveal your identity, at which point your character can no longer be activated by other players. But the general idea is that you can control any character at any time. Thematically speaking, this is hand-waved as you giving stern orders over the radio, leveraging kompromat, or even resorting to bribery. Those last two concepts are even tangible items that can be picked up and used to influence characters beyond the usual confines of the activation system. Regardless of what’s happening under the hood, the result is madcap. One minute you’re the Stowaway creeping through the vents. The next you’re the Astrochimp smacking the reactor with a wrench. Behind the scenes you’re the Inspector, trying to secure a briefcase and some evidence while preventing anybody from alerting the media.
Remember that old novelty game Mouse Trap, the one with a bunch of moving parts that never seemed to fit together? Stationfall is like that, except every part has a will of its own. At any given moment, everybody is chasing their own goal while chucking wrenches into somebody else’s plan. I’m not even talking about direct confrontation, although that’s possible. Simply by moving a character, maybe even your own character, you could be taking the step that begins an entire sequence of mishaps. A fire burns out of control, preventing access to a room somebody needs to enter, while providing a safe haven for a besuited Daredevil on the verge of diving all the way from the station to Earth’s surface. A tentacled monstrosity is unleashed from Vault X and quickly destroyed, but provides enough of a distraction that somebody removes the antimatter core from the reactor. A goofball throws Fletcher out the airlock, spurring a race to reclaim the poor astropup.
In other words, it’s a comedy of errors. Slapstick, even. I’m indebted to Amabel Holland for teaching me the quote by Henry James, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” More than any game I’ve played, Stationfall revels in that circularity. Comedy games like Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker, or even SEAL Team Flix understand that humor often arises from unexpected turns. What Stationfall grasps is that there’s nothing quite like an occurrence that arises not by chance — not via the flip of an event card or the roll of a die — but because people were chasing their own goals and happened to trip over each other on their way to the exit.
When that happens, it’s hilarious. Once, another player toppled my dominoes entirely by happenstance. Her decision had nothing to do with her goal. She had an extra action, saw something shiny, and decided to pick it up. An oh-so-very human act, but it scuttled multiple turns of prep work on my part. I laughed out loud. Over our voice channel, she asked if I needed her to take back the action. Had she made some mistake?
“No,” I said. “That was perfect.”
If you leave with nothing else, that’s the takeaway. Stationfall isn’t just an accumulation of humorous moments. It’s a full-bodied comedy of errors, complete with its own beats, callbacks, and narrative arcs. Those arcs will be different for everybody, but everything has been designed with an eye toward providing them. In the same example I gave above, one rival was riding out a doomed (and very dark) unrequited romance between Station Chief and Astrochimp. Another was struggling to fulfill a goal that the entire universe seemed fated to prevent. A fourth was striving toward emancipation as a pod of Maintenance Clones. More than gameplay, these were stories. More than stories, these were gameplay, complete with strategies and setbacks and clever last-minute workarounds.
Stationfall is a rare game for many reasons. Surprisingly streamlined, full of comedy, and rewarding of smart play, I hope to explore this station and this cast until I know them in all their intimacies.
This is a preview. What makes a preview different from a review? Very little on my end. Basically, the game isn’t out yet, although you can play it on Tabletop Simulator, same way I played it. When the game is officially released, you can expect a full review.