50 years ago, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise took us on voyages to strange new worlds. This summer the latest variation in the Panic line, Star Trek Panic, will beam down to your game table to continue the adventure. Read the entire behind-the-scenes story of how the game was created, straight from the designer, Justin De Witt.
Growing up, I was a huge Star Trek fan. I had a model of the original Enterprise and the Galileo shuttle hanging from the ceiling in my room. As a kid, I remember dragging the big chair to the middle of the living room, right in front of the TV, so I could watch the original series (in syndication by then) from my own “Captain’s chair.” I have an (almost) complete set of Micro Machine spaceships from every series, and a well-worn Technical Manual from The Next Generation. I was a Trekkie before they were called “Trekkers,” so it’s both amazing and a little surreal that I’ve been given this chance to work on a piece of Star Trek history.
The project has its roots at GenCon 2014 when Anne-Marie met with Maggie Matthews, the Vice President of Licensing at USAopoly. In addition to their original games like Telestrations, USAopoly is famous for creating licensed versions of everything from Monopoly and Risk to Yahtzee. The year before, USAopoly had licensed Munchkin from Steve Jackson Games and combined it with the Adventure Time license from Cartoon Network. Maggie and Anne-Marie talked about what it was like working with Steve Jackson Games (great!) and compared stories about the process of licensing the games. Munchkin Adventure Time had been a great success. They were looking to combine even more hobby games with some of the licenses they had, and we agreed it might be interesting to work together in the future.
Later that year at BGGCon, Anne-Marie and I were being interviewed about Munchkin Panic in a quiet room away from the crowds. It was a common space set aside just for exhibitors, and at that time there were just a few other publishers in there. After we wrapped things up, we struck up a conversation with Andrew Wolf, the Project Manager for New Business at USAopoly, who had overheard the interview. As we talked with Andrew over dinner, he asked if we would be open to a similar arrangement for Castle Panic with one of their licenses. We agreed we might be, but whatever the license was, it would have to make sense for the game. While I knew we could be flexible with a lot of the mechanics, the Panic line’s core gameplay is about surviving a siege and fighting off attackers. I would want to make sure that whatever we paired it with was a good fit for both the gameplay and whatever theme the license brought. Andrew agreed, and we decided that he would take this info back to their office and see what they could work out.
Not too long after GenCon, we heard from Maggie that their team was excited to work on a Castle Panic variation, and they already had some ideas of licenses that would make good pairings. One of the first questions we were asked was if we would be okay using photos instead of illustrations in the new game? We were, but that really sent our minds buzzing. What could it be? What license would only use photos? We had a lot of fun playing the “what if?” game in our office, and it went to some crazy places. A few weeks later, Anne-Marie met with Maggie and Luke Byers, head of Creative Development for USAopoly, at New York Toy Fair, and they asked, “How does Star Trek Panic sound to you?” It sounded unbelievable, but somehow Anne-Marie was able to contain any squeeing and assured them we were interested. What really sealed the deal was when we learned that because 2016 was going to be the 50th anniversary of the original series, CBS wanted this game to be set in that timeline. That meant we were going to get the chance to retell the stories of Kirk, Spock, and the whole crew in a new medium.
One key detail was that even though USAopoly would manufacture and publish the game, we weren’t going to be content to have this be just a reskin of Castle Panic. To that end, it was determined that I would do the initial concept and design, pushing the envelope of what we’ve done with Panic games in the past while playing on the strengths of what we could do with this license. Andrew and I would take that initial design and refine it before he finalized the design work to create the finished game. It couldn’t have been a better arrangement.
Star Trek Panic—Where No Panic Has Gone Before
As Anne-Marie started negotiating the details of the contract, I started brainstorming ideas for what the game could be. The first step? Get reacquainted with an old friend. Part of my job for the next few weeks was to watch every episode of the original series. (I know. It’s a hard life.) I camped out on the couch taking copious notes as I binged on the entire series start to finish and running with every wild idea they inspired. It was a hoot to go back and see all the classic adventures again. I have to say that overall, it’s still an amazing achievement. The good episodes are really good, and the themes and messages of that 50-year-old show are still very relevant today.
As I made my notes, I had lots of inspiration on how I would convert the Panic mechanics to fit the world of Star Trek. I really wanted to capture as much of the Star Trek feel as I could, so I thought about different core game ideas. Maybe the center of the board would be a planet the players were protecting and the Enterprise could be a token that was moved around the board, similar to the Cavalier in The Dark Titan? Maybe there could be a space station in the center that warded off attacks, like Deep Space Nine? Cool, but that’s the wrong version of Star Trek . . . No, it really made sense to make the center the one thing Kirk and the crew always wanted to protect the most, their home, the Enterprise.
Converting walls to shields made sense, and treating hull sections of the Enterprise as towers followed naturally, but I wasn’t sure how we would show damage to the ship. We couldn’t just take chunks off without it being weird. What would happen if the only piece left was an engine pylon? That just wouldn’t make sense. I liked the idea of possibly showing a damaged ship underneath and covering it up with shiny, new ship pieces. That way when you removed a ship section, you would leave the banged up, burned out section in its place. I wasn’t sure if that would be done with just artwork on the board, but it would be really cool if we could make some kind of 3D model of the Enterprise! The downside was that it might make it a little difficult to handle having to load up the model with “good” pieces as part of setup. As part of my playtesting, I ended up building a prototype that showed a complete Enterprise and creating tokens that were placed on top of the sections, covering them up to indicate when a section was destroyed.
When it came to damage, I also wanted to expand the Brick and Mortar idea from Castle Panic and turn it into a system that would actually let players repair the Enterprise. This was kind of a big deal since that’s essentially the same thing as letting players rebuild towers in Castle Panic. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would work and I knew it was going to need balancing, but considering how many times Scotty saved the day at the last minute with a quick bit of repair work, I knew it needed to be in the game.
I was starting to create a pretty big list of ideas I could put into this game, and I knew that not everything was going to make the final cut. However, there were some concepts that I felt were pretty much a sure thing. The enemies would be Klingon, Romulan, and Tholian spaceships. These enemies wouldn’t just approach the Enterprise harmlessly like they do in Castle Panic, I wanted them to shoot, doing damage as they got closer. After all, what’s space combat without some pew-pew? I wanted some ships to be able to cloak, making them temporarily invisible. I wanted to include the idea of boarding parties. (There were always troublemakers getting on board the ship!) I knew I wanted to have the crew be actual characters in the game. Players would get to pick who they wanted to be, and each character would bring their own skills to the game that related to their area of expertise on the show. That’s an idea I’ve been waiting to introduce to Castle Panic for a while now, and I knew it would work great here.
One of the biggest additions I knew had to be in the game was events that were based on episodes of the show. I wanted the players to be terrorized by NOMAD, face off against the Doomsday Machine, and deal with everything from transporter accidents to rapid aging diseases. The original idea for implementing this was split between Mission cards that would be the victory conditions for the game, and Event cards that players would draw at different times and would present challenges that the players would have to overcome together. (These eventually were combined into the Mission cards that you see in the final game.) These events would have to be dealt with in addition to surviving the waves of enemies that the game would throw at the players, so while they needed to be somewhat challenging, they would have to be balanced out so the game didn’t feel overwhelming. A lot of the episodes dealt with the crew having some kind of countdown they were working against, and I wanted to reflect that with a timer that provided a time crunch to some of the missions.
Experimenting with missions led to another new mechanic I wanted to introduce called “Command Points.” Some of the most powerful cards in the game would feature the same Division icons the characters wore on their shirts. Cards with these Command Points would act as a currency the players would need to pay in order to complete some of the missions. The cost would be higher than any 1 player could pay on their own, so the team would really have to work together toward the common goal. The catch was that a player could either use the card for its powerful ability or spend it toward completing the mission, but not both!
As I spent a few months turning rough ideas into playable concepts, there were a few ideas that ended up being dropped from the game. I had really wanted to include planets and away teams, where players would beam down for a separate mini-game that would have generated resources. Scotty always seemed to be dealing with equipment that broke down right when the crew needed it, and I had created a system that would gum up players’ hands with Malfunction cards that had to be repaired to simulate that engineering challenge. I’d even experimented with the idea of the characters being injured and losing abilities until they could be healed in the Sick Bay. As fun as these ideas were, the added complexity didn’t fit with the simpler goal for this game so they had to be cut. We’ve talked about including them as expansions so who knows, they may return!
Ahead Warp Factor One
Before long we arranged to fly out to California and meet with USAopoly for our kickoff meeting. I spent the days before the meeting turning my pages of notes into a readable design document before we packed up and headed out. Meeting the crew from USAopoly was great. They even had a fantastic Star Trek Panic welcome banner on display right when we walked in the door! We met with Maggie, Andrew, Luke, and the rest of the staff, got a tour of their very cool office, and then got down to some very intense days of work. The first day we covered everything from contracts and production schedules to going over all the various Panic games with a fine-tooth comb. We dove into my design document which, while it was stuffed with a ton of ideas, was still very much a work in progress.
Andrew and I broke out into our own design meeting along with Rick Hutchinson, the Senior Creative Designer at USAopoly, and we started really tearing into the game. Ideas flew fast and furious as concepts were refined, edited, and refined again. It was an amazing day and a half, and some of the most fun I’ve had while still getting paid.
One of the coolest things we figured out was how to make the transition away from the castle and walls setup to a 3-dimensional Enterprise model! Inspired by an idea from another game USAopoly was working on, it involved die cut chipboard pieces that are put together via tabs and slots to build the classic hull, saucer section, and nacelles of the famous ship. This would allow damage tokens to hang off of the ship the way the fire tokens work in The Wizard’s Tower. Now instead of just being a static pile of towers and walls in the middle of the board, the Enterprise would be built on a base that the shields were attached to and the whole thing could now be rotated as one piece to its facing.
Having the model of the Enterprise on its own movable base let us run wild with the idea of maneuvering the ship. We modified the ring and arc arrangement to be more like Dead Panic, using 3 rings instead of 4 (removing what would have been the Forest ring). The next big change was that we removed the use of colors. The Enterprise is aligned on the board so that its front faces 2 arcs, each side aligns with 1 arc, and its rear faces 2 arcs. We changed the Archer, Knight, and Swordsman cards to Phasers of Long, Medium, and Short range, limited each one to 1 particular facing of Front, Side, or Rear. Now, instead of playing cards to hit enemies anywhere you wanted to, the hit cards became directional, based on the facing of the Enterprise. The Phaser cards are not color-specific as Hit cards are in Castle Panic, and only let you hit a target that matches both the range and facing. Finally, we gave the players the ability to rotate the Enterprise one arc clockwise or counter-clockwise during their turn, while they were playing cards. This meant the players might be able to attack a target they would otherwise be unable to hit after they rotated the ship to change its facing. We were actually restricting the use of the cards, but giving the players even more tactical flexibility by maneuvering the ship.
We applied this idea of maneuvering to tokens outside the ship for the concept of moving “forward.” Obviously, the Enterprise couldn’t actually move on the board, so instead when players maneuver forward it brings all tokens in the 2 front arcs one ring closer to the ship. Tokens to the side and rear were unaffected. While it may not have been completely accurate from a physics point of view, it worked really well and allowed us to include maneuvering as a fun requirement for some of the missions.
When the dust settled we had a pretty good idea of what the game would be and how it might play. We said our goodbyes, and I took this new version of the game home to make some adjustments and start playtesting to see what worked and what didn’t. Within a few days, Rick had created a mockup of the 3D Enterprise that was nothing short of amazing, and they shipped me a version of it to include in my playtesting. I can’t say I didn’t run around the house with it making spaceship noises, but you try not playing with this thing!
The mission cards now became the focus of the game and how players would win or lose. I knew we weren’t going to keep the same end game condition as Castle Panic, where finishing off the last enemy ends the game. Instead it was going to focus on the famous “5-year mission” of the original show. I had played with idea of having the game last for 5 “years” with each year being a certain amount of turns, but that didn’t feel right. I experimented with a point tracker and even making the missions worth different amount of points. In the end though, simpler was better and we decided to have the goal be to complete 5 missions before the Enterprise was destroyed. At first, mission cards were drawn when certain tokens were encountered, but because of how unpredictable the token draw can be, it was cleaner to have mission cards drawn as part of a turn, so that players were always facing a mission and never waiting for one.
As I continued testing and having phone meetings with Andrew, the core ideas became more refined. Enemy ships fire after moving, damaging the Enterprise from a distance, adding damage tokens to shields and hull pieces before eventually destroying them. The ability to repair the ship evolved into a 3-way system involving Tritanium and Dilithium cards. Playing a Tritanium card on its own removed a damage token from the hull, where as playing a lone Dilithium card would remove a damage token from a shield. Play them both together however, and a player could rebuild a shield or hull section that had been destroyed. While this was a powerful (and incredibly satisfying) ability for the players, they would need it as the Enterprise is constantly taking damage from alien attackers.
Enemy ships that reached the Enterprise would become Boarders and cause the players to eject cards from the game permanently. The Security Teams found their use in fighting off these intruders. When an enemy ship becomes a Boarder, any player can play Security Team cards from their hand to reduce the amount of cards lost to Boarders. These Security Team cards are discarded in an homage to the famous red-shirted crewmen from the original show. It’s a fun way to work together, but it involves balancing the cards in your hand with the immediate and long-term threats on the board.
The Final Frontier
Within a few months I had a version of the game that was playable and felt very thematic. There were still a lot of details that needed to be worked on and a great deal of balancing, but at this point, I was ready to hand the game off to USAopoly. As progress continued, Andrew and I had multiple meetings where we would compare notes, discuss trouble spots, and work on solutions. The biggest challenges were in balancing the missions so that they were tough, but not too tough, and then refining the various methods used to complete these missions. We ended up including a timed element with every mission and even removing a few missions entirely from the game when they were too complex or unclear.
The Command Point mechanic was renamed Division Credits and we adjusted the distribution of these credits throughout the deck to better fit the desired tension. Character abilities went through several evolutions as we fine-tuned their effects on gameplay and ensured they reflect the character they belong to. Sulu, for example, can maneuver the Enterprise twice on his turn, whereas the other characters may only make one maneuver.
The cloaking ability of enemy ships took a lot of tweaking as well. It went through many incarnations, eventually settling on a system by which cloaked ship tokens will alternate their movement phases between cloaking (flipping over to be upside down, revealing just a starfield) and attacking. Players can’t attack a ship when it’s cloaked, but they can see where it is. The catch is that when a ship uncloaks, it’s movement is determined by a die roll and it immediately attacks. This means the players will only have a general idea of where a cloaked ship will appear and attack them from. It adds a great sense of tension and uncertainty, just like in the famous “Balance of Terror” episode.
Andrew and the USAopoly team continued to playtest and refine the game. We had many fun phone conversations about tension and theme, modifying smaller and smaller elements as the game settled into its final incarnation. After a few months, I had switched from design work to reviewing artwork and components. Using stills from the show wherever they could, USAopoly crafted a really great-looking game that is drenched in the look and feel of the original Star Trek.
In the end, I’m incredibly happy with the game we’ve created. As a fan of Star Trek, it’s important to me that this game stand on its own and remain true to what made the show such a classic. I think we created something enjoyable by fans of both licenses. If you’re a fan of Castle Panic, you’ll find an entirely new way to challenge yourself that will still have familiar elements. If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll reconnect with the original crew in an exciting, engaging way that you’ve never done before. Good luck to you all as you explore the Final Frontier. Live long and prosper!
-Justin De Witt