Free-to-Play Fridays: Space Station 13


There is a sci-fi game with a notorious learning curve, and a history stretching back over ten years. It regularly generates great stories of player conflict and social engineering, and it supports a vast variety of play styles ranging from peaceful industrialist and explorer, to brutal killer.

You could almost be forgiven for thinking that I’m talking about EVE Online.


You should play this game.

At its core, Space Station 13 (SS13) is about a group of spacemen (generally anywhere between ten to fifty players) and their AI overseer trying to survive a shift on the eponymous station. A typical round begins with everyone selecting their preferred job (each coming with different privileges and theoretical responsibilities), and spawning on a more-or-less pristine space station.

With the clock started, players then rush off to achieve their goals. These can range between people just wanting to explore a new facet of the game or do their stated jobs, miscreants contributing to a background level of petty crime, and designated antagonists trying to achieve their specific destructive missions. Sometimes those antagonists are simply traitorous double-agents, and a rogues’ gallery of more aggressive beings exist, including a homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and wizards.

A cyborg having a very, very bad day.

It makes far more sense in the actual game, and each antagonist serves a distinct gameplay niche.

Antagonists are allowed to achieve their goals by any means necessary, which often involve murdering other players, either as a means or an end. Though antagonists start with a choice bag of tricks, they are heavily outnumbered; the crew can overcome most obstacles when coordinating against an overt threat, making subterfuge and psychological warfare often more powerful than brute force.

While there are other games that feature this kind of hidden traitor gameplay (usually inspired by the party game Mafia), the interconnected systems and sheer variety of content make SS13 utterly without peer. Just about any part of the station can be interacted with and turned to your advantage, and almost any goal can be achieved through a variety of approaches.

Say you’re trying to steal an object from the Captain’s Quarters. You could hack your way through at least three sets of doors to get there (and even within that there are multiple methods), acquire an ID card with the right access (through violence, subterfuge, or lying like a rug), or grab a spacesuit and bash your way in through a space-facing window. And those are the simple ways.

SS13 is also a social game. While committing to full-on insanely detailed roleplay is not required, reacting as a spaceman would to the chaos is surprisingly fun. Communicating with your fellow crewmembers is a key part of any round, whether you are seeking assistance (“Oh god help! I’m dying here!”), commerce opportunities (“I’ve got a half-dozen laser guns and they’ve got to go fast. Bring cash.”), or persuading people to do things on your behalf. Besides adding a unique texture to the game, being talkative makes you appear less guilty — always a good thing, regardless of how treacherous or innocent you are.

I Believe You Have My Stapler

I had one particularly memorable round while writing this column. As a miscreant (someone encouraged to commit petty crimes), I was given the objective to “get the station out for my blood.” With the job of Assistant, I had no real power or duties, but I did have access to a tool shed and a closet full of stationary.

After creating an identity-concealing domino mask, donning a green sweater, and arming myself with a staple gun, I was ready to take on the world.

I chose to get everyone else out for my blood by shedding an insignificant amount of theirs. Taking inspiration from Clark Kent, I prowled the hallways for lone, unsuspecting spacemen and ran off to assume my alter-ego in quiet corners when given the chance.

My raids became more and more daring, and I dodged the actual antagonist a few times, even tagging him with the staple gun. After a handful of improbable escapes, I pretended to be a recently returned explorer, and started asking on the radio about this “Stapleman”, and if we were out for his blood. A helpful crewman answered in the affirmative, and I knew I had succeeded.

While fighting with office supplies and a good pair of running shoes isn’t the most dignified way to play, this is just one story. The beautiful thing about SS13 is that its chaotic environment and ever-evolving codebase means a new story every round.

A Robust Diamond in the Rough

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the fact that the game achieves all of this within the broadly-panned “Build Your Own Net Dream” BYOND engine. It’s a testament to the solid work done by the various developers over its twelve-year history that SS13 is invariably the most-played game on the BYOND platform.

It does have a few benefits, however. The volunteer admin staff can play with the game world on the fly, effectively acting as a GM, and putting a new, interesting twist on things.

All of these elements do add up to a tremendous learning curve. Much like EVE, it can be difficult to figure out how to play, and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You will be thrown in the deep end. There is a very real chance of everything having gone (sometimes literally) to hell if you join a round late.

However, also like EVE, there’s been a push for some more newbie-friendly features. Despite their antisocial behaviour, regular players are full of helpful information and are usually happy to teach just about anything.

There are also several forks of the game, each with different content and generally accepted styles of play. Evaluating the different and somewhat esoteric forks in depth is outside of this article’s scope. This column was written with experiences from Goonstation in mind, which has an active population, cohesive design, a pretty solid moderation/development team, and some pretty darn fun features.

Space Station 13 is a true love-it-or-hate-it experience. Its arcane depths and unforgiving gameplay are as much of an attraction as a barrier to getting involved. But, if it turns out to be something you love, it’s a game that you will stick with for years. While a remake was aborted earlier this year, development of the BYOND version shows no sign of slowing down, and there’s always new content on the way.

Whether you have played Space Station 13 in the past, or are trying it for the first time, be sure to share any stories you have in the comments below.

Space Station 13 requires the free BYOND client to play. It is heavily recommended that players read the quick start guide before diving in. The screenshots featured in this article are from a community forum thread.

This article originally appeared on, written by Ryan Vincent.

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