Game Design Friday: Petrol Panic (Final Version)


Petrol Panic (Final Version)

the complete gas-guzzling board game
Game Design © 2008 by Scott Jon Siegel
[email protected] |

In the not-too-distant future, the price of gas has skyrocketed astronomically, but far be it for hard-working citizens to let this get in the way of their vacations. Each holiday, families take to the freeways in their sport utility vehicles to beat everyone else to the prime vacation hot-spots (hopefully with enough cash left to have a holiday at all).

Gas stations litter the traffic-congested highways, ready at a moment’s notice to fill up travelers’ tanks at exorbitant costs. Prices fluctuate wildly, rising and falling as traffic ebbs and flows. Luckily, oil shortages are bad enough that the gas companies are desperate too, offering to buy back unwanted petrol from travelers looking for a few extra bucks to pay off the next toll-booth.

It’s all in a day’s work for holiday-bound families: buy gas, sell gas, and still have enough cash left after tolls to have the best vacation ever.


Two to four.


  • 1x six-sided die.
  • 1x pawn for each player.
  • Approximately 50-75x chips or tokens to act as “gas tokens”
  • Play money (borrowed from the first capitalistic board game you can think of).
  • The game board (or a facsimile).


Players crawl along in bumper-to-bumper traffic to reach the vacation hot-spot. Once all players have reached the parking lot, the player with the most cash for holiday expenses wins.

Setting Up:

Players place their pawns on the start space to begin. At the start of the game, all players have 5 gas tokens (each token represents 1 gallon of gas), and 60 dollars. The player with the closest birthday goes first, and play will move in a clockwise fashion. To eliminate the advantage of turn order, give the second player one additional gallon of gas, the third two gallons, and the fourth three gallons.

How to Play:

During each turn, a player rolls the die. The number rolled represents the amount of traffic during the player’s turn, and how far that player can move that turn. Lower numbers mean more traffic, higher numbers mean less.

After rolling, a player must make one of three choices:

  • Move forward the number of spaces they rolled, using gas.
  • Buy gas at the current price.
  • Sell gas at the current “buyback” price.

As the roll determines the amount of gas used, purchase, and buyback prices each turn, player should consult the traffic chart for the appropriate values. A player can only choose one of these three options each turn. Therefore, if a player chooses to collect buy or sell gas, that player can not move that turn.


Moving: Players use gallons of gasoline to move during their turns (see chart). Note that if a player rolls a 1, that player can move one space for no gasoline (traffic is so heavy that it’s easier to just get out and push). Moving 2 or 3 spaces requires one gallon of gasoline, while moving 4, 5, or 6 spaces requires two gallons.

Buying gas: Each turn, players also have the option of pulling over to a gas station and purchasing petrol by the gallon. The price of gas is dependent on the number rolled that turn (see chart). Players can purchase as much or as little gas they want.

Selling gas: A player can also choose to sell gas during his/her turn to earn money. Like purchasing gas, the “buyback” price for gas each turn is dependent on the number rolled (see pricing chart). Players can also sell as much or as little of their gas as they want.


There are three toll-booths along the highway, which players must pay in order to continue.

If a player reaches a toll space on his turn, that player must stop on the space, and can not proceed until the price has been paid. If the player pays the toll on the turn he lands on it, that player can roll again. Otherwise, the player must decide whether or not to pay the toll each subsequent turn before rolling.

The price of each toll is indicated on the toll space. Players should be careful to always have the money required when arriving at a toll. If a player does not have enough money, they can choose to sell off their remaining gas by rolling the die and determining buyback price. If a player still can not afford the toll, that player is eliminated from the game.


End of Game:

Once the first player has reached the parking lot, the remaining players will have five turns to finish the game. Any players who can not reach the parking lot within five turns are eliminated.

When each player crosses the finish line into the parking lot, that player sells back his/her remaining gas to the final gas station. The buyback price of gas at the final gas station changes depending on what “place” each player finishes (see final buyback chart).

Once all players have sold back their remaining gas, they then calculate their total savings. The player with the most money is the winner, and has the best vacation ever.

Next Page: Designing Petrol Panic

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Designing Petrol Panic

I first conceived of Petrol Panic after completing work on Fictionless. Working off the basic mechanics in Fictionless, I wondered how to add a storyline to make the gameplay experience more enjoyable. An initial suggestion led me to the game’s current plot: vacation-goers racing (or crawling) down the highway, constantly needing to buy and sell gas.

Working with the fiction, the gameplay mechanics actually changed immensely. Gone was the idea of “selling” rolls, instead replaced by the roll representing traffic congestion, and signifying both the number of spaces to move, the current price of gas, and the price at which gas can be sold back to the stations.

Of course, each of these numerical values required tweaking and balancing throughout the game design process, and here is where I encountered my first major design road block. Attacking the balancing by brute force iterative playtesting was near to impossible: the sheer number of permutations for these values meant that some other means of deduction had to be applied. Luckily for me, my friend the economist was visiting.

Number crunching has never been my strong suit, but apparently former economy majors were born (or, at least, taught) to number-crunch. Over several long lunches by the Mediterranean, we discussed the desired player behavior, and how we could enforce it through the numbers.

One of the most important strategies to downplay was “arbitrage,” an economic strategy where players inflate their money exponentially by always buying and selling at certain times. To avoid this strategy – which easily breaks the game – we tweaked the values to be closer together, and opted to keep the toll booth mechanic from Fictionless, which forces players to more carefully balance their cash and gas reserves.

Though this is the form the game finally took, another entirely different mechanic was considered. Owing somewhat to Friedeman Friese’s Power Grid, there was the possibility of making the game’s gasoline reserves a limited resource, where each purchase and sale of petrol would affect the market price. This idea comes from Power Grid’s Resource Market mechanic, although Petrol Panic’s resources would be set at the start of the game, and would not refresh each round. Ultimately, the decision was made to stick with the current roll-as-traffic design, for fear of being too derivative (as well as starting over from scratch with design and balancing).

In its current incarnation, Petrol Panic is a slow-paced game with numerous pitfalls. A careless player can easily run low on both gasoline and cash, prematurely ending the game (or at least their role in it). And despite the caution and attention required by players, Petrol Panic still relies heavily on randomness.

Perhaps I’m being too negative, however. There is something fun in Petrol Panic’s unpredictable gameplay. And as a first endeavor into full-on board game design, I’m decidedly pleased with the outcome. Perhaps for next month, however, I’ll try for something less daunting.

Click here to download the game board for Petrol Panic.

Game Design © 2008 by Scott Jon Siegel
[email protected] |

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