Europe is in the grip of Brexit. North America has a serious case of The Trumps. The Middle-East is overrun with Isis. And South America? South America has it worst. South America’s been consumed by…Bieber Fever?? Welcome to our review of Pandemic.
Perhaps you’re not as silly as we are, so maybe you’ll give Pandemic’s four coloured diseases the serious names that the game’s sense of inevitable doom demands. Or maybe you are as silly; maybe you’ll name a disease after that roommate you don’t like, or after less celebrated members of your extended family. Regardless, you’ll quickly learn to hate Pandemic’s little cubes. Sure they look cute when you first see them. They’re transparent! Just look at them:
But soon they’ll spring up in as far flung places as Tokyo and Sidney and Atlanta and Lagos. They’ll breed like aggressive, rabid rabbits, spreading unchecked across the globe. Very soon what was once a pristine, peaceful map starts to look a bit like this:
It’s at this point you start to think of people and things you don’t like and can’t get rid of. Soon you’ll be naming fictional diseases after weird uncle Tony. You’ll imagine that the people of Manila have started turning up at family events they’re not invited to and making inappropriate jokes about minorities. And yet it’s now your job to rid Manila and the world of Uncle Tony Syndrome. The world’s depending on you. Good luck.
The good news is that you’re amply equipped to battle diseases. You and your friends play scientists and medics and quarantine specialists, operations experts and dispatchers. You won’t know who exactly until you start playing: you don’t get to choose, you’re dealt a role. And because each role has a unique ability, the make-up of your team will affect the way you play. But no matter your role, the objective is the same; you and your friends must work together to find a cure for all of Pandemic’s four diseases.
Saving the world turns out to be relatively easy, conceptually, but very difficult in practice. Let me explain how it works. At the beginning of the game you’ll have a board which looks like this:
Everybody has been dealt a character card, and taken that card’s corresponding pawn. Everybody’s pawn is put in Atlanta, along with a research station denoting the CDC. Each player is dealt a number of cards from the player deck depending on the number of players in the game. These cards will later help you win the game or screw you over in ways you can’t yet imagine.
You’ll notice the game starts with cubes already on the board: before Pandemic has even begun the world looks dangerously overrun. As part of the game’s set-up you turn over nine infection cards. The first three cities shown on these cards get three cubes of their corresponding colour, the next three get two cubes and the final three get one. Already the board looks a little congested, like a nose suffering from a really bad cold:
So what can you do about it? In turn, each player can carry out four actions. Travelling along a route from one city to another is an action. Chartering flights to and from cities is another. You can use an action to treat diseases, removing a cube from the city you’re in. You can cure a disease if you trade in five cards of the same colour at a research station, and if you don’t have a research station you can trade in a card to build one. You can trade cards with another player, but only if you both happen to be in the right city. There are more things you can do, and if it sounds like a lot, it is: in only one or two turns you’re going to realise that four actions is nowhere near the number you need to get anything done. Four, it turns out, is just the right number to force you into difficult compromises. You might, for example, have the five cards you need to cure Brexit, but to get to a research station you have to trade in one of those cards. And if you trade in a card you’ll no longer have the cards you need to cure Brexit. You will instead have a headache; you and your friends will work through all the permutations, through every combination of actions, only to find that what you need to do is impossible. It’s as if the game’s asking: what do you prioritise? What can you afford not to do?
And then it gets worse. Once you’ve taken four actions, the game gets its chance to undo everything you just did. You turn over a number of infection deck cards equal to the current infection rate. The cities depicted on these cards get a cube. You can probably see where this is all heading: towards one giant, frustrating game of Whack-a-Mole. You knock down a disease in Delhi and another pops up in Mexico City. You spend your energy helping Asia; suddenly North America is overrun. Pandemic is board gaming’s equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion: for every removed cube, there is an opposite and equal cube.
On that note, let’s talk a bit more about losing. Pandemic has one victory condition but more than one way to lose. They’re all harsh. If the player deck runs out of cards you lose. If you run out of any colour of cube you lose. If you suffer eight outbreaks you lose (more on outbreaks in a bit). If your cat kidnaps the quarantine specialist and kills the medic you lose. Admittedly, this last one is unlikely, but I’ve seen it happen.
But surely, you’re thinking, Pandemic is just a matter of keeping diseases under control as they appear and collecting same-coloured cards every turn? Besides, there’s only one infection card for each city. Cairo’s been drawn, so surely Cairo’s not getting any worse? Paris and Ho Chi Minh City are in the discard pile. What’s the big problem? The big problem is Pandemic’s epidemic cards. Pandemic’s epidemic cards are the things which turn Pandemic from a slightly stressful Whack-a-Mole experience into full-scale panic. How they work is like this:
During set-up, and depending on the difficulty you want to play, you will have shuffled four to six epidemic cards into the player deck at roughly equal distances. These cards are now among the cards each player will draw at the end of every turn. You know the epidemic cards are there. You know roughly when they’re going to appear. There’s nothing you can do about it.
When you draw an epidemic card, some very cool and very horrible things happen. First, the infection deck’s bottom card is drawn and the city on that card immediately gets three cubes. Then the infection cards that have already been drawn are shuffled and put back on top of the Infection deck. Think about this: you’re going to be drawing the cards you’ve already drawn. The same cities that so far have been infected with diseases are now going to be infected all over again. Not for nothing is the third step of an epidemic card called INTENSIFY.
But even this wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for Pandemic’s outbreaks. An outbreak happens when you have to put a cube on a city that already has three cubes. Instead of putting the cube on that city you put a cube on every adjacent city. And if one of those cities also has three cubes, you trigger a second outbreak that spreads out again from this second city. With bad luck (or bad planning) it’s possible to trigger three or four outbreaks in one turn. That’s halfway to losing. In other words, you’ve got your work cut out.
Pandemic is the first co-operative board game most people play. It’s often the game that shows new gamers how innovative and clever and interesting and thematic modern board games can be, how board games can be all of these things without being complicated to teach or learn (Pandemic’s rule book fits on a four page booklet). And Pandemic is, for many people, one of the first games that removes the affliction of many classic boardgames: downtime between player turns. Pandemic keeps its players invested at all times; everybody gets a say in every other player’s turn. You talk to each other. You come up with a strategy together. You inevitably watch that strategy come apart and you re-adjust together. But crucially, you’re never bored. You’re never waiting for the game to come back round so you can play again.
With this in mind, it’s worth noting that Pandemic has a couple of small problems. Like all co-operative games, dominant personalities have a tendency to take control, to start telling other people exactly what to do like some power-mad, disease-hunting despot. This is miserable for everybody who is not the dominant personality. Likewise, if you introduce Pandemic to a new group, you’re have to be willing to let your new players make mistakes. Pandemic is a puzzle; you can work out optimum ways of playing. Once you know this, the temptation to tell other people what to do is going to be intolerable. Thankfully, Pandemic has several expansions with which you can keep the game fresh. There’s a variation which introduce a bio-terrorist; now you can let your dominant personality or experienced Pandemic player face off against the rest of the group. Other expansions introduce diseases which are even nastier than Brexit or The Trumps, and which require you to change the way you play and think about Pandemic. So really, despite those two minor quibbles, you have no excuse but to just get out there and save the world.
Number of players: 2-4
Playing time: 45 minutes
Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Z-man Games
Appropriate soundtrack: It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by REM