Games: Pandemic

You know what’s an appealing theme for a family game? Pirates. Or trains. Maybe exploring ancient pyramids or traveling through space. Maybe making a ton of money via real estate or stocks.

You know what’s not an appealing theme? Epidemiologists conducting research to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

And yet that is precisely the premise of Pandemic, a new title from Z-Man Games and my #1 pick on the 2008 Good Gift Games Guide.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which means that the players (2-4) work as a team to “beat the system”. The board shows a map of the world, with 48 cities (twelve in each of four colors) connected by a web of roads. Two decks of cards drive the action: the Infection deck and the Player deck. The Infection deck contains 48 cards: one for each city of the board; the Player deck also contains one card per city, plus a number of “Epidemics”. In all cases, a card is of the same color as the city to which it corresponds. The game also comes with a number of wooden cubes in these same four colors, representing the four contagions that the players will be struggling to contain.

Nine cities start the game infected, with 1-3 cubes placed in each; the more cubes a city has, the worse the virulence. No city can ever have more than three cubes of a single color; if, during the game, you are directed to add a cube to a city that already has three, you instead add one cube to every city adjacent to the target. This is called an “outbreak” and is very, very bad; eight outbreaks over the course of the game and you lose.

On a player’s turn, he first takes four actions. Possible actions include moving around the board, treating and curing the diseases, building research stations, and passing cards to (or receiving cards from) his fellow players. A disease is cured when someone plays five cards of the same color (discard five blue cards, for instance, and the blue disease now has a vaccine). Curing a disease doesn’t remove cubes from the board, but makes it easier to do so: when someone chooses the “Treat Disease” action for a cured disease, they remove all the cubes from the city they occupy (instead of just a single cube, as is the case for uncured diseases).

After completing his four actions, a player then draws new cards from the Player deck. Lastly, he flips over a number of cards from the Infection deck, and adds a new cube to each city revealed.

Beating Pandemic would be a cinch were it not for the Epidemic cards. When one is drawn from the Player deck, a new city is instantly given three cubes. Furthermore, Infection cards which have already been revealed are shuffled and placed on top of the Infection deck. Consequentially, the same cities which have recently been hit by the diseases are certain to be drawn again soon.

It’s this final rule that gives Epidemic its flavor. Like a bad cold that just won’t go away, the contagions in Pandemic just keep turning up, even in cities you thought you had thoroughly disinfected. On the up side, though, you also have a pretty good idea about where the diseases are going to strike next. If Chicago got hit before the last Epidemic and you haven’t seen it since, you know that it’s somewhere at the top of the Infection deck, lying in wait; if Chicago has three cubes, you also know you need to get over there, and fast. This is what makes the game more of a coordinated battle rather than just a series of frantic fire drills.

And coordination really is the key to winning. Players must constantly discuss their options and synchronize their actions, to best address the whims of fate. While strategic play is possible (and necessary), much of Pandemic is tactical in nature: you look at the state of the game, you study your hand of cards, you evaluate your position on the board, and you try to optimize your four actions. In this way the game is much like a puzzle, one that multiple people can work on simultaneously.

Adding to the excitement is the geometric rate at which things go pear-shaped as play progresses. At the start of the game, with only nine cities infected, beating the game looks like a cakewalk. And you’ll remain nonplussed even after an outbreak or two. But around the time the third Epidemic card appears, everything goes to hell in a hurry. If a city with three cubes is adjacent to a city that outbreaks, it too will outbreak; if there is a third fully infected city nearby, the chain of outbreaks continue. When three, four, five outbreaks can all come from the turn of a single card, the tension around the table becomes palpable.

What I like best about Pandemic is the narrative that evolves as you play; after the game is over, you can’t help but recount the “storyline”, revealing in the small victories and cursing your ill-fortune. It’s also hard–very hard. That’s a great thing, because one common pitfall of cooperative games is that the replay value tends to evaporate once players have “figured it out”; the difficulty level of Pandemic, combined with the random setup and progression of play, largely obviates this problem. And it’s fairly quick, requiring only half an hour or so (though you’ll be hard pressed not to play two or three bouts in a row).

It’s always fun to watch the faces of new players blanch when you introduce them to Pandemic, so certain are they that no disease could be as deadly as the boredom this game will sure induce. It’s even more fun to watch those same people when they discover that this game rocks, not despite it’s unusual theme but because of it.

Bonus: Here ‘s Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic, speaking about its design. The video is 50 minutes long but he spends the first ten providing an in-depth introduction to the game mechanics, in case you are intrigued but not yet sold. And the whole speech is pretty fascinating if you are a game geek like myself.

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12 comments.

  1. Thanks, I think I just decided what to get my brother in law for christmas!

  2. Matthew,

    intrigued as I am by the profusion of designer games out there, I also a) am cheap, b) don’t really have my shit together, and c) distinctly lack friends that I can corral into a party game, family game, or board game type setting. But I do have a couple friends that I can corral into learning strange games from foreign countries which use a regular pack of playing cards, or variant thereof (eg a 40-card Italian deck). So I was wondering, do you have any foot in that area? I know that there are folks who, in addition to playing all manner of strange foreign games, also enjoy designing new ones, and that some are pretty good. Do you have any favorites in this area, or any expertise?

  3. I love board games, and I’ve always wanted to be able to play them with my wife, but she’s not really into the competitive thing. After reading your Good Gift Games Guide and seeing Pandemic, though, I got excited. A copy of the game is on its way to us for Christmas, and my wife has promised to give it a try. Reading your review here has made me excited again. I’m really looking forward to Christmas.

  4. I don’t get your indifference to the theme — I think it certainly lends itself to better storytelling than, say, trains. “Hot zones” are a great, dramatic idea for a game that lend themselves to a brutal game clock, and if anything I gnash my teeth that someone else got to it before me.

    ZD, Tichu is played with a 52 card deck plus four cards. So if you buy two decks and then compile and deface their jokers, you can get a crude approximation of one of the best four-player games ever.

  5. A much better game named Pandemic 2.

  6. Tumbleweed, I have not played the board game mentioned here, but any game would be better than your link Pandemic-2. It’s got great potential, sure. Interesting set up and game dynamic, but the results are always the same: once a country catches on to you … you have lost at that point. They NEVER re-open their borders, and hence there is no action you can take to win. Yet the game continues for literally an hour or so after that point! Ugh!

  7. Keep an eye out for Matt Leacock’s next game, called Rolling Through the Ages. He packs about 60% of Civilization (the Francis Tresham one, not Sid Meier’s) into a 30 minute dice game. That’s right, Civ Yahtzee. But it’s really good.

  8. Uh, maybe I’m being too serious, but do we really want to sending the message that Pan/Epidemics are random? The hard work of real epidemiology is to determine the underlying patterns. This game would be more fun actually if it were more deterministic.

  9. Joel – I really meant that the online game I linked to is better than the boardgame in that the concept is about 1000% cooler. Or more. I must agree about the playability of the game. I’m hoping they’re going for a Pandemic 3 that will fix the problems. The music is creepy, too.

  10. Thanks for the recommendation Matthew! I got this for Christmas and have been playing it everyday. I second your praise for the “narrative” storyline aspect of the game. One quibble I’ve got with the game is that sometimes the difficulty level is just so random. We lost one game in less than 10 minutes because the Infector deck was stacked with black cities that just set each other off. Other times we can finish without a single outbreak. It just seems to be the luck of the shuffle.

  11. I Love Board Games, as there are immensely popular all over despite the rise of video games. Love to hear about more games for you.

  12. Dear yeti,
    In the sentence
    “the game rocks, not despite it’s unusual theme. but …”
    Please remove the apostrophe.

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