Reviews

Pandemic – Board Game Review

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Designed by: Matt Leacock
Published by: Z-Man Games
players: 2-4 (Solo play possible)
Price: £25
Play Time: 30-45 minutes

In Pandemic you and up to three friends band together to battle, contain and cure four diseases raging across the planet, infecting and killing millions of human beings in a variety of gruesome ways. This is an intense, exciting co-operative board game where every move counts and communication is key, because Pandemic doesn’t pull its punches, constantly dragging you kicking and screaming toward your inevitable defeat. There’s four different ways to lose, you see, and just one way to win.

Let’s begin with the most obvious of topics, the game’s various components, which are universally great coming packaged within a relatively small but weighty little box. Everything fits snugly back into the container once you’ve gotten it all out and played your first game. The board itself is thick, sturdy and features brilliant artwork which depicts the entire globe with numerous cities that can and will be infected as the game progresses. The use of cool blue hues gives the board a modern, slightly clinical feeling which suits the overall theme pretty well. The viruses themselves  which will be raging across the planet are represented by small, slightly opaque colored cubes that can be easily stacked for when dealing with multiple infections within a single city. The player’s pawns and other game markers are made of wood, all simple in design but still quite nice to look at and use. Finally the many cards included in the box are wonderful, sporting a slight texturing that makes them feel very nice in your hand, while the artwork fits in neatly with the rest of the game.

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To set the game up first you must you must get each player to randomly take one of the available seven Role cards, each of which sports a different character with special abilities that must be utilised in order to succeed. For example the Scientist can discover cures with one card less than the other players, while a Dispatcher can quickly move his/her comrades around the board and the Medic can treat entire cities with ease, like the Jesus Christ of board games. Understanding the different roles and how best to use them, especially in combination, is incredibly important.

Of course should you desire it you can allow players to choose their preferred role, but I found that the game is at its most enjoyable when roles are taken randomly, otherwise it’s easy to fall into a pattern, selecting only those cards which provide the best bonuses. And indeed a couple of the roles available are a touch unbalanced – like the Medic – clearly boasting an ability that makes them more useful than others, but no character is weak enough to destroy your chances of winning or make you feel like you’re unable to pull your weight.

During a player’s turn they may perform a total of  four actions from the list of seven available, ranging from simply moving from one city to the next, treating a disease by removing a single cube at a time, building a Research Station which can act as a fast travel system to chartering flights to get around the entire world in just one move. While four actions may sound like a lot once you begin playing you’ll never feel like it’s ever enough as diseases spread faster than you can keep up and calamity after calamity occurs. Sure you helped stave off an outbreak in Montreal, but over in Shanghai things are looking bad and you can’t help but think if you’d have just used your actions a little better you could have helped your team more. Thus communication is key as each player must use their turns wisely, planning out their actions with the rest of their team in order to be most effective as a unit, because just a few unwise turns can lead to disaster.

Syringe, paracetamol, bandages, plasters and tea. We like to really get into the theme of the games we play.

Syringe, paracetamol, bandages, plasters and tea. We like to really get into the theme of the games we play.

Once you’ve performed your four actions you draw two cards from the Player Deck, which is where things begin to get interesting. In general Player Cards are good things, helping you in a variety of ways and generally just making your task of fending off deadly diseases that much easier. Each Player Card depicts a city on the board along with its matching virus color, and can be used in several different ways to aid a player during their turn. For example by discarding Baghdad you can travel straight to the city from wherever you are, or by ditching the card that matches the city you’re currently in you can build a Research Station, a base which can be used to develop a cure and as a fast-travel network by other players. So, Player Cards are good. Right?

Here’s the cunning catch: to cure a disease, and therefore take a step toward victory, you must spend five Player Cards of the same color at a Research Station to cure the corresponding disease. Successfully do this and the disease is cured, although not entirely gone as it can still spread across the world unless you also eradicate it entirely from the map, a task made easier by the fact that treating a cured disease immediately removes all cubes in that city. So the conundrum for the players is that every time you use a Player Card to move across the board in order to fight a spreading disease or to do anything else you’re quite literally throwing away your chances of creating an antidote and saving the world. But of course you’re absolutely going to have to spend some cards, because if the viruses spread too far you lose. If that wasn’t bad enough, should you be unable to draw any Player Cards due to their not being enough left in the deck you lose the game, creating a dead time limit and making each move feel much more important. With just 48-cards to play with you have a finite amount of time available in which to cure all four diseases and emerge as the victors.

The Infection Deck. Never has flipping over green cardboard been so tense.

The Infection Deck. Never has flipping over green cardboard been so tense.

Once you’ve drawn your cards it’s time to grit your teeth and enter the nerve-wracking Infection stage where you must learn which areas of the board have been hit by the mysterious diseases,  turning over cards from the top of the green Infection deck and placing a single cube on the locations shown. This in itself isn’t too bad as just one little colored cube isn’t very scary, but those blocks mount up surprisingly quickly and should a city already contain three cubes of a single disease when you go to place another an Outbreak occurs instead, at which point you must infect all of the directly connected cities as well. Should any of these unlucky cities already contain three cubes then another Outbreak occurs and so on, sparking a chain reaction that can prove terrifying if you and your team left too many heavily infected areas next to each other. Watching as everything goes from relatively calm to raging shit-storm in a single unfortunate turn is perhaps the most intoxicating pleasures I’ve had when playing a board game. Sure, it’s bad news for your team, but there’s something almost hypotonic about watching the red or blue cubes claw their way across the board, all while potentially spelling your demise because at any point if you run out of cubes you lose the game, the disease having been classed as out of control. Oh, and did I also mention there’s a token for tracking the amount of Outbreaks that have occurred, and if it reaches eight during the course of the game you also lose? Well, there is, and that’s exactly what happens. God damn this game does not want you to win.

Lurking within the Player deck, simply waiting to be drawn by an unwittingly optimistic fool whose faith has yet to be shattered by the harsh realities of life, are the Epidemic cards which herald the single worst event that can occur in Pandemic, although arguably a chain Outbreak which engulfs four cities is deadlier. When a player draws an Epidemic card it sets in motion a truly ingenious but evil game mechanic which takes place across three separate stages. The first is named Increase where you must shift the Infection Rate token up another notch. The Infection Rate dictates how many Infection cards must be flipped over at the end of every player’s turn, with 2 being the default and 4 being the highest it can go, at which even the most hardy player will be dreading the end of every turn. Once you’ve adjusted the meter you enter the Infect stage where must then draw the bottom card of the Infection deck and place three cubes on the appropriate city, instantly creating an Outbreak just waiting to happen. Finally, and here’s the truly smart bit, you must enter the Intensify stage where you shuffle the Infection deck’s discard pile and place it back on top of the main deck. Naturally this means that every city hit by disease thus far, including the one you just drew from the bottom of the deck, is now at a high risk of being infected once again. This also means that rather than infection cubes raining down across the entire board the diseases are more focused with the occasional random appearance. It’s a brilliant mechanic which ramps up the tension wonderfully while bringing in a touch of card counting as keeping track of what had been discarded can help you prepare for what’s to come.

Drawing an Epidemic is both horrifying and terribly glorious.

Drawing an Epidemic is both horrifying and terribly glorious.

When my friends drew an Epidemic I was always amazed at their reaction. It was a ripple of shock and dismay around the table, the sensation that everything was about to get so much worse, yet at the same time a resurgence in desire to beat the game despite the odds. It was a testament to how involved they were with the game, how much they were enjoying playing. This, to my mind, is the hallmark of something great.

In another clever move Epidemic cards also allow players to adjust the difficulty of the game by choosing how many to place in the deck. Four Epidemic cards for an easy game, five for something a bit more challenging and all six for a vicious experience that will make every draw an apprehensive moment. Likewise the Infection Rate meter also allows you to further customise the game’s difficulty – for a harder game you can move it further to the right, forcing you to flip over more Infection cards, and for an easy time you can start it at the furthest left, giving you a few Epidemic card draws before you have to start drawing extra Infection cards.

Rather than simply shuffle the dreaded Epidemic cards into the player deck at the beginning of the game Pandemic again impresses with a simple yet elegant mechanic.  You split the Player card deck into  many separate piles and then shuffle an Epidemic card into them. Once that’s done you place the piles atop one another to form the deck. This idea combat the effects of chance, helping to ensure that you should never find yourself running into a clump of Epidemics and being over-run purely by the fickle nature of luck.

The rule book is has a simple, clean and easy to understand layout, so anyone can learn to play in mere minutes.

The rule book is has a simple, clean and easy to understand layout, so anyone can learn to play in mere minutes.

Ultimately Pandemic is a game about balancing the needs of right now with working towards the long-term goal of finding a cure. Neglect your treatment of diseases and within just a turn or two you can find yourself caught up in a terrifying chain reaction of outbreaks and mayhem that results in defeat, yet focus too much on combating the spreading viruses and you’ll run out of time or squander too many cards. The game is designed to be simple to learn and understand, yet the mechanics are nothing short of genius, creating the most tense, manic, fun gaming sessions I’ve ever had. To quote Wil Wheaton I’ve had more fun losing games of Pandemic than I have had winning other games.

What Pandemic does best is create a palpable sense of tension, dread and excitement that grabs every player around the table, because every turn you move one step closer to defeat, be it through drawing cards that may hold an Epidemic, infecting more cities, outbreaks  or simply running out of time. At the very core of Pandemic lies this very simple but addictive puzzle. It’s a masterpiece in that its simple yet elegant in its design, easy to learn and play but utterly engaging with enough depth to the mechanics to keep you coming. Every game will feel different with infections appearing across the world and tactics having to be adapted, but it’s never overly complex, instead relying on clever mechanics and that easy to grasp puzzle which drives player interaction.

Whether on your own or playing with the full contingent of four  your actively playing against Pandemic and its many wonderful mechanics. This collection of inanimate objects spread out before you is  trying to kick your ass and its amazingly easy to become completely engrossed in fighting against it, becoming totally enveloped in your role, leading to brilliant tactical discussions with your friends.  I want to go and tend to Honk Kong because its ready for an Outbreak and a recent Epidemic card resulted in the already small discard piling being added back to the Infection Deck, a discard pile which included Montreal, meaning there’s a damn good chance that it will be drawn again, especially since we were having to draw four Infection Cards per turn. Worse still Honk Kong lay next to another city just ready for an Outbreak, so should Montreal infection cube it would be game over because we’ve only got two more notches on the Outbreak meter.  Meanwhile my friend believes that its worth risking drawing Honk Hong again in order to make our way to a Research Station, meeting up along the way in to hand over the final card needed to research the last cure and win the game. Who is right? Well, that’s what you’ll debate.

You know, no matter how many times I injected Jamie with random chemicals he wouldn't stop sneezing. Curing stuff ain't easy, folks.

You know, no matter how many times I injected Jamie with random chemicals he wouldn’t stop sneezing. Curing stuff ain’t easy, folks.

In all honesty there’s very little to find fault with in Pandemic, but there is a single mechanic in the form of giving cards to other players that I find irritating. In order to transfer a card from your hand to another players, which you’ll likely need to do more than once in order to research a cure, both players need to be within the same city. While this makes complete sense what does not is that you’re only allowed to trade a card which matches the city you’re in. So let’s say I want to give my friend, the Scientist, two blue cards, namely Paris and San Francisco. First we must both travel to Paris, where I can then spend an action to give him the Paris card. But then I can’t just give him San Francisco as well, because we need to travel all the way over there to do that. While I understand why transferring cards must be done in this manner for the gameplay, that doesn’t negate the fact that it makes doing so bloody annoying.

While this won’t matter to most gamers out there it’s worth point out that due to its co-operative nature Pandemic can also be played solo, done simply by taking on as many roles as you wish and battling against the raging diseases on your own. While the lack of banter obviously takes some of the fun out of the experience playing Pandemic on your lonesome is actually a surprisingly enjoyable affair as those beautiful mechanics keep the tension high and the brain ticking along nicely. While playing on my own I found it best to ramp up the difficulty and simply immerse myself in the challenge, focusing on making every move count as cubes sprouted up everywhere, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of desperation it evoked.  Though I adore playing with friends I’ve found myself several times grabbing Pandemic from the shelf and settling down to tackle those pesky diseases.

Simply said Pandemic is a co-operative masterpiece that is perfect for introducing people to the joy of playing board games, and for experienced players looking for a change from the usual games which pit person against person. There’s never a dull moment because there’s always something going on that’s altering the game, driving you toward defeat. It’s an intense ride from start to finish of beautiful mechanics that work in harmony from both a gameplay perspective and a thematic perspective, and I really can’t recommend it enough, especially since it costs just £25.

The Good:
+ Brilliantly designed.
+ Simple to learn.
+ Just plain fun.

The Bad:
– Sharing cards feels awkward.
– Um.

The Verdict: 5/5 – Awesome.
Frankly I find it hard to criticise Pandemic at all. It’s a masterpiece of design, easy to learn yet with enough depth to keep you coming back while also being a refreshing change of pace from the usual competitive games.

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