Designed by: James Vaughan
Published by: Ndemic Creations
Playtime: 40-60 Minutes
Review copy provided free of charge by Esdevium Games.
There are many joys to be found in life; the pleasure of eating your favorite food, the smell of fresh countryside air, the laughter of friends, the low-down thrum of holding hands and the creation of a deadly disease designed to wipe out every person on the face of the planet. That’s where Plague Inc. The Board Games comes in, created by the very same people who developed the video game. So, how well does the goal of killing every human translate to cardboard?
Turns out it translates rather well. Just like the digital version the goal is to take control of a plague and slowly mutate it over time, adding to its ability to infect and kill every human it comes in contact with. Unlike the video game, though, you aren’t playing against the world but rather other people controlling their own personal plagues in a race to inflict the most casualties. This is the biggest change in the transition from video game to board game because the Earth and its scientists and doctors are no longer capable of detecting your plague and trying to eradicate it through research, rather the Earth remains mostly passive, a submissive target waiting to be destroyed by a barrage of pretty colored cubes and delightfully sadistic symptoms.
Each turn kicks off by calculating how many DNA points you earn based upon the amount of countries you control, which is to say countries in which you currently have more cubes than anyone else. These points are important because not only is it the person with the most DNA at the end of the game who wins, but they’re also the currency you’ll be using to mutate your virus so the more points you can snag the more options will be available to you. Indeed, this creates an interesting strategy choice as it may be worth spreading yourself thin early in the game in order to control a bunch of countries, even if that means merrily plonking down cubes in enemy territory.
You need somewhere to actually place all of these cubes, though, which is where the game’s slightly boring looking red board comes into play. During the country phase you’ll pick from one of the three country cards that are face up or take a random one from the deck and place it on the appropriate continent on the board, thus opening up new areas to infect since these countries contain a number of major city spaces. The other option is to discard the country card to ditch your current hand of traits and draw five new traits.
Ah yes, traits. Those are the lovely, horrible mutations that you can apply to your beautiful virus of death, from minor things like sweating and vomiting to much more gruesome but expensive options such as necrosis and complete organ failure. What these boil down to are a few important keywords: firstly they can improve your infectivity rating, dictating how many new plague cubes you can place around the world during the infectivity stage that comes next. Traits can also improve lethality, increasing the odds of annihilating a country or two at the end of the turn, something we’ll come back to.
Next you enter the infection stage of the turn where you get to spread the plague around the world based on your current infectivity rating. For each point of infectivity you have you take one cube and place it where you wish, although there are some important rules governing this. You’re free to place cubes within a country that is located in a continent where you already have a cube, however any cold or hot countries can only be infected if you’ve mutated a trait that provides cold or heat resistance. In order to leave a continent you’ll need traits that give you the ability to travel via airplanes or boats, letting you move from a city with the correct icon to a city with a matching icon anywhere else in the world.
The final stage of a player’s turn is where all the hard work hopefully pays off; killing stuff. You take a look at the board and for every country you currently control that has all of its city spots take up by plague cubes you roll the death dice (yes, that’s grammatically incorrect but the rulebook states that playtesters found ‘death die’ confusing) and if the number is equal to or lower than your plague’s lethality value then the country is killed off, every human suffering an agonising end. When this happens the country is removed from the board and all players score one DNA point for every one of their own plague cubes within it. More importantly the person who killed the country claims an event card, powerful abilities that can swing the tide of the entire game if used right. These let you do cool things like lock an entire continent down until your next turn or spawn new cubes. The player responsible for the country’s destruction also gets to keep the country card due to end-game bonus scoring where points are awarded for annihilating the most countries in a continent and a few other things.
There are a couple of other things to consider as you play, too. For example while using the basic bacteria type plague two of your five trait slots provide bonus powers that continue to work so long as they aren’t covered up, granting an extra DNA point every turn and letting you create a new outbreak by moving a cube to anywhere in on the board without restriction so long as you skip your regular infection phase, a power that helps keep players from getting completely stuck on one continent. The other side of your player board plays host to a virus which has two different powers along with the ability to create a new outbreak. Firstly you can snag a new random trait by skipping your normal evolution phase and drawing a trait straight from the deck and playing it immediately for three less DNA if possible. Secondly, you can swap a trait for one in your hand by paying the difference in DNA, if there is one.
And that’s it, we’ve covered the basics of how to play the entire game in just under 1,000 words. This is easily one of the game’s greatest strengths, its ability to be learned quickly, yet beneath that easily learned facade there is some genuine depth that makes your decisions feel important. The obvious one is balancing out your ability to infect and the lethality of the plague; infect too quickly and you’ll have control of the board but actually killing countries could take too long and leave you stuck. Likewise killing off countries too quickly can leave you struggling to maintain a presence or spread fast enough to keep ahead of the deaths. With a mere five trait slots it’s fun to balance what your plague needs to be doing. At any point you can remove a trait to make room for something else, but here’s the thing; at the end of the game you’ll get points back for all the traits on your board, but not the ones you choose to discard. To stay competitive, though, you’ll need to get rid of some traits eventually, even when it’s because you no longer need to be airborne but do need to spread quicker around the continents you’ve currently got a foothold in.
Where I found Plague Inc. to struggle was surprisingly in the same area that its videogame counterpart is flawed as well: lulls within the action. Each turn can be taken very quickly and the game is capable of explosive moments where plagues start to spread quickly and countries are dying left and right, falling afoul of whatever horrible concoction of traits you’ve built. However, there are also stretches where players are happy with the trait setup they have and thus turns can become less interesting as everybody just goes through the motions, especially when the country deck isn’t playing ball meaning there is less space to work with or a player becomes stuck because they haven’t lucked into heat or cold resistance yet. In the videogame there were similar issues where you’d end up waiting around, patiently watching the virus spread and for enough points to be gathered to purchase the next big upgrade. Here though, with just five trait slots available you can’t just keep buying more stuff, so with a reasonable selection of traits in play you simply have to sit back and spread cubes around, unless a really special trait pops up.
The ending doesn’t deliver a thrilling finish, either. The game enters sudden death when the country cards have been depleted, and ends when a player no longer has cubes on the board or when somebody cannot infect any cities nor roll the death dice. What this creates is less of an explosive, dramatic ending and more of a slow fizzle, something that the videogame version is also highly guilty of. As countries die off and space becomes a premium it feels like not only is the world dying a slow death, but so is the game.
But happily, these pacing problems never managed to damage my enjoyment of the game too much, and rest assured I really did enjoy it. Again, it isn’t a complex nor hugely nuanced game that will force you to think until your noggin’ hurts, but it still has enough going on to keep you engaged and the theme is absolutely brilliant for people like me with a dark sense of humor. With a few beers and the right people it’s a great laugh. Best of all it can be played in about an hour, which feels perfect for this style of game. It doesn’t overstay its welcome.
There’s also a singleplayer mode if you fancy an hour or two of more quiet play. This mode sticks you up against the Plaguebot, an automated player who will likely kick your ass all over the place. The way this bot works is that every turn it adds a new random country to the board and then takes the top trait from the deck and adds it to the leftmost slot on its board, pushing out any older trait on the far right. What these traits do is active different effects based upon their keywords, so for example if the very first trait is waterborne then the bot will immediately add a cube to every climate suitable city that it’s connected to with a port. It sounds so simple, but each turn when you’re processing four trait cards – some of which can have two or three different keywords on them – the Plaguebot will simply dominate the board, making up for a lack of tactical thought with sheer brute force. Indeed, it’s arguably too powerful at times. I don’t think I managed to win a single game against it. With that said it does present an engrossing challenge. Learning to box the Plaguebot in and counter how it works can be very satisfying, and I’m sure eventually I’ll manage to defeat it and feel pretty damn proud of myself for doing it.
The final thing we need to chat about is thr quality of the components, which is generally okay. The plastic cubes and DNA marker all look and feel great while the cards are made of passable stock, although visually many of them are quite boring. Where the game fails a little is the player boards which are too flimsy for my taste. I also didn’t like the fact that while there’s a board included for the placement of the trait, event and country cards it doesn’t include discard spots, which is rather strange. The Plaguebot is also printed on the other side of this board rather than having its own one.
All in all I was more impressed with Plague Inc. The Board Game than I thought I would be. It has been translated over to cardboard form while retaining the general feel and style of the original game, albeit with a few alterations that were made along the way to make everything work. Sure, that means it loses a few things I loved about the videogame, namely the way that the humans could detect your plague if you got overconfident and begin developing a cure for it, but on the flipside you gain the tacticility of a boardgame and the head-to-head enjoyment of out-plaguing (it’s a word, I swear) your friends. Plus, you can follow up an hour with this by breaking out Pandemic and pretend that you’re now playing the humans trying to clean up the mess.
Oh, one last thing: Greenland in the videogame is an absolute pain in the backside to infect and kill. It’s cardboard counterpart is nothing but a pale shadow, easily destroyed. Weep, Greenland, you’re no longer invincible.
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