Monday, January 17, 2011
A few days before Christmas, with gift card funds burning in my pocket, I purchased the cooperative game Pandemic on megadeal from Barnes & Noble. I had never played it before, the box didn't look that exciting, and I was leery of the idea of a cooperative board game in which players are on a team against the game. Nevertheless, the reviews from multiple sources were glowing, I had no cooperative games in my collection, and the resale value seemed high (always a consideration when purchasing an untested game), so I went out on a limb and bought it. I am not disappointed in this decision.
The premise of the game is that four viruses are on the brink of becoming pandemics and in danger of destroying the world's population. (Incidentally, the expansion for the game is titled "On the Brink.") The players are a team of crack medical experts from the CDC given the assignment to stem the spread of these viruses and, more important, find the cure for each of them. There are multiple ways to lose Pandemic, but only one way to win: finding the four cures.
The game comes with twenty-four wooden cubes in four colors (representing the viruses), a game board depicting major cities in the world (each city is color-coded to one of the four viruses), a deck of player cards (one card of each city on the board, eight special event cards, and a variable number of epidemic cards, depending on the difficulty level the players choose), a deck of infection cards (one card for each city on the board), and pawns/role cards for each player. The game can be played with two to four players and generally takes thirty to forty-five minutes.
The game is set up by "infecting" the map: three cards are turned up from the infection deck, and each of the cities depicted on those cards gets three virus cubes (of corresponding color) in it. Three more cards are turned up, and two cubes are added to those cities. Three more cards, one cube. Each player is dealt two cards from the player deck, then a predetermined number of epidemic cards (four for the introductory game, five for the normal, six for the heroic) are shuffled more or less evenly into the player deck. Each player is given a random role and corresponding pawn, a research station is placed on Atlanta (where the CDC is located), and all the pawns start in Atlanta. Appropriately, the player last sick goes first.
On each turn, a player gets four actions to take. There are four basic actions (all related to movement) and four special actions: build a research station, treat diseases, find a cure for a virus, and "share knowledge" (pass cards) between players. Each action costs something (usually a card), but there are five player roles in the game, each role bending the rules slightly in the player's favor (for example, building a research station normally costs a precious card; the operations expert may build research stations for free). After the player takes his four actions, he draws two cards. Finally, he "plays the role of the infector," that is, he turns over cards from the infection deck equal to the current infection rate (more in a moment) and places one disease cube of corresponding color in the cities indicated.
At the start of the game, play seems peaceful, almost nonchalant. What adds tension in the game is the epidemic cards. When an epidemic card is drawn from the player deck, the fun (and nail-biting) begins. The epidemic card does three things: First, it increases the infection rate (meaning more cards get turned over each turn, adding more viruses to the board). Then, you take the bottom card from the infection deck and place three disease cubes of corresponding color in the city depicted. Finally, you shuffle all the cards in the infection discard pile and put that pile back on the infection deck. This mechanic is brilliant because it means that the cities that already have viruses in them are about to get even more, making outbreaks more likely.
Now, I mentioned before that there is only one way to win: find the cures for the four viruses. There are three ways to lose: the player deck runs out of cards (this hasn't happened in my games yet), there have been eight outbreaks in the game (there is a marker to keep track of this on the board), or any virus runs out of cubes in the supply. The way outbreaks work is that there can only be three viruses of a single color in a city at one time. If you would have to add a fourth (i.e., you draw that city from the infection deck), instead of placing a fourth cube on that city, you place one cube of that color in all the cities that connect to it and move the outbreak counter up one. If adding a cube in this way would add a fourth cube of a color to another city, then that city outbreaks. Chain reaction outbreaks are common, thanks to the epidemic cards. Players have to be wise stewards of their actions and work together in order not to lose.
What I like about Pandemic is its interactive nature with zero spite. Each player must communicate and communicate effectively in order to win. Tension is another high point of this game. The game immerses the players in the task at hand; it's hard not to get into it because the odds are stacked against you from the beginning. I mentioned that this can be a four-player game, but even in the four-player game, one role is always missing. Each role is crucial to the success of the players, so this adds additional tension to the game, which I think is a good thing. The epidemic cards are a great mechanic because the same cities will be problem cities for the entire game. The game has a good balance of immediate needs (treating cities so they don't outbreak) and end objectives (finding cures). Because it takes five cards of one color to find a cure, passing cards is difficult, and most special actions cost cards, it is to the players' advantage to use the special roles to the max, getting each player involved in the game. There are no spectators. I've found that Pandemic is an especially effective game at integrating people who don't normally play board games, both because of the tension and because of the collaborative nature: either everyone wins, or everyone loses.
That being said, there are a few things that can be problems in Pandemic. First, the game is fairly easy, especially after multiple plays. I've played six or seven games now and only lost once. Now, a few of those were the "introductory" version of the game (four epidemics) and the rest were the "normal" version, but certain strategies seem to work well, and once you've seen how different roles work, plans form early on. (On the other hand, I've been too chicken to try the heroic game, and there were some very close calls in the normal version. And the expansion, I've heard, makes the game much harder to win.)
Second, the board is very easily smudged. The board already bore noticeable wear-and-tear after the first game. Nit-picky, yes, but still annoying. Also, I had heard heard Pandemic is a good two-player game (part of why I was willing to buy it), but it is much more fun with more players. With only two of us at the table, Abby and I found the game very easy to beat (despite lacking even more of the crucial roles than in the four-player game). It did make for a night of no hard feelings, though (not always the case when Abby whoops me in Canasta).
Finally, because it is a cooperative game, players who are more vocal tend to be more involved and make more decisions. This means that while it's easy to integrate every level of player, certain "strategists" tend to take center stage and direct the other players. Pandemic can turn from cooperative to essentially solo fairly quickly. I've had to guard against that myself and allow each player to offer strategy suggestions, and I've had to try to calm other strategists down. This doesn't always work. This is a real danger, but a preventable one, and not the game's fault.
I would say the benefits of this game outweigh the shortcomings. Pandemic is not a terribly expensive game (though more expensive than the typical department store fare), and the amount of fun seems commensurate with the cost. It was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (justifiably beat out for the prize by Dominion), is easy to learn and play, and does an excellent job of keeping all the players active and engaged. If this sounds like your thing, I don't think you'll be disappointed if you get it. If you need a little more competition but you like the basic premise of this game, I suggest looking into Scotland Yard or this game's expansion, which adds another game mode with competition.
Have you played this game? What are your thoughts?