Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Pandemic: On the Brink

Regenerating the Doctors from WHO

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Pandemic also has the most amount of plays in my recorded game plays, but that is due mostly to my wife's influence who is a much bigger fan of the game than I. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy the game, but my wife is the primary reason why it is so heavy in our rotation. But it has given me both the insight to analyze the game a bit more and the opportunity to guilt my wife into playing a game that I like more the next time we play.

The Overview:

A smaller, but thicker box compared to the original game. 

Pandemic: On the Brink is the first expansion to Pandemic, which is a cooperative game where you play members of a disease control team that is trying to research disease cures while at the same time trying to stop further outbreaks of the diseases. I will assume that most people reading this are familiar with the rules for Pandemic since this is an expansion and not a stand-alone game.

Pandemic: On the Brink revises one of the original game roles, introduces six new roles, includes rules to add a fifth player, adds rules for playing against 7 Epidemics, and adds a number of special event cards to the base game play. Beyond that, the expansion also introduces three new ways to play: the Virulent Strain Challenge, the Mutation Challenge and the Bio-Terrorist Challenge. Each of these new challenges changes the way that the game is played and how some of the diseases can spread, offering a number of different varieties in play.

The expansion includes new, smaller player pawns, markers and cubes for a fifth purple disease and six petri dishes to store the components of the expansion and base game with more thematic flair.

The Theme:

The level of theme remains somewhat unchanged from the base game. Diseases are still represented without name and are only referred to as the "red disease", the "blue disease" and so forth. As I felt with the original game, I think this was a good decision. While you lose a little "realism", if you were to pattern the diseases after their real counterparts, it really makes the game a bit darker, especially when people are really dying from the diseases around the world.

The new roles are a welcome addition and offer a lot more diversity in player ability and strategy. For the most part, all of the new roles seem to compliment the original five roles and feel different.

Also, one of the primary themes of the game is player cooperation. The players are fully able to discuss their cards, resources, strategy and decisions. Nothing is secret and the players are able to fully diverge all information that they posses and can suggest moves for other players. That being said, you may not want to bring this game to the table if you have an alpha gamer. Player moves can be dictated and directed by one player if that is the style of your group. It is never an issue with the gamers I play with, but it can happen and can ruin the fun. This was an issue with the base game as well, but it is worth mentioning again that this may not be the best choice for every group.

Learning the Game:

The base game is fairly easy to learn and pick up. The expansion does not increase the learning curve very much at all if you are familiar with the base game. The roles and new special event cards are self-explanatory and really fit seamlessly into the base game.

The Virulent Strain Challenge is easy to learn and is the challenge that most resembles the standard way of playing. The standard epidemic cards are replaced with new epidemic cards that have additional effects on them.

The Mutation Challenge brings in a fifth disease into the game and adds new cards into the Player Draw Pile that can spread the disease as well as adding new cards to the Infection Pile. Again, this is a very easy challenge to learn and if you are familiar with the game it is easy to pick up. The set up is a little more fiddly than usual, but Pandemic always was.

The Bio-Terrorist Challenge is probably the most complex of the new variants. The Bio-Terrorist player has a location sheet to track each of his moves every turn. There is a recording system to record everything that may seem overwhelming at first, but there is a key printed at the bottom of the sheet and it makes it a lot easier and intuitive than is may at first seem.

The Components:

Everything that comes in the box. 

The new components of the expansion match the components from the base game. There were some compatibility issues with those of us who had the first printing of Pandemic when it came to the first printing cards not matching the new cards. However, Z-Man took care of this by offering all of us who bought the first printing game new cards for free. While I think the colors looked a bit better on the original printing of the cards, I cannot think anything but Z-Man was stand up and great in making the new card printings available to me.

An original pawn from the base game compared to the size of a new pawn from the expansion. Also, the smaller Research Center from the later printings of the base game. 

The new petri dishes in the expansion used to store the components from the expansion and the base game.

Probably the biggest addition component-wise is the petri dishes, which are actually just a little flair for storage and completely unnecessary. I appreciate the style of them, but it can be argued that their inclusion bumped up the price for something that was not needed and did not effect the game. As someone who had purchased the first printing of the game, my issue with the petri dishes are that the wooden Research Centers that came in the first printing are too large and do not fit in them. Subsequent printings of Pandemic had smaller Research Centers. It's not a big deal for me, but for what is an unnecessary addition to the expansion for storage, it would have been nice if I could have used them as they were meant. The dishes also make it difficult to store everything in one box, which is rather disappointing since the nifty storage containers means that I either have to ditch the cosmetic item that I paid for, or use the storage pieces, but tote around two boxes. A minor quibble, but one that is a bit annoying.

Playing the Game:

Mutation Challenge game at its close. 

We played the base game with the new roles a number of times as soon as the rules were posted online. Nothing else was added to the game (since we didn't have the components for it) and it added a lot of variety and strategy to the game from the combination of roles possible. Playing the new roles like this sparked more interest in a game that we had played the hell out of already.

Playing the Virulent Strain Challenge is interesting and can add layers of difficulty to the game for those who are used to the normal Epidemics and reacting and preparing for them. While good and interesting, it doesn't have the same feel as the other challenges when playing it alone because you do not get to use the new pretty purple cubes. You can add the Virulent Strain Challenge to either of the other challenges, but we have not done this yet.

The Mutation Challenge is our favorite of the new Challenges. I don't know that it is necessarily better than the Virulent Strain Challenge, but there is something a little more rewarding about using the purple cubes as well. It is also difficult and changes strategy, but in a different way than the Virulent Strain. It is another disease to cure. That's five more cards that you need to expend to cure it (The purple disease is cured by discarding five city cards of any color in a Research Center, provided that at least one of the discarded cards is of a city that has at least one purple cube in it at that time). It is a little easier to plan for the epidemics in this challenge, but resource management is more of an issue here.

The Bio-Terrorist Challenge changes the dynamics of the game and it turns into one player against the others who remain fully cooperative. The Bio-Terrorist player's moves are hidden and it takes on a Scotland Yard feel. The Bio-Terrorist moves around the board, infecting cities and sabotaging Research Centers, hindering the players as they contend with the normal diseases, as well as the fifth disease introduced by the Bio-Terrorist (the purple cubes... which you could pretend are anthrax, but I like to call them the "12 Monkeys" disease). This was the variant that I was most looking forward to and was most disappointed by. The Bio-Terrorist can by a hindrance, but for the most part, the players will win or lose by the draw of the cards, which is often the case of the game. Good card draws from the players make the role of the Bio-Terrorist very weak, while bad draws cause the players to ignore the Bio-Terrorist and focus on the other diseases ready to outbreak. The win conditions of the challenge are as follows:

The players win if they cure all 5 diseases or cure the 4 standard diseases and there are 0 purple cubes on the board. Bio-terrorist wins if the players lose and there is at least 1 purple cube on the board. The Bio-Terrorist loses (and is out of the game) if the purple disease is eradicated. And everyone loses if the players lose and there are no purple cubes on the board.

The problem is the luck of the draw. In one of our games, we cured and then eradicated the purple disease on the second turn. The Bio-Terrorist infected only one city, but it was one that we happened to have the card for. Granted, Pandemic is not a long game, but it is still a tough break for a game that is so cooperative and player involving in all of its other variations. Also, unless the Bio-Terrorist is drawing a lot of cards, it is usually kind of pointless to be chasing down the Bio-Terrorist to capture him and force him to discard his cards. And even if he is drawing a lot of cards, he is drawing them from the Infection Deck, which means he may be helping you by taking a city that is about to outbreak and holding it in his hand instead of letting it draw. I usually wait until after an Epidemic to try to catch the Bio-Terrorist because of this. And as the Bio-Terrorist, it can be a little disappointing to have your diseases and moves strategically ignored because the standard diseases (that you have no effect on) are really the ones kicking the players collective asses. You just happen to win, not because of what you did, but because you had a cube or two out, but they could not stop the standard diseases from triggering outbreak after outbreak.

Another thing I will mention is that some people believe that Pandemic is more like a puzzle than a game. After over a hundred plays, I can see the basis of the belief, but not fully agree with it. Still, I think that the expansion gives enough variety and differences in the way diseases can spread that if you believe that it is just a puzzle, it is now a puzzle with a lot more depth and variation and much more difficult to predict.... at least for another hundred plays or so.


Pandemic: On the Brink adds to the scalability by adding rules for a fifth player. Still, the game is easier with fewer players since the card colors are by definition more likely to be condensed between players instead of spread out. Five red cards spread out between five players may mean that each player only has one and needs four more to cure it. Five red cards spread out between two players means that one player could have two, but the other has three, putting them a lot closer to curing the disease.

A couple of subtle changes that occur with the expansion come from the number of Player Cards in the deck. Since running out of Player Cards is one of the means that the players can lose, it can be a factor. In the base game, there are a static five special cards in the deck. Now with the expansion, 2 special cards are put in per player. That means one less card in two player games. However, it is more cards (and therefore, more potential turns) for more players. And there are three more Player Cards added to the deck with the Mutation Challenge as well, extending the number of turns even more.

Since players do not have to hide any information and since all players can openly assist one another, the game is fully possible to play with one player playing multiple roles. Other than the Bio-Terrorist Challenge, it is fully possible to play this game in all of its other variations solo. In fact, if you have an aggressive enough alpha player, that can happen in multi-player games as well.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She also loves Pandemic as well as On the Brink. We have over 100 plays of Pandemic and most of them are due to her. She is addicted to beating the game. When I suggest something to play and she says, "Sure, but let's play a game of Pandemic first," I know that we will not get to my game. We play Pandemic until we beat it.

The expansion has added variety to the game and has made me more willing to agree to play it with her. We played with the new roles to try them out when the rules were uploaded to the web. Now that we have the physical expansion, we've played all three challenges. The Mutation is her favorite (and mine) and she eagerly suggests that we play it often.

Again, I do not mind playing it, but I am not as fanatical about it as my wife. Still, giving in and playing Pandemic one night means that I can probably get her to play something that she is less of a fan of the next night, so it serves a good purpose.

The Pros:

*Much more variety of roles, leading to interesting new cooperative strategies.
*Quick, easy to learn expansion that fits naturally within the given ruleset of Pandemic.
*Adds the ability to play with a fifth player, while remaining a great two-player game.
*Replacement pawns are usefully reduced in size.
*Variation Challenges add a lot of depth to the game and stymies normal strategies and adds a lot more challenge to the game.
*Addicting and my wife and the two other groups I introduced it to needed to continue to play until we beat the game.
*Giving in and playing it at the wife's suggestion is still fun and entertaining and sets me up to get her to play something like Automobile or Space Hulk that I prefer more than her because we played her game first.
*Petri Dishes look very nice and thematic.

The Cons:

*Randomness and luck of card draws (both Player and Infection decks) are still a factor in the game. While not a con, per se, for me, I know that it is for some.
*Bio-Terrorist Challenge is probably the weakest part of the game and only introduces the illusion of being effective as the role should be as the players still will usually win or lose by the draws and other diseases.
*Petri Dishes look nice, but are unnecessary and probably increased the price for something solely cosmetic for storage. This would not nearly the issue with me if it were not for the fact that it does not fit the first printing Research Centers and that using the new storage items, the game no longer fits in one box.
*Since we continue to play until we win, I might not be able to get my wife to submit to a game of Automobile or Space Hulk until the next night.


Pandemic: On the Brink is a great expansion that breathes a lot of life and variety in a game that held up, but had started to become dull. The addition of the new roles alone is enough to spark interest in the game and I look back and cannot fathom how we played with only the five roles that were available in the base game. Some parts of the expansion are weaker than the others, but it is completely modular in the fact that you can pick and choose which roles or challenges or special cards you use in your game. While I liked the base game, I like this expansion as well. While my wife loved the base game, she loves this expansion. If you do not like the base game, however, I do not think that it changes the gameplay enough to win you over.