Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: Pandemic

Playing a Doctor from WHO.

Please excuse the mixed pun from the World Health Organization in my title. Thank you.

Here is a quick rundown of my biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind digging deeply into bit and chits for some of my favorite AT games, but I do enjoy a number of non-confrontational Euro games as well. While most of my favorite games are meaty, long games, I also find that a good, fun and lighter game that plays with 2 players well is perfect for an evening alone with my wife. Also, while I have no major issues with doctors or the healthcare industry, I do get a little squeamish if I watch them draw blood from me.

The Overview:

Basically you and the other players take on roles of highly developed members of an unnamed organization (akin to the CDC or WHO) who travel the globe trying to combat, treat, cure and eradicate four major deadly diseases which are spreading across the world. The players need to research the cures while trying to treat and keep the diseases from spreading too far and causing world-wide outbreaks.

This is a truly cooperative game. Now, by truly cooperative I mean that it takes it several steps beyond other cooperative games like Arkham Horror, in which you can trade items with the other characters and you all have the same goal, but really interaction is limited and everyone can do their own thing and you can still win the game. With Pandemic, you interact more directly with the other players. In fact, you need to. If you do not, then you will soon see the world overtaken in little colored cubes that represent horrible diseases and that means you will have more bits to clean up and put away when you quickly lose the game.

The game turn is simple and effective, making it an elegant little thing. When it is a player's turn they take 4 actions (the actions available are movement, building a research station (if the conditions are met), discovering a cure (if the conditions are met), treating a disease in an area that they are in or sharing knowledge (which is trading cards with another player, if the conditions to do so are met)). A player can take any 4 actions that they wish, or may pass on any number of their actions. After that, they draw 2 cards to their play hand. Then they draw the number of Infection Draw cards equal to the current infection rate and place the new disease cubes as indicated on the cards drawn. That's it. Simple and easy to learn and pick up on.

The players will when all 4 diseases are cured (though the diseases can be still running rampant across the board... to win the cure is important, not the treatment). However, players lose when the 8th Outbreak of a disease occurs, when the players run out of Player Draw cards in the draw deck or a player needs to add another disease cube to the board, but there are none left (so treatment is important so you do not lose, but it is not a condition needed to win).

The role that you play in the game changes how you play if you want to take advantage of each role's specific advantages.

Each player draws at random a role to play for the game. While each player has the same basic actions available to them, your role dictates which special abilities you have. This is where gameplay and tactics vary heavily based upon what role you draw.

The Dispatcher is able to move the other players' pawns on the board on his turn as part of his action. He can move them with normal movement options as if it were his pawn, or he can move any pawn immediately to a city that contains another pawn in it.

The Operations Expert can build a research station in any city that he is in without having the required city card in his hand to build it. Research stations are required to cure diseases in, but also aid in quick travel across the globe as a player can move from station to station as an action.

The Scientist only needs 4 cards of a color to cure the corresponding disease instead of the usual 5, giving a strong edge in getting a quick cure to diseases.

The Medic has a big advantage when it comes to treating diseases in cities. He can remove all of the cubes of a single disease color in a city with an action instead of only 1. If the disease is cured, then all of the cubes in a city he is in are removed without him having to expend an action.

The Researcher can trade cards with any player he is in a city with without having to meet the requirements for trading cards. Typically, if you wanted to give the Atlanta card to another player, for example, you would have to be in Atlanta with the other player to do so. The Researcher can trade cards regardless of what city they are in.

Playing each of these roles changes the game dramatically. Your strategy needs to be dependent upon which role you are and which roles the other players have. Because of this, players also need to interact and discuss strategy and plans together as the game progresses.

As you can see, the yellow disease is overtaking Africa, while the black disease is making a presence in the Middle East and Kennedy is leading in state support in Europe.

Diseases are represented by four different colored cubes and are placed on the board by means of card draw. Each city can only have up to 3 cubes of each color in them. If ever a disease cube needs to be added to a city with 3 cubes in it, it instead causes an Outbreak and each connecting city gets a disease cube of that color placed in it. This also increases the Outbreak counter by 1 (and 8 Outbreaks loses the game for the players). This makes treating diseases a very important part of play.

Drawing this is never a good sign.

A number of Epidemic cards are mixed evenly throughout the deck. When one is drawn by the players, things usually start to get bad. While drawing an Epidemic card means the infection rate (which dictates how many Infection card locations are drawn) goes up and three disease cubes are placed on a location, what really makes things get nasty is that the discarded cards from the Infection deck are shuffled and placed at the top of the deck. This means that the locations already with cubes on the board are more likely to be drawn again and cause Outbreaks.

It looks like someone is about to kick some nasty blue disease ass.

Diseases are cured when 5 cards of the same color are played when the holding player is in a city with a research station. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially because of the restrictions that most players have with trading cards. Anyhow, once this is done for each colored disease, the players win.

There are also a 5 special action cards that can be drawn from the Player Draw deck and placed into the player's hand to be used later. Each of these cards is useful in its own way and can really help a group when time is essential to stop an outbreak or to race for a cure.

Finally, diseases that are cured can still appear on the board. In fact, I've played a game where we ignored a cured disease to focus on the other diseases and we eventually lost because we placed the last of our red cubes out during a chain-reaction outbreak and could not place any more that we needed. So, cured diseases can still affect you and hurt you. However, if a disease is cured and you treat all of the cities with that disease in it so that there are no cities with that color disease on the globe, then the disease is eradicated. This means any time you draw a card that would have you place that disease on the board, you ignore it. This can be important to give you a bit of breathing room during the Infection card draw.

The Theme:

While there is a strong sense of theme in the game's concept and well-defined and diverse roles to play, a bit is taken away by the generic nature of the diseases. They are never identified as anything other than the blue disease, the red disease, the yellow disease and the black disease. I understand why this is though. By bringing in real diseases, you touch on and focus on what really is the dark nature of the game. Things are kept light and fun when you are removing red and blue cubes from the board. However, some people might shift uncomfortably if you were instead constantly talking about treating HIV, SARs or H5N1. By doing that, you bring in a sense of people are dying and some people might feel a little awkward, especially if they know of someone who has suffered from anything that you are supposed pretend curing. So, despite the fact that the color diseases take away from theme and realism, I think that ultimately it adds to the fun and enjoyment of the game. Ultimately, I think that is more important anyhow.

Also, part of the game theme is that it is cooperative in nature. This is very true in every respect. Players interact and discuss strategy throughout the game because you can assist one another throughout play and you need to work together to beat the game. This also means that while the other players take their turns (which are rather quick moving), there is not really a feeling of downtime, since a good group is working together and planning throughout.

Learning the Game:

This is a quick, easy game to learn. The manual is only 8 pages, but minus examples of play, set up and components lists, the actual instructions are only 4 pages long. It is also a very intuitive play that is quite easy to pick up on. By my second turn I was not referring to the rules. The only bit to learn is how to make each role most effective. But that is where the fun of replay comes into it.

The games are quick as well. Gameplay is listed at 45 minutes and I do not think that we've had a single game that has run over that amount of time. When my wife and I first played it, we played 4 games back to back, exploring the different roles and seeing how each game played different with the role combinations.

The Components:

Everything that comes in a very sturdy box.

The bits are very simple. There are 6 cardboard markers, 6 wooden research stations, 5 wooden pawns, 59 player cards, 48 infection cards, 5 role cards, 4 reference cards, 96 wooden disease cubes (24 of each color), an 8-page instruction book and one gameplay board. Every piece is necessary and nothing is really superfluous. Everything is nice quality as well. The board might be a little lackluster, but it is efficient and effective. The cards are printed on a good stock and everything is polished pretty well. A few of the disease cubes are not exactly cubes and are skewed on a corner, but despite all of my gaming OCD, that did not bother me one bit.

One other thing worth commenting on is that Pandemic comes in one of the thickest and sturdiest boxes that I have seen in a while. While it does not affect gameplay at all, I do appreciate the sturdy box as I live with a toddler who loves to stand on Daddy's game boxes for no reason and two cats who try to make anything cardboard with 4 walls into an impromptu bed.

The Pros:

*A quick, easy to learn game that does not insult intelligence or sacrifice gameplay to be quick and easy to learn
*A very cooperative game that has players focused on working together and interacting to plan, making the brief downtime in the game still active and eventful in strategy discussion for the players
*A game that plays well with just 2 players for evenings with the wife
*Good components in a strong toddler and cat resistant box
*Different roles make individual strategies based on not just what role you've drawn, but also the roles the other players have as well

The Cons:

*Some might think that the nameless diseases take from the feel of the game
*It is a card driven game, so some may be turned off by the randomness and luck (but in a players vs. the game setting, you need to have this type of element for replay-ability)
*Winning is actually rather anti-climatic; laying down the final cure is simply one player playing cards and the players win, regardless of how many nasty disease-filled cubes are covering the globe


Pandemic is an excellent game that really is a quick, fun play. The learning curve is minimal and the play is very intuitive. The game draws in game-related conversation during the play as players devise the best routes and strategies to take, so you always feel involved in the game. While winning the game is rather anti-climatic, there is a lot of suspense whenever an Epidemic card is drawn and every time an Outbreak occurs. The game really plays well with 2 players as well as 4 players. The more players make it a bit more challenging, but the 2 player game is not lacking in challenge as well. It's not a game I would pull out all the time when sitting with heavy-play craving wargamers, but it's still one that most would appreciate for a quick, light game.


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