Like many children close to my age who grew up in the days before tablets and smartphones became electronic babysitters, board games were a major part of my childhood. Standards like Monopoly, Connect 4 and Hungry Hungry Hippos always made for a great time.
Fast forward to the present day and my interest in gaming had been relegated to time tested card games like Uno and more recently, Phase 10. A good friend of mine suggested I watch a YouTube series called Tabletop hosted by Wil Wheaton, perhaps best known as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Gordie Lachance in Stand by Me. The game in question involved dragons, and I’m a big fan of dragons ladies and gentlemen.
Each episode of Tabletop revolves around Wheaton playing a board or card game with celebrities which essentially serves as a means of promoting the game in question. After watching one episode, I was hooked and have now become something of a board and card game aficionado constantly researching games that are both fun and require a bit of using the brain.
Pandemic was played during one episode and although I’m generally terrible and don’t particularly like strategy games I was intrigued by the premise. And that, ladies and gentlemen is where the review begins.
In Pandemic you play one of several roles as part of a team seeking to stop the spread of four unnamed diseases represented by the colors black, yellow, red and blue. All four of the diseases must be eradicated in order to win the game by finding a cure. Sounds simple, right? Just you wait.
There are a lot of small pieces to Pandemic, namely the cubes that represent each disease and are placed throughout each city on the board game map representing the world before the game begins. There are also the various cards that you may want to separate and store in separate small bags since there are a lot of them.
If you’re playing for the first time you may have to reread the rules a few times to fully understand the gist of how to play. Although they were very clear, we actually had to watch a Pandemic tutorial video in order to get started because there were spots where we were a bit confused on how to proceed. Although the box says the game takes about 45 minutes, it’ll probably take you close to that amount of time just to get started and learn the rules the first time around.
The infection rate is a green indicator that will play a significant role when your turn ends (more on that later). It also serves as a means of choosing your skill level. The lowest number is two and it’s definitely worth starting there if you’re just getting your feet wet as the situation can–and will–spiral out of control very quickly.
During your turn you’ll be taking one of four actions which are all explained and readily available to you on a small reference card. Remember those cubes? As part of the initial setup, you may have already placed two or more of these cubes representing a disease and if they increase to four within one city then that will cause an outbreak, forcing the disease to spread to all of the other cities connected by a line that also serves as a means of moving around the game board. For example in the map below, if Bogota already has three cubes and it gets another, Mexico City, Lima, Miami, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires would all be infected with another cube.
In order to eradicate a disease you have to set up a research station represented by a small wooden token that almost looks like a barn and you must have five cards of the same color in order to find a cure. Upon having a research station and finding a cure for one of the diseases you are free to use one of your actions towards wiping out the disease for good by getting rid of those cubes and therefore come that much closer to saving humanity. All of this sounds fairly straightforward and easy except for one unpredictable factor: ending your turn.
Remember the infection marker? This is where it factors heavily into play since the infection rate determines how many cards you will be picking up at the end of your turn.
After you decide on your maximum of four actions each turn you draw two cards from the Player cards pile as well as two cards from something called the Infection pile. The Player cards are the ones that give you the cities/colors which you can use towards stopping the disease or perhaps traveling to the city rapidly if you have no means of getting there using those connected lines. You may also get Event cards which you can keep and are designed to assist you in your battle without costing you an action.
The Infection pile is where things can turn potentially deadly. Each time you pick up two cards from here you’ll be spreading the diseases by adding one cube to whatever city and color is listed on the card. In other words, despite being on a team seeking to stop the spread of disease that threaten to wipe out all humans, you’ll secretly be making things worse at the same time by intentionally unleashing these diseases and possibly causing an outbreak. Again, an outbreak can cause a chain reaction where multiple cities will be infected depending on how many cubes are already in a city. Hence, it’s extremely important to strategize with your team and plan your actions carefully. If you run out of these contagious cubes, it’s game over and that’s just one of several ways you can lose.
Within the Infection pile are Epidemic cards which are perhaps your mortal enemy and will cause feelings like despair, anxiety, anger, frustration and a bunch of other feelings that you really don’t want to experience when playing something that calls itself a game. I won’t ruin the surprise by telling you what they do aside from the fact that along other things, you will be forced to permanently increase the infection rate marker, but that will likely be the least of your worries when this card presents itself.
Thankfully, you’re a disease fighting rockstar and those roles you randomly picked out at the beginning of the game have special abilities that can sway the odds in your favor or at least give you a bit of room to breathe to ensure you don’t accidentally inhale some airborne virus. If for example you ended up with a Scientist role, you can find a cure for those pesky diseases by having four cards of the same color instead of the required five. In a game like this, that ability could mean the difference between life or no summer Olympics in 2016 if everyone in Sao Paulo dies and one of the torch bearers unintentionally brings it over to Rio de Janeiro.
Pandemic is one of the most entertaining, refreshing and stressful board games I’ve played in a while, and I mean that in the best way. Unlike the majority of games where you’re competing against whomever else you’re playing with, this game is all about collaboration*, strategy and using your actions and abilities wisely since the situation seemingly becomes worse and worse at every turn, especially if you draw one of those evil Epidemic cards. The game is hard and there’s only one way to win and multiple ways to lose but even if you do lose you’ll have a lot of fun doing it. As long as you have an hour or so of free time available and aren’t looking for a game that’s quick, Pandemic is anxiously thrilling and definitely worth having around for a gaming night with friends or family.
* I should note that there have been two expansions released for Pandemic called On the Brink and In the Lab, the former letting one player play the role of a “bio terrorist” and thus work against the others. I can only imagine this would make things much more interesting since it retains the collaborative foundation of the game while adding an element of competition.