Teamwork, individual specializations, and rewarding communication and strategy over an ‘every man for himself’ munchkin style of gameplay has become a dominant trend in role playing and video games in recent years and Pandemic is the gold standard for how a board game can take these elements and apply them to create a harrowing and fulfilling experience. The premise of the game is the players are four employees of the Center for Disease Control, each with different specializations and abilities, who must race around the globe to prevent four different diseases from running rampant. Players must navigate around the board, curing diseases, researching cures, and building research centers in order to do this. How the cities are connected determines the path of the outbreak and how the characters can travel.
The diseases are represented by colored cubes which are color coordinated with different cities on the world map and represent the severity of the disease. The catch is that each city can only hold 3 cubes, and when a fourth needs to be added, an outbreak is triggered causing a cube to be placed on every city connected to ground zero. This can create horrifying chain reactions, and if 8 outbreaks occur then it is game over. Other conditions for losing include running out of any color disease cube, or if the player card deck runs out. Time is of the essence and managing this many factors may be overwhelming to some first time players.
Winning the game means that players have gathered 5 city cards of a particular color (4 if you are the scientist), developed a cure at a research center, and removed all cubes of that color from the board. While this is a tall order, the game helps the player through the special abilities of the various members such as the aforementioned scientist’s or the dispatcher which can move your fellow players’ pawns on your turn as if they were your own or move any pawn to another city containing a pawn for 1 action. Players can also draw special event cards which can be used to reduce the number of outbreak cards drawn or other beneficial effects. Using all of these together to give yourself some much needed breathing room is the key to being successful.
At the start of the game, players are placed in Atlanta, and 9 infection cards are drawn and infected with the corresponding disease. On each players turn, 2 more epidemic cards are drawn they have 4 actions which can be spent to
– Moving to another city
– Removing a disease cube from your current city
– Build a research station
– Exchange a card with another player in the same city
– Cure a disease if the preconditions are met
After a cure is developed, players can remove all cubes from a city or 1 action. Players then draw 2 cards which are either a city card, which can be used for research, to travel to that city, or while in that city can be used to travel anywhere else in the world; a special event card or the dreaded epidemic card.
The difficulty can be determined at the start of the game by inserting between 4-6 epidemic cards into the player deck. More cards mean more difficulty. When an epidemic is drawn, a card is taken from the bottom of the infection pile and given 3 cubes. To top it all off, the infection discard pile is shuffled and put back on top of the infection deck, raising the chances for an outbreak to occur. This is not a game that takes it easy on you.
The game takes 45 minutes to an hour to play, and the pacing of the game is one of its biggest strong suites. Three phases for each player means they feels like they are playing a vital role, and the cooperative nature brings a lot of conversation and camaraderie to the table. This is a great game for people who may not like the ultra-competitive nature of some board games. The variability of the card draws adds great replayability to the game, but can also ruin some of the fun if you get a few unlucky draws, making the game seem unfairly difficult.
The difficulty of the game may be a turn off to some looking for a casual gaming experience, but when your team finally bonds together and saves the world it is an immensely rewarding experience. If you do lose, I’ll guarantee you will be wanting to go another round immediately after.
The board and pieces are nothing stunning but are solidly made, and get bonus points for having the fold in the back of the board, preventing a crease across the gameplay area. Cards are printed from heavy card stock, and feature some supplementary stats about each city. All wood construction of the pieces and the portability of the 8″x12″x2″ box make it convenient to tuck in a backpack and go. The rules are printed on a very succinct 4 full color pages with plenty pictures to help get new players up to speed. There are also 4 quick reference crib sheet style cards for players who want a quick reminder of the rules.
There is an expansion available, On the Brink, which adds six new roles, eight new special events, and several new challenge modes which I have not experienced yet. A second expansion, In the Lab, is due out this year.
In conclusion, this is a great game for players who might not want a traditionally competitive game or are looking for a unique challenge that requires communication and teamwork to solve. Fairly easy to learn, fast paced, and full of replayability this is definitely a game you will come back to time and time again. The difficulty means you probably will not win on your first game, which may turn some players off, but the tension and reward keep you coming back for more. It is no surprise then that the game is consistently ranked near the top of Board Game Geek’s Top 100 Games, and was a nominee for the illustrious Spiel des Jahres award in 2009.
The game is fluid, fast paced, and easy to learn. High replayability and optional expansions mean it won’t be gathering dust. Even at the lowest optional difficulty the game can be too tough for some and unlucky breaks can detract from the strategy of the game, preventing it from a perfect score
A cooperative experience unlike anything else, requiring teamwork and communication between players. Interesting premise and mechanics require thoughtful strategy and juggling multiple goals instead of the usual reach x level or be last man standing. Character pieces could have more personality.
Simple but beautiful artwork. Full color and easy to understand instructions. Side to side board artwork with no crease, heavy card stock, and all wood pieces go towards making make a beautiful game.
A unique and nearly flawless game that provides a quality presentation with a unique and rewarding gameplay experience that will keep you coming back for more.