With all the talk of swine flu in the news recently I thought that it would be a good time to talk about Pandemic, the board game of infectious disease from Z-Man games. As members of the Atlanta based Center for Disease Control the players work together to prevent the spread of four different strains of a deadly virus that is threatening to annhilate the world’s population. I have to say that I think Pandemic is one of the best games out there. The mechanics of the game are creative and work great to create a tense, fun environment. It is also a quick game at about 45 minutes, though it can also be much faster in a losing effort.
I sort of have a thing for maps, so I love the board because it is just a map of the world. The world is divided into four regions, each of which is inflicted with a strain of the virus that is threatening humanity. The map looks nice, even though it does not have a ton of detail on it. And I’m sort of bummed that Philadelphia is not one of the cities featured, but with New York and Washington already there it would be East Coast overload. Infections are marked with generic wood cubes and the player pawns look like they could be from any of a hundred games. The infection cubes in particular get a ton of use so I see why they are nothing ornate. Plus it keeps the cost of the game down, which is well worth it is my eyes. There are also two stacks of cards, the Player deck and the Infection deck, which are fine. The strength of this game is not the components, but rather the clever game play and mechanics.
One of the nice aspects of a cooperative game is that everyone can go home a winner. Or a loser as the case may be. This game gives no bragging rights. But it is a good change of pace for all involved to throw their lots in together and try to save the world. There are five roles in the game available to the players, each one assigned randomly at the start. Since the game is for 2-4 players there is always at least one role missing from the team, which can make things sort of tricky. Each role is useful, though some are certainly better than others. The Medic is almost a necessity to control the large outbreaks, and I feel that the Dispatcher brings a lot to the table by being able to move other players on their turn. Some of them are more or less useful depending on the number of players in the game but none are a total waste. But more than anything working together with the other players controls the fate of the game. If the team is not organized they don’t stand a chance.
At the start of the game nine cities have been infected with the virus that the CDC has been tasked with stopping. Cities are drawn from the Infection deck and then the card is discarded. Each turn a player draws two or more cards from that deck and more cities continue to get infected. With each new infection a single marker is placed on the disease ridden city. At that rate there would just be low level infections breaking out in cities all over the world and it would be relatively easy to contain. However, dispersed throughout the Player deck are Epidemic cards which really kick things up a notch. When an Epidemic card is drawn the bottom card from the Infection deck is given a high level infection (3 markers), but even worse is that the discard pile is reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile, meaning that all the places that are already infected will get infected again in the coming rounds. When a fourth infection marker is placed on a city an outbreak occurs and things start to rapidly spin out of control as the neighboring cities all begin to accumulate markers and perhaps spawn outbreaks of their own. If enough outbreaks occur the players lose and the world is doomed. Losing also occurs if there are no more infection markers of a strain left to place, or if the players run out of cards to drawer from the Player deck. This game is not easy. The difficulty level can also be adjusted by increasing or decreasing the number of Epidemic cards in the deck.
On each player’s turn they have four action points to spend. They can be used to move around the board, charter flights to cities around the globe, reduce the infection level of the city they are in, and trade cards with other players. Cures for diseases are found when a player has five cards of a certain strain and gets to a research center. The game is won when all four diseases have a cure. The team does not have to administer the cure to each city, so it is possible to win when the board is still filled with diseases.
This game is a lot of fun. One aspect of the game that I really like a lot is how quickly it can turn sour for the players, it really keeps everyone on their toes. An Epidemic card at the wrong time, or a certain city drawn from the Infection deck can create havoc in a short period of time. To date we have not had a single game where the outcome was assured. By the last couple turns everyone is keeping their fingers crossed every time a card is drawn. It’s also interesting to play a game that takes place in the real world. Don’t get me wrong, I love games in outer space and ones that take place in far off lands and idyllic medieval universes, but the familiarity of the real world brings an element to the game that imparts some actual concern for the places that are being torn apart by an epidemic.