Tuesday, September 2, 2008


One of the more unique and innovative boardgames to enter the market this year was Pandemic, by designer Matt Leacock. It's created a healthy buzz for a couple reasons: 1) it features cooperative (instead of competitive) play, which is relatively rare in boardgames, and 2) the theme has to do with eradicating disease outbreaks. Since I'm a full-fledged misophobe, I knew that I had would have to try Pandemic out.

The gameboard in Pandemic displays an attractive, full-color map of the world. Major cities are highlighted in one of four colors, and are connected by red lines that represents the paths diseases may take as they spread from one metropolitan center to another.

There are four diseases to combat: yellow (typhoid), blue (avian influenza), black (ebola), and red (smallpox). At the beginning of the game, you draw nine Infection cards, which show different cities in the world, to "seed" the diseases. The level of infection in a particular city is represented by a different number of colored cubes: from 1-3. Over the course of the game, you will attempt to reduce the number of disease cubes in cites, and eventually find a cure. Every turn, you'll also be adding more disease cubes to the board. If a city already has 3 disease cubes and you need to add another one, an Outbreak occurs.

Outbreaks tend to be pretty devastating, since they can elicit a chain reaction. When a city outbreaks, you add a disease cube to every adjacent city (connected by the red lines). If one of those cities also had 3 cubes already, then it will Outbreak as well. And so on. If you're not careful, in a single turn you can have a chain reaction of 4 or 5 Outbreaks. Once you get to 8 Outbreaks, you lose the game.

Here's an Infection card, which would have you add a black disease cube to Algiers. I mentioned that only 9 cities in the world are initially infected with disease. As the game progresses, however, new cities get added to this list. At the end of every game turn, there's an "Infection" phase, when you draw 2-4 more infection cards. You add a disease cube to each of these cities. If this intiates an Outbreak, you're in trouble. New infections can also occur through the "Epidemic" card.

Herein lies a very clever game mechanic. When you draw the Epidemic card, you add 3 disease cubes to a new city. You then shuffle all the Infection cards that have already been drawn, and place them back on top of the draw pile. What this means is that you'll now start going through Infection cards that have been played previously - and those cities may very well be on the edge of Outbreaks. Thus, in a typical game of Pandemic, diseases are limited to a certain number of "hot-spots" which you have to keep under control; every game will be different, because the initial disease seeding is determined randomly. When I first saw this mechanic in action, I was thoroughly impressed. It manages to capture the essence of disease transmission and creates a profound tension, due to the uncertainly of when another Epidemic will occur.

So how are you supposed to combat these diseases? Fundamentally, Pandemic uses a "set-collection" mechanic, whereby you need to collect 5 cards of a single color in order to cure a disease. Each turn, a player takes 2 cards from the Player Draw pile. These cards represent the cities of the world and their respective colors. For example, here's the card for Buenos Aires:

I really appreciate the amount of detail that went into these cards. Informative and attractive. Once you have 5 yellows cards, you can visit a Research Station to cure the yellow disease. Once you cure all four diseases, you win the game.

Here's someone who's got enough cards to cure red:

On the board, each player is represented by a giant Pawn. You can move your Pawn to the various hot-spots on the board through a limited set of actions:

These "flights" usually involve discarding a card from your hand, so you often face the tough decision of whether to hold onto a card because you're trying to collect a full set of that color, or to use that card as your ticket to halfway around the world.

Note that there are also several special actions that you can take each turn, including building research stations and treating a disease (reducing the cube count in your city by 1).

Each turn you only get 4 actions total, so you need to choose and plan carefully. For example, you could move from Atlanta, GA to Washington, DC (1st action, no card discard necessary), treat a disease and remove a cube (2nd action), discard the "Moscow" card from your hand and fly to Russia (3rd action), and treat a disease there as well (4th action). After you complete your actions, you draw 2 more cards into your hand and infect more cities.

To make your task a little easier, each player also gets a certain "role" in the beginning of the game. For example, here's the Medic card, which lets you remove all cubes of a single color from a city, instead of just 1. This guy can really cut through hot-spots, reducing the threat of Outbreaks while the remaining players concentrate on collecting cards and generating cures.

It's this cooperative element of Pandemic that really sets it apart from its peers. You aren't trying to beat the person sitting next to you - you're trying to work with them to save the world from complete annihilation. To this end, you are encouraged to talk through your decisions with the other players, generate a common strategy, and divide-&-conquer. Betty the Medic might fly to east Asia, for example, to get rid of all those red cubes threatening Outbreaks, while Barney the Operations Expert heads to South America to deal with yellow and build a remote Research Station.

Because it's cooperative, Pandemic is perfectly suited for solitaire play: you just end up playing multiple roles yourself. Interestingly, the game becomes significantly harder the more players that you add. A 2 player game is relatively easy to win, but 4 can be downright insane. Furthermore, it's easy to increase/decrease the difficulty level by adding/subtracting Epidemic cards from the Player Draw pile.

Overall, I find Pandemic to be a really satisfying and tense gaming experience. You can finish a session in 30-45 minutes, and it doesn't take more than 10 to understand the rules, making it a great casual play. Every game will be different due to the initial infection draw and the variety of roles to play. When I first got Pandemic, I played it regularly and was just thrilled with how "different" it felt. After a while, I started to lose some interest - probably because a lot of the time I actually want to play against other people, not against a game. But I can heartily recommend this one to those of you who want a relatively quick game to play with your mate(s), and wish they'd do a better remake of the moderately compelling, but ultimately disappointing, Outbreak. It's more fun than tuberculosis.

1 comment:

  1. We grew up in Alamogordo and three years ago we lived in Albuquerque for two years. How about U?