By July 30, 2009

Pandemic board game review

With H1N1 (“swine flu”) still making the headlines, I thought it was time to write up Pandemic, a co-operative board game that pits up to four people against four diseases that threaten to take over the world.

Made by Z-Man Games, Pandemic requires at least two people to play. The game starts out with all players in Atlanta, GA (presumably at the Center of Disease Control). Twelve randomly determined cities throughout the world have been infected by the four diseases. Game setup determines what cities are “sick,” but each disease will infest three cities. One unit of disease is represented by one cube. The more cubes on a city, the more infected it is. When a city gets four infection cubes the disease jumps to a nearby city, thus spreading across the globe.

The game is lost if there are eight outbreaks, or if there are no more cards to draw, or if all of the disease cubes are used.

Players randomly draw an occupation card at the start of the game. I won’t list them all here, but the occupations allow you to either bend the game’s rules or grant you special abilities. For example, the Medic can cure infected cities more effectively than anyone else. The Operations Expert can build a disease research center without the pieces required by other players. Every role can help win the game more easily, but I find the Scientist and the Dispatcher to be the most important.

The object of the game is to research the cures of all four diseases. This is done by accumulating five (or four, if you are the Scientist) city cards of the appropriately colored disease. Players have up to four actions per turn. Moving from one city to the next is one action. Curing one cube’s worth of disease is one action. You may travel to any city on the board by discarding the appropriately named card (e.g., you can travel to Milan from anywhere if you discard the Milan card). Other actions include building a disease research center, trading cards to and from players in the same city, and researching a cure, etc.

There are two stacks of cards: white “city” cards, and black “infection” cards. The city cards enable you to travel from place and research the cure for diseases. Disease spreads at the end of every player’s turn. Players reveal two to four cards from the infection pile and add one disease cube per city. When an epidemic occurs, you shuffle all of the previously played infection cards together and then put them back on top of the infection pile. This means that cities that were infected before the epidemic will have another wave of infection. It’s one of the few ways the game reinforces the social aspect of epidemiology, and often the only time during the game that players say, “oh shit.”

You can scale up the difficulty by adding or subtracting epidemic cards. I believe the novice version is only three epidemic cards, the hardest version is six. My game only came with five epidemic cards; I wrote the publisher about five weeks ago and he said he’d send me a replacement once the game was reprinted.

So, here’s the problem with Pandemic. It’s like the porridge and beds in the three bears’s house. It isn’t easy enough to be explained clearly to new players without playing the game first. It isn’t hard enough to challenge repeat players. It isn’t simple enough for people new to gaming in general. It isn’t complex enough for veterans. While the game’s topic is interesting, it isn’t nearly as much fun as colonizing space or fighting hordes of goblins. The worst blow to Pandemic in the house was when I asked if people wanted to play it or Black Sheep, which is a very simple game. Everyone voted for Black Sheep.

My friend Stilts brought up another strike against Pandemic. It’s co-operative, but still stressful. We played a rather tense game where we all wanted to do slightly different things and people got fiesty over what was the best move. If we’re going to be dicks to each other, we might as well play a head-to-head game that involves gloating and chest-thumping. So there’s another knock against the game: it has all of the stress of a game where you play against your friends, but none of the satisfaction when you kick the shit out of them.

After owning the game for a few months, we’ve only played it a half dozen times. The greatest problem with Pandemic is that it isn’t good enough to compete with the other games in our arsenal. If you don’t have many games, or are super interested in science, Pandemic may be for you. However, if you already own a large game library, Pandemic may wind up collecting dust.

Not recommended.

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2 Comments on "Pandemic board game review"

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  1. Ed says:

    When you and I played it I didn’t particularly car for Pandemic. Just not quite enough there for me.

  2. Spectre says:

    I wish I knew some folks who would play board games with me…namely Zombies!!!