A previous post mentioned that I’ve started playing board games. So far my favourite 2-player board-game is the award winning Pandemic (the game teased in that previous post). This game plays incredibly well with anywhere from 2 to 4 people, and would probably still work even played solo. This is because in Pandemic players are not competing against each other. Instead everyone cooperates as a team against the board game itself.
The aim of Pandemic is prevent overwhelming waves of disease spreading across the globe, and victory is achieved by curing them. If there are too many disease outbreaks or time runs out, then the game is lost. The board is a map of major world cities with little coloured cubes to denote the prevalence of particular diseases. Players take on the role of various CDC employees, each with their own special abilities. Each turn there are various possible actions: move around the globe; treat disease in the current city; work towards a cure; and more. At the end of each turn players collect cards from the “player deck” which can be used to either speed movement or aid cure research. A card can be used for one or the other, but not both. This sets up a nice dilemma – use a card to travel quickly to a hot zone or save it towards a long-term cure. These cards can also be traded between players, but only if they are both in the appropriate city. This complicates teamwork, as being spread out helps contain disease quickly, but being close aids research through card trading. After the player cards comes the infection stage, when a few cities have the amount of disease in them increased. If there is too much disease in a city then an outbreak occurs, spreading to neighboring cities.
The brilliance of the game comes from its pacing. If the game was entirely as described above then players could formulate long-term plans towards cures, and then steadily move forwards with occasional diversions for threatening situations. Instead, there are epidemics and a resulting period of panic as everything seems to be going wrong. In the player deck are between 4 to 6 epidemic cards. The number of such cards determines the game’s difficulty. When an epidemic card is drawn a random new city is given the maximum amount of disease. Then that city’s infection card, and all the previously drawn infection cities and shuffled and placed back on the top of the infection deck. BACK ON THE TOP! This means that all the previously infected cities will soon be infected again, and if they haven’t been treated then there is a good chance of an outbreak.
This great mechanic brings a little bit of stress to the game. Plans tend to fall apart once an epidemic occurs. Getting two such cards in quick succession mean the players will struggle for some time to get back to a state where they can plan cures. The way the rules suggest shuffling the cards prevents 3 epidemics in a row – because such an event would almost certainly mean the end of the game. Each game I’ve played so far has been a rollercoaster, the careful execution of plans punctuated by setbacks from epidemics. It is also very well balanced, my win rate has been around 50% (but getting better as I’m still learning), but I also haven’t tried the hardest 6-epidemic version yet.
A game takes about 45 minutes to complete, but another 5 minutes to set up. The production values are high, all the components feel well-made (out of plastic and cardboard). There are a number of expansion sets, but I haven’t played them. There are also some alternative “scenarios” online – essentially alternative rules. I found a couple of official scenarios while writing this, available here, and here. I’ll have to give them a try.
Pandemic is a game that gets so much right. The pacing and balance is near perfect. The idea of a cooperative board game is new to me, but works very well. I can highly recommend giving this game a try if you have the chance.