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Pandemic Review

pandemic box

Pandemic was the co-operative game that launched a thousand flabby imitators. The genre became fashionable and designers and publishers started churning out identikit games to satisfy the kind of uncritical, rabid demand that only glaze-eyed, obsessed nerds can muster. Most were awful, and the few co-op games that really satisfied did so by breaking the mold and doing something different. And in the morass, Pandemic went out of print and kind of sank out of sight.

But now its back in a spanking new edition. New art furnishes the board and cards, and the wooden disease cubes have been replaced by transparent plastic in suitably lurid colours. The gameplay, aside from a couple of new role cards, has hardly changed. And we’re here to see if we can remember just why playing Pandemic made the co-operative model so appealing in the first place.

Each player gets a random special role such as scientist or dispatcher, and the team must pool skills and resources to travel the world attempting to cure four lethal diseases that have somehow arisen simultaneously to plague humanity. How this happened is not explained. Neither is why the governments of the globe have seen fit to fund no more than four individuals to fight this crisis. But this is a European-style game after all, so we’ll forgive that and get down to business.

The meat of the game is that players travel from city to city, trying to accumulate a set of matching coloured cards to find a cure for the disease of the same hue, while firefighting outbreaks by curing groups of infected individuals in places they pass through. It’s full of the sorts of checks and balances you’ve seen a hundred times before: the tug between accumulating or spending cards, a limited action pool with tons to do, co-ordinating board positions to swap resources.

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Where Pandemic really takes off is its chillingly realistic disease model. If too much infection accumulates in one place, it spreads, increasing the amount of disease in adjacent cities. Which may, in turn, trigger the malady in that city to burst and splatter over its neighbours and so on, in a repulsively virulent chain reaction.

That’s bad enough, but naturally the game goes to considerably length to make this as likely as possible. Normally, each turn, a few cities get extra disease by flipping cards off the top of the infection deck. But the other deck, the player deck, is loaded with horrible epidemic cards. Draw one of these and the discarded infection cards get put back into the main deck. But here’s the kicker: you don’t shuffle them back in, but shuffle them and put them on the top so all the cities already diseased are in line to get another dose all over again.

These linked mechanics are what really sets Pandemic apart from its many imitators. They all share the basic concept of a situation that gradually gets more and more out of control as the players struggle to contain it. But in Pandemic, the problem doesn’t simply rise at a relatively gradual rate, it can suddenly and unexpectedly explode. The situation can transform from one of relative stability to utter chaos in the space of a single turn. And that means every card draw carries with it the delightful aroma of seat-edge terror.

pandemic cubes of luridity

You might imagine this would suck all the strategy out of the game, but it doesn’t. The fact that infections go back on top of the draw pile means card counting can make a big difference. As can doing your level best to ensure that cities don’t accumulate enough disease to cause an outbreak or, if that’s just not possible, at least make sure that adjacent spaces aren’t in a situation to kick each other off and spread like wildfire.

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But then again, while player decisions do make a difference, it’s here that the game starts to fall foul of the problems that bedevil the genre. If the decks are loaded against you, you’re stuffed no matter how skillfully you co-ordinate your globetrotting mercy missions. Some people don’t mind this, but personally I find the idea that you might have lost before you’ve ever drawn a card rather off-putting.

Worse, the strategy isn’t really deep enough to avoid the dreaded alpha-dog syndrome in which the most experienced or skillful player just bosses the others around. And they agree to playing second fiddle because it’s in the groups shared interest to take the best option and thus the collective win. It’s an all too common situation in co-ops, and nothing is more guaranteed to suck all the fun and cleverly wrought tension of the game. Pandemic offers a feeble sop in the form of individual roles with their own powers, but it doesn’t really help.

Some of the more complex and varied co-operatives that came after managed to overcome these inherent problems basically by throwing in detail, variety and dice. When you’ve got a bigger number of interlinked decks, more decision points and the mechanics between them are mediated by un-stackable, random dice it gets harder both to see an unarguably “best” choice at any given point, or to believe that the starting situation is predestined for failure.

Pandemic, though, is a European style game through and through and that means it’s at pains to be as simple and quick as possible. And it is: it’s easy enough that my eight-year old could play it with me, and games play to conclusion in less than ninety minutes, sometimes much less once you’ve practiced with the administrative overhead of the game.

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That is, of course, a sword that cuts both ways. While stripping back the mechanics means the game struggles to overcome the inertia inherent in the co-operative model, it does make it wonderfully accessible. And in happy coincidence, many of those people who might easily be turned off a board game due to perceived inaccessibility are also delighted by the idea of playing a non-competitive game.

And that’s Pandemic’s saving grace. It’s possibly the ultimate family game, easy to get into, difficult to beat and free from the acrimony that unfortunately creeps in to competitive gaming even in the most loving families. It’s even slightly educational, thanks to that clever chain infection mechanic and the geographically accurate board. If you’re gaming with gamers, and in it for the long haul, pick another co-operative game. For any other situation Pandemic is the original, and still the best.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

22 thoughts to “Pandemic Review”

  1. I love Pandemic. It is indeed a very family-friendly game, possibly the perfect option to get people who don’t normally play board games to do so. It’s cooperative so they won’t feel pressured to win, and the theme is readily accessible to people who aren’t huge nerds. I would argue that while it is a European style game, I think it has more theme than most Euro games I’ve seen. Compared to something like Dominion (why does having a village in my kingdom let me play more cards exactly?) the theme of Pandemic is loud and clear. I’d argue that it’s one of those Euro-American hybrids we’re seeing more of these days, though probably still leaning more Euro.

    The “alpha player” problem is something I always see come up with co-op games, and Pandemic in particular. While it is something to be aware of when introducing people to the game (I always let them make the decision for their turn, I don’t mind losing, but I’ll gladly offer advice if asked), I see this as more of a problem with the players than the game itself. Co-op games are always going to have this problem, and there’s only two solutions I can think of:

    1) It’s timed, like Space Alert, so one player cannot possibly do everything in the game by themselves. Unlike Pandemic, which can totally be played solo (which is a nice feature IMO and WHERE THE HELL IS MY IPAD VERSION OF THIS?!)

    2) Like you said, the strategy is so complex that the “best” play isn’t obvious. But this doesn’t really solve the alpha player problem though. You’ll still have the alpha player being bossy and arguing that their choice is correct, which isn’t really much different than Pandemic. It’s just that the other players might not be so convinced, but you’ll still have arguments.

    If you decide that this problem is serious enough that you can only make a co-op game with these, I think we lose a lot of design space. I think, like any board game, you just have to be aware of who you’re playing it with, and make sure they’re not sucking all the fun out of your gaming session.

    The forthcoming In The Lab expansion seems slightly dubious to me, but I should really pick up the On The Brink expansion. I love the virulent strain epidemic idea and the fifth disease that’s radically different than the others. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the new art design with the second edition of the game. I like it! Yeah, it looks a little too “trying to be cool” I suppose, but I like the computer-style imagery for the world map, and I love the transparent plastic cubes! I know board gamers have this obsession with wooden components (they are quite nice), but the transparency of the cubes make them look like little disease cells under a microscope or something. Very thematic, if you ask me.

    1. Also, I really have to mention that I think the epidemic mechanic is one of the most brilliantly elegant things ever. It’s really the linchpin of the game. It’s so simple, yet it makes perfect thematic and mechanical sense. When you explain it to people, even hardcore gamers are like “Oh that’s awesome!” It makes me smile every time. ??

    2. I think pouring in complexity and variety does solve the alpha-dog problem. Sure you’ll still get bossy players and you’ll still get arguments but suddenly, instead of dictating the course of the game, they become its lifeblood. You’re actually co-operating, rather than just playing follow-my-leader.

      Some time ago I wrote a long and tortured article about all the inherent problems with the co-operative paradigm. I won’t dig out a link because it wasn’t very good: I should re-write a cleaner version. But I essentially identified three things a co-op needs to work. First, the aforementioned variety (and often complexity too). Second, something that looks like an AI, making moves on the game’s behalf. Thirdly, the capacity to encourage players to make independent decisions.

      Most euro-style co-op games manage the latter but not the first two. And frankly, if that cuts out a lot of design space then all the better because the games that live in it are almost uniformly awful. I mean, seriously: you might like Pandemic, but how many of its competitors have you played? There’s some dire knockoff rubbish out there, like Red November and Forbidden Island.

      1. The first and third things I understand, but how exactly can you get the second? If the players are all working against the game itself, it seems like the only option is for the game to basically just be a randomizer, which is what Pandemic is. I don’t see how you could get an AI-like thing in a boardgame. Are there any co-op games you think actually embody all three, or at least that second one that seems impossible to me?

        1. Arkham Horror, Ghost Stories and the D&D Adventure system games all do it.

          You’re right in the sense that it’s actually an illusion. The fact that game system actually moves pieces in those three games is mechanically little different from the way cubes spread in Pandemic.

          What makes it important is that it helps the players feel like they’re playing against a living, breathing opponent rather than just a bunch of systems. It’s quite a different experience to flip a card and place some cubes than to find a Shoggoth barrelling down the street toward you.

      2. Since Forbidden Island was designed by the Pandemic designer, is it fair to call it a knockoff? Asking for a friend who likes it.

        1. I would say so. Indeed a designer who simply recycles his own ideas is arguably worse than someone else doing it.

          1. “Forbidden Island” is meant as a very light version of some of the elements of Pandemic, and it plays very fast and light. Think of it as “Catan Dice”.

  2. I am also a big fan of Pandemic.

    But to your ‘lost before the first card draw’ example, we had an incredibly memorable game once where a friend of mine on his first turn had what can only be described as the worst series of draws possible and literally ended the game as the first player taking his first turn by triggering a series of outbreaks and then an end-game condition to boot.

    IIRC, he sent the outbreak level soaring above the game ending condition and that was that.

    1. I didn’t even think that was possible. It must be so unlikely to occur that when it rarely does, it’s just hilarious instead of frustrating. ??

      1. Oh it WAS hilarious.

        I wouldn’t have thought it possible either, but it was literally a one in a million perfect storm where things chained together JUST right. We went back over it 3 times just to make sure it had actually happened like we thought it did and couldn’t find a way around it.

  3. I think I sense some disdain for the co-op genre as a whole here, but if in your opinion a gamer’s-gamer should choose another co-op, and yet the arena is full of awful, flabby imitators, which ones would you suggest? Thanks!

    1. Yes, you’re right. I’m pretty down on the genre as a whole. But Pandemic makes the grade.

      The others that do, as I mention in the comment above, are Arkham Horror, Ghost Stories and the D&D Adventure System games (Wrath of Ashardalon is the best of these in my opinion).

      Some people also seem to like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. Those people are mistaken.

      1. Lord of the Rings is a good game. With the Friends & Foes expansion it is rather amazing. So, there!

        My other go-to for coop is Forbidden Island, which is an easier Pandemic that plays really well with 3. It maintains the really great sense of tension though.

        1. Yeah, Forbidden Island is basically Pandemic-light, which I don’t really get. It’s a little simpler I suppose, but Pandemic is already pretty simple rules-wise to teach people. The mechanics are pretty much lifted straight, but I feel they don’t work as well with the theme as Pandemic. Pandemic is not the most strategically complex game, yes, but it’s very tight with theme and mechanics.

          I love the theme of Arkham Horror (big Lovecraft fan) but I’ve heard it takes a long time to play, and you can basically be randomly screwed over by the game at the very end pretty easily. I should mention that I haven’t actually played it though. There is a random “screwing” factor in Pandemic, but it escalates steadily. You know what cities you’ve seen so far that are going to start coming up again when the next epidemic hits, so while you can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, you have a pretty good idea where trouble will be. My understanding is AH can be much more random in what it throws at you.

          Ghost Stories, I’ve heard great things about from all the Shut Up & Sit Down guys, but everything I’ve seen says it is brutally difficult. Pandemic is brutal enough as it is. I don’t know if I can handle Ghost Stories, though I would like to try. ??

          1. Arkham Horror is very fun, but super long and very fiddly.

            Ghost Stories is easily my favourite co-op, but it is brutally challenging to the point where my group will rarely play it any more because they feel it’s ridiculously punishing. I like the challenge, but I can see their point.

          2. Ghost stories played as written is absurdly difficult, but it’s very a game that rewards planning and strategy, more so than a lot of co-ops. That’s one of the cool things about it. Once you’ve got the basics down, it becomes somewhat easier but I suspect a lot of players never get that far: they just break a few teeth on the first couple of games and give up.

            There are some very simple tweaks to make it more interesting. Firstly, and slightly bizarrely, it’s actually easier with less players. So try it with two, or adapt the solo rules to work with more players.

            Secondly, and my preferred option, rather than randomizing player powers, board layout and Wu-Feng, let the players choose. This adds a new layer of strategy to the game as well as making things a bit easier, so when you win it feels more like an accomplishment.

        2. With Friends & Foes, it’s no longer a co-op. So it takes transforming it into a competitive game to make it worthwhile.

          1. Matt, I think you’re thinking of Sauron.

            F&F adds the two extra boards plus the fight/enemy track you have to contend with.

            Still a great expansion though!

      2. I love Arkham Horror and the D&D Adventures, but it feels dishonest for someone who gave Pandemic a hard time for occasionally having a no-win state from the start to recommend Ghost Stories. It’s much the same game, at least in the threat mechanics, except the player deck is replaced with dice, so not only can you have the deck stacked against you, but the dice can also screw you even when the cards haven’t!

        I don’t know, I’ve played a ton of Ghost Stories and love the art/theme, but I’m not really sure it’s a good design, considering how capricious and brutal it usually is.

  4. Pandemic was one of the first games I got. It works well because I could play it on my married people game night’s and I could play it with my gaming group and actually try to win.

    1. If you aren’t trying to win on Married People Night, how do you decide what to do in the game? The other players wouldn’t be happy if they felt you were intentionally throwing the game. Is it like a role-playing thing?

      “My wheelbarrow got a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. All hotels are rent-free this turn!”

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