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Game Preview: Contagion, or Viruses on the Attack

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game Publisher: Z-Man Games
One of the other upcoming games on display at Z-Man Games HQ during International TableTop Day was Carey Grayson's Contagion, which might end up bearing the Pandemic banner and being part of that family of games because Contagion involves viruses that infect cities around the world — but this time the players control the viruses, so they're the ones doing the infecting.

Yes, in Contagion you're trying to spread disease and illness to the far corners of the globe, preferably in a way that lets you boast about your superiority when you're hanging out at the club after work with fellow viruses. How do you prove that your top bug? By scoring points via area majority when a city is infected enough to be considered uninhabitable by man or virus.

Board Game: Pandemic: Contagion
All images feature non-final names, components, artwork, etc.

Contagion, which is for 2-5 players, feels a bit like Ted Alspach's Perpetual-Motion Machine in that players have a hand of cards that they can use in order to affect the number of cards they draw and cubes they place, but in PMM you're just trying to get rid of your cubes as quickly as you can, whereas in Contagion you have the larger focus of using those cubes in order to infect cities, preferably those where you can benefit in some manner. On a turn you take two actions; three actions are available, and you can take the same action twice. Those actions are:

• Draw cards equal to your current infection rate.
• Discard enough cards to advance a mutation to the next level, thereby allowing you to draw more cards, place more cubes, or resist human counter-attacks.
• Discard cards matching the color of the city you want to start to infect (two cards) or infect more (one card), using any two cards as a joker, if you wish. Place cubes equal to your current transmission rate.

Board Game: Pandemic: Contagion
Going into Johannesburg with one brown card and a joker (two other cards)

Each city card has a colored border (with all cities on the same continent having a matching border), a special action awarded to the player who places the final cube on the card, and three numbers; the large number shows the number of cubes needed to close the city and the number of points scored by whoever has the majority of cubes in this city when it closes, while the two smaller numbers show the points awarded to those with the second- and third-most cubes.

Despite your viral nature, the number of cubes you have at hand is limited, so if you try to close out a large city on your own — say, Tokyo or Sao Paulo — you're going to be waiting for some other virus to show up many turns down the road after they've finished infecting everything else. Don't do that. Make small incursions into a city, see whether others follow in your tiny footsteps, then try to close it out while you're in control.

Naturally this won't be possible on a regular basis, partly due to Contagion being a card game with you somewhat at the mercy of which cards are drawn when, and partly due to other players scooping your spots, but also due to event cards and disease preventative measures undertaken by the World Health Organization (WHO) that force you to react to changing circumstances.

Board Game: Pandemic: Contagion

At the start of each round after the first, you draw the top card from the event/WHO deck, which is seeded in a particular order with event cards and WHO cards, with not all of them being used in each game. Events take place at the start, end or middle of your turn, as specified on the card, and they might benefit or harm you directly — say, by giving you a contagion card for each city you infect or forcing you to remove cubes from the board — or they might affect what's possible on a turn, such as making it more or less costly to infect a city.

The WHO cards are generally bad for you, but that's to be expected given that organization's role as your nemesis. Thankfully, you can boost your resistance against the humans and their feeble efforts to stay healthy. In game terms, each level that you drop your resistance allows you to lessen by one whatever the penalty would be. Need to remove three cubes from the board? Drop your resistance by two, and now you need to pull back only one. Of course building resistance means that you need to forgo the more aggressive actions of drawing and infecting, but you're a smart virus, so I'm sure you can figure out what needs to be done when.

Some event cards feature a city icon, which brings a new city card into play, or a skull; when the second skull comes out, you have an intermediate scoring round in which whoever has the most cubes in a city scores points equal to the lowest value in that city. Once the event/WHO deck runs out or only two city cards remain in play, the game ends, with players conducting a final scoring round to see which virus is victorious.

I played the Contagion prototype once with three players, and as in many area majority games, you need to find the balance between domination and mere presence. I placed a lone cube in Sao Paulo, for example, before realizing it was likely a hopeless cause, but because everyone else ignored that city until near the end of the game, I scored eight points from it during two intermediate scoring rounds. Go, lone cube! The special actions on city cards give you an incentive to go somewhere even if you're not claiming the majority, and since you tend to pick up points at the same time, you're often looking for that final strike. (Unless an opponent has most of her cubes tied up in that city, mind you, as then you'll want to let her stew while you do more productive things.)

Aside from the gameplay, Contagion gives you a fun look at human life from a virus' point of view...

Board Game: Pandemic: Contagion
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