May 2018 be all you dreamed it would be and be all that you dreamed...
This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.
If you liked the review please thumb the top of the article so others have a better chance of seeing it and I know you stopped by. Thanks for reading.
Game Type - Co-operative/Solo Game
Play Time: 30-45 minutes
Number of Players: 1-4
Mechanics - Action Point Allowance System, Co-operative, Hand Management, Point to Point Movement, Variable Player Powers
Difficulty - Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in under 10 minutes)
Components - Excellent
Release - 2008
Designer - Matt Leacock - (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island, Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age)
Overview and Theme
Way back in 2008 (I say way back purely because there are likely to be some gamers new to our hobby that have been gaming for less time than this has been in circulation), a guy called Matt Leacock released a game with a strange theme and an engaging name. A Pandemic is defined as a disease that covers a very wide area or the world. A disease that crosses international boundaries and affects many (millions) of people.
This was the first instance of a game that I can recall with such an unusual theme, but the title had resonance. However a catchy title (pun intended ) does not make a game good all by itself.
Pandemic is a co-operative game in which the players take on the roles of various specialists tasked with the mission of fighting infectious disease. In particular there are 4 diseases that threaten to cripple the world and run the risk of taking humanity to the point of no return.
It is rather dark stuff in essence, but the reality of the game is that the theme is not overly played, either in the flavour text of the intro or in the graphic representation of the game. I think this was probably key to its success in the mainstream market.
As a co-op Pandemic was undoubtedly the first big co-operative hit within the strategy/tabletop market. Certainly games like Lord of the Rings (2000) and Shadows Over Camelot 2005) both predate this classic and enjoyed success, but Pandemic took the concept of the co-op to new heights and also achieved unparalleled success. So much so that I believe it was Pandemic that paved the way for the genre to flourish with titles like Defenders of the Realm and Fire Rescue too name but a couple.
Part of the reason for that success was undoubtedly the fact that Pandemic was so easy to play solo, which again paved the way for many titles to come. Although it should be noted that Ghost Stories was released in the same year which also has to take some credit. It really was a great year for the co-op/solo genre in 2008.
That all said, a game that has over 200 reviews on this site alone really doesn't need to be covered again. But I indulge myself every now and again. I have just rediscovered the game having taught it to my gal and although I am on the record as saying I prefer Defenders of the Realm, I really appreciate the design behind Pandemic.
I also thought it timely to finally review Pandemic given the smash release of Legacy late this year (2015). I have that sucker sitting on the floor just begging to be played this holiday season also.
My aim here is simple. To cover the game for those that may have missed it along the way and also to use the advantage of hindsight to look at this title, identify why it has been so popular and to see how well it has stood up.
So grab your sterilising mask and join me as I delve into the culture dish that is Pandemic!
In keeping with the boxfront image used above, this section of the review will look at the components of the classic edition. Keep in mind that a newer edition has now been released with a Hollywood styled front cover shot and a board given the digital artwork treatment.
I still think the old school components are quite good.
Board - The board is an interesting affair as it is kind of mounted and then it isn't. It doesn't adhere to the usual Euro standard but it is thick enough and it has a smooth texture that I quite like.
The board depicts the world (or the majority of it anyway) and key cities, 48 in all, are dotted across it and connected by distinctive red lines. The cities are clustered to correlate to key areas of the main continents and these are coloured to match the colours of the diseases. Therefore the overall visual is akin to Pro Hart having splattered 4 coloured paints in various areas. This plays into the design and how each of the diseases are distributed. Each city circle on the board also features a symbol (same symbol for like colours) to assist the colour blind.
Two tracks feature to monitor the rate of Infection and Outbreaks and they make use of a circular design. Finally spots are set aside on the board to hold the two decks of cards. It's all very nice and functional and does the job.
Role Cards - There are 5 role cards in all and each features a given colour to help match each player to their pawn. The artwork is hardly required but evokes the theme a little more and the powers are well set out to make them straightforward.
Thankfully they use a matte/linen finish...as do all the cards in the game. Ticks all round for this.
Image Courtesy of ZiggyZambo
Player Pawns - The pawns are really oooooold school as I can remember using something similar for roll and move games of the 1960s.
That said, anything more extravagant here and they would have probably felt like the game was over-produced.
Image Courtesy of TimothyP
Player Cards - The basic player cards represent a card for each city on the board. These cards are coloured to match the colour of their location on the board and include a symbol to assist the colour blind (kudos Z-Man).
Whilst totally without function, the cards also feature two statistics on that city...the population and I think it must be the amount of land (square meters) per person.
Of course it will date over time but I like this sort of guff and it makes for an interesting historical footnote.
Special Player and Epidemic Cards - Then there are these two card types. Specialty Cards come in yellow and black and they offer a special power to the players that can help turn the struggle in their favour.
The Epidemic Cards are an infected looking green and have EPIDEMIC! emblazoned across the top. Learn to fear these! To help with the play when one of these are drawn, the 3 required steps are printed on the cards, which is nice.
Infection Cards - The final set of cards are the Infection Cards. Like the basic Player Cards, each of these represents a city in the game. Again these cards are colour coded and feature the same symbol as that featured on each city on the board.
To help differentiate these from the city-based Player Cards, the Infection cards are printed horizontally whereas the other cards are vertically printed.
Reference Cards - Oh I should mention that each player can receive a Reference Card, which is double sided. One side outlines the basic movement actions and how they work and the other outlines the special actions that can be taken.
Disease Cubes - The Disease Cubes are the standard Euro fare and these come in 4 colours to differentiate one disease from another.
Image Courtesy of zombiegod
Special Tokens - The game also throws in an Infection and Outbreak Token to be used on the two tracks of the same name and a further 4 tokens featuring a Jar to track which diseases have been cured and/or Eradicated.
Image Courtesy of EnigmaProphet
Research Stations - Several wooden houses are also included to act as Research Stations. These are bone in colour (in fact they are colourless) and they are reminiscent of the Settlers of Catan villages.
Image Courtesy of henk.rolleman
Rules - The rules are very well laid out make good use of sidebars and various coloured windows to make important info stand out.
Overall the component production of Pandemic won't win any lifetime achievement awards but the use of classic wood and the quality of the cards are all ticks in the plus column. Much like a good sports referee, after a while you should not notice them but they get the job done.
Image Courtesy of labelmesmall
The game is a pretty easy set-up, with one or two fiddly points.
All of the Disease Cubes are placed in individual stockpiles. Each player receives a number of Player Cards based on the number or players (2 with 4 players for example).
The Infection Deck is shuffled up and then 9 cards are drawn, one at a time. The first 3 cards result in 3 Disease Cubes being placed on them (of matching colour to each card). The next 3 require two cubes and the final 3 a solitary cube. The cards drawn in this way are then placed in the discard pile to await the first Epidemic Card (more on that later).
The remaining Player Cards are then shuffled up and used to form a number of stacks based on the player's choice of difficulty level. One Epidemic Card is then inserted into each stack and the stacks should again be shuffled individually before being stacked on top of each other. In this way the players will not know exactly when an Epidemic Card is likely to appear and this adds to the tension.
A Research Station is placed at Atlanta and each player takes a role card along with a matching coloured pawn (roles can be selected or drawn at random). Pawns are also placed in Atlanta.
Finally the Infection and Outbreak Tokens are placed on their respective tracks and each player takes a reference card if they need one. A start player is selected and the game is ready to go.
Whilst the initial intro ('you are members of a highly skilled disease fighting team') may not sound that exciting, it is really just the premise for each player having to take on one of the 5 roles on offer in the base game.
What is exciting is the notion of having to save the world from 4 diseases that spread at an alarming rate. To combat the threat to human survival the game allows its players to take action using an Action Point (AP) Allowance System. Each player has 4 APs to spend in a single turn. They can be spent in the following ways :-
Image Courtesy of christmasape Whilst the ultimate goal may be to discover the cures to each of the 4 diseases, the players cannot ignore the spread of each plague.
In order to treat the various afflictions and reduce their overall threat, the players have to travel to the areas of greatest concern. But it's a big old world to get around (well a 48 city world in the case of Pandemic )...
Drive/Ferry - For the cost of 1 AP a player can move to an adjacent city that is connected to their current location. A player can spend all 4 or their points in this way if they wish. It's slow but it can be effective in a region that is infected badly.
Direct Flight - A player can fly to any city in the world if they are prepared to discard the card matching the city they wish to fly to, from their hand. It's an effective way to travel long distances quickly but discarding cards is not desirable in most cases (this will become apparent shortly).
Charter Flight - By discarding a City Card that matches a player's current location, a player can travel to any city of their choice in the world.
Shuttle Flight - For the cost of one action a player can shuttle from one city with a Research Station to another containing a Research Station without the cost of a card. This is the most efficient way to travel but it does limit a player to the cities and regions with Research Stations and of course they have to be built during the game (as only 1 exists in the beginning), which also requires actions to be spent.
Fighting the Good Fight - So that covers how the players get around, but it doesn't actually help them to contain the spread of viruses. To do that will also require actions. Each of the following options also come at the cost of a single action point.
Discover a Cure - If a player holds 5 cards of the same colour and spends an action point at a city with a Research Station, they can discard the cards to discover the cure to the disease of the matching colour. Given that there are only 12 cards for each colour (1 for each city on the board), 5 cards constitutes a considerable effort.
This is especially true when cards can be discarded for movement purposes or for exceeding the hand limit (more on that in a moment).
Treat a Disease - For a single action point a player can remove a Disease Cube from a city that they are in. A player can remove multiple cubes from a city in this way or chose to treat a cube move and treat other Disease Cubes.
With this action the players can try to keep the diseases in check and limit the risk of dangerous Outbreaks!
Build a Research Station - If a player is in a city and they hold the matching City Card, they can discard it to build a Research Station.
Research Stations are crucial for enabling the team to move around more freely but it comes at the cost of a card and an action. Nothing is easy in the world of Pandemic.
Share Knowledge - The final action available is to share knowledge with your disease fighting team. This is simulated by allowing the players to give or take a card from someone else. However to do so the players involved in the knowledge sharing must be in the same city and only the card of the city they are in can be passed. In other words...it's a damned pain in the neck!
The Roles - Thankfully the player's roles, as experts in their fields, help make the task at hand a little easier...but only a little. Essentially each character has some abilities that can circumvent the rules as outlined above.
As my intern I implore you to read on...
- The Dispatcher - This role has the ability to move other player's pawns as if they were their own (for an action). They can also move any pawn to a city containing another player.
The catch with this role though is that the movement rules must still be adhered to, so having the right City Card is usually the biggest challenge.
This role is really the most unhelpful of the bunch but it can be perfect in just the right situation.
The Medic - The Medic is able to remove all cubes of a single disease from a city for a single action point, rather than having to spend 2 or 3 APs to treat a nasty location.
In addition, when a Cure for a disease has been found, the Medic will eliminate the matching Disease Cubes for free just by entering a city. Our group (and I'm sure many others) refer to this as playing Jesus.
The Operations Expert - This role is able to build Research Stations in any city on the board for a single action point and without the need to have and discard a City Card. Very handy indeed.
The Researcher - This role has information at their fingertips and to simulate this ability the Researcher is able to give any cards from their hand to other players, regardless of the city they are located in a cost of 1 AP per card.
This makes the passing of cards much easier but of course they still need to be physically in the same location as another player to hand over their knowledge and the receiver still needs to be mindful of their hand limit.
The Scientist - The Scientist is at the coal-face of disease control and as such they only require 4 cards of a given colour to find a cure to a disease instead of 5. Super handy indeed.
So the roles definitely help to make things a little easier. It's ok people...breathe. Now hold that breath as I lock you in a water-filled box and snap shut this padlock. I'm about to explain how the game raises the threat level to the maximum that the World Health Organisation has...MedCon 5 (no don't Google that...I just made it up)!
The Flow of the Game -
Image Courtesy of zombiegod It may seem like an odd place to touch on the flow of the game...way down here...but I think knowing how a player's turn looked was a more important starting place.
So let's put it all together now.
Player Actions - A player's turn always starts with their actions, which we have covered already. To recap they have 4 in all and they don't have to use them all if they don't want to...most times you will want to and then stat begging for 4 more.
Drawing Cards - Then there is some good news as the player is able draw 2 cards from the Player Deck. This deck includes a City Card for each of the 48 cities located on the board. These cards also represent the 4 colours of the diseases and in this way the players can begin to collect the 4-5 cards of a single colour that are needed to find each of the 4 Cures needed to win the game.
The deck also includes some Special Action Cards, which are quite useful and can be played at any time in the game for free...even out of turn!
But that is about as good as it gets, because the game then takes this lovely bowl of strawberries that is the chance to draw two player cards and pours salt all over it in the form of potential Epidemic Cards! I'll cover these in a moment.
Playing the Infector - A player's turn ends with the drawing of cards from the Infection Draw Pile, which essentially escalates the threat facing the players.
This will feel familiar to anyone who has played a co-op game such as Shadows Over Camelot. This deck consists of exactly 48 cards, one for each of the cities on the board. When a card is drawn it results in the addition of 1 Disease Cube being added to the city. The colour that is added matches the colour of the city.
How many cards have to be drawn depends entirely on the current Infection Rate. The game starts out at a level of 2 but with each new Epidemic Card that is drawn from the Player Deck, the Infection Rate increases and can reach a maximum of 4 cards per player turn!
Outbreaks - Now you might be thinking that adding a single Disease Cube to a city is no big deal as the players have the actions to treat those cubes, especially if the Medic is doing their thing.
Well there is the little issue of Outbreaks to contend with. An outbreak occurs when a city already has 3 Disease Cubes of a single colour and a 4th needs to be added.
Instead of adding a 4th, an Outbreak occurs and that results in a Disease Cube of that colour being added to every connected city! An Outbreak can result in other Outbreaks occurring, and in short, it can all go to Hell in a Handbasket rather quickly.
But if you are paying attention you may be thinking, 'Hang on, it's not possible to have a city reach 4 cubes in one colour as drawing it's card only results in a single cube being added!'
That would be true if the game started with no cubes in play, but of course it doesn't as we know from the set-up routine. Then you may be thinking, 'But a city that starts with 3 cubes already has its card in the discard pile, so how can it be drawn again?
Enter pure genius in the form of the Epidemic Card and the subsequent mechanism.
Epidemics - When a player draws their 2 Player Cards it is possible, indeed inevitable over time, that they will draw an ominously green Epidemic Card as these are seeded throughout the deck during set-up.
This results in the following consequences -
The Infection Rate is increased by 1.
An Infection Card is drawn from the bottom of the Infection Deck and 3 cubes are added to that city.
The Infection Discard Pile is reshuffled and placed on top of the Infection Deck and the Infector Phase (drawing cards from the top of the deck) is played out.
This is effectively the element of the game that takes it from a decent to good design and makes it brilliant. Thematically what is happening is that the cities of most concern are thrust to the fore all over again and that makes total sense.
It means that the tension is ramped up to 11 and the players will pay dearly if they have not reached those cities and curbed the spread of disease. It also means that the risk of Outbreaks is increased substantially.
It's great stuff.
Cures and Eradication - If a player manages to discard the required number of cards of a single colour, whilst at a Research Station, they can Cure that disease and move the marker accordingly on the board. But this does not eliminate that disease entirely.
What it does do is allow any player to enter a city and eliminate any number of cubes for a single AP. This effectively gives all roles the same ability as that of the Medic. If the Medic is in play however he gets promoted to Godly status and can simply move into a city and watch all of the cubes vanish in a puff of smoke...such is their power!
Once a Cure has been found, cubes of that colour can still be added to the board in the usual way. However, the players do have a chance to completely eradicate a disease from existence if they can eliminate every cube of a cured colour from the board. This results in the Disease Token being flipped to show that the disease is completely defeated.
Any Infection Cards of that colour that are drawn from that point on are ignored completely. This is a great goal to pursue if time allows...but often it won't.
Victory and Defeat - And so, somewhat at the end, I finally decide to reach the beginning. How can the players manage success and what constitutes a terminal defeat?
Well winning is the easy one as it can only be achieved in one way - quite simply all 4 cures must be found to save humanity.
Unfortunately there are many ways for humanity to be reduced to a sniffling cesspool of biology ooze -
If the Outbreak Marker reaches the 8th and ultimate spot on its track, then humanity has suffered one world sweeping Pandemic too many.
If the deck of Player Cards is exhausted and another card needs to be drawn, before the 4 cures are found, then time has effectively run out on mankind and there are simply not the resources or time remaining to keep the afflictions in check.
If the players are required to add a Disease Cube of a given colour, but that supply has been exhausted, then that disease has effectively mutated to a point of no return and humanity will face extinction.
These are the stakes people...so get to work and save us all!
Pandemic - The Analysis
Image Courtesy of Reinmar
The answer to anyone not knowing, is that Pandemic is an excellent design and has a lot of things going for it. But look out for a few potential negatives as well towards the end of this section as they are worth noting.
Easy to Learn and Play - There is no doubt that one of the game’s greatest strengths and the reason for its mass market appeal is that it is damn easy to teach and learn. The game really isn't any more complex than the average gateway game from a rules perspective, but even if someone is having trouble keeping up...the co-operative nature of the play means that new players can pretty much learn on the run with the support of friends.
This easy entry to a strategic game cannot be underestimated and is a pretty solid reason why it can be sold in stores like Target and Wal-Mart en-masse.
Resources are Tight - Any good game needs tough decisions and trade-offs and Pandemic has this because of those damned Player or City Cards. With only 12 of each colour in the deck and the players needing 4-5 of a single colour in one hand at one time to find a cure, players really grimace when the decision is made to discard one for movement or the creation of a new Research Station.
This makes for good tension in the game and it is essential to the game feeling like a real challenge.
Time is Limited - If a lack or resources doesn't kill you, the ever ticking clock probably will. Whilst more players will mean more cards are drawn and can be used to find Cures, it also means that the Player Deck will diminish faster as well and humanity's chance of survival is only limited to how many cards are left in the deck.
This is thematically accurate as the spread of infectious disease waits for no soul and it makes every decision, every spent action point...vital. Again this is +1 for the tension of the game.
Genius of the Infection Card Mechanism - The fact that the revealing of an Infection Card results in already used cards being shuffled and returned to the top of the Infection Deck is absolute genius. It is thematically sound (infected cities would only get worse in all likelihood) and it takes the tension already in the game, stuffs it down the barrel of a gun and then fires it into your face!
Even good players are unlikely to get to all the spot fires that appear around the world during play and when those cards get reshuffled and put back on top, all of the players are on tender hooks, desperately hoping that 'THAT CITY THERE', doesn't get drawn. The number of times that it does occur is hilarious.
On a side note it is amazing to think that this mechanism wasn't a part of the original design and was only stumbled upon during playtesting. Without it the game could still have been good but a lot of the tension would have been lost due to simply random City Cards being drawn.
If you are a playtester...pat yourself on the back. If you were one of the team that thought this up...pop that fact on your tombstone.
Solo Play - Such is the nature of most, if not all co-op games, Pandemic can be played solo. But even then not all games are not made equal in this aspect. Some require far too much micro management to make them enjoyable or they simply seem like more work than fun.
Pandemic is a breeze to play solo however and controlling 4 characters at once is quite easy when you are familiar with the game. Of course you can play with less if you wish and many gamers are on the record as saying they prefer it that way. Personally I like it either way.
Many gamers within a playing group tend to spread the purchasing of games around to save on cost but I have no doubt that the solo play of Pandemic has aided in its sales worldwide.
Difficulty Settings - Pandemic is a pretty flexible design too and can accommodate players of various skill levels by allowing for 3 possible difficulty settings. This is achieved by dividing the Player Deck of cards into a certain number of piles. Because only 1 Epidemic Card is placed in each deck, having fewer piles means that there will be less pain during the game and they will occur less frequently, meaning the players have more time to get those diseases under control. Conversely, more piles means more Epidemic Cards and less time. It is simple but effective and allows the one game to adapt to the players that remove the lid.
Brutality is Exciting - Pandemic can escalate quickly and defeats can occur in under 25 minutes if the fates are not on your side. Whilst this may not sound like a great time, somehow the game makes you smile (or at least grimace) when it happens and rather than want to throw it in the corner and kick it mercilessly, it makes you want to go again...'because it won't get the better of ME'!
This addictive nature and re-playable nature is what has seen the game rack up almost 200,000 plays on this site alone.
A + B + XYZ = Fun - I'll finish the positives by stating the obvious. If you add up all of the elements listed above, Pandemic is simply a fun time. Easy to learn, quick to play, can be enjoyed in a group and with tension at every turn...Pandemic is just a really fun game that has more lovers than haters. Also factor in the re-playability aspect of exploring the various combinations of character/role powers and there is goodness here.
But there are some things to grind on one if they are so inclined -
The Expert - The most common complaint about games of Pandemic is that the experience can be ruined for those involved if one person believes they are the medical messiah and try to play everyone's turn for them. To some degree this can occur in many a co-operative design but in Pandemic it is rife.
To some degree this is unfair on the design as it had no intention of this occurring, rather, it is a play group problem. If the group is aware of it and allows each player to discuss their thoughts before groupthink is engaged then all should be fine.
Re-Playability? - To some degree the game can suffer from its own success. I can count on both hands the number of games I have played more than 30-40 times. But for many, Pandemic can see those numbers racked up in mere months. This of course is not a bad thing of itself, because it means the financial investment of buying the game has been paid back handsomely.
But... it can result in players becoming very good at unlocking the puzzle and the same 5 roles can become a little wearing. Thankfully capitalism is on hand to hand us a solution in the form of expansions and they do a great job of keeping the game fresh.
Failure...It was Inevitable - The final point I think worth mentioning is that due to the nature of the design, there can be games that are lost not because of poor play on the part of the players but simply because the stars lined up in the worst possible pattern.
Some players dislike a design where their decisions can potentially have little bearing on the result. Personally I think there is more than enough control within Pandemic to feel satisfied and when these games occur, I grin, hit reset and go again.
Dry? - My final...final point is that Pandemic has been labelled by some as dry and dull from a thematic and gameplay viewpoint (it doesn't wash with me). I can see how it may come across to some that way but at the time I think the theme of the game was quite fresh and something different to the 467th fantasy or pirate/Egyptian themed game going around. And other games have certainly featured more stripped back mechanics than this.
To each their own I guess.
The Final Word
Image Courtesy of clockworkd
So there we have it, I've finally covered Pandemic. The reality was that 6-7 years ago when the game was released there was no point covering the game because any person with a pulse and a penchant for this hobby was already doing that.
Truth be told I hated the game after my first play and it took me years to go back and try it again. Why? Well I fell victim to having the game played for me (as mentioned above) and I felt like a pointless passenger...almost apart from the experience.
So returning to cover the game when Pandemic: Legacy is all the rage felt right and I'm glad to have done so...even if much of what I have to say has been covered before.
I think Pandemic has every chance of becoming a classic in the same vein as a Cluedo/Clue or Monopoly in the fullness of time (of course it is better than both of these).
That may appear to be a long bow to draw for some, but I think the rise in electronic gaming apps is part responsible for the rise of tabletop gaming. More people than ever before are using their brains for game-based play and that market are discovering what our hobby has to offer. Add to that the accessibility of Pandemic to learn and its availability in mass market stores and I think it will be here to stay for a long...long time.
So in conclusion I tip my hat to you Mr Leacock. Pandemic may not be my favourite game of all time but I do enjoy playing it and the design is one for the ages.
Till next we meet, may you continue giving each disease names like Ebola, Fungal Warts and other such juvenile names and continue taking your meds...
Oh and see you in about 4 months when I cover Pandemic: Legacy!
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Gudjon Torfi Sigurdsson
Funny, I've just played Pandemic 8 times in the last week after a long time of inactivity!
Guess this should be brought up as it was a big change from 1st to 2nd edition, but there is 2 more roles in 2nd than there are in first. Though, they decided to go from the larger wooden cubes to a more translucent cube in second edition, so you kinda need to get a pack of matching cubes from Gamecrafter, Print and Play Studios, or BGG's shop, though PNPS has a 15 dollar minimum order restriction. Oh, and that sudden component shift even during second edition from wooden pawns and buildings to injection molded plastic, though by now the wooden versions are now out of stock. But yeah, good review ^^
May 2018 be all you dreamed it would be and be all that you dreamed...
Thanks for the heads up Matthew.
I don't have any of the expansions yet and probably will get them. I'm guessing it would be best to just go for all the new format stuff.