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Subject: Pandemic - So What's Not To Like? rss

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Joe Grundy
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I'll play almost anything, once. How much further play the game sees is largely about how much I don't like it. When it comes down to it most games are at least playable. So this review will start with a game description, move to what I don't like, and finish with whatever I think is outstanding.

So...


Pandemic

"Only you can save mankind!" (Ahem.)
"Oh Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!" (Ummm.)

(Oh all right ... take on different roles as you all team up against the game itself to try to contain and cure four virulant diseases before they can outbreak across the globe.)


If you reckon you know your way around how Pandemic works, you can skip the dry boring Contents and Rules Overview bits, and go down to the guts of What's Not To Like, and What Stands Out.


Contents

Satin photo finish photo-quality four-fold board, a relatively small 23" x 16" (57x40cm)
Glossy full colour rulebook, 8 pages of large type and big illustrations
5 wooden pawns in five colours
6 plain wooden research stations (ie slightly elongated wooden house pieces)
wooden cubes in four colours for disease markers
4 colour cardboard disease chits
2 colour cardboard status markers
A deck of 59 "player" cards, colour, white borders, standard size
A deck of 48 "Infection" cards, colour, black borders, standard size
5 Role cards (for randomly assigning roles with text describing your ability)
4 Reference cards / Player aids.




The game is coherent enough that the "player aid" cards are standard card size. The manufacture finish on everything is superb and in flawless colours. The board has places organising almost everything in progress in the game. (Keep the spare cubes and the undiscovered cure markers "near the board".)

So what are my gripes? In the midst of this otherwise absolutely superb production quality...
My board won't lie flat. It should by now, I think, but it still doesn't quite.
The Infection deck has black borders... so it'll probably show wear a little sooner than a grey / white bordered deck would.
The board is too small!

I'm certainly not one to "ooh" and "aah" over huge boards. Pandemic fits easily on the kind of table ordinary folks have in their homes, and does its functional job pretty well. BUT, if you have disease cubes and several pawns in one city (not too uncommon) or a research station and several pawns in one city (certainly common) it's overcrowded and the placement can become a little ambiguous.

But other than that... oooooohhhhh... nice!


Pandemic Rules Overview (You can of course skip this bit.)

Objective Cooperate to cure all four diseases before any of various critical limits are reached. It's accurate to highlight that the objective is to win before the game makes you lose.

Setup Each player gets a randomly assigned Role out of the five available (with each Role having a unique special ability such as curing or treating diseases more easily or sharing cards more easily) and everyone gets dealt a few cards (depending on the number of players). The six marker chips, one research station house, and one pawn per player are put in their spots on/near the board. You can sort the cube colours if you like.

There's two mildly time consuming aspects to setup...
Initial Infections - you turn up nine of the "Infection" cards and place cubes on the cities they represent.
Deck Preparation - you separate the Player Card deck into five or six approximately equal parts and shuffle one "Epidemic" card into each part, then stack the parts back together (without further shuffling) to form the player draw deck.



Infection cards - there's one per city.


The Threat ... What The Game Does Automatically
For every city on the board there is exactly one "Infection" card in the infection deck.
Cities are clustered into regions of one disease type.
At the end of each player's turn, two to four more "Infection" cards are turned face up, and each corresponding city thus gets one more infection cube of that city's regional disease type.
If a city should receive a fourth cube, instead the disease "Outbreaks" and all the neighbouring cities get an infection cube for that disease.
"Outbreaks" can form chain reactions.
Also, during player turns they draw cards from the other deck (the "Player" deck) which was seeded with "Epidemic" cards which...
--- Increase the number of Infection cards being drawn
--- Cause a brand new city to have an Epidemic of three cubes immediately
--- Cause the discarded Infection cards to be shuffled (just the discards) and placed back on top of the Infection deck, thus ensuring the same cities get more infections and have a high chance of Outbreaks.

How To Lose
If a disease cube colour runs out, you lose
If the player deck runs out, you lose
If there are 8 outbreaks, you lose

How To Win
Like the Infection deck, the player deck has one card per city. Players collect cards in their hands, representing pieces of "knowledge", and can pass them to each other only if they can meet in the city corresponding to the card they are passing. If a player can collect five cards of one colour / regional disease type and go to a research station, they can "Find A Cure" for the disease. Curing a disease doesn't eradicate it, but it makes it easier to treat.

All four diseases must be Cured to win the game. They don't have to be eradicated, just cured.

A Player Turn...
The player gets to take four Actions.
The player can do any mix of the possible actions in any order.
Most actions are just moving... to the adjacant city, to a research station, or spending a card to move any distance across the world either from or to the city of the card you spent.
The other actions allow you to build a new Research station, treat one disease cube, or Find A Cure (if you have the cards and are at a research station).
After taking their turn, the player draws two cards from the player deck. (There is a hand limit of seven cards, and extras must be discarded.)
When the player turn is done, more infections happen (see "The Threat" above).

Special!
The Player deck also contains five "Special Event" cards, each with a unique bonus intervention which the receiving player can save and play at any time.



The Special Event cards. (And an Epidemic.)


Notes On Play Feel

Player Card Tension... The Player cards have two functions... primarily to collect into a Cure for a disease, but also they can be played to help players move around the board. It can be a tough choice to expend a card on movement.

Region Coverage is also a matter for judgment. If the players spread out it'll be easier to get someone on hand to treat infections as they are occuring. But the players do need to get together in particular places if they want to pass cards to complete collections for Cures.

Buildup / Flow... In pretty much every game we've played, about half way through it looked like it'd be won easily. We might have eradicated a disease entirely, cured something else, have a decent distribution of research stations handy, and seemingly not too much disease anywhere. And each time, almost out of the blue, we've had sudden hotspots and double outbreaks well up that've pushed us to the edges of our seats as we try to work out how to combine keeping the immediate threat under control with our hand management and meetups to make the remaining cures happen.

Each game has had, for us, the right level of tension.

We've won most (not all) of our games, and it's never really felt too easy.



Rules Complexity
I assess in order to play Pandemic you need to learn about 19 basic pieces of info before you start, with about 38 in total to really get up to speed.

For comparison:
Ra: 10 .. 14
Chess: 9 .. 12
Settlers of Catan: 12 .. 19
Puerto Rico: 20 .. 31
Ticket to Ride: 11 .. 11
Bohnanza: 9 .. 9
Carcassonne (H&G): 8 .. 11

The nominal complexity of Pandemic is a real surprise to me, as I've found it really easy to teach to several different people. But I note the following:
The "38" includes the rules for all five roles and the five Special Event cards
The "19" includes four different types of movement, but very soon that feels like one rule point
Most of the individual rule items are clear, distinct, and REALLY simple.
The rulebook is extremely well presented.



Five Player Cards in one colour can make a Cure.


So What's Not To Like?

So after all the "irrelevant" waffle above that I hope you skipped if you weren't interested, here's the juicy bits...

The board is a little too small. I mentioned this above... most of the time it's ok but in some fairly typical game situations you find the pieces kinda spilling into neighbouring locations.

It's a "cooperative" game. No player vs player? No "gotcha"? No thanks!

It's a "cooperative" game. Which for quite a few of us means "one or two people at the table tell everyone else what to do".
BUT... while I'm guilty of this myself, instead of keeping dialog open and hands closed we've taken to keeping hands open and dialog closed just to mitigate this point. Works extremely well for us, with some beautiful intuitively coordinated plays coming through.

More "Puzzle" then "Game". It's quite reminiscent of logic or maths puzzles, probably the most so of the "major" coop games currently touted. You thought you were buying a game, but instead you're optimising against no opponent.

Two parallel decks of cards = Too Much Randomness. (I'm not personally so sure about this, but then we may just have been on the winning side of the randomness.)

Theme glitches. No disease names? (People end up talking about cubes.) Diseases in Pandemic are unlikely to spread more than one city outside their home regions. The cubes are just cubes. The loss conditions are arbitrary thresholds rather than any tangible absolutes. The tradeoff between playing cards for movement vs keeping them for "knowledge"/cures doesn't really have a theme explanation. And why would we have to convene in a particular city (or any city at all?) to "share knowledge" (ie pass a card)?
Though actually I can understand a lack of explicit disease names, since diseases are fairly topical, and we like making up names anyway, but from several angles the game offering "red disease" just doesn't cut it. And a suggestion in the thread below is to think of the requirement to meet up in a specific city as being for handing over / mulling over samples.

Your Role tells you what to do. Given your randomly assigned Role, you have a task to perform. If you don't do what that Role does well, you're letting the side down. So you don't get room to experiment much.

Low replay value. If you do find "the role plays you", there's not going to be a lot of replay in Pandemic for you.




Epidemic! All the non-city cards have their details written on them.


So What Stands Out?

Theme successes. The way disease recirculates in the same cities, builds slowly, and threatens (or achieves!) outbreaks in chain reactions feels like a pretty good simulation, along with the spot-treatment of disease. The benefits of having a known cure work in well, as does the idea of total eradication. And for what is clearly "set collection" it still manages to bring a sense of "come visit, share what you know and maybe we can cure this together". (Though I still don't know why we need to meet up... I'm sure we've got internet and video-conferencing!)

Beautiful. The artwork may or may not be your style of course, but it's consistent and moody. And the colour and printing quality are top notch.

It really is cooperative. No sneaky back-door "have to include some kind of player confrontation" here. It's full on cooperate and win or lose together.

The right duration. A solid game in under an hour.

Can sensibly be played solo.

Portable! Small board. Small box. But a "real" game inside.

Game variation. Different subsets of the roles and different fall of the cards provide variety from game to game.

Challenging, not impossible. It really seems to have the difficulty balance right. For us at least, the games generally are tight to the end with some real cliffhanger finishes.

Customise the difficulty officially by changing the number of Epidemic cards, and/or (for a variant) by changing the number of cards initially dealt.

Works for "non-gamers". If you can avoid telling everyone what to do, I believe this game may be enjoyed by anyone.




Differentiation in the form of different Roles.


Overall we've enjoyed all our plays of Pandemic, and introduced several non-gamers or neo-gamers to it with success. It's not the heaviest game you ever saw, but it's got enough substance to be interesting. If you can deal with a genuinely all-cooperative game, I highly recommend Pandemic. (btw I suspect having fewer players makes the game a little easier.)
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Rob McFadden
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Great article as usual. I think you've summed up the pros and cons nicely.

One negative to add is that several people had reported getting decks with a city repeated and a city missing.

One positive to add was that the customer service from Z-Man was "the money" in getting this fixed.
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Alkis Moraitis
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I wouldn't say production quality is good, quite the opposite, it's terrible.

The board won't lie flat as you mention and it is made of such terrible quality that if you attempt to warp it a bit on the opposite way in order to straightain it it will crimp.

The cards are of terrible quality and the the infection cards were split in two sealed decks. The few cards I got in the second deck were of different color tone and you can see the difference in colors both at the cardbacks and in front. You cannot play this deck unless you put them into sleeves with a colored back which is a good idea anyway since the cards are going to wear very easily due to the poor cardstock quality.

The game is good but the Chinese production is one of the worst I have encountered so far. Disappointing...
 
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Branko K.
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I don't know about that. The production quality perhaps isn't up to something like DoW standards (and even DoW screwed it up big time initially with the Switzerland expansion), but it is far from terrible.

The cards are pretty good (a lot of plays and still no signs of wear and tear) and the board, while not completely flat, isn't really something to get upset about. My biggest gripe is the oversized research stations and pawns, but it also isn't such a big deal - after all, one can easily replace them with meeples and Monopoly houses.

As for the OP's rather excellent review, I'd argue with just a few points - first of all, you are not "confined" by your role. In fact, from my experience people often govern their strategy depending what role they have, losing the big picture (Medic joyfully overhealing everything and not contributing to cure research being the most typical scenario). Also, I consider the replay value rather high - in fact, Pandemic is one of the rare games people want to play again right away, instead of asking me what else I've got. In the long run perhaps Pandemic will overstay its welcome, but then again there aren't really a lot of games I could play over and over and over again without getting tired and wishing for something new.

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Joe Grundy
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alkis21 wrote:
The cards are of terrible quality
I guess we differ on this experience. If I'd seen the cards in one set showing colour variation I'd have complaints too, thanks for saying.

Did you contact Z-Man to see if they'd send you another deck?
 
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Alkis Moraitis
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No I didn't yet. But maybe I should. I will attempt to scan a few sample cards to send them so that they can see the difference. If that doesn't work we are back to the sleeves solution.
 
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Joe Grundy
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baba44713 wrote:
As for the OP's rather excellent review, I'd argue with just a few points - first of all, you are not "confined" by your role. In fact, from my experience people often govern their strategy depending what role they have, losing the big picture (Medic joyfully overhealing everything and not contributing to cure research being the most typical scenario).
I personally agree. The functional differentiation given by each role runs some biases but probably shouldn't overwhelm the choices. The Operations Expert is probably the most pressed by the needs of their role, and only at first as they focus on making research stations for everyone to use.

baba44713 wrote:
Also, I consider the replay value rather high ...
As I said... I think this is tightly related to your first point. If you don't feel overly constrained by your role, the mixes of roles and variation in card flow make for pretty good game variation.
 
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Yoki Erdtman
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Nice review. I'm a big fan of the game, and luckily so is my wife! I have a board that lays flat, cards with matching backs, and no complaints about the productions values.
 
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Dave Brown
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Nice review, but I thought I'd throw something in to answer your question/complaint about players having to "meet-up" in order to exchange information. It makes perfect sense for the theme if you replace the word "information" with the word "samples." Disease research requires samples from infected populations, and these cannot be provided via video conferencing.
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Jay Sheely
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Correct me if I'm wrong but it appears that all the games listed in the complexity chart are all much more complex than...Chess?!? Really? It took me several years to learn to play Chess and this afternoon I was confidently playing Pandemic for the first time in hardly no time.

It's like saying Karate has a complexity of 3 - punches, kicks and blocks.

Even after teaching someone the 12 things they need to know to play Chess, a beginner will still look at the board with nary a clue as how to proceed.

Great review, I had a good time reading this and it's rekindled my interest in Pandemic.
 
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Joe Grundy
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Man or Astroman wrote:
Correct me if I'm wrong but it appears that all the games listed in the complexity chart are all much more complex than...Chess?!? Really?
Yes really. The section title is "Rules Complexity" not "Complexity" and has nothing at all to do with strategic depth.
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Jay Sheely
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Thanks Grundy, that now makes perfect sense. By the way, after playing twice yesterday, we got pummeled both times.

I agree with crummy production value on two points: (1) The board was very warped - however this didn't affect gameplay. (2) The layout of the board felt 'cramped' and I wanted the city names to bigger or more obvious. Sometimes the blocks covered the city names.

But overall, I liked the game a lot and am ready to play again!
 
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Branko K.
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I think Z-man said in an old thread the pawns and research stations were supposed to be much smaller.

But I agree the presentation would be much better if the board was about 20% bigger, the stations half the size they are now and the pawns scaled down at least by a quarter. But it's not a big issue, really, and the cramped board gives a nice thematic boost to a sense of urgency.
 
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Perry Tarantine
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Just received my copy (been on order for almost 6 months - maybe a reprint?) Anwyay the research stations are monopoly house size and shape - so about half the width of the ones shown in the above image. However the pawns are still godzilla sized.
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Michael Klein
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Since I liked Pandemic so much after purchasing the english version, I decided to also buy the german version as soon as it was out. The german version has:

- a larger board (around 20%)
- smaller pawns

which both is great. But then some "smart" person thought that if you have so much more space, they should include

- much bigger infection cubes
- much bigger research stations

which instantly negates all the cool aspects of the new board.

So I made myself a "best of both worlds" version: I took the board, cards, markers and pawns from the german version and combined them with the american cubes and research stations.
 
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