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Subject: Imminent Threat - A Pandemic Review rss

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Ignatius Diquendas
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Let me just start that by saying that the idea behind a co-op game greatly appeals to me. Maybe I’m just not a very competitive person, or maybe I enjoy working as a team against a foe that can’t intimidate or gloat. In Pandemic the common enemy is a group of viruses threatening to wipe out the human population. It’s a methodic and somewhat predictable enemy. It won’t laugh at you, or turn your allies against you. It just keeps going, basically unaware of you. There is something much scarier about that. And when you lose, it’s not about eating humble pie. It’s about a group of people who tried their best, but maybe they plugged their fingers into the wrong holes and the dam let loose.

A few weeks back I found out about Pandemic and I was immediately intrigued. Then I found out it was basically not available. Like the diseases in the game I wasn’t about to stop. I methodically called or drove to just about any place in my city, and the surrounding suburbs, that I thought might have a copy. No one did. In my search I came across another co-op jewel, Red November. It’s safe to say that Red November temporarily sated my desire for Pandemic. After all, I was ultimately after a good co-op experience, and the campy theme of the game also appealed to me.

But then there it was, Pandemic, in stock, ready to ship. It was in my hands three days later. I had already played Red November and was wondering if I hadn’t worked myself up for Pandemic only to be disappointed. I wasn’t. I’m not sure how, but I had managed to imagine Pandemic to be just what it was. I’m now pleased to say that in this time of rising popularity for co-op games I have hopped onto the bandwagon, nestled into a corner, and made myself at home, happy.

IN THE BOX:
My first impression was that the box was a little smaller that I had expected. Of course, after Red November I should never be surprised by a small box. But honestly, the game fits nicely into the box with plenty of left over space. If the board could have been somehow made to fold smaller, Pandemic could have fit in a much smaller package.

The board is pretty standard although the artwork is a little bland. It’s functional, wall laid out, and the bland artwork could be interpreted as bleak rather than boring or simple. After all this is a board game with a very serious and frightening theme.

The game comes with five different colored wooden pawns and ninety-six wooden disease cubes in four different colors to represented the four infections threatening the planet. Something to point out that is not really all that important, is that the six wooden buildings that represent Research Stations that came with my copy are about half the size as the Research Stations I have seen in pictures of the game. I found it a little strange that a decision was made to make these smaller when the pawns are considerable larger that those typically found in board games. With the way the board is laid out, coupled with the enormous pawns, up to three disease cubes, and a research station all possibly on the same space, I have to question the decision making process in developing this game just a little.

The game comes with fifty-nine Player Cards, forty-eight Infection Cards, five Role Cards, and four Reference Cards. The cards are of nice quality and the artwork on them is decent and is of the same style as the board and box. One thing to point out is not about the cards themselves but more about the packaging. There is a crappy cardboard insert in the box designed to hold the cards in place, but it is flimsy and worthless. Again it concerns me a little that such a well designed game is slightly flawed by the components and their packaging. None of this necessarily detracts from the gameplay. At the most they are merely annoyances.

And now we come to the instructions. Usually I find directions in board games to be fairly intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly capable of reading directions and following them, but more often that not I have found myself reading instructions for a game that are either poorly translated from another language or just poorly worded enough to merit multiple readings. This is not the case at all with Pandemic. In fact I found the instructions in the game to be possibly the easiest to understand and most well laid out directions I have ever read for a game. I would even dare to say that the instructions seem a little “dumbed down”. I mean this actually as a compliment. Although some things about the instruction booklet can read as a little redundant (for example there is an entire page dedicated to setting up the game while the next entire page is used to summarize the setup page) I never found myself re-reading something in order to get a better understanding. Well, I’m lying a little.

While playing the game we came across something that I feel goes against all of the praise I just gave the instructions. It involves eradicating a disease with the medic. The instructions state:

“. . .if the Medic at any time finds herself in a city that contains cubes of a disease that has been cured, she may immediately remove all of those cubes.”

Now, yes I understand that this is worded correctly, but a small argument arose over this sentence the first time we played that actually greatly affects the end of the game. The argument was over whether or not the word “all” meant to remove just the cubes in that city, or to remove all cubes of that color. Of course in the end it was agreed that only the cubes in that city should be removed. I know I may be nitpicking here, but it is what it is, an argument arose over the wording so I decided it should be noted here.


GAMEPLAY:
Pandemic is actually more of a puzzle than a game. Players act as member of a disease-fighting team out to save the world from four diseases. The instructions state that the game is for two to four players, but if you chose to take on multiple roles it could easily work as a solitary endeavor. Technically the game could even be played by any number of players if those people agreed upon strategy. As long as the roles of the individual characters is respected they could be controlled by a team of players larger than four.

The puzzle of the game is for up to four characters, each with an individual role, to work together to keep the diseases under control while searching for a cure for each one. There are up to five roles that players are randomly assigned at the beginning of the game by drawing from a deck. Each role has attributes that basically allow them to bend the rules a bit. These attributes range from making a players ability to cure diseases easier to allowing a player to move his teammates pawns on his own turn. Of course all of this is done in a cooperative manner since the game is won or lost by everyone.

Although, through drawing cards and placing cubes, players are responsible for playing the role of the diseases, they have no control over their actions. By drawing cards players are randomly given cities to place disease cubes in. If there are three cubes already in that city the disease will Outbreak, spreading into adjacent cities. Players spend a lot of their time controlling these hotspots while they search for a cure.

Players cure diseases buy collecting Player cards. Players also use Player cards to travel around the board, discarding the card after they use it. This means that players are left with the decision of whether or not they want to use that card to travel, or hold onto it in hopes of matching up four more cards of the same color. It takes five cards of the same color to cure a disease, unless you’re the Scientist, then it only takes four.

Players draw two new Player cards every turn, never letting their hand go over seven cards. Randomly throughout the deck is a small amount of Special Event cards that can aid the players. But, when setting up the game players will divide the Player deck up into a number of smaller decks depending on how hard they want the game to be. Each of these smaller decks will receive an Epidemic card and the decks will be stacked back together to form the whole Player deck. This means that at slightly predictable times players will draw Epidemic cards. These cards cause the placement of more diseases and progression along the Infection Rate track. The further along the Infection Rate track players are, the more cities they will have to infect when they act as the diseases.

An interesting mechanic that comes into play when an Epidemic card is drawn is that the Infection cards discard pile will be reshuffled and placed on top of the draw pile. This means that cities that have already been infected are now guaranteed to be somewhere at the top of the deck, threatening to be drawn again. If one of these cities already has three cubes on it, the chance of an Outbreak in that city is imminent unless players race to that city and clean out some cubes.

This mechanic is where the true core of the puzzle element comes into play. It also slightly raises the predictability of the diseases and makes the game feel less random. Due to the fact that already infected cities are now at the top of the draw pile, players will find that the best course of action is to focus on these cities since, if a city has not been drawn yet, it is now somewhere in the middle or bottom of the pile and it will not be drawn before the already infected cities.

The game is won when a cure has been found for all of the diseases. The game is lost when the Player deck has been depleted, or there are no more cubes of any one color left to be placed on the board, or if there have been eight Outbreaks.

MY IMPRESSION:
I am definitely a fan of this game. Although I do admit that, although the mechanic behind the way the diseases spread feels realistic, the abilities of the different roles feels a little more like generic board gaming. A lot of games have cards that give players the chance to bend the rules, this is no exception. Sometimes a player might feel more like they are playing any old game and less like a skilled Scientist or Medic trying to save the world. That being said, I ultimately can’t find many negative things to say about this game. The artwork is bland, but its not bad. The instructions are great if not for one sentence that my group of geniuses couldn’t understand. And the gameplay is unique and fun if not sometimes a little generic.

Don’t let any of these elements that I am nitpicking over stray you from enjoying this game. If you like working as a team and discussing strategies, or you like puzzles, this is an amazing game. Or if maybe, like me, you would like a night of gaming that doesn’t involve spoil-sports getting into bad moods because you out-bid them or played that one particularly nasty card on them, then try working as team. One of the people in my group is of the sort that is always in a bad mood when losing and always in high spirits when winning. None of that ugliness rose it’s head during this game. Even when we were losing he was enjoying himself.

OVERALL:
THEME - 9/10 The idea of working as team to fight life threatening diseases is great and unique. But the artwork is a little bland.
PIECES - 8/10 Great quality, but the design seems a little strange.
GAMEPLAY - 8/10 I’m a fan of co-op, and the mechanics used to infect the map are amazing. The attributes feel a little tacked-on.

Overall, I give Pandemic an 8/10, I would be willing to play it anytime.
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Mike Stevens
United States
Nebraska
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Great review! I have wanted to play this game for a long time but it always sold out or out of stock at all of the local game stores. I may have to break down and order it online, which I'm always a little leary of.
 
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Branko K.
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Good review. Although I'm a little miffed at your tiny rule confusion - for me the notion that Medic suddenly gets so omnipotent after the cure is found is pretty out there to be even considered as an option. Even the action-free clean-up feels cheaty sometimes.

As for the oversized components, I think it wasn't the designer's choice, but rather the result of bad communication or unprecise measurements or whatever between the manufacturer and publisher. Consider yourself lucky if you got these "new" smaller research stations, because those long ones can get REALLY irritating (we use Monpoly houses nowadays).

Personally, after MANY games of Pandemic I must say it's becoming a little stale. We got really good now and we win most of the games that are "winnable" (meaning the cards aren't stacked so to create an impossible situation). Also, we can now pretty early on "see" whether the game will be easy, hard or impossible which somehow tones down the amusement factor. Still, I consider this a VERY good game and the co-op aspect is fantastic if you often play with people whose overall experience in boardgames is pretty unbalanced. That's why I am really hoping for a good Pandemic expansion, hopefully with some sort of Shadows-like "Traitor" mechanic or personal goals or something which would spice things up a bit.
 
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Jean-Luc Brouillet
United States
Palo Alto
California
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You're in luck. The game designer demonstrated Pandemic at my local game store last week. An expansion he is working on includes a Bio Terrorist as one of the roles.
 
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