Well, it’s May 2022 and my family and I have contracted COVID-19 for the first time. I thought I would spend our isolation time reflecting on the series of games with the name that no one really thought remarkable until it overtook our world; Pandemic.
How to Play
Pandemic is a cooperative game where players are trying to discover the cure to four diseases ravaging the world. The game begins by dealing players cards out of the player deck, then seeding the deck with epidemic cards, which serve to make things suddenly very bad in a random location, and to increase the pressure on the players.
In Pandemic, you and your friends will take actions to move around the world, treat diseases (which removes one disease cube from the location your player pawn is in), build research stations, and trade cards with each other. The goal of the game is to discover all 4 cures by discarding 5 cards of the same colour while your pawn is at a research centre. Players all lose together if the player deck runs out, or if the outbreak tracker hits 0, or if you ever need to place a cube of a specific colour, but you’ve run out. With 3 ways to lose, players are sometimes forced to figure out which crisis is the most demanding before choosing which actions to take.
Image Credit: @RaiderRogers via BoardGameGeek
To begin the game, 9 cards are drawn from the infect cities deck, with 3 disease cubes placed on the first three cities, 2 cubes on the next three cities, and 1 cube on the final three cities. With this initial seed and some potential hot-spots, the stage is set. All players begin in Atlanta (the home of the CDC), and the game is on.
Pandemic has become a venerable classic. It feels like it singlehandedly defines the co-op genre, at least as I know it. I started playing board games in 2014, at which point the 2012 reprint of Pandemic had filled store shelves and was actively being pushed onto new gamers. I’m very glad it was, because the concept of a fully cooperative game seemed so foreign to me that I probably wouldn’t have tried it without a push. After trying Pandemic, cooperative quickly became one of my favourite genres of board games.
Now, I know there were cooperative games long before 2008’s Pandemic, but this game brought the concept into the mainstream (at least, mainstream for the board game hobby), and inspired a wave of excellent cooperative experiences after it. It’s hard to understate the effect that Pandemic and Matt Leacock has had on the board game hobby, but I’m not here to give you a history lesson. Let’s talk about Pandemic specifically.
Image Credit: @Kilroy_locke via BoardGameGeek
The Pandemic system, as it’s come to be known, has a formula that many other games have iterated on (especially by designer Matt Leacock in his subsequent cooperative games, Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, not to mention the other Pandemic spin-offs). The formula is thus: A player takes a number of actions on their turn, then draws some cards which are used to amplify actions or further the end game objective, and then bad stuff happens. While I’m simplifying it, the goal of the game is to manage the bad stuff long enough to accomplish your long term objectives. While randomness can play a part and utterly crush your team’s efforts, generally the experience is tense and gives you the feeling that you might just pull through, as long as you don’t draw one specific card that would cause catastrophic ramifications.
I want to talk briefly about the infection deck, because it is an absolutely brilliant mechanic. The infection deck is the engine that gives players something to do while they’re working on curing the diseases. When a city is drawn from the infection deck, it gets a disease cube placed onto it, then it’s placed into the infection deck discard pile. When an epidemic strikes, you draw a card from the bottom of the deck, put 3(!) disease cubes on that one city, then shuffle all the discarded infection cards together and place them on top of the deck. From that moment on the stress of the game leaps. Suddenly there’s a time pressure; all those cities that were somewhat fine, and not quite teetering on the brink of disaster are now in the crosshairs. At any time those cities can be drawn again during the infect cities step of the game, and if they do, it will spell trouble.
I always find Pandemic tense. With three ways to lose and only one way to win, you need to be quick on completing your objectives while not throwing away too many cards. It’s tempting to use the cards liberally to fly around the board, but doing so directly takes away from your ability to cure diseases. It’s also tempting to horde cards in your hand, but with a hard hand limit of 7 cards, you’ll quickly be discarding cards with absolutely no benefit. it’s important to strike a balance.
Speaking of balance I want to mention the character roles. Each person gets a role at the start of the game that offers them a special ability, but some feel significantly better than others. While some abilities are ALWAYS useful (like the medic, who can cure all the cubes of one colour with a single action, an ability that you’ll be using at least once per turn), others characters feel more situational (like the Contingency Planner who can re-use event cards). I always want to explore more characters, but I go into every game wanting to win and some characters just jive better with me than others.
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Pandemic is a truly cooperative experience. As most people play with open hands and/or open information (because it’s a co-op game, there’s no reason to hide), it can be prone to someone gruffly taking over the table, dictating what each player should do on their turn, and turning it into a one player game instead of a team effort. I don’t fault the game for that, however; it’s up to the players to establish their own ground rules. Cardboard does a terrible job of maintaining boundaries after all.
I’m always surprised and how close my games of Pandemic end up. It’s incredibly rare that we win outright, without any fear that at least one of the lose conditions will overtake our efforts to save the world. Very often we win on the very last, or second to last possible turn, just barely curing the last disease through a convoluted series of actions that manage to get the last two cards into the last player’s hand so that they can just barely make it to the research centre with a single action to spare. And then there’s the blowouts – the bad luck games where you are given a binary option at the beginning. Cure red or cure yellow. With no further information you arbitrarily make a choice to cure red, only to have the next few cities to get infected be yellow, which is obviously followed by an outbreak in yellow, which triggers another and another and another outbreak, sinking your outbreak tracker deep into the doom end of the track.
The blowouts aren’t very common, but they do exist. I’m not sure if they can be ‘fixed’ or not, but they rarely bother me. Resetting the deck can be tedious if you want to reshuffle and try again right away, but it’s a small price to pay for a easy to learn and play game that offers such a interesting experience.
Because Pandemic is easy to learn, it’s often used as an on-ramp to the world of board games, showing players that there’s more to this cardboard hobby than rolling dice and slowly crawling your army around the world. There’s joy and teamwork, elation and tension, and it shows that not everything needs to be a competition.
My wife and I love cooperative games, and that love started with Pandemic. Since then, we’ve moved onto other great cooperative games like Burgle Bros and Now Boarding, both designed by Tim Fowers, and I’ve had a lot enjoyment playing the Pandemic spin off games, like Pandemic: The Cure, Pandemic: Fall of Rome, and Pandemic: Rising Tide. If you haven’t played Pandemic, or any other cooperative games, I can not suggest it enough. If you play it enough and start to feel tired on what the base box is offering, there are three expansions that drastically change up how the game is played, including many more character roles, a 5th disease, and mutations that make each of the diseases act in different ways.