Down with the sickness – Pandemic Review

First review then. I may as well start with one of my favourites, so let’s talk about one of Z-Man Games best releases of recent years. No, it’s not Agricola (despite the fact it’s been hovering around the top of the boardgamegeek Top Ten since pretty much the beginning of time) – I’d like to talk about Matt Leacock’s fantastic co-operative game, Pandemic.

This is how the end of the world begins.

Many games suffer from the issue of design first, theme later – it doesn’t matter what happens with the gameplay, the idea is stuck on almost as an afterthought. You can always tell if the designer has plastered on an idea just for the sake of it; you get the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Thankfully with Pandemic it feels that Matt’s thought process went along the lines of “Man, I’d really like to make a game about a bunch of people from the Centre from Disease Control working together, frantically trying to stop rampaging disease outbreaks from bringing an end to humanity. And I shall use cubes. Lots of them!”

Between two and four players are randomly given one of a selection of roles in a bid to wipe out four diseases that threaten to wipe out the planet’s population. Travelling around the globe, they mop up and contain as best they can until an illness can be cured – to do this, one player needs to collect five cards of the same colour (four if you have the Scientist role) and visits a city with a Research Station. You receive four actions per turn – basic actions are for moving about the board, while specials allow you to build new stations, discover cures, treat the spreading disease or exchange cards with other players to collect the necessary sets.

One thing this game really does well is evoke a sense of pressure. The diseases spread after every player completes their turn and it doesn’t take long for the whole board to get covered in marauding germs. Each player collects two city cards on their turn from the pile – and in that pile lurk the randomly placed Epidemics (between four and six depending on how challenging you want to make your experience). These will generally cause Outbreaks, where more than three cubes of the same colour in one city means every surrounding city gets infected as well. If this leads to another Outbreak, your game can very quickly take a turn for the utterly awful. Players are under attack from so many different factors in Pandemic they really need to work together thoughtfully in order to beat it. There is also very little downtime as all players are constantly wondering how to adapt their strategies before the diseases get too dominant and end the game.

A thin line between success and terrible disaster.

There is only one way to win at Pandemic – cure the four diseases before time runs out. There are, however, many ways to lose the game. Run out of a certain disease’s cubes? You lose. Run out of player cards (and you’ll get close every time)? You lose. Eight Outbreaks? You lose. And yet, despite so many ways to get completely destroyed by the game, it never feels like hard work. Matt Leacock has designed a well balanced and incredibly challenging co-op title that also manages to be fun. Add in the sense of achievement you get when you actually manage to beat the thing, and you’re on to a winner. A fantastic game.

Pandemic was published by Z-Man Games in 2009, handles two to four players and can be completed in around an hour. The Pandemic: On The Brink expansion is also available which introduces a fifth disease to battle as well as a range of new roles including a renegade bio-terrorist. For a solo experience, why not check out the print and play Pandemic: Express? It’s very good!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Down with the sickness – Pandemic Review

  1. Pandemic is one of my favourite games as well. I tend to favour co-operative games which this one has in spades.

    The challenge of not being able to show other people your cards and just have to keep telling people what you have I have found really adds to the difficulty but the more I’ve played it, the better I’ve become at conveying the important info on my card hand at the right times and asking for info on the other hands.

    I very much like the difficulty setting which is simply a matter of how many epidemic cards are in the stack, though I haven’t beaten it on anything but easy yet but I do now win about 50% of the time on easy which I’m happy with!

    I’ve found I’ve had a higher success rate when playing with 2 people when having 4 roles rather than 2 roles – i.e. each of us controlling 2 different roles. The juggling of getting the right cards to the right people is trickier but the wider expertise of having more roles makes up for it imho.

    I played with the On The Brink expansion recently. Although we didn’t put in the mutated strain or the bioterrorist (couldn’t really play with the bioterrorist as there were only 2 of us) but we did play with the extra roles and they have really improved this aspect of the game, I’m very pleased with that improvement. I also love the petri dishes for storing the cubes and other playing pieces now, much easier and prettier but they are a tiny bit too thick for the box so the lid doesn’t quite sit on right now which is a shame and something they should have taken more care with.

    All in all, this is one of my absolute fave games and it works well for any number of players – highly recommend for anyone, but don’t expect to win much of the time!!

  2. idlemichael

    I forgot to mention in the review that you can also play it as a solo game, but there are limitations – after all, you need at least a fighting chance! Begin by choosing either the Medic (so you can wipe out diseases effectively) or the Scientist (so you only need four cards to cure a disease instead of five) and deal yourself five cards to start with. Set yourself a hand limit of ten cards and away you go – but don’t expect to win much either!

  3. hey Michael nice review. I’ve never played pandemic, but after that review I will make sure we play it at our next session. The bloke who owns it doesn’t rate it and hence we haven’t played it yet but i’l twist his arm. look forward to your next review! Nice blog name as well!

  4. Spudthedude

    Nice review, Gingineer asked me to come and say hi 🙂

    I really loved pandemic and it’s a very original idea. I just find it has the same problem that almost any co-op game has (shadows over camelot for example). In that once you learn the best strategies it just becomes a case of luck as to when you win and when you lose. Against a fixed “machine” enemy it is harder to have reactions and counter strategies than against real people.

    Or maybe we just played it too many times in a row 1 day and it broke my brain 🙂

    However I’m contradicting myself slightly since “Forbidden Island” (which I think is your next review?) is a game I’ve got an eye on so I’ll be interested to see how you think it rates!

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