Pandemic Review – Love at First Sight!


Pandemic
  


Designer: Matt Leacock (2008)
Publisher: Z-Man Games
# of Players: 2-4 (solo play is possible)
Play Time: 45 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #24/7.73
Weight: Medium Light

Pandemic has facinated me since I first saw its title in an Essen preview early last year. Of course, it didn’t quite make publication in time to make the ginormous German game fair, but ever since it hit shelves in early 2008 it has been successful by every definition of the word. Personally, it has become my most-played boardgame ever (up to 47 plays so far), and it is one of my all-time favorite games. So, in other words, I like it a lot. Let’s talk about why…

Oh, by the way, this review has turned out to be quite long. Please use the section headers to guide which topics are of interest to you.


Components and Setup 

Let’s start with the box, which is incredibly sturdy and was obviously made to survive some sort of civilization-ending catastrophe (clearly a thematic choice). The whole graphic design of the game is very well-done and does a great job of evoking a “team on an international mission” feel. The board is clear and looks great, but has some weird finish on it that tends to get streaked up a bit. Both the player and infection cards are well-designed and sturdy, even though I sleeved mine because of how much I’ve played the game. The player pawns are very solid and have easily-recognizable colors, the research station “houses” are nice natural wood, and the counters used to track infection rate, outbreaks, and cures look great as well.

The only real “issue” with the components is the inordinately high “pawn-to-board” size ratio. To me, though, it was never really a problem because there tends to be plenty of space between cities to accomodate spillage from one that had multiple pawns, stations, and/or cubes in it.

Set up for the game takes a bit of preparation, mainly in stacking the player deck and seeding the board with infection cubes. Each player is dealt a number of player cards based on how many people are in the game, and everybody randomly chooses a role card that has an associated special power.

What’s really cool about setting up the player deck is that you can set the difficulty of the game based on how many Epidemic cards you want to to include in the player deck (4, 5, or the “heroic” 6). The deck is divided into one pile for each Epidemic card, which is then shuffled into the pile and stacked one on top of the other to rebuild the player draw deck. This places the Epidemic cards somewhat randomly throughout the deck, but insures that they will be more-or-less evenly distributed.

Nine cards are then drawn from the Infection Deck. The first three cities have 3 cubes of the appropriate colored disease cubes placed in them, the next three get 2 cubes, and the last three get 1 cube each. This sets the stage for the players, and these cities will be the hotspots for infection for the rest of the game.

All the player pawns and one research station are then placed in Atlanta (home of the CDC), the markers for the infection rate and outbreaks are placed on their first position, and the start player is chosen based on who was most recently sick.


Basic Gameplay
  (click here for complete game rules) 

The goal of Pandemic is for the brave epidemiologists to discover the cures to all 4 major diseases before they sweep over the globe and destroy all of humanity, which happens in three cases: having no disease cubes of a particular color when you need to place one on the board, having an 8th outbreak occur, or having no player cards in the deck when someone needs to draw one.

Each round of the game is composed of three phases: 1) take 4 actions, 2) draw 2 player cards, and 3) play the role of the Infector.

Take 4 Actions:
There are eight possible actions, four of which are “basic” (movement) actions and four of which are “special” actions (building a new research station, trading cards with other players, treating a disease, and discovering a cure). The same action may be performed multiple times in the same round, and players may also choose to pass if they don’t wish to perform all 4 of their actions. Many of the actions also require playing the card specific to the city that the player is in (or is going to). Using cards for these actions, however, must always be weighed against the need to collect cards of each color, because in order to discover a cure for a disease a single player must trade in 5 cards of that disease’s color.

Draw 2 Player Cards:
The player then draws the top two cards from the player deck. Most of these are simply cards that have a city name on them and the color of that city’s primary disease, which are the ones used in the action phase. There are also 5 Special Event cards which may be played at absolutely any time to get a special action or advantage for the players. Finally, there are also those Epidemic cards that were inserted into the deck.

When an Epidemic card is drawn, three things happen. First, the infection rate counter is moved to the next level. Second, the bottom card of the infection deck is drawn and three cubes of the appropriate color are added to that city. Finally, the discard pile from the infection deck (including the card just drawn from the bottom of the deck) is shuffled and placed back on top of the rest of the deck.

Play the Role of the Infector:
Finally, the active player flips over a number of cards from the top of the infection deck equal to the infection rate and places one cube of the appropriate color in each of those cities. If this would result in adding a fourth cube of one color to a city, it is not placed but instead causes an Outbreak in that city. An Outbreak causes one cube of that color to be placed in all adjacent cities (determined by the red lines on the board), which can sometimes cause a chain reaction of outbreaks if any of those cities also already have 3 cubes of that color.

If the players manage to both discover a cure for a disease and eliminate all cubes of that color from the board, then the disease has been eradicated, and can never be reintroduced to the game, even through the action of an Epidemic card. That’s really good, but not always possible.

Play then proceeds to the next player, and continues around the table until either all 4 diseases are cured (but not necessarily eradicated) or one of the losing conditions are met.



Strategy and Tactics

Pandemic is really hard, but there are some important things to consider that can give you a decent chance of winning. The main keys are efficient play and cooperation.

Since this is a cooperative game, let’s start with cooperation. The players must communicate well and work together to plan out coordinated actions. Everyone needs to have a good idea of what kind of cards are in each others’ hands, as well as who is collecting which color(s). More importantly, however, cooperation also means using your role’s special power to its greatest effect in conjunction with the special powers of the other players. Since I haven’t really discussed these yet, let’s look at each role in a bit of depth: 



  • Medic: This role is probably the most straight-forward, and is also perhaps the most powerful. The Medic is the king at fighting disease already on the board, and almost the only hope of actually eradicating diseases. The only real trick to playing this role is to not be too single-minded. While you can always put a hurting on disease cubes, sometimes it’s actually best to try and share knowledge with another player, work on collecting cards yourself, or building a research station.
  • Scientist: Also very clear-cut, this role simply cures diseases using only 4 cards of the same color. Like the Medic, however, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of always trying to just collect cards. As a group, also don’t think that the best play is to always feed cards to the Scientist, because it is often easier for at least one or two of the diseases to be cured by other players.
  • Researcher: Sharing knowledge is the hardest action to pull off in the game, but is probably overall the most important. The Researcher allows you to give cards for any location when you perform this action, which can be incredibly powerful. The trick with this role is to not share too many cards or to share them too soon. It is impossible for a player to hold the cure for more than one color at a time (due to the 7 card hand-limit), so you should almost never pass cards of two different colors to the same person at the same time. Ultimately, this leads to some of those cards being discarded later. Also, you don’t want to give cards away too early. Wait until another player has 2-3 cards of the same color before you give them more cards of that color. And don’t forget that this power applies to any time that the Researcher gives cards away, even during another player’s turn.
  • Dispatcher: This is probably the hardest role to use well, mainly because the ability to move other players on your turn is incredibly versatile, especially when you remember that you can also use cards from your hand to move them as well (just as you would use them to move yourself). Even more important is the ability to move one player to another player’s location, which is the best way in the game to put out “fires” of infection that start to get out of hand or make Sharing Knowledge possible. There really isn’t any simple and easy key to using the Dispatcher, other than to look past the most obvious moves and to really consider all that you can do on your turn.
  • Operations Expert: Generally, I consider this the weakest of all the roles. He is not, however, as weak as I first thought. The first advice I can give you in the role is to use his power aggressively in the early game to build a solid infrastructure to help everyone move about the board. Don’t be afraid to use cards to get places, and don’t feel that your research stations need to be perfectly spaced around the world (if you run out, you can always just relocate some of those already on the board). The other key in the late game is to remember that movement is not the only use of research stations. If building one can save you an action or two in curing a disease, go ahead and do it, because I’ve lost many, many games by coming up only one or two actions short.

The way to conserve those actions, of course, is to become more efficient in how you use them. I thought I’d offer a few examples of how I see to optimize certain actions:



  • Movement – Probably the biggest waste of actions that I see regularly is when players just “walk” their pawn from city to city. If you’re more than a few spaces away from where you need to go, you really need to find an alternate way to get there. In general, I find that players value cards more than they are worth, while they think that individual actions are worth almost nothing. The exact relative value of cards and actions vary depending on the situation, of course, but remember that your actions are often just as limited as the cards in the game, so look for ways to conserve both. Ultimately, the best way to travel is often to use the Dispatcher’s power or to shuttle between research stations (made easier with the Operations Expert in play), which I’ve already touched on above.
  • Treating Disease – Being efficient in this area is all about keeping the board “safe” from outbreaks while not wasting actions removing cubes unnecessarily. First of all, when setting priorities for which cities to address, always be aware of which infection cards have been drawn since the last Epidemic, and which ones are still likely to come up soon. Generally, the only player that should be removing all the disease cubes from a city is the Medic, because getting a city down to 1 or 2 cubes is usually good enough (especially in a high-traffic areas). One exception to this is for cities that have cubes in them due to outbreaks rather than from having their card drawn during the infection phase. Since you’ve not seen their card yet, the natural instinct is to ignore these cities, but nothing ruins your day worse than having an Epidemic and drawing a city from the bottom of the deck that already has a cube or two in it – that’s instant Outbreak and often a recipe for chain reaction.
  • Sharing Knowledge – This is still the hardest area for me to be efficient, mainly because a lot of hard work in coordination can be invalidated when the recipient of a card transfer ends up drawing the same colored card in their next draw phase. But my tips are to try and have alternate goals for getting the two players in the same place and, more importantly, use role powers (especially the Dispatcher and Researcher) whenever possible to make it work better.
  • Priorities – There are times when you need to focus on board control, and there are other times that you need to put all your energy into discovering cures. The real key to efficiency is figuring out which times are which. You really need to pay attention to where you are in the Player deck, especially in regards to how when another Epidemic might show up. Don’t set priorities based on what is most obvious or easiest to do. Instead, with consideration to the roles involved in the game, you need to assess the shape and relative safety of the board against the game’s timer (cards left in the player deck). Letting the diseases get out of control will lose the game really soon, but wasting too much time curing disease can ruin your chances of ever actually winning the game.

There’s a lot more that I could say about strategy, but I think that this is probably enough to include here.


What I think…
 

Like I said, I really like Pandemic… and for a lot of reasons. First of all, I really like cooperative games, and this is the most purely cooperative game that I’ve ever played. Players may discuss actions and strategies as much as they want, with the one limitation of not being able to actually show cards to each other. Some complain that this makes it easy for a domineering experienced player to essentially play the whole game by directing each other player on what to do. Personally, I’ve never had this happen (and would likely just deal with the offending player if I had), and the game is so simple to pick up on that after just a game or two most people can contribute pretty well with valid strategic input anyway. Plus, being able to “direct” new players a bit at the beginning of the game helps show them both how to play as well as giving them a quick path to understanding how to win.

Second, the theme is just so cool to me. I’m a registered nurse, and I’ve always thought that epidemiology was a really interesting aspect of public health. Before going back to nursing school, I also had a degree in Biochemistry and especially loved nucleic acid chemistry and microbiology, so I know just enough about the research side of epidemiology to be both dangerous and facinated. At its heart, Pandemic is still an abstract puzzle game, but I think that the theme is implemented really well here, and that alone takes the game to another whole level for me.

Mechanically, Pandemic is an extremely well-designed game. The eight available actions are all simple to understand and perform, each one is useful and gets used frequently, and together they give players tons of options in how to tackle the game. While I have some slight issues with balance in the role powers, they nonetheless provide a lot of variety and even more options. The whole infection process is very solid as well, but the real nugget of brilliance in the game is the Epidemic mechanic. The idea of shuffling the discard pile and placing it back on top of the infection deck has a lot of thematic ingtegrity, and it is probably the primary tension-producing mechanism in the game. Drawing an Epidemic card really feels like getting hit in the gut at times, and the whole idea of “board control” is centered on being prepared for the next time one shows up.

Continuing that idea, I also love the great balance that Pandemic strikes between long-term strategic planning and short-term tactical board management. As I’ve mentioned above, the game is filled with tons of difficult decisions regarding card collection versus usage, value of cards versus actions, how to spend the actions available, and, most importantly, the tension about whether to put more energy into managing the state of the board (short-term) or trading cards and discovering cures (long-term). The game rewards forward thinking and preparation, but requires flexibility and short-term priority setting as well, which is also extremely true of real healthcare and disaster management.

Finally, Pandemic is also highly replayable. The rules regarding setup of both the board and the player deck produce an almost infinitely variable game experience. On top of that, the particular mix of roles involved, as well as the personalities of the players themselves, have a huge impact on strategy and planning. I fully admit that some game setups are probably unwinnable, but it really doesn’t matter to me, because the real fun in the game comes from the playing, not the winning. I’d rather lose a tight and exciting game by coming up a turn or two short than have an easy time where there was no real tension involved. And frankly, I find that groups I’m in are far likely to play a second or third time in a row when we’ve been losing to the game, because we just can’t stand to let it get the best of us!

I could gush for hours, so let’s get on with the wrap-up…



Samantha is concerned over the fate of the world.

The Verdict!

Fourteen different people in the Hypermind BoardGamers have played Pandemic, many of them several times, with their lowest rating being 7.5 and the highest being 10, averaging out to an astounding 8.69 out of 10.

Rules: Very simple, and the cooperative nature of the game lets you teach the game as you play.
Downtime: Virtually none. Turns are short, and everybody is involved in planning the team’s actions all the time anyway!
Length: We’ve played 20 games that averaged just under 28 minutes each with an average of 3.65 players per game.
Player Interaction: It’s cooperative, so there’s no conflict, but players must work well together to do well.
Weight:  Medium Light
GamerChris’ Rating: It’s my second favorite game of all time (behind only The Princes of Florence), and I rate it a nearly-perfect 10.  

11 Comments


  1. Good game! No matter how we need to keep Bird Flu at the forefront of everyone’s mind. It won’t go away so better start preparing.

  2. Chris Norwood

    Thanks for the comment Nigel, but let’s hold off a little on the advertisements there!  People can still click on your name to get to your website.


  3. Something went screwy with this review, so I’m having to rebuild it. I’ll get pictures re-added soon…


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