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[Boardgame Review] Pandemic

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pic254416.jpg Pandemic

Publisher: Z-Man Games • MSRP: $34.99


Pandemic is a cooperative play game in which the players take on the role(s) of various agents of the CDC or WHO and must travel the world combating disease and collecting the needed research to be able to create a cure. The theme is strong in all aspects of the game play, with each role being a specific research or aid worker (eg. Medic, Scientist, Operations Expert, etc), the board is a map of the world, with the major cities marked and linked by the allowed ground travel routes the cards for the "infection" deck have images of various viruses, and those same are on the board as well. The only real abstract thing in the game from a theme standpoint is the markers used for infections which are little colored cubes, but that gets a pass because it keeps cost down compared to plastic cast virus models, and is probably easier to use and store any way.


The Bits:

The four diseases are abstractly represented by colored wood cubes roughly 1 cm on a side in blue, yellow, red, and black. The player pawns are colored to match the border of the role card they belong to and in the base set are a little big, the expansion released all new smaller pawns thankfully. The cards are full color back and front, plastic coated, and fairly sturdy. I've played many a game and they haven't become marked up yet. The board has a matte finish which reduces glare, and seems to wear well, there is space on the board for both decks and discard piles as well as two tracks for infection rate and outbreaks as well as spots for the cure tokens. It's well laid out for the most part but there was some early confusion about locating some cities.

pic300647_md.jpg Gameplay:

A cooperative game for 2 to 4 players, it can also be played perfectly well by a single person using multiple roles, and I have had fun playing 2 player with 2 roles each. After numerous games I can actually say that the game is more challenging the more players/roles you have, which makes for a more interesting group experience.

Setup is fairly quick. The Player Deck is seeded at roughly equal intervals with a number of Epidemic Cards equal to the challenge you wish to face; 4 is a beginner game, and 6 or 7 is insanely difficult. Each player is given a few starting cards based on the number of players, fewer players means more cards to start with. The Infection Deck is shuffled/randomized, and then 9 cards are rolled off the top, the first 3 are infected with 3 cubes of their color, the next 3 with 2 cubes, and the final 3 with 1 cube each. This lays out a random assortment of 18 Disease Cubes on the board. Depending on the number of each color and their proximity you may immediately see that a game will be harder or easier. A single Research Station is started on the board in Atlanta, GA to represent the CDC and the player's pawns all start there. Game play begins with the player who was sick most recently (nice touch), and proceeds clockwise thereafter. Setup with 2 players who need not check the rules takes about 5 minutes, which is a lot less than some games out there, and with the random placement of Disease Cubes ensures that the games are always different right out of the gate.

The goal of the game is to discover a Cure all four diseases before one of the losing conditions comes up. It sounds simple but it has proved to be more challenging that it seems. Players lose when one of the following happens before they have cured all four diseases: If there are 8 or more Outbreaks over the course of the game the players lose. If a player, at the end of his/her turn, cannot draw 2 cards from the Player Deck the players lose. If, during the Infection Phase a Disease Cube cannot be placed on the board because that color's supply has run out. That's it, one way to win, and 3 ways to lose.

pic303530_md.jpgOnce the game is setup up the players take a moment to read their role cards which detail what special action they can take, or what special rule they have. The Scientist can create a Cure with one less card for instance. They then look at their play hand, which will be between 2 and 4 cards. The cards from the Player Deck depict either a color and a city, or a special event. Special events let you do things outside of the normal turn order, and also things that cannot normally be done. The Location Cards are used to move around, and to create Cures. On their turn players have a total of 4 actions which can be combined and repeated as needed. They can Move, Treat, Create a Cure, Trade Cards, and Build Research Stations.

Movement is done by either following a ground route from your city to a connection city, discarding a card depicting a city to fly to that city, or discarding a car depicting the city you are in to fly to any other location. Each act of movement costs 1 action so driving from Atlanta to New York to London (a "ferry") takes 2 actions, but discarding the London card from your hand while in Atlanta will get you there in 1 action. The balance of all of this is that there are only a finite number of cards, and only 1 card for each city in the deck. If you discard London (blue) now you will not have it later on to use to travel, create a Cure], or build a Research Station. Combined with a maximum hand size of 7 cards, players will often find themselves balancing the razor's edge between economy of movement and being able to maintain the cards they need to create Cures.

While a player's pawn is in a city with 1 or more Disease Cube he can spend 1 action to Treat and remove 1 cube. The Medic, as his special action, can remove all cubes of the same color from a city for only 1 action. The prompt treatment of Disease Cubes is important because the maximum cubes of a color that a city can hold is 3 cubes, if there are already 3 cubes on Paris, and a 4th is to be added this will cause an Outbreak and bring you one step closer to losing. Outbreaks also cause additional cubes to be placed on all neighboring cities, meaning that not only do you slide closer to a loss from Outbreaks, but you also infect more cities (which will need treatment). Chain reaction outbreaks are possible as well, meaning that things can go from bad to worse quickly. Treating diseases to avoid Outbreaks becomes a huge part of the game as a result.

While a player's pawn is in a city he may discard a card from his hand that matches the city to place a new Research Station on the board. Research Stations are useful because players can travel from one station to another as 1 action regardless of the distance, making strategic placement of Stations early in the game crucial to fast efficient travel. Research Stations are also crucial because only at a Station can a Cure be created.

pic319229_md.jpg When at a Research Station the player may discard 5 cards of the same color to create a Cure for that disease. In addition to getting you 25% closer to a win it allows players to remove all cubes of that color from a city with a single Treat action. In addition the Medic, awesome fellow that he is, can Treat and remove all disease cubes of a Cured disease from a city he/she enters without spending an action. Eradication of a disease is difficult, but not impossible, if the player's have cured a disease and then removed all cubes of that color from the board the disease is Eradicated and further Infection Cards of that color pulled during the Infection Phase (below) will not produce cubes on the board.

Lastly players can trade cards between them as 1 action per card. The limit is that the character's must be in the came city, and the card traded must be the card depicting the city they are in. Getting cards to the right players to be able to create Cures can become very difficult. The Researcher role has the special ability to give cards to other players even if the card does not match the city they are in, but they must still be in the same location.

At the end of the player's turn he/she draws 2 cards from the Player Deck and adds them to their hand. If one of the Epidemic Cards comes up that card is played immediately. The player also must discard down to 7 cards at this stage if they are above that number in hand. The balance between limited actions, limited cards, movement costs, and performing important tasks like Treating and creating Cures becomes the core of the player's gameplay and strategy (such at it is).

Epidemics are an event that players will dread. Mechanically they cause the bottom card of the Infection Deck to be pulled up and 3 cubes (a hot zone) to be put onto that city, the Infection Rate is then increased 1 step, and last (and by far worst) the discard pile of the Infection Deck is shuffled, by itself, and then placed on top of the Infection Deck. This results in the same cities which have been getting infected becoming infected again during subsequent Infection Phases, and mimics the difficulty in treating and eradicating disease in the real world.

pic303605_md.jpg After each player completes their turn the Infection Phase is carried out. Cards equal to the Infection Rate are rolled from the top of the Infection Deck and 1 cube of the appropriate color is added to the city shown. The Infection Rate starts at 2 and goes up to 4. Adding two cubes (or even 4) may not seem like much but combined with action consumption of Treating it quickly adds up.


Given the randomized setup, the random nature of the Player Deck and the Infection Deck there is a ton of replay value inherent to the basic mechanics of the game. In addition the multiple player roles add a different twist on playing each character type that will change how the game fares. Games with Medics tend to be a little easier to control the madness of Treatment, while games with the Researcher and the Scientist make it far easier to create Cures, if no easier at all to treat the disease on the table. This game has very high replayability, and, in my opinion, is one of the best games I have played in the past few years.

Rating: 100%, I really can't find anything to dislike about this game (expect how often it has kicked my ass).

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I might consider giving this game a whirl, if only for something different. About the only boardgame my friends and I play is Twilight Imperium (very rarely). Yeah, it's a pretty cool game and the expansions really add to the fun, but the damn game takes forever to play.

That said, roughly how long does it take to play through a game of Pandemic?

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Huh, I knew I forgot something...

Games generally take about 60-90 minutes. As the players get more comfortable with the rules the turns will go faster, but only to an extent because turns can often take a bit to plan out before they are carried out. Obviously things will also take longer the more people you have playing as well.

The finite nature of the player deck and the instant loss when it runs out means that games can't really take more than about 25-ish player turns total (about 50-54 cards in the deck divided by 2 cards per turn). The more players the fewer turns each player gets, but it does run quickly and I usually can get 2+ in an evening with friends if we are so inclined as to play a second time (usually if we lose the first).

Something else I forgot to mention is that because of the co-op nature of the game there is really no need to keep player cards hidden from each other, and it is encouraged to play with open hands when learning as it will help the new players.

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I've played.

The game is weighed heavily against the players. Even if you work as a well oiled machine as a team, you still have too high a chance of failure.

If I wanted odds like that, I'd play the lotto.

I have to be a dissenting voice on this. I hated the game for it's difficulty. Even on it's "easy mode".

Played it twice, never wanted to play again.

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We played our first game last night and really enjoyed it. I think that we had a pretty easy go at it based on the roles that we drew. I got the medic and the other player (Mrs. Cho-Cho) got the researcher.

She worked on finding a cure while treating things in the US and I went to Asia, which was where the most trouble was at the start of the game. On her first turn she gave me 2 orange cards so I had 4 of the necessary 5 cards to find a cure almost immediately. By the fourth round I had eradicated all traces of the orange disease. That's when we got our first epidemic card.

We realized that if we stayed close together and that she could use her ability to share knowledge with me while I cured an area. So she kept feeding me cards until we could fine a cure. Then as soon as we got the cure she would stay behind and try to clean up the area while I went on to the next disease.

I think that we only had 3 or 4 outbreaks during the game, so we did really well.

We both enjoyed the game, so thanks Jameson for the recommendation. What I liked was that there was enough of a game to have a strategy but not so complex that it was overwhelming. In these games I often find myself telling everyone what to do, but with this we both came up with part of our overall strategy. That and beginners luck helped out I think.

I'm going to play it again on Saturday, as well as try out the other games we recently discussed. I'll post back if I think the game gets more or less fun on replay with gamers this time.

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  • 1 year later...

Is anyone of you familiar with this platform? www.vassalengine.org and would consider playing games there? I tested it with Eclipse and it works really well. There's also a Pandemic Module available and many other Boardgames. All legal and open source.

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  • 6 years later...

I have the Season 1 set here in the cupboard, but I find myself unable to really play it. Games where you make permanent changes to the board make me feel horrible. It limits replayability and means that once it's done, the game feels like it's ready for the trash. Somewhere it seems to me like it's a ploy by the game companies to go from selling a game once to keep selling the base game in new formats, rather than make addons.

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I understand that completely.  I sleeve the cards for a lot of my games and do everything I can to keep the games as pristine as possible.  I probably sat there for a couple of minutes before I finally I ripped up the first card.  When we finished the game I did throw it away. 

We talked about whether we thought it was a ploy or not.  But after we finished the first season every player loved it and said they thought it was a good idea.  I am the 3rd person out of the original 4 to go back and play it with another group.  When we try out a new game the first question is usually about whether it is a legacy style game or not.

If you ever decide to play it, please let me know what you think.

If anyone ever wants to play a Legacy game and doesn't want to throw it in the trash, then you should try Charterstone.  In it you use stickers and modify the board in the campaign.  The neat thing about it is you are creating a village, so when you are done with the campaign you can continue to play it as long as you want.  The rules and setup for your village are unique to your version of the game. 

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