You can find our accessibility teardown of Pandemic here.
Stay back! I mean it – stay back or I’m going to fire this nail-gun right through your disgusting, plague-ridden head. You’re one of Them – you’re one of the Infected. I didn’t commandeer this Tesco Metro for nothing, sniffy – I’m going to ride this supermarket like a donkey, right through to the other side of this apocachooooo! Achooo! Achooo!
Okay, I hear you buddy – doesn’t look like either of us are going to survive this pandemic. So let’s work together for the few hours we have left. You start. I’m just going to lie here and weep for a bit until these blue cubes stop hemorrhaging out of my backside.
Pandemic is a very popular game of co-operative failure, in which each of the players takes on the role of heroic Centres for Disease Control personnel looking to avert a world-wide epidemic. It’s a Matt Leacock game, if that means anything to you – if you’ve played Forbidden Island or Forbidden Desert, you’ve already had what is essentially the ‘Diet Pandemic’ experience. If not, then you’re in for a bumpy ride – this is not a kind game. If Pandemic were a dog, it would be a violently aggressive bulldog trained by a bullying skin-head. If it were an episode of TV show, it would be the Red Wedding. If it were a person, it would be Russell Crowe. It’s going to hurt you, is what I’m saying.
It is though a very nice-looking game, with lots of attention given to the thematic weight of the various components. The four-fold board is a world map (of sorts), with various urban centres marked out in vivid colours. It looks like our world, but it isn’t – at least, judging by the fact that everywhere that’s marked isn’t quite where you’d expect it to be. That’s a relief, anyway – we’re dealing with a world-wide plague, but at least it’s in a universe that’s only adjacent to our own. Having said that, we’re dealing with diseases that have already likely crossed species barriers – inter-dimensional ones are likely only a matter of time.
Yeah, I said ‘diseases’, because Pandemic doesn’t content itself with one impossible epidemic. It serves us up four of them, and we need to deal with all of them at the same time. So it’s a game of careful, cautious progress where we make use of the painstaking preciseness of the scientific method to slowly isolate diseases and then develop suitable vaccines and…
Actually, no. It’s more like riding a roller-coaster of despair directly into a hurricane of inevitable defeat while being slowly eviscerated by your own impossible sense of hubris. You don’t have time to screw around with the scientific method – you’ve got four fires, and you’ve only been given three buckets. And every turn, those fires are getting bigger and those buckets are getting rustier. At a certain point you realise that you’re not going to save the world, and the best you can do is find a safe vantage point from which you can watch it crumble. And then, if you’re lucky, pick through the slowly mouldering remains of society for a new flat-screen TV in the wreckage.
Many games introduce a failure state. As with diseases, one isn’t enough for Pandemic. It gives you three ways to fail, and each fail-state is punishingly difficult to avoid.
To begin with, look at the bottom right of the map – that’s the player deck. On each of their turns, a player will draw two cards from this (initially) substantial heap. If you run out of cards in the deck, you lose the game. Now look at the left hand side of the board. That’s the outbreak counter. When that progresses along to the skull and crossbones at the bottom, you’ve lost the game. That’s two of the ways you can lose. The first represents time running out, and the second represents the collapse of society’s infrastructure to such an extent that a cure couldn’t be produced and distributed even if it was to be found.
What’s the third way? We’re going to come back to that.
All players have four actions they can perform during each of their turns. Some of these actions are movements:
- Drive or ferry to an adjacent city
- Take a direct flight to a city by discarding a player card of the same name
- Charter a flight to any city by discarding a card that matches the city the player currently occupies
- Move from a city with a research station to another city with a research station.
Some offer more substantive opportunities to impact on the game state:
- If we have a card that matches our current city, we can discard it to build a research station.
- If we’re in a city that’s diseased, we can spend an action to cure some or all of the outbreaks of a specific disease.
- If we’re in a city that matches a card we own, and in the same city as another player, we can give them that card. Or we can take a card from them.
- If we’re at a research station, we can discard five cards of the same colour to cure that disease.
It’s a lot to remember, so luckily we get a nice card that reminds us.
Each player in the game picks a role at the start, and this role gives them some special powers. The researcher for example can give anyone in their current city any card even if it doesn’t match the location. The dispatcher can move any player to any city provided it already has someone there. The operations expert can build research centres without spending a card, and so on. The roles are properly chosen at random, but most players ignore this because it can create some extremely difficult games. Some roles are definitely more powerful than others, especially in games with smaller player counts – a medic and a dispatcher can work wonders. A quarantine specialist and an operations expert, on the other hand, will have a tough road to hoe.
When we begin, we draw two cards representing cities and events. Mostly we get cities, each of which is colour coded. Cities represent tickets for direct flights and chartered flights, but they also represent possible cures – get enough of them into the hand of a single player and you can cure a disease. Curing all four of the diseases is the only way to win, so you absolutely need to do that. But, if there are too many outbreaks you will also lose the game, so you need to be making sure that no disease gets out of hand. So you absolutely need to do that as well. But, every time you draw a card from the player deck, you run the risk of receiving the dreaded ‘Epidemic’ card, which makes everything worse. So you absolutely have to do everything you can to prepare for that! There’s so much to take care of, and you don’t have time to take care of any of it to the extent needed.
We start off with a research centre in Atlanta, and all our little pawns go there too – so we get a nice little crowd huddling together before the hard rain falls. I like to think of them as sitting together in the lab, sipping coffee and making jokes, when a mobile phone rings. And then another. And then another. They all take the calls simultaneously, and then as they realise the extent of the problem they slide down fire poles into their Diseasemobile.
Once we’ve got our roles and our cards, we begin setup of the board. We place the outbreak marker on zero – that’ll increase each time a disease gets out of control. We put our infection marker on two – that represents how many new incidences of infection we’ll get every turn. Then we seed the board. We draw three cards to represent our first major hot-spots – each of the cities we draw gets three disease cubes of the appropriate colour. We draw our first card, and it hits Atlanta. That’s okay! That’s good news, actually! Atlanta is a blue city, so it gets three blue cubes – three is the worst a disease can be. If we try to add more than three cubes to a city, it outbreaks. We’re going to see that later.
The second card we draw is Johannesburg, so that gets three yellow cubes. That’s not great – it’s awkward to get to, but at least it’s also isolated. If something goes wrong we can still contain the infection. Except we then draw our third card:
Well – that’s unfortunate:
Just like that, Africa becomes a serious problem in our game. Two major infection hot-spots in such close proximity to each other are going to feature heavily in our plans, because we absolutely cannot allow the yellow disease to break out of our control.
We draw another three cards, and each of these get two cubes – we draw Hong Kong, Jakarta and Osaka. And now our game state looks like this:
Eastern Asia is now a dangerous area – red is pretty virulent there, but it’s not on the verge of outbreak. At least for now. It’s on the cusp, so we’re going to have to prioritise it. But we also need to prioritise Africa.
We then draw our final three cards, and each of those get one cube each. We draw Shanghai, Karachi and Manila. Our starting state then looks like this:
It could easily have been worse, but it’s certainly not good. It’s entirely possible in Pandemic to lay out an almost unwinnable scenario right at the very start, but most of the time you’ll get something like this – some reasons to be cheerful, and many reasons to be worried. East Asia is now absolutely riddled with disease, with hundreds of thousands of people spewing red cubes out of both ends all the time. Africa has only two disease hot-spots – each of them is a humanitarian crisis just waiting to happen. But, Atlanta is a ray of hope, because our first player just so happens to be our medic:
The medic is a superhero in Pandemic – he can clear all cubes of a single disease with a single action. All of our other heroes can only clear one per action. Not only that, but if a disease has been cured our medic can wipe the cubes off of the city just by passing through it. Games without a medic are obviously much more difficult. Making use of only one of his four actions, he cleans up Atlanta and then gets to decide where the next target will be. Obviously Africa is a problem but here we encounter an important element of Pandemic – logistics really matter. Your choices are limited by how easily you can travel around the map. At the beginning, our medic drew a London and a Paris card. He can travel to either of those by cashing it in, or if he was in either of those he could cash in the card to fly to anywhere else. He’s in Atlanta though and neither of those are options so he has to drive to adjacent cities. Lagos and Johannesburg are difficult to reach, so he drives to San Francisco (two actions):
And then he takes the ferry to Manila on the other side of the map.
Having spent the four actions, it’s time to draw from the deck.
At the end of their turn, a player draws two cards from the player decks- here we get more cities and potential cures, and occasional event cards that can give us temporary relief from our problems. The medic draws Los Angeles and Ho Chi Minh City, and adds them to his deck. Each player can have a maximum of seven cards – they have to discard the rest. As I say, logistics matter and this card limit will be the bane of your existence when it comes time to co-ordinate cures. That’s a problem though for the future versions of us – the ones that will be so broken and battered by the things they’ve seen and the horrors they have experienced that they’ll laugh bitterly at our presumption in worrying about the logistics of curing.
Having drawn from the player deck, now we draw from the infection deck – each time, we’ll draw two cards and lay down a disease cube on each of the revealed cities. It’s two because that’s where our infection marker is at the moment – as time goes by, the number of cards might become three, or even four. First we draw Madrid, and then we draw Bogota. Nothing to worry about so far.
Play then moves on to our next player, the Operations Expert. He can build research centres as a simple action. That can be hugely powerful in opening up the world – anyone can fly from one research centre to another as an action. Shaving a few moves off of a round trip through the globe can be the difference between success and failure, so he heads off to East Asia to do that. Africa is just going to have to deal with its own problems for a while. We’ve already played the Johannesburg and Lagos cards, and there’s only one of each in the deck. We’re not going to have a problem there. At least for now. He cashes in his Manila card and flies there as a single action:
He spends another two actions to get to Bangkok, and then builds a research centre:
Now everyone can have easy access between Asia and North America. Let’s hope it’s enough, because next comes the pain. He draws two cards – Sydney and Seoul. Both are red, putting the team a few steps closer to a cure for at least one disease. Then, he draws from the infection deck. Still nothing too bad – cities are slowly becoming infected but we’re keeping ahead of it for now.
Our scientist can cure a disease with four cards instead of five, and she already has two blue in her possession. She flies from Atlanta to Bangkok, making use of the handy new research centre. She then moves to Hong Kong (second action) and spends two actions clearing red cubes from there. Hong Kong is now clean. It’s all going so well!
She draws her first player card, and it’s an epidemic!
Now things are going to go very badly, and they’re going to keep getting worse. We’re now looking at the acceleration of armageddon – every turn things will get worse more quickly until we’re just trying to keep *anyone* alive.
The first thing we do when we draw an epidemic card is to increase the infection rate – it’s still two, but we don’t want to see that becoming three, and heaven save us if it becomes four. Then we encounter the beautiful clockwork apparatus at the heart of Pandemic’s dark engine. We take a card off the bottom of the infection deck, and put three disease cubes on it. Ouch. We then take all the cards on the infection discard pile, and we shuffle them. And then we PUT THEM ON THE TOP OF THE INFECTION DECK!
Seriously, that’s just so clever it makes me all a quiver – it means that every time we draw from the infection deck now, we’re going to hit cities that have already been infected or treated. Any crisis that we left unresolved until this point has now become inevitable, because there’s going to be another infection at those cities, and soon. Instead of thinking ‘Johannesburg is in the discard pile, we’re fine’, we have to think ‘What are the odds that Johannesburg is going to come out again in the next flip’. It suddenly becomes unbearably tense – there’s a palpable aura of foreboding as you go to play the next infection card. Everyone holds their breath, hoping that they’re going to get off easy just this once.
We choose at the beginning of play how easy we want the game to be, and we do it by selecting how many epidemic cards are in the deck. Even one of them can wreck your day, but there are several of these all bobbing below the surface like plague-infected sharks. With the appropriate sense of dread, our scientist draws another player card (which can easily be another epidemic), and then begins the process of infection.
She turns over the first card, and it’s Johannesburg. What are the odds? Actually, they’re depressingly bad – three rounds in and we’ve drawn only fourteen infection cards. Four of them resulted in three cubes being placed on a city. That’s about a 28.5% chance you’ll draw one of those as the first card after this epidemic card was drawn. If you’re unlucky, you might get an epidemic card after only a handful of cards have been played, really putting the screws to a handful of unfortunate cities.
Three cubes is the maximum of any one colour we can place on a city. If we try to place more it outbreaks – and every single city adjacent to it gets a cube of the appropriate colour. It’s not so bad – Johannesburg is hard to reach, so it only infects Khartoum and Kinshasa. It also moves our outbreak marker on by one, and when that reaches the end we’ve lost.
Then our scientist draws the second card from the infection deck. It’s Lagos. That couldn’t be worse for us, because Lagos was the other three cube city in Africa. And now that one outbreaks too, increasing our outbreak counter by one and infecting all adjacent cities:
A bad situation has just gotten much, much worse, and any card we pull from the player deck from this point on could be another epidemic. We absolutely need to get a handle on this situation right now, but bear in mind that the next twelve cards from the infection deck will *all* be cities that have previously been infected. So how bad is it going to get?
It’s not all bad news in the player deck though – it sometimes gives us events, and these can be played at any time, at no action cost, offering substantial help. We can get government grants we can spend on instant research centres, or remove specific cards from the infection deck, or arrange one quiet night where the infection round isn’t carried out. There aren’t many of these, but each are precious resources – they need to be hoarded until they will do the most good, but not hoarded so long it’s too late for them to have a meaningful impact on the outcome of the game.
We really need to get into Africa, so our scientist plays the Research Grant event and builds a centre in Kinshasa. It’s nowgotten a lot easier to get into that disease hotbed. Perhaps too little too late, but that’s the trajectory we always follow in this game. Everything we do is far too little, and delivered far too late.
The game follows that flow until we lose (which is extremely common) or manage to cure all four diseases by getting four or five cards into the right player’s hand and have them cash them in at a research centre. That doesn’t stop the disease spreading, but it does mean we’re part of the way towards winning – we win when we have four cures, we don’t have to get rid of all the disease cubes.
Once we’ve cured a disease, we move its marker up on the board to indicate that state of affairs. If we can cure all the disease cubes of a cured disease off of the board, it becomes eradicated and we can just ignore cards of that colour that would otherwise infect cities. It’s an almost impossibly appealing thought to ease the pressure by mopping up a few stray cubes of a cured disease, but remember – the world is burning and your crappy buckets aren’t getting any bigger. Don’t pin too many of your hopes on that – you’re unlikely to have the time to engage in that kind of aspirational epidemiology.
We play another few rounds, and things are just getting bleaker by the turn. Karachi outbreaks, infecting five cities around it – as a densely connected node, we really didn’t want that to happen:
The African situation gets worse, and Khartoum outbreaks, spreading a yellow disease cube into Cairo. We also really didn’t want that to happen. Yellow cubes can’t originate there, but once they spread into a city of a different colour it means you may need to battle two diseases at once every time you try to contain the situation.
Manila outbreaks, spreading red cubes everywhere, including into Los Angeles, which was already dealing with its own problems:
And all the time, as we’re losing control of an escalating situation of spreading disease and intensification of infection, our player deck is gradually ebbing away until we’re only a couple of cards away from losing:
But even if we weren’t, we’ve had so many outbreaks that we couldn’t hold out for much longer anyway.
And then there’s the third losing condition, the one I said we’d get back to. We lose when we run out of time, or when society breaks down into anarchy. We also lose if we run out of cubes of a particular colour:
If we have to place two more yellow cubes during the course of play, we lose instantly. It’s not just a race against time, it’s a race against the rate of consumption.
You have to get used to losing in Pandemic. A lot. By the end of the game, you’re consoling yourself with the few things you actually accomplished, rather than celebrating an inspiring victory of mankind over microbes.
See, you never have enough time to do everything you need to do. You never have the resources to focus precisely on the key area of concern. You never have enough control over the spread of disease to be proactive. You never have enough of anything, and that’s what makes the game so tense and frantic and so thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a common design constraint of co-operative games that they have to be difficult, because there is no challenge offered by other players. Pandemic offers a challenge that is configurable, but almost certainly going to leave you bruised and bloodied the first half dozen or so times you play it. If it doesn’t, you’re almost certainly playing it wrong by ignoring some of the limitations on actions.
Mrs Meeple and I beat it first time out, because I had misread the rules and thought you drew infection cards only after every player had a turn. It went from being a game that was pretty easy to a game that was punishingly difficult, and I’ve been a fan ever since. We haven’t won it since then, although we’ve come frustrating close at times. For context, we’re still playing it on the easiest level.
Pandemic is an elegantly designed logic puzzle with many interlocking and moving parts. Everything about it is gloriously balanced to convince you that you’ve got a chance to contain this thing. That belief persists until you reach a pivot point and suddenly everything collapses over the course of two or maybe three turns. ‘I really think we’re going to do it this time’ is a thing I say often when playing Pandemic, and each time it’s the stupidest thing I’ve said all day. But, like any logic puzzle, there is an inevitable point when it suddenly opens up to you and it’s no longer challenging – the different difficulty levels give the game considerable longevity even beyond that point, but there are numerous power-strategies you can employ to tip the balance firmly back into your favour.
Pandemic is a simple game, but despite that it’s not a great *advocate* game. Pandemic is best when it’s being played by people that aren’t entirely sure what the best thing to do may be, and the more experience you are the harder it is to avoid essentially directing strategy as people look to you for advice. You can play Pandemic as a solo game if you like, which gives you a fair idea of how integral the input of other people is to overall success. There are some things you can do to avoid this, such as keeping hands hidden and sharing information only on request, but quarterbacking is a very real problem when playing Pandemic in groups of mixed experience levels. It’s very hard, even with the best intentions, not to simply tell people what the best strategy is especially when they are otherwise floundering around and feeling helpless or useless. The On the Brink expansion pack, I’m told, resolves these problems – but all we’re reviewing here is the base game and we have to call them as we see them.
More than its appeal as a beautifully designed game though, Pandemic absolutely oozes thematic appeal. As diseases begin to spread, there’s a palpable sense of menace in those glossy, coloured cubes. Before too long, you’ll be giving them little names of your own, creating your own converging apocalypse from many different threads. You’ll have zombies and bird flu battling it out with hemorrhagic fever for your attention. Strain your ears, and you’ll practically be able to hear the screams of the people you’ve left to die. Every single turn is heavy with portentous weight, lending a sobering sense of solemnity to even the turn of the cards.
It’s fast, it’s frantic and it’ll make a fool out of you and your friends if you let it. What more can you ask for in an evening’s gaming? It’s an easy four stars, and absolutely recommended.
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