Board game review: Pandemic

Pandemic is a 2 to 4 player cooperative board game by the folks at Z-man games. Players are CDC-types frantically attempting to keep several epidemics under control as various diseases spread throughout different nations, all the while trying to avoid a massive pandemic. It’s a fun game where everyone teams up to try and beat out the clock of different game resources and conditions.

The players must find ‘cures’ to 4 different diseases (essentially turn in a color set of cards at specific locations on the board) before the game ends. There are several conditions ending the game, including exhausting player action cards and disease cube markers. If a player has to draw cards or place these markers and none are available, the game ends. Another more, trickier end game condition to predict is the outbreak track.

A single location can have a maximum of 3 disease cubes of a single color. If you add a 4th, you get a chain reaction spreading additional cubes to adjacent locations. Each time this happens, the epidemic track moves up. Reach the end and the game ends. At the conclusion of a player’s turn, disease cubes are randomly added to the board by drawing cards from a disease deck. Each world location is a unique card, so it is fairly predictable and players can try to work on controlling a potential outbreak.

However, a set number of cards are inserted into the player deck to represent epidemics. When drawn, this creates a burst of disease cubes added to a few locations. Also discards of the disease deck are shuffled and placed on back on top of the deck. This essentially increases the chance of adding more disease cubes to heavily infected areas and the likelyhood of another outbreak, continually moving a marker up the outbreak track to end the game.

So players during their turn are always trying to move to specific locations, remove disease cubes, and make trades to grant a single player enough cards to find a cure. Like the disease deck, player cards are all unique locations. Players have to be in the same location as a card being traded. You can jump across the globe, but that requires discarding the destination card (removing a potential card that could be used for finding a cure). It’s a difficult choice thinking which cards to discard and which cards to keep and players continually coordinate their efforts to work with each other before the game ends.

Each player also gets a specific role determined randomly at the beginning of the game out of 5 possibilities. Each role grants a special ability that ‘breaks’ the rules that other players adhere to. So one player might be able to remove all disease cubes from a location instead of one, or one player can just turn in 4 cards to cure a disease rather than 5. It’s a nice twist to add a little variety in how the game plays for each player.

The Good – It is a fun cooperative game with enough re-playability to keep things interesting. Additionally, the game can be scaled in difficulty by the number of epidemic cards being added to the player deck. An easier game can be obtained using 4 cards, while a challenging game can be played using 6. The epidemic cards really add a curveball to how the game plays, making a rather predictable game become suddenly a very hectic experience. The components are nice and well presented, especially the meaty tactile feel of disease cubes.

The game is also very interactive. Players will find themselves talking to each other, offering advice, and helping coordinate each other’s actions. So even if it is not their turn, they are engaged and looking at their hand, trying to see how they can help in trading cards and moving around the board of other players. Also, as it is a cooperative game with everyone working together, it makes for a fun family game.

The Bad – It’s a cooperative game. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea as some might be more in the mindset of being the sole ‘winner’ of a game. Also as a cooperative game with a lot of player interaction, I’m surprised the game is limited to 4 players. I think games like this really need the ability to play with 5-6 people. The game mechanics are pretty random also, which might not please some people that want a more structured experience, as a bad streak of drawing poor cards can leave a sour taste.

I do know that a new expansion is available for Pandemic which does add another player, and also provides some options of gameplay where everyone plays against a single opponent. I’m a little on the fence about picking that up though.

The Verdict – Pandemic is a wonderful buy. I think the small bit of random roles and randomized spread of diseases, coupled with the high amount of player interaction makes this a great game to play. The presentation and components are nice. I also think the cooperative game experience is also something a little different from your typical game, and it works well. Pandemic is a nice addition to any game collection.


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