Pandemic

Four medical professionals, led by a female doctor in the foreground, prepare to battle viruses.
Cover art for the Pandemic board game. Credit: Z-Man Games.

Pandemic is Z-Man Games’ globe-spanning game of viral infection in which 2-4 players travel from city to city trying to prevent local outbreaks from turning into full-blown pandemics. The game is played on a map of the Earth, with major cities connected by highways and flight paths. At the start of the game, color-coded cards keyed to the cities are drawn from the Infection Deck, indicating which metropolises have seen virus outbreaks. There are four viruses in all; the goal of the game is to cure the viruses before the planet succumbs to rampant disease.

My gaming group enjoys collaborative board games, but the biggest and best of those — Arkham Horror — can be a grueling marathon. We were looking for a faster game that delivered the same level of intense, collaborative game play, and we found it in Pandemic. The game’s easily playable in 60 minutes and while we lost the game three times in as many hours, they were enjoyable defeats.

The game has two core mechanics. The Infection Deck, as described earlier, controls which cities new viruses will appear in. These viral infections are represented by small red, yellow, blue or black wooden cubes, and at the start of the game you flip over a number of cards to determine which cities are infected. The initial setup round places three disease cubes on three cities; the second places two on another three cities, and the final round places one cube in three different cities. In subsequent turns, players turn over two or more infection cards, revealing additional cities that have been hit by viruses. If an infection occurs in a city that already has three cubes, an outbreak occurs. When this happens, one virus cube is placed in each adjacent city, and if that city also has three cubes, the process repeats. As a result it’s possible for outbreaks to trigger chain reactions that can overwhelm entire continents in a single turn.

Each outbreak is tracked, and when the counter reaches eight outbreaks the world has succumbed to a Pandemic, and the game is lost.

The counterpoint to the Infection deck is the Player deck. This consists of color-coded city cards, special event cards, and epidemic cards. Players can use city cards to quickly move between cities, jetting from Atlanta to Hong Kong in a single action. They’re also critical to winning the game: collecting five cards of the same color allows players to create a cure for the corresponding virus. The special event cards are boons that allow players to airlift their fellow researchers to other locations on the board, prevent infections from occurring in a city, or re-ordering the infection deck to their advantage.

It’s not all lab coats and beakers though; lurking in the Player Deck are epidemic cards. Drawing one of these cards forces a player to take an Infection card and immediately place three virus tokens on a designated city. Then the player has to take the Infection deck discards, shuffle them, and place them on top of the Infection Deck. The result is as insidious as it is effective; with the discards now on the top of the Infection Deck, the game insures that the cities that were hit before will be hit again. This greatly increases the chances of a major outbreak. Worse yet, when the Player deck runs out, the game is over, so card efficiency is essential.

Players are represented on the board by colored pawns, and take up to four actions each on their turn. “Driving” costs one action and allows the pawn to move to an adjacent city (when this path crosses water, it’s called “ferrying”). “Direct Flight” lets them discard a Player card to move their pawn to the city depicted on the card. “Charter Flight” lets them discard the card for their current city to move to any city on the globe. “Shuttle flight” lets players move between research stations. At the start of the game there is only one research station – the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta – but players can discard cards in other cities to build stations there. Other options include “discovering a cure” (discard five like-colored cards at a research station), “treating a disease” (remove one disease cube per action spent in their current city) and “share knowledge” (exchange a Player card, but only if both players are in the city pictured on the card).

The players are aided in their medical quest by special roles assigned at the start of the game. The Scientist allows players to create a disease cure with only four cards of the same color, instead of five. The Researcher can give another player a card as an action as long as they’re in the same city, regardless of the city on the card being exchanged. The Medic can eliminate all of the infections in a city with a single action, the Operations Expert can build a research station without spending any cards, and the Dispatcher can move other players’ pawns as though they were his own, as well as move any pawn to any other pawn’s location.

For players who aren’t experienced with European board games, or the more recent (and complicated) American board games like Akrham Horror or Descent, the rules may seem like a lot to take in, but they quickly sort themselves out after the first few turns of play. My initial playtest was with two board game novices and two veterans, and the veterans found Pandemic to be streamlined and elegant compared to some of its larger cousins.

After a game or two, the point of the game becomes clear: you need to find the right balance between curing infections and finding a cure; spend too much time trying to prevent outbreaks, and you lose because you couldn’t find the cure. Spend too much time working on cures, and viruses will overwhelm you before you can complete them. Also essential is judicious use of the player roles. In our first game we more or less did our own thing and ran out of Player cards just as we’d started to congeal our first plan. In the second and third games we spent far more time making use of the roles and playing to each person’s strength.

Pandemic is one of those games, like Settlers of Catan or Carcassone, that my extended circle of friends have been talking about — and loving — for years, but I never got around to playing. It lives up to the hype. The mechanics of infection and outbreak are balanced to make the game challenging even at its “easy” level while being unpredictable enough make each game different. Pandemic‘s 45-60 minute playtime makes it a good choice for pre-gaming before your regular RPG session or for a night of smaller, faster board games.

Product Details

  • Pandemic
  • Z-Man Games
  • MSRP: $39.99
  • Buy it from Amazon.com
  • This review originally appeared on GameCryer.com and is reprinted with permission