Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pandemic – The Plague-Induced Fall Of Man Has Never Been So Much Fun

Unfortunately for the consumers of the world, there are only a few games on the planet that are considered to be true masterpieces. Some would evidence Space Hulk, others might note Agricola, both arguably worthy of the title of Masterpiece. That being said, they are lonely at the top as very few games exude such excellence that they are universally lauded as the best board games of our time. I am very happy to report that I have indeed found one of these near-perfect games, and I felt a sense of duty to report to you the magnificence that is Pandemic.

Z-Man games has produced Pandemic, a work of art that transcends the seas of tripe that exist in the tabletop gaming industry and thus I will state, without equivocation, that it is likely one of the best games ever made. I’m actually a little pissed at Z-Man Games for this, because they seem to have recently developed and dispersed their own insidious plague which has clearly infected me; I have been stricken with the inability to resist buying their games!

The thesis of the game is that you and your compatriots are working to stop the world, as we know it, from succumbing to four plagues that threaten us. As one of five types of main character you and your colleagues must travel the world, putting down brushfires of infection and curing the diseases before time runs out. The game has almost no luck to it, meaning that every decision that you and your fellow saviors of man will make affects the outcome of the game, and ultimately will determine if mankind falls to its microbial nemeses or survives the viral storm. The key to abolishing each disease is to have a player trade five city cards of one of the four plague colors at a research station for the cure to that colored disease. The trick, though, is that humanity can only survive if all four plagues are extinguished by finding their cures before the players run out of the finite supply of city cards.

The box itself is quite small, typical of many European games, and has art that I would not consider to be incredibly good, but passable. Once you crack the box you’re met with a cornucopia of wooden bits and several cardboard chits that represent everything from character pawns, plagues, research centers, outbreak counters, and cures. Further, there are about a hundred cards that represent cities, epidemic outbreaks, player identifiers, and events, not to mention the well thought out player reference cards to help each player remember their options. A very well written rulebook with pictures and explanations accompanies the package, and reading through it once is all it will take to get you ready for your battle against human extinction. Finally, the included gameboard that depicts the planet’s cities is quite well illustrated and organized, with spaces for counters and card piles depicted within.

The game begins with the players selecting their character types from the five available, which range from the Medic, who can cure all infections of one variety in the city they currently reside in, to the Researcher, who can share cards with others, breaking one of the game’s rules. The rules state that you should randomly select your roles, but in my experience the game is more fun when the players consciously choose which warrior of science they wish to utilize against the swarms of disease. Once the players have chosen their champions, they place their corresponding pawns in Atlanta along with the first research center in the game, the CDC Headquarters. Each player takes an initial hand of two to four city cards, depending on the number of players, and they are almost ready to begin.

Now, as stated before, this game is about the fall of humanity and thus the world is already beginning to falter in the face of the viral menaces. Once the board is set up as indicated above, the first player chooses 9 cards from the infection deck, which is essentially a deck that has one card representing every city in the game, and places one, two, or three cubes of the appropriate color plague on the indicated cities, infecting them. Once all of the unlucky cities are infected, the cards from the infection pile go into the infection discard pile, and the game can now begin with the first player taking their turn.

Each player’s turn has three phases: Take four actions, take two cards from the city card pile, and then take a number of cards from the infection deck, subsequently infecting the indicated cities. Actions available to the players range from simply moving to an adjacent city, using one of the city cards in their hand to travel to other nonadjacent cities, curing diseases within the city, creating a research center, giving a card to a colleague, or curing a plague. Each player’s role has special abilities associated with them that break some of the game’s main tenets, which is likely the single most important aspect of the game. Getting stuck with crappy role mixes in two-player games can be the difference between mankind surviving the pandemics or becoming massive piles of worm food.

As noted, players can always expend an action point by moving to an adjacent city, but they can also use their cards to travel over long distances for that same action point expenditure. The tradeoff is that using a hand card deprives you of that card, which may be crucial in curing one of the plagues. Examples of expending the cards are that if you have the card that represents the city you’re currently in, you can travel anywhere in the world by using the card or you can build a research center there. Alternatively, you may travel to any city that’s represented by a card in your hand for that same one action point. The cards are finite, so every card you spend goes to the discard pile and is permanently out of the game, forcing each player to make very tough decisions on how to best use their cards. This is amplified by the fact that you cannot arbitrarily trade cards with other players, and you have a hand limit of seven cards.

Once you’ve taken your turn, you must take 2 cards from the draw pile of city cards, which contain a single copy of every city in the game as well as some special event cards that can be used at any time to help your cause. These cards range from allowing you to rearrange the infection deck to allowing you to travel anywhere on the planet, and are of the one-time-use variety that are gone forever after use. If you already have six or seven cards in hand when your turn ends, you must discard down to seven cards after taking the required two cards into your hand. Making sure that this never happens is an important point, because once you run out of a certain color of city cards, you cannot cure that disease, and thus humanity is doomed.

The most dramatic aspect of the game comes in the form of a quantity of Epidemic cards, residing in the player deck, and when an Epidemic card is drawn it immediately causes the world to be hit by a wave of infections above and beyond the normal infection phase of the game. These epidemics are resolved before any other actions are taken, meaning that even after the epidemic card is resolved the player must still perform the subsequent infection phase. When the Epidemic is drawn, you first move the Epidemic track forward by one space. This track determines the number of cities that are infected after each player’s turn. Next, the player takes the bottom card from the infection deck and places three plague markers of the appropriate color on the affected city and then discards the card, not only causing another infection, but adding a new city to the mix of cards that are constantly under infectious siege. Finally, the infection discard pile is shuffled and placed on top of the infection deck, exponentially increasing the chance that a city that has previously been infected will be affected again.

The final action that a player takes before the next player’s turn is to draw an amount of cards from the infection pile, as determined by the epidemic track, and then infecting those cities. If, at any time, a city would have more than 3 infection markers of one color on it, an Outbreak occurs. This mechanism forces the player to place an infection marker on every adjacent city, as well as moving the Outbreak track down one space toward impending doom.

The game ends in victory only when all four plagues have been cured at research stations, but there are multitudes of ways to lose, such as when you run out of city cards in the player draw deck or when the Outbreak track reaches the biohazard symbol. This game does have a bit of an anticlimactic ending with the players breathing a sigh of relief once the last plague is cured, but the edge-of-your-seat feeling of the game is unparalleled in the overwhelming majority of games I have ever played.

At the end of the day, this is a very tough game that scales well from two to four players and is never plays the same way twice. As of this writing, there is one official expansion, On The Brink, which brings new mechanics into the fold such as a bio-terrorist and a fifth viral species that has different behavior than the previous four. Additionally, there are several fan-made expansions for Pandemic, including the Threat Level Six expansion and a very cool Zombie Apocalypse expansion that completely reworks the game. This is a must-have game for anyone who likes games, fun, or is in possession of any semblance of a normal brain. It’s simply one of the best games ever made.

Things I am completely impressed with:
*The game scales well from two to four players, making it equally hard with any group
*Although Analysis Paralysis is a real concern, the gameplay is quite brisk
*The simple rules and mechanics help keep the game approachable yet deep
*The replayability value is huge, even though the game itself is mostly static

Things I am not too keen on:
*The art, while acceptable, is certainly not great
*The difficulty level is quite high unless you have several smart people playing with you
*There always seems to be one player who knows everything and tells everyone else what to do

This is a brilliant game, executed flawlessly, and should be on every gamer’s shelf. Although it is not for everyone, anyone who likes smart games that have almost no luck component to them will enjoy this game immensely. If you’ve never played Pandemic, you’re absolutely missing out.

4.75/5 Stars

Learn more about Pandemic here, at Z-Man Games’ page:


Chris Norwood said...

And it scales even better with the expansion!

Nice review.

Aesop Doom said...

I have to disagree on the zero luck comments. This game is great but almost every time I play it boils down to "we win as long as you don't draw Santiago in the next 2 infection cards...".

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

@Chris: Thanks, and you have a nice site yourself, my man!

@Aesop: Seems to me that you need to put a little more effort into keeping someone at Santiago! ;)

There is no luck in the game other than the randomization of the card decks and the initial role selection, in my opinion, as it is simply a decision-driven game. That being said, I can see how someone can argue that there's a luck element as the card distribution isn't static.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and to comment!