Review: Pandemic – Curing What Ails Ya

Pandemic was up for the Spiel des Jahres in 2009 but lost to Dominion. It is certainly worthy of the nomination. Pandemic is a cooperative endeavor with the players trying to cure four diseases before time runs out, before infections run rampant, and without too many outbreaks. There is a tight balance between luck and strategy which makes every game quite tense. And, it’s my current weapon of choice in Operation: Gamer Wife. Full review after the jump.

The Basics. Pandemic is a true cooperative board game. The players all win together, or all lose together. There is no DM-style character, and no player who controls the bad guys. As a result, this game is great for new groups, conflict-averse gamers, and when you need to heal the wounds created by a play of Diplomacy or Munchkin.

Medic is overpowered. For sure.

In Pandemic, the players take on the roles of CDC workers trying to cure four major diseases. Each player gets a role that allows them to bend one rule in a specified way. The diseases are generally geographically-based and come in four different colors. All that is required to cure a disease is to discard five cards of the same color at a research station and poof, disease is cured. Getting to that point, however, can be a real challenge.

In order to build a research station at a city, the player must go there and discard the card of the city he is in. In order to travel to a non-adjacent city, the player must discard either the city they are in, or the city they are traveling to. And there are only about a dozen cities in each color, so discard too many moving around the board, and there won’t be enough to cure the disease. And, if players want to trade, they have to be in the same city, and can only trade the card of the city they are in. And that’s not even the hard stuff.

Initial Setup

Every turn, cities become infected. If a city gets more than three disease cubes on it, it outbreaks and sends disease cubes to every adjacent city. If one of those already has three cubes, there can be a chain reaction. Too many outbreaks, you lose. Too many disease cubes on the board, you lose. Run through the deck of cards, you lose. And, whenever an evil “Epidemic” card is played, you put the infection discard back on top. Meaning that the same cities keep being infected over and over, increasing the likelihood of outbreaks.

Despite the apparent difficulty, the game is a blast to play. The rules are fairly simple, making the game easy to pick up and accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. Because of the way the cards are drawn, games remain incredibly tense. Sometimes, the world looks to be in a crisis, but the players are able to clean it up in the nick of time. Other times, everything looks peachy and suddenly, a few unlucky cards bring you to the brink of extinction.

Components: 5 of 5. I’m very happy with what came in the box. The board is on very thick and sturdy stock. The whole package feels solid. The cubes are painted wood and serviceable. The pawns and research stations are about the right size for use with the board. All of the cards are about the size of standard playing cards and are easily shuffled and reshuffled. No complaints in this department.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5. There is a large degree of strategy in this game. Clearly, the players have to focus on the three cube cities, and should focus on the ones that have cards still in the infection draw pile. However, sometimes luck renders the game literally impossible. In fact, it’s possible to lose on the very first turn. If you infect cities adjacent to each other, that creates much more risk of outbreak chain reactions. If, by luck of the draw, the cities are spaced even one away from each other, you’ll have an easier time.

Infection Cards

Mechanics: 5 of 5. The game works flawlessly. The mechanic of placing the discarded infection cards back on top to be drawn again keeps the game tight and tense. The rules are rather simple, and the game board helps to keep track of everything. In addition, the rulebook is very clearly and concisely written. Good use of examples and photographs leaves nothing to doubt.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. I’ve been an owner of this game for only a few weeks. Yet, I’ve been able to log 17 plays. The variable nature of the cards makes the game different each time. Sometimes the middle east is the difficult area. Even though, once there, the players can move around it relatively quickly, every city links to every other city. One or two outbreaks can spell disaster. Other times, yellow is the danger disease. The cities are less connected, but it spans Africa and the Americas. It can be difficult to treat infected cities. Plus, the game dynamic definitely changes between 2 and 4 players. It’s a different experience, and often more difficult with more players. After so many plays, though, I’m beginning to see a little more of the hands of fate than I generally prefer in my games. Still, I’m always eager to play a game.

Spite: 0 of 5. The game is completely spiteless. Everyone wins or loses together. And, though there are some abilities that allow you to move other players’ pawns, they can only be moved with permission.

Overall: 5 of 5. Pandemic is a test of cooperation, strategy, memory (what other players have in their hands), and a little luck. Each time I’ve lost, the other players will look at each other and say, “Lets play again!” In general, losses and victories are very close. It feels like each game could have gone the other way if we’d made one or two decisions differently, or if the cards had been a little kinder or more cruel. I definitely recommend Pandemic to any fan of cooperative gaming. And I’ve found it to work extremely well as a two-player couples game.

There are 6 comments.

  1. Rob said on August 13, 2010 at 11:40 am

    If you want Pandemic with Spite, add in “On the Brink” expansion. Oh Bio-terrorist.

  2. Andrew said on August 13, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I’m glad I didn’t have to choose between this and Dominion, that’s “Sophie’s Choice” for nerds. Pandemic is an awesome family game, and a total shining example of what co-op gaming should be. Some roles do seem a bit powerful, but they’re sorely missed when they’re not there. This is one of the few games I don’t mind losing, like you said it’s always close, and always fun.

    Spot-on review, my friend 🙂

  3. Andrew said on August 13, 2010 at 11:45 am

    @Rob – Yeah, we still need to get in a game with the expansion. Maybe at PAX we can throw down in the wee hours

  4. Rosalind said on August 14, 2010 at 11:33 am

    I love Pandemic, and it is a huge hit at my parties which mainly consist of microbiology grad students and postdocs. Sometimes we call the bugs by their appropriate names. I like that the game is stacked in favor of the bugs, because I really like that’s true to life, they are smarter than us and will always win!

    Rosalind
    Girls Are Geeks

  5. Rob said on August 14, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Yeah, I’m looking forward to playing this with a special someone who’s finishing her residency. I’m guessing it’ll be up her alley.

  6. GeekInsight GeekInsight said on August 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    @Rosalind – Real names? We just assume that the red disease is SARS, the yellow is ebola and so on. What names do you use?

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