Review: On the Brink—Hard Mode Is Hard | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Review: On the Brink—Hard Mode Is Hard

A while back, we took a look at Pandemic. For a while, my wife and I played this multiple times almost every gaming session. It’s still one of her favorites and, with over thirty plays under my belt, I’m not nearly sick of it. But, playing it so much so frequently does start to make you realize that each play is a little samey. And while you can increase or decrease the difficulty, the strategy largely stays the same.

That is, until you add On the Brink. On the Brink gives new characters and three additional challenges to make the game far more difficult. See if it’s for you after the jump.

The Basics. First, On the Brink starts by adding the things you expect from an expansion. Namely, new special power cards (including a few really powerful ones), a ton of new occupations (about on par with the originals for the most part), and rules for a five-player game. It does a good job with these since the different cards add variety to each game and require different planning to make best use of the powers the new roles bring. On the other hand, the rules for a five-player game are essentially, “deal in a fifth player.” Nothing special there, and it does add even more difficulty because of the need to coordinate a fifth hand.

Also included are some purely cosmetic, but really cool items. No more must you keep your disease cubes in unsanitary Ziploc baggies (where they will only spread further)! Instead, the expansion includes petri dishes for ease of storing each disease. While it has zero impact on gameplay, it does add a little atmosphere to cure diseases and place them in the dishes.

I haven't labeled mine. What diseases do they contain?

While the dishes are all well and good, the meat of the expansion is in three additional scenarios. Each of them adds a layer of difficulty to an already challenging game. My wife and I made the mistake of underestimating them. She and I have gotten pretty good at defeating the game with five epidemics included and have at least seen success in the six-epidemic game. So, we decided to try our hand at one of the scenarios—the mutation variant.

In the mutation variant, purple cubes are added to the board to represent a mutant and drug resistant strain of disease. While they tend to come up slightly less often (though some cards are included to help with that), there are only 12 cubes in the tray. It’s easy for purple to become a runaway disease and can be very easy or extremely difficult to cure based on the cards in hand. It takes five cards of any color as long as one of the cards has a purple cube in its city.

Having a whole other disease to worry about really changes the game up. You are now worried about keeping purple largely off the board lest it outbreak and destroy you. But every turn you use treating purple is a turn that goes without doing something useful. We got our butts kicked in that first game. Later games have been better, but it turns up the tension to 11.

New jobs on the right, vile mutant cubes on the left

The second variant is the virulent strain. Everything starts out normal like nothing in the world is about to come in and totally screw up your game. And then, bam! Screwed. Instead of the regular outbreak cards, there are ones with horrible, horrible things on them to make you cry. When the first outbreak is pulled, whichever disease has the most cubes on the board is deemed the virulent one. Then, each outbreak has something bad on it.

Some of them make the virulent disease come back from erradication. Some make it so that you have to spend additional actions to remove cubes. But my personal favorite is the “government bureaucracy” card. Once pulled, you are not allowed to leave a city with the virulent strain in it unless you spend at least one turn treating it. That means you can’t rush through minor infestations to get to the big baddies. This variant adds an element of enjoyable frustration.

Finally, we have the bio-terrorist. Here, one of the players takes on the role of the terrorist. He uses the purple cubes to infect his terrorism. He moves about the board secretly (keeping track of things on his pad of paper) and wins if the players lose and there is at least one of his purple cubes on the board. My experience with the bio-terrorist was very mixed. On the one hand, it was great to play against a human opponent. It felt much more like a cat and mouse game than merely reacting to the luck of the draw. But, it also really detracted from Pandemic’s best attribute—the wholly cooperative nature of the game. Suddenly, one person was essentially on the outside of every discussion and it hurt the camaraderie that normally goes along with the game.

Only the terrorist knows that he isn't cheating...

Components: 5 of 5. Wood cubes, wood pawns. In fact, the new pawns are a little smaller and fit on the board a bit better. The cards and pieces are all to the same high quality. Plus petri dishes! Now, some people have complained that with the petri dishes, it all no longer fits in one box. And, that’s largely true. But I hate carrying around multiple boxes if I don’t have to and I figured out how to get it to mostly fit. It drives my OCD a little nuts, but I think it’s worth it.

One side of the box doesn't quite close all the way.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. The expansion doesn’t change the base game much in this regard. While there are plenty of strategic decisions to make, you are still at the mercy of the cards. However, I did bump it up a half point for including the bio-terrorist. Playing against a real life human enemy does add a good deal of tension. Plus, you never know what he or she is plotting.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Like the base game, everything just fits together perfectly. Of course, you’ll be facing a much higher level of difficulty. With the mutation variant, for example, even though there are no purple cards in the base game, the expansion adds just five (three in the player draw pile and two in the infection pile) that really make it a substantial threat.

Replayability: 4 of 5. Once you start putting in the expansions, it’s difficult to go back to the base game. It just feels very…vanilla. It’s the same way I have trouble playing regular Settlers now that I’ve played the greatness of Cities and Knights. When the wife and I play, it’s now a conversation about which variant to include, not whether we should.

Spite: 0 of 5. Spite remains entirely absent. Even with the introduction of the terrorist, there’s nothing he can do to specifically harm one player. He simply moves around placing cubes where he thinks they’ll do the most damage. A player can catch him, but even then he can essentially skip a turn to get away.

Overall: 4 of 5. If you are a Pandemic lover, then this expansion is for you. It adds significant variability and additional difficulty. It makes the game play differently each time and opens up new strategies and coordination concerns with the new role cards. But, take it from me, do not underestimate those purple mutant cubes. They feed on your tears.

There are 2 comments.

  1. Bondidude said on January 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    The only thing that bugs me about “On The Brink” is the new role of the terrorist. It added an element to the game that I didn’t think was really needed as there are plenty of games out there that already have an adversarial feel to them. Pandemic to me is all about co-operation and working together and I also completely agree that the person who plays the bio-terrorist is usually left out of that team dynamic that makes Pandemic so much fun, which also admittedly bothers me a little.

  2. randomscrub said on January 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” A minor quibble, but you may be confusing people here: you use the word outbreak when you mean epidemic. Since outbreak is a (different) technical term in the game, you may be misleading people who own the base game but are considering the expansion.

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