Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Review: Pandemic

Pandemic is a game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Z-Man Games. The game is officially for 2-4 players (although it could also be played solitaire) and it typically takes less than 45 minutes to play.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which means that all players play together as a team in an effort to beat the game. Either everyone wins or everyone loses. Other examples of cooperative games include Shadows Over Camelot, Arkham Horror, and Lord of the Rings. This is one of those game styles that people either love or hate. If you're the type of person who enjoys solving problems as a group and who plays games typically for the fun of being with other people than you may love this sort of game; but if you're the type who plays games more for the competitive aspect, who expects a game to have a winner or at least a score, then this is probably not your cup of tea. As for me, I love a good cooperative game so I was excited at the prospect of trying a new one.

In Pandemic, players take on the role of a team of professionals who are trying to stop the spread of four highly infectious diseases. The diseases are not named but are referred to by color: red, blue, yellow and black. The game is played on a map of the world that shows a network of 48 cities. At the start of the game, nine cities on the map will have varying levels of infection. Players set out from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA and travel the globe to attempt to contain the epidemics and discover cures. If the players can discover cures for each of the four diseases before they overrun the globe then they win the game.


Pandemic comes in a very sturdy, medium sized box. Inside the box are two decks of cards, numerous colored cubes, five large pawns, an instruction booklet and a board. The board is made of very sturdy stock and is very attractive but it has a glossy finish which means that fingerprints and other marks show up pretty easily. One other valid complaint with the board is that it is perhaps a little bit too small for the game pieces. The large pawns and various cubes don't really fit very well on the city spaces. This is mostly a nit-pick though and during the many games I've played it hasn't really been a problem.

The cards are very attractive and contain a little bit of flavor text about each city. The important elements are all large, clearly written and very easy to read.

One thing to watch out for is that apparently there have been a number of copies where the game components weren't collated properly. Indeed, in my copy of the game, I had an extra red cube and both of my decks had a duplicate city card. Worse, one of my decks was actually missing another city card. It was a trivial thing for me to re-mark one of the extra cards with the missing city name so I was still able to play the game properly right from the start. Just make sure that you count your cubes and cards before you play for the first time and you'll be fine. Z-Man Games is very quick to replace missing components so if you should be unfortunate enough to be missing something, email the company and they'll rush you a replacement.

The rulebook consists of a few full-color glossy pages which clearly explain the rules of the game and give several examples. This is not a terribly difficult game to learn and the rules do a fine job of teaching the game. It only took a few minutes to read through the rules before we were ready to start playing.


At the start of the game each player is dealt one of five Role Cards at random and a hand of cards from the Player Deck. The Player Deck is made up of 48 City Cards (one for each city on the board) and five Special Action cards. Then the Player Deck is separated into four, five or six even piles (depending on the difficulty desired). Into each of these piles is shuffled an Epidemic Card and then the piles are stacked to form a single draw deck.

The Infection Deck, another deck of 48 city cards, is then shuffled, nine cards are drawn and those cities are seeded with Infection Cubes to start the game. The first three cities drawn each get three cubes, the next three get two cubes, and the last three get one cube each. The cards are then put in the discard pile and the game is ready to begin.

The goal of the players is to discover cures to all four diseases before time runs out. If they can do this then they win the game. The players lose if they exhaust the player deck, if diseases outbreak too many times (more on that in a bit), or if they ever run short on Infection Cubes for one of the diseases.

A player turn consists of the player taking up to four actions which include: moving from one city to another, exchanging cards with another player, treating an infection (removing one or more infection cubes from a city), curing a disease, or building a research station. Players can cure a disease by going to a city that has a research station (initially only Atlanta) and discarding five city cards of the appropriate color. City cards can also be discarded to move to or from the city shown on the card. Of course the drawback to doing this is that any card you discard is forever gone from the game, so you must be careful not to use too many cards of the same color or you may find that it's impossible to cure one of the diseases.

After taking his four actions, the player then draws two cards from the Player Deck, discarding his hand back down to seven cards if necessary. Next, a number of cards, from two to four, indicated by the position of the Infection Counter, is drawn and an additional Infection Cube is placed in each of those cities. However, if any of those cities already has three Infection Cubes of that color on it then, instead of gaining another cube, that city has an "outbreak". Each neighboring city gets a cube and the Outbreak Counter is advanced. Too many outbreaks and you lose the game so it's very important to make sure that there aren't too many cities on the board with three cubes on them. What's worse, outbreaks in one city can cause outbreaks in neighboring cities so if two or more adjacent cities ever have three cubes in them, you had best act quickly to prevent a massive chained outbreak.

One of the more clever mechanisms in the game involves the Epidemic Cards that are distributed throughout the Player Deck. When one of the Epidemic Cards is drawn, the Infection Counter is advanced and a new Infection Card is drawn from the bottom of the Infection Deck (which ensures that you won't have seen this city's card before). That city gains three Infection Cubes and then all of the Infection Cards in the discard pile, including the new one that was just drawn, are shuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck. The effect of this is that the same cities keep getting re-infected over and over again throughout the game, which is what creates the threat of repeated outbreaks. It's a wonderful mechanism which does a great job of increasing the tension in the game and makes it so that certain parts of the globe are prone to keep reinfecting their neighbors. It also ensures that each game will play a little differently since it means that most of the cities in the deck will never come up.

Each player is assigned one of the five available roles at the start of the game. The roles indicate what color pawn the player will use but, more importantly, they also each bestow some unique special ability on each of the players. The Scientist can cure diseases with only four cards instead of the normal five, the Researcher can pass cards to the other players more easily, the Operations Expert can build research stations without having to discard a card, the Dispatcher can move other player's pawns on his turn, and the Medic treats infected cities at a reduced cost. Each of the roles can be instrumental to winning the game if played correctly and since each game involves a different combination of roles, each game plays differently. Used together, they can lead to some dramatic effects. For example, once you've cured a disease, the Medic only needs to be in a city to remove all of the infection cubes. If there is also a Dispatcher in the game, then the Dispatcher can use his four actions to sweep the Medic through an infected part of the globe like a huge germ eraser, eradicating the disease as he goes.


If you like cooperative games, then the odds are pretty good that you're going to like Pandemic. It's a very clever game that does a good job of evoking the theme of a team combating a major medical disaster of biblical proportions. The tension is high from the start and the pace is very quick. Most of the games I've played have lasted much less than the 45 minutes advertised on the box. This is the kind of game that you're likely to play once and then want to immediately play again. In fact, the first night we played this game, we played it at least seven times.

The game plays very well across the range from 2 to 4 players. It's probably slightly easiest with two players and slightly hardest with four because it's easiest to cooperate when there are only two players and the player's starting hands are larger, meaning that the players are likely to be able to cure their first disease several turns earlier than if they had the full compliment of four players. The higher concentration of cards is, of course, offset by the fact that there are fewer special abilities in the game so the players have fewer tools at their disposal.

Of course, since this is a purely cooperative game, it's quite possible to play the game solitaire, with one player taking on two, three, or four roles. For me, part of the enjoyment lies in the social interaction with the other players so that isn't quite as appealing to me, but it's still nice to know that it could be played that way if I felt like it.

One thing to be careful of with this type of game is that often one strong personality can dominate the game, telling other players exactly what to do on their turns. If you find that to be a problem with your group then you'll probably want to play the game with closed hands, as the rules suggest, and emphasize the idea that each player is ultimately responsible for their own actions. Hand contents can be freely discussed, suggestions are expected and cooperation is necessary but ultimately, each player should feel like they're a vital member of the team and not just a resource that's being controlled by another. The alternative is to play with all hands open which eliminates any memory element but may make it too easy for one player to dominate the game.

This is a pretty difficult game. So far I've played dozens of games, most with the medium difficulty configuration of five Epidemic Cards, and I believe that I've lost more often than I've won. It's not so hard that I've wanted to give up in frustration, but neither is it so easy that winning is a sure thing. In order to win the game you need to take maximum advantage of each player's role and work together to come up with a plan for holding back the infections. You also need a certain amount of luck.

If you're looking for a difficult cooperative game that plays in about a half hour to 45 minutes, then you need look no further than Pandemic. This is a great game that should keep you entertained over and over again. It's a game that I expect to be enjoying for many years to come.