By Michael Fox
Let’s talk about one of Z-Man Games best releases of recent years. No, it’s not Agricola (despite the fact it’s been hovering around the top of the boardgamegeek Top Ten since pretty much the beginning of time) – I’d like to talk about Matt Leacock’s fantastic co-operative game, Pandemic.
Many games suffer from the issue of design first, theme later – it doesn’t matter what happens with the gameplay, the idea is stuck on almost as an afterthought. You can always tell if the designer has plastered on an idea just for the sake of it; you get the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Thankfully with Pandemic it feels that Matt’s thought process went along the lines of “Man, I’d really like to make a game about a bunch of people from the Centre from Disease Control working together, frantically trying to stop rampaging disease outbreaks from bringing an end to humanity. And I shall use cubes. Lots of them!”
Between two and four players are randomly given one of a selection of roles in a bid to wipe out four diseases that threaten to wipe out the planet’s population. Travelling around the globe, they mop up and contain as best they can until an illness can be cured – to do this, one player needs to collect five cards of the same colour (four if you have the Scientist role) and visits a city with a Research Station. You receive four actions per turn – basic actions are for moving about the board, while specials allow you to build new stations, discover cures, treat the spreading disease or exchange cards with other players to collect the necessary sets.
One thing this game really does well is evoke a sense of pressure. The diseases spread after every player completes their turn and it doesn’t take long for the whole board to get covered in marauding germs. Each player collects two city cards on their turn from the pile – and in that pile lurk the randomly placed Epidemics (between four and six depending on how challenging you want to make your experience). These will generally cause Outbreaks, where more than three cubes of the same colour in one city means every surrounding city gets infected as well. If this leads to another Outbreak, your game can very quickly take a turn for the utterly awful. Players are under attack from so many different factors in Pandemic they really need to work together thoughtfully in order to beat it. There is also very little downtime as all players are constantly wondering how to adapt their strategies before the diseases get too dominant and end the game.
There is only one way to win at Pandemic – cure the four diseases before time runs out. There are, however, many ways to lose the game. Run out of a certain disease’s cubes? You lose. Run out of player cards (and you’ll get close every time)? You lose. Eight Outbreaks? You lose. And yet, despite so many ways to get completely destroyed by the game, it never feels like hard work. Matt Leacock has designed a well balanced and incredibly challenging co-op title that also manages to be fun. Add in the sense of achievement you get when you actually manage to beat the thing, and you’re on to a winner. A fantastic game.
Pandemic was published by Z-Man Games in 2009, handles two to four players and can be completed in around an hour. The Pandemic: On The Brink expansion is also available which introduces a fifth disease to battle as well as a range of new roles including a renegade bio-terrorist. For a solo experience, why not check out the print and play Pandemic: Express? It’s very good!