Modern Classics is an intermittent series where I take a slightly more detailed look at some of the key cornerstones of modern gaming – the lines that gaming regulars will all be familiar with, but which might be a bit baffling for outsiders. I decided to kick off this new series with Pandemic.
Pandemic is a co-operative game for 2-4 players. The object of the game is to prevent the people of the world from being struck down by various diseases, whilst discovering a final cure for each of the conditions.
The game progresses over a series of rounds. Each turn a player will take 4 actions with the token representing their character: these can be moving round the map, removing disease cubes from the board, using their character’s special power, trading cards (if you and another character are both in the same city, you may trade the card representing the city you are in) or researching cures for the 4 diseases.
At the end of their turn, they draw 2 cards from the deck – mostly these will be cards representing the cities on the board, which can be discarded for faster travel, or collected as a set in order to develop a cure (you need 5 city-cards of a single colour to cure the corresponding disease). However, mixed in to this deck will be 1-off special actions, and epidemics: cards which punish the players by increasing the infection rate, returning the infection discard pile (see below) to the top of the deck, and generally increasing the pressure on players.
Lastly, players reveal cards from the infection pile equal to the current “infection rate” (starts at 2), and add disease cubes to the city indicated. If a city ever needs a 4th cube of a disease, it instead triggers an “outbreak” – spreading disease to all the surrounding cities. If any of these cities were already at 3 cubes, this can lead to a hideous chain reaction, stacking outbreak upon outbreak (it won’t ever loop back to the original city, but if you have several interconnected cities, they can move from a low and safe-looking level to an outbreak very quickly).
The players lose if the player deck runs out, if there is an 8th outbreak, or if they need to place a disease cube, and cannot (because they have run out). They win if they manage to cure all 4 diseases before any of these things can happen.
Pandemic is a fun game. There’s definitely theme to it – the game board is a world map, cubes are disease, and your character ability will be tied to their “job-title.” That said, it’s not the kind of fully-immersive narrative experience which requires a great deal of emotional investment by the players. The mechanics are simple enough to follow, and the game comes with an in-built way of adjusting the difficulty (you can have between 4 and 6 Epidemics in the deck) which allows you to vary the level of challenge depending on your group.
Like any co-op game, there is a slight danger of alpha-player syndrome, but there are generally enough possibilities that you can do a lot of discussion and planning as a group, whilst still having individual autonomy over what you ultimately do –in this respect, I’ve always found Pandemic more fun to play than something like Thunderbirds which feels a bit too much like a logic puzzle.
Since Pandemic first came out in 2008, there have been a wealth of additional titles in the series:
On the Brink was the first expansion for the game and it came with Petri-dishes for storing disease cubes when they aren’t out on the map (new editions have these in the core game). More practically, OtB also came with a selection of new events, a greatly expanded set of role-cards for players and some additional modes you could add:
The Virulent Strain version of the game replaces the Epidemic Cards with new ones that have additional nasty effects which trigger when the epidemic happens – as these interact with the disease that has the most cubes in play at the time of the first epidemic, it can make for some interesting early-game decisions, as well as adding another level of depth.
The Mutation is a 5th disease, with purple cubes – it only spawns via event cards, but as it has far fewer cubes available, it’s much easier to run out of if you’re not paying attention, as well as adding a 5th requirement for victory (i.e. all 5 diseases must be cured).
The Bio-Terrorist crosses Pandemic with Scotland Yard, as one player skulks around the map in secret (tracked via pencil and paper) trying to spread disease whilst the others seek to hunt him down. In the 4 or 5 years we’ve owned the expansion, this is the one module we’ve never tried.
Aside: Printing –
On the Brink was the only expansion made for the first printing of the game – it was then re-released with new graphic design, meaning that anyone wanting to mix in future expansions either needed to re-buy the game, or sleeve all their cards. There was definitely a good argument for a new printing: the player pawns for the original game were massive, and look slightly comical next to those from the expansions, but the card-backs change was a pain. We weren’t keen enough on the game to re-buy, or to sleeve, and this was what broke the chain of expansion-buying for us.
In The Lab was the second expansion, and it extended the existing modes – new events, virulent strain epidemics, player roles etc, – as well as adding a whole new board that added to the complexity of curing a disease. Rather than simply discarding 5 cards of the disease’s colour at a research station, you now have to sample and sequence the disease, then treat it later. The general consensus is that this is a thematic improvement (apart from those who object to the “gene-slicer” job title), without massively impacting the difficulty: ItL requires less card-trading, as you can spread the burden of having to amass a set of 5, but that’s balanced by the extra actions spent in the lab doing your research.
In the Lab also introduced an official Solo version of the game, although being a co-op, there was never anything stopping you from controlling two characters and playing by yourself anyway.
State of Emergency was the third, and (probably?) final expansion for the base game, before they went all in on expanding in new directions. Again there were new roles, new events, and some extra modules to add new ways to play the game: a superbug to make the Purple disease more terrifying, Quarantine zones, some additional (negative) event cards shuffled in to the deck and even “Hinterlands” to represent human-animal infection. This last can seem a bit tacked-on, until you read the designer’s rather detailed explanation
There’s certainly interesting content in this expansion, and a lot of people have plenty of good things to say about it. The modularity from earlier boxes is retained so you can mix-and-match elements which make things easier or harder
I think the release order is probably the buy order for Pandemic expansions. If you have a particular fondness for the theme, you might get SoE ahead of ItL. If you’re only getting one, I’d say go for On The Brink.
Same Brand, Different Game
Aside from the straight-forward expansions, the Pandemic concept has been taken in a few different directions:
Pandemic: The Cure is a 2014 dice-based version of Pandemic. It’s meant to be lighter and quicker than standard Pandemic. Being a dice game, there’s obviously a fairly high degree of luck involved, but that fact that you can re-roll your dice (right up until you roll a “Bio-Hazard”, which not only loses you the dice, but also causes other nasty effects) gives you decisions to make, even if they are of a risk/reward, push-your-luck type.
This is the one to get if you want a lighter, quicker, slightly more abstract Pandemic.
As I mentioned above, the Bio-terrorist role is one we’ve never bothered with. Clearly though, somebody out there wanted to be bad-guys, and they got their chance with Pandemic Contagion, which allowed them to play as the diseases themselves! In Contagion, you can take actions to increase the nastiness of your disease, or you can unleash it upon the world. Various cities will be in play throughout the game, and when they reach a certain level of disease, they fall, giving points to the diseases who caused them the most damage.
Unlike the rest of the Pandemic series, Contagion isn’t co-operative. I’ve also heard some concerns raised about whether the theme is in bad taste, although to be honest, this is also the most abstract of the Pandemic games I’ve played, so you could glaze over a lot of that if it bothered you.
As I’ve already mentioned, Pandemic has been around for a while, and was a fairly popular, fairly well-rated game, without really setting the world alight. Last year however, was when things really exploded.
2015 brought us Pandemic: Legacy, a massively popular and controversial product which ultimately climbed to #1 rank on Board Game Geek.
Where classic Pandemic started from scratch each time you played it, Pandemic: Legacy is a campaign game that takes you through a year: Each game represents a month (if you win, you advance to the next month, if you fail you can have a second try.) The key thing though, is that over the course of the year, the world will change. Failure or success in one game will directly impact what happens in future games – cities may undergo permanent changes and even your character will change, gaining skills or becoming traumatised by the things they have seen.
For many this is the greatest thing to happen in modern board gaming (hence that #1 rank which needs not only a very high average rating, but also LOTS of ratings), for others it’s sacrilege as you write on the game components, open sealed packs, and generally mark the game in such a way that no future game would be the same.
I won’t go into too much detail, as I recently got in trouble for detailing too many spoilers. Let’s just say that everything I’ve heard on the gameplay for this has been really positive, the only question-mark is the price point
[I wasn’t going to get into this again, but I go back and forward on Legacy: It’s a £50 game (ish) With 2 players, completing the game in the minimum 12 sessions, that’s around £2.25 per person per session, which compares fairly favourably with most other non-free entertainment. If you get a 4-player group, and play 18 games (assuming you fail to win a month ½ the time), you’re at about 75p per player per game. Despite all that, I still don’t know that I can bring myself to deface my own game…]
Legacy Season 2
Given the success of Legacy Season 1, it was inevitable that Season 2 would eventually follow. This was a Post-Apocalyptic setting, where players are concerned with discovering corners of the world that have been lost, and keeping the surviving cities supplied with food, water etc.
Definitely the biggest departure from the basic Pandemic model, you can find a full review I wrote of this.
Reign of Cthulhu
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. raised a lot of eyebrows as Pandemics jump-the-shark moment when it was first announced.
Fortunately, it turned out to actually be a really good game. Rather than warding off illness around the world whilst you try to cure 4 diseases, this game sees players keeping cultists and Shoggoths at bay whilst trying to seal 4 gates in Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth and Kingsport. As you’d hope from any Cthulhu game, madness played a big role.
Pandemic Iberia returns to the classic goal of disease prevention, but takes you to Spain in the 19th Century, where you can trek through the hills as a rural doctor, or develop the infrastructure as a railway engineer. It presents its own unique challenge and, most importantly, you can build railways.
Continuing the tradition that started with Iberia, we got another Pandemic game late in 2017, themed around that year’s World Championship location. Rising Tide challenges you to save the Netherlands from flooding. Lots of pieces, a tiny bit fiddly, but definitely offering a unique challenge.
So that’s the world of Pandemic. If you’ve never played any of them, I’d definitely recommend giving at least one of them a go, and as you can see, there are plenty of options if you like what you see.