Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Tuesday Reviewsday: Pandemic

Players: 2-4 Co-operative
Playtime on the box: 45minutes
Actual playtime: Depends how quickly the game stomps you
Replay Value: 10/10 - I will never turn down a game of Pandemic

Now that the Ebola scare has quieted down (in my corner of the world at least) it seems safe to talk about Pandemic. Released in 2007 by Z-Man games, Pandemic is a devilish horror of a game where you are a Centre for Disease Control team trying to save the world. Designed by Matt Leacock, it is a beautifully balanced game where you are constantly hovering between life and death by plague.

A two-player game after set up

The Pandemic board and game play are deceptively simple. Each character has four actions in which they can travel around the world and treat the infected population. Working together you must keep the four diseases in check and prevent the general populace from panicking while you research cures.

Role Cards

Role Cards
In order to make things a little easier on you, Pandemic casts each player as a professional with useful life-saving skills.

The Medic can remove all disease cubes from a square for one action, where all other players must pay an action per cube. The Scientist only need four matching City Cards to cure a disease. The Dispatcher can use their actions to move other players (with permission of course). The Researcher can give City Cards to other players. The Operations Expert can build research centres for free.

During your turn

Action card - in case you forget
Each player has four actions per turn. Generally these actions will be moving around the world and curing diseases. Walking between cities takes one action. Removing a disease cube takes one action (unless you are the Medic - who can clear all the cubes from a city for one action). You also have the choice to spend precious City Cards to fly directly to a city, or if you discard the card representing the city you are in you can fly anywhere in the world.
At the start of the game there is one Research Station in Atlanta, however you spend the corresponding City Card to build a Research Station in your current location i.e. discard the Taipei card to build a research station in Taipei, when you are standing in Taipei. If you are lucky enough to hold 5 City Cards (4 if you are the Scientist) of the same colour you can develop a cure for that disease at a Research Station. More on cures later.
Action card - reverse side


The player deck

After taking your 4 actions, you draw two cards from the player deck. These are mostly good. You can draw City Cards, needed to research cures, and Event Cards, which can be played at anytime and let you do nice things like skip an infection draw. You have a seven card hand limit, which very quickly becomes a problem in a 2-player game where you will often be forced to discard cards. There are only 12 of each colour City Card in the deck, so it is possible (and easy) to run out of cards.

The player deck also includes Epidemic Cards, also known as F- you cards.


Epidemics suck. And they tend to come out just when you think you'd gotten in control. Or when you are desperately hoping you don't drawn one because you know it will cost you the game. When setting up the game, the player deck is shuffled and split into equal piles. Four piles for an easy game, 5 for difficult, and 6 for oh-god-why. Then one Epidemic Card is mixed into each pile, before the piles are re-stacked and placed on the board. This ensures that Epidemics are spread throughout the deck. However it is possible to shuffle an Epidemic to the bottom of one pile, and the top of the next so they are drawn very close together.

Epidemics have three steps. Increase the infection rate (how many infection cards are drawn per turn). Infect a random city with 3 disease cubes (drawn from the bottom of the deck). Intensify. The intensify step is horrible. The discards of the infection deck are shuffled and returned to the top of the pile. Now rather than the infection spreading throughout the world and giving everyone a cough and a headache, cities get hit again leading to horrible plague filled death.

Infection rate - counter moves up once per epidemic card

The infection deck

After drawing two player cards and resolving any Epidemics, players draw from the infection deck. In our games this is cheerlessly referred to as Destroying the World. Sometimes the cards you draw aren't stop bad. Most of the time it elicits swearing.

The number of cards drawn is equal to the current infection rate. Since the infection rate counter moves up every time you draw an Epidemic Card, it just gets worse and worse.




Cities can only handle a certain number of sick people before the populations panic and flee taking the sickness with them, forcing you to place a disease cube in every neighbouring city. Each city can only host 3 disease cubes before it Outbreaks. If one of those neighbouring cities already has 3 cubes, the outbreak spreads from that city as well.


How to lose Pandemic

Easily and often.

Option One: Run out of time
If you run out of cards in the player deck you have 'Run Out of Time'. The diseases remain uncured, and the zombie apocalypse outbreaks across the world.

Option Two: Run out of disease cubes
Everybody dies! If you do not have enough disease cubes to place down during an infection, you lose. He's dead Dave. They're all dead Dave. Everybody. Is. Dead. Dave.

Option Three: Too many outbreaks
The population in Pandemic is just like humans in real life, prone to mass hysteria. If eight outbreaks occur the world panics, rioting and looting and we descend into an Oryx and Crake style post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Watch Wil Wheaton lose to Pandemic
So, how do you win at Pandemic? Well assuming you somehow avoid losing, you need to cure all four diseases. Simple yes? God no. To cure a disease you need five of the same colour City Card and you have a maximum hand limit of seven. You never know what is coming out of the player deck, so you can have four black cards for multiple turns without ever drawing the fifth needed for a cure. You can take a card from another player, if you are both in the city that corresponds to the card, i.e. if you are both in Khartoum, you can give the card to the player who needs it the most. Every time I make a plan to meet a friend someone to trade cards, diseases seem to explode around us and we have to focus on damage control.

Sometimes you will be lucky enough to eradicate a disease early in the game. This. Is. Great. If the blue disease is cured, every blue city drawn from the infection deck counts toward the number of infection cards you draw that turn, but you don't have to put a cube on the table. It also makes choosing which card to discard easier, because you don't need those blues anymore. However, eradicating a disease is pretty hard. You must have the cure, and have removed all the cubes from the table. Once a disease is cured it only takes one action to remove all the disease cubes of that colour from a city, but you still need to walk around to all the cities, so the most you can do in a turn is cure 2 cities. In the last two games I played we had the yellow cure within the first three rounds and I never managed to eradicate the disease!

The best part about Pandemic is its co-operative nature. You are never sitting there waiting for someone to have their turn, and it's never really 'their' turn. It becomes everyone's turn because the margin between winning and losing is so narrow, every action is important. It is important to play with a good group of people though. If you have a stubborn player who doesn't listen to advice they can end up being a liability to the group. If you have an Alpha-Gamer who wants to boss everyone around, they end up controlling the game and stopping anyone else having fun.

Epidemic Card - sneakily hidden in the
'helpful' player deck
The worse part about Pandemic is its ridiculously narrow margin between "Guys, we totally have this" and "Holy crap, what just happened? We're so dead". On the weekend we played a game with 5 epidemics cards. We had cured two diseases and were holding the necessary cards to cure the other two. We had half a deck of player cards left, only two outbreaks had happened, and we had about ten spare yellow disease cubes. And then we pulled an epidemic card. Lagos gained 3 disease cubes. We shuffled the disease discards and pulled Lagos off the top, instant outbreak. One of the neighbouring cities was bumped up to 3 cubes, and that was the next one pulled off the infection deck. In one turn we went from happy sunshine, to running out of yellow cubes and everyone dying from Ebola. *shakes fist*

I think I have about a 30% win ratio at Pandemic. Depending on how experienced the other players are, we will play with five or six epidemics. If you were playing with really new players, or children you could play the game with four.
Despite the fact that I generally lose I really enjoy this game. It's quite addictive because it always feels like victory is one lucky card draw away, and death is just one 'wrong' action. Even in the above scenario when we went from sunshine to death, it didn't feel like the game had cheated us. We shouldn't have been so cocky about leaving those disease lying around. Every game of Pandemic I lose just makes me want to reset the board and try again.


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