5 min read

Swine Flu + Risk = Best Board Game Ever

Do you have what it takes to save humanity? A few of my favorite things about Pandemic, the best cooperative disease management board game I've ever played.

i love these things they look so crazy

As mentioned in last week's article (before that whole Doom thing), one of the board games that my friends and I play a lot is Matt Leacock's Pandemic.  Pandemic is pretty new as far as board games go; some of our other favorites have been around for decades, but Pandemic was just released last year.  It is packed full of clever board game mechanics and intense, compelling gameplay.

I'm not going to go through and break down all the rules for the game, because if you don't already know what I'm talking about, you should go buy it or just ask your one friend, because they definitely have it and love it.  Suffice to say there are four players, you draw cards, diseases spread, and you cooperate to control and cure viral outbreaks.

What I do want to go through is a few of the lovely, ingenious mechanics that are part of what make this game so special.  I think that the value or effect of these mechanics will be clear even without a complete understanding of the game, but this whole thing might be totally confusing too.  We'll see!

more weird electron microscope photography!


Co-op Mode Only: There is no versus mode in Pandemic.  Everyone works together to win the game before you run out of cards, disease cubes, or outbreaks.  There are three or four different ways to lose, and only one way to win: by curing all the diseases. With so many factors to manage, having four brains all working on the same problem is a real benefit. 

All of the different ways to lose have nice, easy-to-grasp real world analogs, too.  Cards represent what would be both time and money, disease cubes represent a kind of critical mass, etc.  The theme and the consequences are very tightly and pleasantly coupled!

Roles: At the start of the game, each player chooses a role at random from the pile.  A role is defined by special abilities, or modifications to the general game rules.  For example, in normal play you need at least five matching cards to cure a disease, but as the Scientist role, you only need four.  Nothing too impressive about that! 

However, there are a total of five possible roles, and a maximum of four players. This means that one role always sits out, and the remaining roles all have to work together to compensate.  For example, one role gives the player the ability to move the other players around the board. 

When that role is missing, players depend heavily on another role that can build Research Stations, allowing players to jump from Station to Station around the map. This codependence emerges from constantly needing to fill that gap, and makes sure everyone is on their toes and working together from Turn 1.

Epidemics: I saved the best for last!  During normal play, you draw and play a few "disease" cards each turn.  These cards add "disease cubes" to the world map.  Note: having too many cubes in the same place on the map is a very bad thing! 

So four to six times a game, before drawing the disease cards, you draw the dreaded EPIDEMIC card.  This means you scoop up all the played cards, shuffle them, and place them back on top of the pile.  So the next time you draw cards off the pile, you will have to place cubes on the exact same parts of the world map that were already infected

Insidious and elegant, this simple mechanic yields a strangely organic distribution of diseases that are constantly in danger of overwhelming the players.

yea more of that stuff, god i love it

At the end of the day, though, Pandemic's best trick is that it makes a nailbiting experience out of what amounts to logistical administration and resource management.  This is not Trauma Center: The Boardgame, or even Operation! 

While your roles in the game have exciting titles like Dispatcher or Researcher or Medic, you don't really play out these responsibilities in any kind of direct way.  Obviously you don't actually call anybody on a radio, or do lab work, or administer vaccines, but you do not even perform analogs of these jobs. 

Rather, the word "Supervisor" or "Manager" could be appended to these roles and it would be fairly accurate.  As the Research Manager, your job is to make sure that the Researchers are all doing their work as close to the other rules as possible, to reduce travel time.  As the Dispatch Manager, your job is to schedule flights and meetups all over the world.

It sounds dull, but it is a finish-your-fourth-game-at-3am-then-reminisce-about-your-global-exploits-until-4am kind of game.  Fair warning though; it may leave you declaring ridiculous things like, "I thought we were finished when that outbreak hit Tokyo, but when she cleared Chennai and then he dropped that research station in Lima I knew we were going to make it."

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