Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2012)

Date played: March 17, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players, 45 minutes

Gist of the game: In this cooperative game, players are part of a disease control team trying to prevent the spread of four diseases. The goal is to discover cures for all four diseases before a) 8 outbreaks occur; b) the diseases have spread too much (there are not enough disease cubes left when you need them); or c) you ran out of time (there are not enough player cards left when needed). Players assume one of seven possible roles. Each role comes with some kind of special ability that may be useful during the course of the game.

On each turn, players take four actions, draw two player cards, and draw/resolve x number of infection cards (where x=the number specified by the infection spread counter. 2<=x<=4). If an epidemic card is one of the player cards drawn, it must be resolved immediately, in three steps: move the infection marker forward by one, draw the bottom card of the infection deck and place up to three cubes on the target city (if you can’t place any cubes because the city is already teeming with infection, you have an outbreak on your hands, in which the disease spreads to all neighboring cities), and shuffle the discarded infection cards back onto the top of the deck (so you only play with a small subset of infection cards over the course of the game, with each city getting hit by wave after wave of pestilence).

There are eight possible actions that can be taken in the four slots each turn. Four options encompass movement of some kind, involving neighboring cities, cities for which you have cards, and cities with research stations. You can also build a research center by discarding a card matching the city you’re in, treat a disease by removing a disease cube from your current location, share knowledge by trading very specific cards with another player in the same location as you, and discover a cure by discarding five cards of the same color at a research station. The game also has varying levels of difficulty, as you can play with between four and six epidemic cards. As it was our inaugural game, we played with four.

Color commentary: Sure, we got this as a wedding gift four years ago and it took a literal pandemic to bring it to the top of our play list, but we’re here now, and that’s the important thing.

We lost by running out of player cards. However, by other metrics I think our performance looks a little better. We cured two diseases (although by the end of the game I think it would have been impossible for us to have cured yellow because that was a frequently discarded color as we focused on the hot spots of Asia and Europe), and, more impressively, we only had one outbreak, fairly late in the game, originating in Miami because M had been putting out disease fires in the Middle East and Europe and couldn’t make it back stateside fast enough.

Also, I understand why you only play with a small subset of all possible cities, but it was incredibly stressful. I was hopping around the Asia-Pacific, from Jakarta to Sydney to Seoul and Tokyo trying to tamp down the number of disease cubes, but as soon as we’d get one city out of the danger zone it would get drawn again. I guess what I’m saying is that I realize we’re playing a game about pandemics during a global pandemic, but I wish it were a little less anxiety-inducing.

Thoughts from M: I think this is my least favorite game we’ve played in a while, which was disappointing, because I know it’s really well regarded in gaming circles. It was a fine game, but I don’t think it met the expectations I had given the rave reviews I’ve read. Also, the artwork is only ok.

I think the game actually makes pandemics more difficult to fight than they are in real life. I mean, how likely is it that there are only two-four scientists working in all the world? In the US, sure, but the world? And they all have to go globetrotting? Who’s staying behind to do the lab work?! And how often do multiple pandemics all happen at once? It seems ridiculous. I mean, really. I don’t understand why this fictionalized game based only loosely on real life processes doesn’t have just a little bit more verisimilitude.

In terms of strategy, in future plays I’d like to try treating all disease cubes when you encounter them (Petra here: we mostly triaged, removing only one cube from many locations to avoid an outbreak if that city was drawn again). There’s also a lot of room for replay with the varying number of epidemic cards and the number of roles that far exceed the maximum number of players. I think there’s also a lot of room for potential improvement with repeated play, and my sister-in-law informs me that it’s easier to win with more people. This sounds like “I have friends” privilege, and not very responsible in these times of social distancing. Hmph.

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