Unplugged: Pandemic – The Boardgame

The world-wide Covid-19 pandemic has been ever present over the past year, forcing many families to stay home together for extended periods of time, perhaps putting a strain on relationships for all those cooped up together.  While a cutthroat game of Monopoly might just make things worse, perhaps a cooperative game (where everyone wins or loses together) might be in order.  Pandemic burst onto the boardgame scene in 2008, with its success spawning an entire line of Pandemic-themed cooperative games where players must work together to protect the world from an encroaching disaster. While the theme of a Pandemic may be too close to home for some, the games respectively deal with the issues at hand and may serve as a surrogate way for gamers to put themselves into an active role in the game’s fictional pandemic.


Publisher: Z-Man Games
Ages: 8+
Players: 2-4
Time: 45 mins

The original Pandemic was not the first cooperative boardgame out there, but it quickly gained a large fan base and kicked off the formation of many cooperative games since.  It remains high on the list of “best-ever” boardgames to this day.  In the original Pandemic, players must rid the earth of four different diseases – represented by colored cubes placed onto a map of the world.  Each turn, more cubes are added to specific cities.  If too many cubes are already in that city, an “Outbreak” occurs and additional cubes are added to all the adjacent cities.  In the meantime, players are given four actions each turn that they can spend to move about the map, remove cubes from cities they are standing in, trade cards with other players, and/or build useful structures.  The cards are particularly important.  If a player can collect a “set” of five cards of the same color, they can be cashed in to “cure” the disease of that color.  Curing a disease makes it easier to remove from the board, and if all cubes of that color are removed, they no longer appear at all.  Once all four diseases are “cured” (they don’t have to be eliminated), the players win the game.  If the players run out of time (their deck of cards runs out) or there are too many cubes on the board, the players lose.  The game is fairly simple to grasp but each game is unique.  Every player is given a special power such as the capability to move other players, deal with cards easier, or even specialize in removing disease cubes.  There are several powers available and mixing them up will open up new strategies to apply.  New disease cubes appear on the board based on cards drawn from a special deck.  The order in which cards appear when drawn from the deck results in different “hot spots” appearing on the game board from play to play.  There is even a way to adjust the difficulty of the game such that more experienced players will always be able to set themselves up for a challenge.  One of the best parts of the game is its story-arc.  Games start out with players jumping around the game board to try to get things under control.  With luck, initial problem areas are cleared out and players can get into a rhythm of play.  However, as the game goes on the cubes come out at a faster and faster pace so a crisis is reached where players need to finish their cures in a few more turns or the entire world will be overrun.  The best games have a brief moment of doubt where players are convinced they will probably lose, and then a possible plan emerges just in time to pull a victory back from the brink.  


Pandemic Expansions:

It comes as no surprise that a successful game like Pandemic also spawned a few expansions and sequels for the game.    The first expansion, On the Brink is three expansions in one.  Players can make one of the four diseases “virulent,” making it much harder to deal with.  A second option is to add in a new purple disease, now with five diseases on the board.  The third option makes the game competitive by introducing a Eco-terrorist role whereby one player is playing against the others.  The second expansion, In the Lab, introduces an additional game board to represent the laboratories working on the cures.  Players now have to spread their actions over the main map board as well as the new board as they race for the cure.  Finally, State of Emergency adds in three different modules.  They can add additional randomness to keep things fresh, or add in new ways to prevent outbreaks.  Finally, the Emergency Event cards can be added to the standard deck to make things much harder.  They tend to limit one’s options on a given turn, like restricting movement or reducing hand size. 


Pandemic Legacy

There are many other versions of Pandemic, but one stands out and needs to be mentioned specifically.  Pandemic: Legacy was another genre-defining boardgame that remains at the top of most boardgaming charts.  Pandemic Legacy (Season 1) combines the popularity of the Pandemic cooperative game with the ongoing story developed in a legacy-style game.  Legacy games are a new style of game that has only appeared in the past decade.  In a Legacy game, players make permanent adjustments to the rules and pieces of the game every time they play, typically along the lines of some overarching story.  Pandemic Legacy – Season 1 (yes there is a Season 2 and an upcoming Season 0) begins almost exactly like a standard game of Pandemic.  However, part-way through the first game players are told to open specific boxes and envelopes included in the box, revealing new twists to the standard Pandemic game.  These twists include new player characters, changing around the board (perhaps even eliminating a city), adjusting the difficulty of a disease, etc… (They’re supposed to be surprises.)  The story of Pandemic Legacy (Season 1) is played over the course of one game year.  Each month, new surprises are revealed which modify how the game is played, as well as the components – sometimes players even get to choose to improve some of their options.  Players have two tries to “win” the game each month before being moved on to the next month.  This progresses the story along and makes sure players get to see the new surprises without having to play too many games.  The game even adjusts the difficulty slightly, giving you starting benefits if you have been able to succeed in previous games.  Eventually, players will complete the game (taking from 12 to 24 games, depending how often they lose.)  Because players have some choices as to how good and bad results affect the game, they will have experienced a totally unique gaming experience compared to other groups.  This idea of a game that creates a story through repeated plays has caught on and been applied to many games since.  Pandemic Legacy was one of the first and arguably remains the best of the bunch.  Season 2 focuses on the world after the events involved in Season 1.  Here, a post-apocalyptic world sets up the players as heroes trying to band together the remaining peoples of the earth, working on creating supply lines, etc… in order to get the world back on its feet.  The upcoming Season 0 is a prequel, where players are spies set in the cold war, fighting behind the scenes to prevent the development and release of a Soviet bio-weapon. 


Other Versions of the Game:

Pandemic: The Cure is a faster-playing, dice-based version where dice represent the actions available to a player as well as the disease cubes themselves.  The game board is now abstracted to just a few locations represented by tiles placed around the table.  It captures much of the feel of the original but at the cost of overall depth of play.


Pandemic: Fall of Rome is set amidst the declining years of the empire.  The military is weak and the northern hordes eye its riches. March through the Roman Empire, recruiting armies, fortifying cities, forging alliances, and facing off against the invading hordes in battle. 



Pandemic: Iberia puts players in the Iberian Peninsula, attempting to fight off malaria, typhus, cholera, and yellow fever in the mid-19th century.  Players struggle with various modes of travel while also trying to teach and inform the population on how to control the diseases.



Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu threatens the return of The Old Ones so players are off as investigators trying to seal four gates before Cthulhu awakens.  Meanwhile, they have to fight off cultists and Shoggoths while trying to maintain their own sanity.



Pandemic: Rising Tide focuses on the dikes and pumps of the Netherlands as they staff off the encroaching ocean.  Players take on the roles of Dutch civil servants and attempt to modernize the entire system before it is too late.



Pandemic: Hot Zone is supposed to be a shorter, more portable version of the original where players are now focused only on North America.




Verdict:  As you can surmise, I’m a big Pandemic fan.  I love cooperative games and this one’s theme seems to be smack-on.  Players have unique powers which mean they can all have a chance to shine.  Since the game has no hidden information, players have to watch out for one person dictating everyone else’s moves.  Aside from that, I like playing a game where everyone either wins or loses as a team.  Since the base game has some simple options to change the difficulty, it is easy to set up the game so that it’s an appropriate challenge to a wide range of players.  I’ve played the original a fair bit and am in the middle of Season 1 with our neighbors and love what Season 1 has done with the game.  Earning little bonuses at the end of each game and reading the surprises that arise while playing draws all the players into the group narrative.  I own a couple expansions to the base game, but have yet to get much play out of them.  I rarely get the game to the table with the same players often enough to require additional changes to keep it fresh.

Kid Factor:
As a cooperative game, Pandemic is an excellent game for all ages.  Strategic planning is important so it is best with preteens and up, although the cooperative nature allows older players to give some advice to younger ones – just be sure that one player doesn’t end up “quarterbacking” the entire game.


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