After receiving a number of recommendations from readers and questions about it from others, I asked for and received the cooperative board game Pandemic as a Christmas gift from my sister and brother-in-law. (One benefit to this new interest in board games: Family members who complained that they never knew what to get me for Christmas or my birthday now have something to get me.) I can’t compare Pandemic to other cooperative games, as it’s the first one I’ve played, but it is a fun and very challenging game that had the four of us playing till 1 am the last few nights while dropping our share of F-bombs along the way.
In Pandemic, two to four players form a team fighting four simultaneous regional pandemics of diseases denoted by different colors – blue in the U.S./Canada/Europe, yellow in Latin America/Africa, black in the Middle East and south Asia, and red in east Asia. When the game begins, you draw Infection cards for nine cities that will contain cubes representing infected populations, with those cities containing one to three cubes apiece. More cities gain cubes as the game goes on, and there will be four to six new epidemics that create three-cube infection cells in new cities while adding cubes to cities that already have infections.
The players begin at the CDC Research Center in Atlanta and must work to cure all four diseases while preventing them from spreading to the point where they trigger one of the end game conditions – running out of cubes in any color, or experiencing an eighth “outbreak,” where a city with three cubes already is hit with another one. A player can cure a disease by collecting five cards in that disease’s color (there’s one card for every city on the board, with the corresponding color) and turning them in while standing at any Research Center. Players can build other Research Centers besides the one in Atlanta for easier mobility.
On each turn, a player can take four actions. An action can include moving from one city to an adjacent one; playing a city card to move to that city; playing the card of the city he’s on to move to any city; moving from one Research Center to any other one; treating (removing) one cube in the current city; passing a card to or taking a card from another player as long as both players are in the city on that card; or building a research center if he’s in a city and plays the card of that city. But each player has a role that makes one of those actions simpler; the Medic, for example, can treat all cubes in the city he’s in with a single action.
The complication, of course, is that diseases spread. The deck of cards contains four to six Epidemic cards that speed the spread of the four diseases, and reshuffle all the Infection cards you’ve already used to place cubes on cities. Thus cities that have already come up in the deck and received cubes will come up again, so players must split their time between collecting cards for cures and putting out fires to avoid outbreaks – especially since outbreaks can cause chain reactions that can advance you to endgame very quickly.
We played the Normal game with five epidemic cards and still found it extremely difficult. Even with four players working together, we won just twice in a more than a half-dozen plays, and both wins came just as we were about to exhaust the deck of city cards (the third possible endgame condition). It’s a massive operations research problem, where all four players jointly coordinate the movement and actions of four players to try to most efficiently balance the short-term needs to avoid outbreaks or a cube shortage and the long-term need to cure the disease. You can even choose to eradicate a disease you’ve cured – if you treat all cubes of a cured disease (any player can remove all cubes of a cured disease in the city where his pawn sits with one action), the disease is eradicated and all future infection cards in that color have no effect. But eradication costs actions you may need to use to treat uncured diseases or coordinate with other players to collect cards.
There is some luck involved – you can have a bad combination of epidemic cards appearing close together with a concentration of cubes in cities of one color and see a game spiral out of control unless you’re sitting in that region – but there are enough disparate chance-based elements that it tended to balance out in our plays, so that we generally felt like we had a shot to win every game. The real challenges are coordinating that many players and choosing when you can avoid a short-term problem and go cure a disease, but those were what made the game fun and intense. It’s also a fairly quick play for that many people, about an hour if we didn’t lose early, and very replayable even within an evening because the mix of diseases, locations, cards, and roles differs each time.
There’s also a well-regarded expansion called Pandemic: On the Brink that adds five new roles, a fifth “mutant” disease, and even a way for someone to play the spoiler as the Bio-Terrorist. I haven’t played it, but expect I’ll pick it up in time, since we’ll probably be playing Pandemic quite often.