The biggest iOS boardgame app release since June’s appearance of Agricola came this past Thursday, as the leading cooperate boardgame Pandemic was released for the iPad, bringing the same tension as the boardgame to a pass-and-play app with a slick, intuitive interface. If you don’t mind failing to save humanity over and over around your occasional successes, this is the app for you.
If you haven’t the physical version of Pandemic (which I reviewed in December 2010), it’s a different kind of game than most boardgames you’ve ever played. Two to four players work together to try to win, rather than competing. The board is a map of the world with various cities on it, connected by lines that indicate travel routes. The ‘enemy’ here is disease – four of them, each affecting a different region of the world and threatening to spread out of control and wipe out the human race. Cubes represent diseased populations in various cities, with one to three per location; when a city with three cubes in it acquires another one through the draw of a card or a spreading infection, an “outbreak” occurs and new cubes go into each city that connects to the original one. Eight outbreaks means you’ve lost. You can also lose if you have to place all 24 cubes of any specific color (one color per disease), or if you exhaust the deck of city cards before curing all four diseases. It’s difficult and cerebral, requiring you to make numerous decisions, often balancing short-term needs against long-term goals.
There is a way to win Pandemic, however. Each player collects city cards, two per turn, that can be used to cure a disease – five city cards of the same color, sent en masse to the discard pile while the player in question is in a city with a research station, cures that disease. In the meantime, however, players can go from city to city, removing cubes to try to hold off outbreaks. Each player has a specific role that gives him/her a special ability, such as curing a disease with just four cards, building a research station in whatever city he’s on, or moving other players around the board. There are also four special cards that allow the player to skip new infections for a turn, build a research station, remove one city card from the infection deck, or move one player to any place on the board. And the players’ deck also includes Epidemic cards, each of which triggers a new three-cube infection in one city while also raising the infection rate on a sliding scale that starts out at two cities per turn and eventually reaches four. You can adjust the game’s level of difficulty, which affects the number of Epidemic cards in the deck – from four (easy) to six (heroic).
The iOS app is an outstanding, faithful adaptation of the game that plays quickly and easily with only one very minor technical glitch through over a dozen plays (with no crashes). The interface is very clear and crisp, although the city names might be a little tough for some players to read without zooming in. (It helps to know your world geography here.) The screen has to deliver a lot of information at once, but the division of information across four side menus is easy to follow once you know the rules – all players’ cards in the right-hand menu, card history on the left, the current player’s cards and potential actions on the bottom, and the overall stats up top. Moving around is easy, as the game highlights cities to which the current player can move and confirms any move that would require the disposal of a city card. You can also undo your last few moves with a click of the undo arrow symbol in the upper left.
The one technical glitch I mentioned was minor – I have had a few instances where the app wouldn’t allow me to open the right-hand menu showing which city cards the players held, but could exit to the main screen and resume the game to open the menu again. I have noticed an unusually high probability of an epidemic card appearing in the first first turn, which makes the game harder to win; I actually had a game end after only two of the four player-roles had a chance to go, because a series of outbreaks in the red (Asia) region used up all 24 cards, thanks to an epidemic on the first turn. Such unwinnable games are a part of Pandemic, although in my experience with the physical game, they’re pretty rare.
Pandemic is a game meant to be played in person, with lots of communication between players, so I didn’t mind the absence of online multiplayer; slowing this game down would also reduce the tension that’s a key part of why it’s fun. (Although my daughter might question that; after playing alongside me twice, she asked, “What’s the point of this game? Losing?”) The game also has no AI component; if you want to play solo, just choose the number of roles you wish to play and handle them yourself. That also means there’s no downtime: You are always in the process of doing something or deciding what to do, and never waiting on an AI player or an online opponent (or partner). For a competitive game, the lack of online multiplayer would be a drawback, but I don’t see it as one here.
The game doesn’t include either of the available expansions for the physical game, although I imagine those will eventually be available as in-app purchases. Its current price of $6.99 is about par for a high-end adaptation of a popular game, in line with the popular Ticket to Ride or Small World and with the more complex Agricola. If you’re into the physical version of Pandemic, or want a game for your iPad that is very challenging with high replay value, this is a must-have.