Most board games you find are competitive, pitting friends and family against one another for an evening’s entertainment. Some games are aggressively so, elimination trailing players as the rest jostle for first place and friendly bragging rights – at least, one hopes they’re friendly. Well known games like Monopoly or Risk are like this, and they can make for some raucous fun, especially for those in the lead. Yet anyone who has gone bankrupt in Monopoly or had their armies wiped out in Risk know what a drag it is to sit on the sidelines for a seeming eternity as the final players duke it out over their stacks of cash and real estate or the megalomaniacal grandeur of world domination. A night of social bonding, then, ends with some folks bored out of their skulls and others increasingly antagonistic.
There are a handful of excellent games, however, that take player competition out of the equation altogether. In theses cooperative games, the members of the group don’t play against each other, but rather, in a sense, play against the game itself.
Pandemic is one of these games, and it has been causing a bit of stir among the board-game enthusiast for a few years now. I have come home with a number of games for my wife and me to play since I began working at Hobby and Toy Central, and it’s safe to say that Pandemic is one of our favourites.
In this game, which supports two to four players, you are members of the Center for Disease Control, working together to develop cures for four virulent diseases that are quickly spreading across the globe. You move around the board – a map of the world, with each space representing a major international city—trying to clean up local hotspots before you meet up with your teammates to trade information, acting desperately to stop the diseases from spreading out of control. You treat smaller regional infections; work to contain and prevent devastating outbreaks; travel by care, ferry, and chartered jet to the places you are needed most; and race to acquire enough knowledge to discover the cures before succumbing to a worldwide pandemic that threatens to wipe out the human species.
Part globetrotting adventure, part medical thriller, part apocalyptic horror, Pandemic is a board game about a plucky group of unlikely heroes pulling together to save the world!
Setup is pretty easy after one or two plays, though it may initially seem a little more involved compared to what you’re used to. Beside the board, you group the four colours of disease cubes: red, yellow, blue and black. At the top and bottom of the board, you place an infection deck and a player deck. Each player is assigned one of several specific roles, each of which can do something special that the others can’t. Before the game starts in earnest, you draw a number of cards from the infection deck, each of which bears the name of a city. Those cities all have disease cubes placed on them, representing the initial infections. Then the challenge begins.
Starting out at the CDC in Atlanta, the members of your team take turns performing a set number of actions, then draw cards from the player deck. These cards either show the name of a city, indicate a special event, or prompt the player to resolve a dreaded epidemic (more on that one in a second). City cards are the meat and potatoes of playing the game. You can play them to travel around the world quickly, and you may also trade them with other players if you happen to be in the same city. You need to manage them well, though, because you need to play five cards of the same colour to cure a disease. Acting wisely, thinking ahead, communicating with your team, and coordinating your actions are therefore absolutely vital.
Finally, the player ends her turn by drawing cards from the infection deck and placing cubes on the cities that turn up. On each person’s turn, then, the diseases spread more and more, and the team comes closer and closer to disaster.
All of this might be halfway manageable if it weren’t for those epidemic cards I mentioned earlier. Whenever someone draws one of these, he first increases the rate of infection (i.e., the number of infection cards to be drawn at the end of each turn), infects one city with three disease cubes, and then intensifies the scenario by playing the discarded infection cards back on top of the infection deck, which means that the cities that have already been hit start being struck by resurgences. Things get even dicer as the disease cubes start piling up. Each city can hold a maximum of three cubes. If a city is already at the maximum, the next infection that crops up there causes an outbreak that spreads to all of the adjacent cities. In the later stages of the game, pulling up an epidemic card can result in chain reactions that quickly make the situation overwhelming for you and your team.
Make no mistake: Pandemic can be unforgiving. While there is only one way to win – cure all four diseases—there are three ways to lose. If more than eight outbreaks happen (i.e., a city with three cubes is infected again) a “worldwide panic” occurs and you lose. If you use up all the cards in the player deck, you have “run our of time” and you lose. If you use up all the disease cubes for any one of the four colours, you lose. Either you save humanity, or you get to watch everyone you know and love fall ill, and all that humanity has achieve fade away. Congratulations.
The first time my wife and I played, we were one move away from our final cure when I drew an epidemic cards. We were taking a major chance, trying to be heroes. But a chain reaction of three or four outbreaks followed, and the world was consumed bu plague.
It’s precisely this intense challenge that we find so compelling in Pandemic: the stories it tells of our ingenuity and heroism or, just as often (maybe even a little more often), of our extinction- level defeat. What keeps us coming back, however, is the same thing that sets Pandemic apart from the majority of family games. It’s the idea that we are striving, together, against all odds, that we are planning and strategizing, not in the hopes of one or the other’s defeat, but rather cooperatively, striving toward a common goal with hefty stakes.