Review: Pandemic

Review: Pandemic

One of the main reasons I play board games is so that I can spend some quality time with my friends and family. However, we’ve all been a part of those board gaming nights where we wouldn’t quite describe the time together as ‘quality’. As the comedian Demetri Martin once said (in a slightly less family-friendly way): “Sometimes I feel like the name of the board games should be ‘Which One of My Friends is a Competitive Jerk?’”

I’ve seen people ruin friendships over a board game. So every now and then, it’s nice to break out a game where we can all come together and cooperate. And if we’re going to get mad, let’s get mad at an inanimate object, like the board game itself.

Pandemic is a legend in the board gaming community as a cooperative game. Released in 2008, it has seen thousands of players working together to stop viruses from taking over the world. But now that it’s been over a decade since its launch, is Pandemic still worth buying? Or have other games been released that make for a better time working together?

Pandemic player tokens

All The Fun of Viruses Without Those Nasty Side Effects

In Pandemic, you take on the role of two to four medical specialists, all working to eliminate four horrible viruses that are spreading like the Plague across different sections of the world. You will use your actions each turn to move around the world, trying to eliminate and cure the different viruses. This is done through the movement of pawns around a map, which serves as the game’s board. Each virus is represented by four different colors of clear plastic cubes, which seem harmless enough but you will eventually learn to HATE THEM SOOO MUCH.

The big thing that sets Pandemic apart from other games is the cooperative element. You will be working with the other people at the table to plan what your move will be, as well as what the moves will be of the next few players. Your decisions will be impacted by where you are on the board, what cards you have in your hand, and what skills your particular character has.

For instance, if you’re the researcher, you have the ability to cure a disease with fewer cards than any other player. However, you may not have any of the cards you need for a particular disease, so you and another player are going to have to move to the same spot so that you can trade a particular set of cards. All of you are working together as a team to ensure that you’re as efficient as possible in curing the disease.

Pandemic player hand

Why all this focus on efficiency? Oh, well it’s just that the game is trying to DESTROY YOU! After every turn, players draw two of the cards from the player deck that are used for cures, movement, etc., but also draw cards from another deck – the infection deck. Like the player deck, these cards feature cities, but they’re not helping stop the virus. No, these cards are telling you where the virus is spreading. So each turn, you’ll be adding more cubes to your board, leaving you more disease to cure.

But that’s not the worst part of it. No, the worst is that there are five ‘epidemic’ cards spread throughout the player deck. Whenever you draw one of these, prepare to be sad. You take the card from the bottom of the infection deck, and you put three disease cubes down instead of just one. Then, you shuffle up all the cards from the discarded infection deck and put them back on top of the draw pile before you draw to infect new cities.

So you’re not going to be spreading the wealth with your virus. No, you’ll be infecting the same cities over and over again. And if any of these cities ever has three cubes on it and you’re supposed to put another down, you have an outbreak. When this happens, a cube is placed not on the city of infection, but on every city connected to that city. Sometimes this can cause a chain reaction, which leads to outbreaks causing outbreaks and disease spreading everywhere. Since you’ll always be adding more and more disease each turn, I think you can see why this quickly becomes a race against the clock.

There’s No ‘I’ in Team, But There Is a ‘Me’

Pandemic is one of the staples of the cooperative genre, and as such it does suffer from some of the issues that come with this type of game. You need a group of people who feel comfortable communicating with each other, or else you end up with two classic ‘roles’ found in cooperative games.

First are the silent players, who may not really know what to do and never speak up, meaning that other players end up having to guide them step by step through the moves that they should probably make.

Second (and far worse) are the dominators. These are players that might know the game inside and out, but rather than support other players and encourage them to participate, they end up making all the decisions for the group. Sure, they may end up with the win, but they are the only ones who celebrate, while everyone else feels like they just spent an hour watching someone else play a board game with their pieces. If you can avoid these issues, I think you’ll have a good time.

Pandemic cured diseases

Other cooperative games have come along, but Pandemic holds up fairly well. I think almost anyone can learn the rules, though younger and more inexperienced players might need more handholding through the process.

To be fair, I haven’t played it nearly as often since we acquired a copy of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, which is an amazing gameplay experience but something that requires a little more time commitment. There are some expansions, too, and Z-Man has started to put the Pandemic name on other related but definitely different concepts like Pandemic Iberia the upcoming Pandemic: Rising Tide.

But regular ol’ Pandemic still gives me that great feeling when we win that I don’t think more competitive games can give. You get the same sense of satisfaction from developing and executing a great plan, but you also know that you did it together. And to me, it’s just so much better to not have to go it alone.

You can purchase a copy of Pandemic at most big box stores like Target and Walmart or at your local game store or on Amazon today.

Highs

  • Fun cooperative experience
  • A good balance of difficulty

Lows

  • Dominant players can ruin the experience