Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

So This Is It...

Over the past few years, there has been a trend in board games wherein the players have not been competing against each other, but instead co-operate together against the game itself. For fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham Horror can be included amongst their number, alongside such other titles as Space Alert, Shadows Over Camelot, Red November, and Battlestar Galactica. It should be pointed out though, that both Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica add in an element of treachery with at least one player being a traitor. The game I am going to review though, is purely co-operative and lacks that traitorous element – unless of course, you happen to purchase the expansion – but be warned, in playing you do hold the fate of humanity in your hands and that fate is damned difficult to avoid. The game in question is Z-Man Games’ Pandemic.

Designed for two to four players aged ten and up, in Pandemic the players take the role of specialists working for the CDC or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Federal Agency tasked with dealing with health, safety, and research as well as having to combat the outbreak of various virulent diseases. At the start of any game of Pandemic, the specialists will be faced with the outbreak of not one, but four diseases across the globe. They have an hour’s worth of nerve wracking game play in which to not only find cures for all four diseases, but also to prevent mankind from being overwhelmed by any one of them and thus wiped out. They will need to husband their resources, conduct enough research, and get to the right cities to treat the victims and so contain any further outbreaks if they are to win and mankind is to survive. There is only one way to win Pandemic – find a cure for all four diseases, but multiple ways in which to lose. It is a hard, sometimes a very hard game to win, but all too easy to loose...

Inside Pandemic’s surprisingly small box can be found a board, ninety-six wooden cubes, five pawns, six wooden Research Stations, six card markers, over one hundred cards, plus the eight-page rulebook. Everything is done in full colour with sturdy wooden pieces and hard wearing cards. The board itself depicts the Earth marked with the major cities of world and the routes between them. The cities are divided between four colour-coded zones: blue (North America and Europe), black (Eurasia, India, and North Africa), red (Asia and Australia), and yellow (Hispanic America and Sub-Saharan Africa). The board also has room for the game’s two decks of cards and its various markers. The six markers are divided four cure markers – one for each of the game’s four diseases, and one each to indicate the Infection Rate and the number of Outbreaks.

The cards are primarily divided between two decks, one of Infection Cards and one of Player Cards. For each of the cities on the board there is corresponding card in both decks, but where the Infection Deck only has cards that show a city, the Player Deck also contains special cards (which give the players a one time advantage when played) and Infection Cards (which indicate a new occurrence of a disease and increase the number of infection cards drawn). Each of the five Role Cards grants a player an extra ability that allows him to break the game’s basic rules. For example, the Medic role card lets a player treat all of the disease cubes of one colour in a city as a single action, rather than having to expend an action to cure a single disease cube. The other roles include the Dispatcher (who can move the other players around the board), the Operations Manager (who can build Research Stations wherever he is), the Researcher (who can freely give cards to another player when they are in the same city), and the Scientist (who needs fewer cards to cure a disease).

Lastly, there are four Reference Cards – these list possible player actions, and of course, the disease cubes. These are divided between the four colours – blue, black, red, and yellow – that match the coloured zones on the board. A disease of one colour will only appear in its matching zone unless an outbreak occurs and it infects a city in an adjacent zone.

Game set up takes a little doing. Each player randomly selects his Role and receives two Player Cards. The remainder of the Player Deck is seeded with Epidemic Cards, the number setting the difficulty for the game, five being average difficulty. Everyone starts play in Atlanta – the headquarters for the CDC – along with a single Research Station. Nine Infection Cards are drawn and each of the cities that they show is seeded with disease cubes. These nine cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck. This is an important feature of the game, previously drawn Infection Cards being reshuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck each time an Epidemic Card is drawn from the Player Deck, indicative of the fact that once a city has been infected, that it can be re-infected.

Each player’s turn has three phases. In the first phase, he can act, having four action points to spend on movement, on treating diseases, on building Research Stations, or on the special actions listed on his Role Card. In moving, he can simply move from one city to the next or use a Player Card to move to or from the city given on that card. In doing so, he discards the card in question. To treat a disease, a player uses up one action and removes one disease cube from the city he is in. A player needs to have the Player Card for the city that he is in if he wants to build a Research Station there, discarding the card in the process. A player can give a Player Card to another player, but to do so both players have to be in the city marked on the card. Lastly, a player can cure a disease simply by discarding five Player Cards of the same colour whilst at a Research Station – or four cards if the player is the Scientist.

The draw phase follows this, a player simply drawing two new Player Cards. A turn ends with the Infection Phase, in which a number of cards equal to the Infection Rate are draw and single disease cubes added to the cities shown on the cards. At the beginning of the game the Infection Rate is just two, but this will increase up to three and then four as Epidemic Cards are drawn from the Player Deck. The maximum number of disease cubes of any one colour allowed on a city is three. If a disease cube is added to city that already has three – which will happen because cities are likely to be re-infected – an Outbreak proper occurs there. The Outbreak Track goes up by one and each city linked to the Outbreak location is infected by a single disease cube. In the process, it is possible to infect an adjacent city that already has three disease cubes on it and set off a chain reaction...

If an Epidemic Card was drawn during the draw phase, its effects take place before the Infection Phase. It moves the Infection Marker up by one and adds three disease cubes to a new city drawn from the bottom of the Infection Deck. This new Infection Card is added to the discard pile of Infection Cards which is shuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck. The Infection Phase continues as normal, except for the fact that cities already infected are likely to be infected again!

So how do you win? Simply by finding cures for all four diseases.

So one way to win, but three ways to lose. A game of Pandemic can be lost if the Outbreak Tracker goes up too high; if the Player Deck is exhausted; or if all of the disease cubes of one colour are out on the board.

If that all sounds very mechanical, then it is. In fact, Pandemic has to be very mechanical because the game has to run itself while the players try and stop this process. And stopping that process takes no little thought and no little effort, which is of course, is made easier because a player is encouraged to seek the advice of his fellow players who are expected to suggest his next best course of action.

Even at best and with that advice, the players are fighting a losing battle. They can never quite get on top of the diseases before an Epidemic Card is drawn and cities begin being re-infected. This leads to a certain amount of Infection Card counting, the players trying to balance their actions between the location of the Disease Cubes already on the board and the Infection Cards that have yet to be drawn. This is because the top cards of Infection Deck are going to be drawn and then refreshed when an Epidemic Card is drawn, giving the opportunity for the players to learn those top cards. The other balancing act is between trying to treat diseases and collecting enough Player Cards, the latter made more difficult because a player can only hold seven Player Cards in his hand.
Of course, once you have managed to cure a disease, everything gets slightly easier. It becomes easier to treat, more so if you have the Medic in play, who no longer has to act to treat, merely pass through a city infected by that disease. If the players manage to develop a cure for a disease and remove all of its cubes from the board, it is eradicated and will not appear again. So any Infection Cards drawn of that colour have no effect. Eradicating a disease is admirable, but rarely is it worth the effort – there being too much else to do.

Despite all of this difficulty, Pandemic is still a good game. Game play is very tense, but also very quick because you do not have that all much to do on your turn. Plus, when it is not your turn, you are still kept busy, discussing with everyone what both you and they should be doing. In fact the game is so quick that it is usually completed in less than an hour. One downside is that the discussion between players can be dominated by a single player, especially if the other players are not as experienced with the game. This lessens though the more times that it is played. The other downside is that it is so very difficult. Of course, the difficulty can be decreased by reducing the number of Epidemic Cards that can be drawn, but once you have beaten the game at one difficulty, you will only want to try at a greater difficulty. The big plus though, comes when you do succeed. The feeling of having beaten all four diseases and saved mankind is not only fantastic, it is also a relief.

I will go further than saying that Pandemic is a good game – it is a great game, a classic even. It is not difficult to learn or hard to play, but is difficult to master or rather beat the game itself. It also keeps everyone involved and it demands that you play intelligently. Pandemic is just simply and frustratingly brilliant.

[As a side note and to keep it within the Reviews from R’lyeh theme, there is even an unofficial variant that re-imagines the players not as specialists working for the CDC, but investigators holding back the forces of the Mythos. Think of the disease cubes as cults devoted to things that man was not meant to know and outbreaks as summoning and you get the idea... In the meantime, the designer of this game has new co-operative board game called Forbidden Island which I reviewed last month.]