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Friday, 12 June 2020

Friday Filler: Pandemic Hot Zone: North America

Now it might seem inappropriate for a new version of Pandemic—the 2008 game of fighting and finding a cure to four outbreaks of different diseases—to be published in the midst of an actual pandemic. It might also seem inappropriate that its subject focuses entirely on North America given the high number of deaths from the Covid-19 virus in the USA. If you believe that to be so, then this review is not for you. However, you would be wrong in your thinking. To start with, the publication date of the new game is entirely coincidental. Second, the subject matter of the new game—just like the original—is about researching, teaching and finding a cure for multiple diseases, which is exactly what scientists are doing right now. So both Pandemic and the new game are about providing medical aid and saving people, undeniably positive rather than negative in both their subject matter and what the players are doing. If you still find the subject matter distasteful, then this review is not for you.

The original Pandemic was published in 2008 to much acclaim. In the game, between one and four players take the role of members of the Center for Disease Control working against four global epidemics—red, blue, yellow, and black—in a race to save humanity. The game was one of the first titles to really distill the concept of the co-operative game, a game in which the players played not against each other, but against the board and the game itself, into something that was simple, elegant, and ultimately, very popular.  In Pandemic, the players race around the world, travelling from city to city in an effort to treat diseases and find a cure for them whilst staving off the effects of outbreaks that will spread these diseases from one city to every adjacent city. Too many outbreaks and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Fail to find cures to all four diseases and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Like all cooperative games, Pandemic is designed to be difficult to beat and can be made even more challenging through the various expansions.

The latest addition to the Pandemic family of boardgames is Pandemic Hot Zone: North America. Published by Z-Man Games, this again is designed for between one and four players, has players cooperating to treat and find a cure to several diseases, and is played against the game rather than the players against each other. It is however, not the same game as Pandemic, for whilst there are many similarities, there are also several differences. The first of these is that there are only three diseases to find a cure for and the second is that it is set entirely in North America, as opposed to the four diseases and global scope of Pandemic. The third is the playing time. Pandemic Hot Zone: North America can be played in thirty minutes as opposed to the sixty minutes of standard Pandemic.

Those are the most obvious differences, but there are others. These include only needing four cards of the same colour to cure a disease instead of five, and there being only one Research Station, rather than multiple Research Stations. This is of course in Atlanta at the Center for Disease Control headquarters. This negates the need for the ‘Operations Expert’ from Pandemic, who can establish Research Stations around the world and the ability of the players to shuttle back and forth between them. The Researcher and Dispatcher roles in Pandemic Hot Zone: North America are slightly different from Pandemic, but these differences are relatively minor. Pandemic Hot Zone: North America has only three Epidemic cards, which are always used in the game, whereas standard Pandemic has three, four, and five, the number used to vary the difficulty of beating the game. Diseases cannot be eradicated in Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, whereas in standard Pandemic, they can, preventing their appearance during the game. Lastly, rather than alter the number of Epidemic cards to vary the difficulty of beating the game, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America provides Crisis cards. During game set-up, the number of Crisis cards can be varied to set the game’s difficulty, plus each Crisis card is different, so adding an extra random element to game play.

Nevertheless, game play in Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is similar to that of Pandemic. Each turn, a player will move round the map treating diseases to prevent there being too many on the board, visiting cities for which they have a card to give to another player, and when a player has the requisite four cards of one colour, rushing back to Atlanta to find cure for the disease of that colour. Designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is won by finding a cure for all three diseases. This is the only winning condition, whereas there are several losing conditions. Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is lost if four Outbreaks occur, the players run out of disease cubes of any colour to add to the board, or when the Player Deck is depleted.

As its title suggests, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is played on a map of North America. This depicts twenty-four cities across the USA, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These are divided into three zones—the blue zone covering the north-east, eastern seaboard, and midwest; the red zone covering the south, south-west, and west; and the yellow zone covering Mexico, Louisiana, Florida, Cuba, and the Dominican Republican. These cities are connected by various routes along which both the players will travel as they move around the continent and the game’s three diseases will travel whenever there is Outbreak in one city. This happens whenever a city with three disease cubes has more cubes of the same colour added to it. In which case the disease spreads to directly connected cities.

The game offers four different roles. These are the Dispatcher which can move any player’s pawn to another city where is already another player’s pawn or move another player’s pawn to a connected city; the Generalist, which can do five actions each turn rather than the standard four; the Medic, which can remove all of the disease cubes of one colour in a city rather than just the one when he takes the Treat Disease action or remove all of the cubes for a cured disease for free; and the Researcher, who can give cards to another player whose pawn is in the same city and the cards do not need to match the city they are in.

As well as the board, there are two decks of cards, both of which contain a card for each of the twenty-four cities on the board. The Infection deck is used to determine where incidences of the game’s three diseases will occur. Over the course of the game, Infection cards drawn will be reshuffled and added back to the top of the Infection deck to represent the populations of cities being constantly prone to the game’s three diseases. The cards in the Player deck are used in several ways. Each represents a single city and can be used to travel to or from a particular city, so to or from Boston. Once a player has four cards of a single colour—red, blue, or yellow—then he can travel to Atlanta and use them to find a cure. To acquire four cards of a single colour, a player can either draw them from the Player deck at the end of his turn or take them from or be given them by a fellow player.

In addition, the Player deck contains three other types of card. When an Epidemic card is drawn it increases the rate of infection—the number of cards drawn from from the Infection deck at the end of a a player’s turn, determines the city where a new occurrence of a disease happens, and shuffles the Infection cards in the discard pile back onto the Infection deck to reinfect cities that have already suffered disease already. The Event cards each provide a one-time bonus, such as ‘One Quiet Night’ which allows the current player to skip the ‘Draw Infection Cards’ phase of his turn or ‘Borrowed Time’ which enables the current player to take two additional actions.

Crisis Cards make the game’s play more challenging and are played immediately when drawn. So ‘Logistics Failure’ forces the current player  ‘Draw Infection Cards’ phase of his turn, whilst ‘Limited Options’ forces each player to reduce the size of his hand from six to five. This is temporary, but does last until another Crisis card is drawn. These Crisis cards are really the new mechanic to the Pandemic family, not only can they be used as a means to adjust the game’s difficulty rather than using the Epidemic cards, they can also add an ongoing, if temporary, effect that will hinder the players’ progress. There are just seven of them in the game, but because only three or six of them are used in the game—depending upon the difficulty of the game desired—there is always a degree of randomness and uncertainty as to which Crisis cards the players will face.

Game set-up is simple enough. Each player is given a role and two randomly drawn Player cards whilst the remainder of the Player deck is seeded with the three Epidemic cards. Six cards are drawn from the Infection deck to determine where the three diseases first occur on the board and to form the discard pile. Then on his turn, a player will move round the map, treating diseases, taking or giving Player cards, and so on. At the end of his turn, he draws two more cards from the Player deck, adding them to his hand or immediately resolving them if they are Crisis cards or Epidemic cards. Lastly, he draws Infection cards from the Infection deck—starting at two and rising to four—and adds disease cubes to the cities indicated on the cards drawn. Play continues like this until the game is won by all three diseases being cured or lost by having four Outbreaks occur, running out of disease cubes, or depleting the Player deck.

Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is easy to lose, but challenging to win. Plus winning does feel good. Like any Pandemic game, there is a real sense of achievement in working together, discovering curses to the diseases, and so winning the game.

Time is tight. With a four player game, the number of cards in the Player deck will range between twenty-three and twenty-nine, giving the players between eleven and fourteen turns between them before the game ends. So players need to plan and coordinate their actions from turn to turn, and this is not taking into account the effects of Epidemic and Crisis cards. So the players are constantly thinking, planning, and having to adjust to unexpected events (well, they are not unexpected, their being built into the game and its set-up, so think unexpected timing of events), so game play is both thoughtful and tense. However, since it is a cooperative game, there is the opportunity to discuss what your actions are going to be and that alleviates some of the tension—a little.

Physically, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is very nicely presented. Everything is in full colour, all of the cards are easy to read, and the rulebook quickly guides you through set-up and answers your questions. It even has a list of the differences between Pandemic Hot Zone: North America and Pandemic. Lastly, the playing pieces are all done in solid plastic. Everything then, is of a high quality.

So the first question is, is Pandemic Hot Zone: North America a good game? To which the answer is, yes, yes it is a good game. However, it might just be a slightly too difficult or challenging for its minimum age range of eight and older.

So the second question is, should you add Pandemic Hot Zone: North America to the Pandemic family of games you already own. Well, that depends, because the real question is, who is Pandemic Hot Zone: North America really aimed at? For fundamentally, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is really just a shorter, more tense version of Pandemic, and if you own Pandemic, it may well not be sufficiently different from Pandemic to warrant adding it to your collection. Though that will probably not stop you if we are honest. Yes, the playing area is different, but really the major difference is the addition of the Crisis cards. Otherwise, the gameplay is just like the original Pandemic

The clue as to what Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is lies in the size of the game and two other games—Ticket to Ride: London and Ticket to Ride: New York. Both of these are smaller, shorter implementations of the 2004 classic Ticket to Ride. They offer minor variations upon the standard Ticket to Ride rules and a reduction in both playing time, actual size, and price of the game, as well as providing the designer with a new format in which to explore the Ticket to Ride concept. Similarly, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America offers its designer a new format in which to explore the Pandemic concept as well as reduced size, playing time, and price. Which means that in the future there will be other entries in the Pandemic Hot Zone series.

Overall, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America does not actually have a great deal of new game play to offer the dedicated Pandemic fan, who will probably view the game as essentially ‘Pocket Pandemic’. However, Pandemic Hot Zone: North America’s combination reduced playing time, size, and price make it a less daunting introduction to the Pandemic family of games.

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