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

Friday 29 July 2022

Friday Filler: Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe

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: Europe, the second entry in the ‘Hotzone’ family of Pandemic games after 
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 Europe, as opposed to the four diseases and the global scope of Pandemic. The third is the playing time. Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe can be played in thirty minutes as opposed to the sixty minutes of standard Pandemic. Further there are similarities between Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe and Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, such that their rules can be mixed and matched, although arguably if you have one, do you need the other as another shorter, fast-playing version of Pandenic?

So as with its American counterpart, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe only needs four cards of the same colour to cure a disease instead of five, and there is only the one fixed Research Station instead of multiple Research Stations which can be placed on the board as in Pandemic. This is of course in Genève, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. 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 four roles in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe are the ‘Virologist’, ‘Containment Specialist’, ‘Pilot’, and ‘Quarantine Specialist’.

Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe only has three Epidemic cards. These accelerate and exacerbate the spread of the three diseases 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: Europe, 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: Europe—just like Pandemic Hot Zone: North America—provides a different means to alter the difficulty of play. In Pandemic Hot Zone: North America it was Crisis cards, but in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe it is Mutation cards, which change how the various diseases in the game work.

Nevertheless, game play in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe 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 Genève to find cure for the disease of that colour. Designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe 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: Europe 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: Europe is played on a map of Europe. This depicts twenty-four cities across the continent, divided into three zones—the blue zone covering Western Europe, the red zone covering Eastern Europe, and the yellow zone Southern Europe. 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. The ‘Virologist’ can substitute one required card to ‘Discover a Cure’, so use three cards of one colour and two cards of another colour, and as an action remove a single cube from the board matching the colour of a card in his hand. When the ‘Containment Specialist’ enters a city with two or more cubes of one colour in a city, his player removes one of them. The ‘Pilot’ can Fly to any city within two connections of his current location, skipping the cities between them, and take another player with him. When the ‘Quarantine Specialist’ is in a city, if that city or the adjacent cities would be infected during the drawing of Infection cards, then no cubes are placed in those cities.

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 London. Once a player has four cards of a single colour—red, blue, or yellow—then he can travel to Genève 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
—the Epidemic card, the Event card, and the Mutation 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 ‘Mobile Hospital’ which allows the current player to remove one cube from each of the cities he travels to on his turn and ‘Resource Planning’ which enables a player to look at the top four cards of the Player Deck, rearrange them and add them to the top of the deck. There are only four Event cards in the game.

There are nine Mutation cards in the game, with three different effects, one per disease. Thus, for ‘Resistant to Treatment’, if there are three or cubes of one colour on a city, a player must spend two actions to Treat Disease in that city. There is one of these for each disease. Once drawn, a Mutation card remains in play until a cure for its disease is found. Further, until that cure is found, more Mutation cards for that disease can be drawn and they stack, combining their effects, making the disease harder to treat and easier to spread. In addition, the game’s difficulty can be adjusted by adding more Mutation cards to Player deck. Each Mutation card affects a specific disease in a specific, permanent way. However, unlike the Crisis cards in Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, the Mutation cards in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe do not feel like a wholly new mechanic, rules for mutating diseases having been previously seen in the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion for the main game. 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 and three Mutation 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: Europe 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 Mutation 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: Europe 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: Europe and Pandemic. Lastly, the playing pieces are all done in solid plastic. Everything then, is of a high quality.

So is Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe a good game? To which the answer is, yes, yes it is a good game. However, it feels very close in play to Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, and having played one, it is debatable whether it is different enough to make it stand out. The lack of major differences mean that going from one to the other is easy enough and the compatibility means that the different roles and both Crisis and Mutation cards could be mixed into the one game. Yet another problem is that the Mutation cards only have three mutations between all nine cards (there being one of each type per disease) and that does not much in the way of variation.

Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is an efficient, simpler version of the standard game of Pandemic, streamlined for faster play, size, and price. Yet Pandemic Hot Zone: North America already did that and if you already have that, do you really need another version? Had there been more variation in the Mutation cards to make it stand out a little more, then Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe would be worth trying and buying. Without that greater degree of variation, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is a serviceable, playable game that is perhaps of more interest to the dedicated devotee of the Pandemic line of games.

No comments:

Post a Comment