Coming Down With A Nasty Case of Cubes - Pandemic Review

It's February and that means . . . . IT'S CO-OPERATIVE MONTH!

I almost feel like I'll need to shelter myself in a panic room when I'm done with this review and I don't mean just from having a sore throat. This game is regarded as a staple in the Co-Op gaming world and it even reached No 1 in the Dice Tower People's Choice of 2013 so if I don't give this a glowing review, there will be people marching to my front door in a manner comparable to that film "The Purge".

Well, I like to think I'm objective when I conduct my reviews and I refuse to be influenced or biased so I hope ACME have done a good job with the installation because this review is not going to be all about praise. And I love co-operative games, in fact I've just added another 3 of them to my collection today. With that in mind, let's talk about Pandemic (expansions not included). And apologies for the formatting on this page - Blogger is being a pain!

"Focusing on the 2013 reprint version"
Designer: Matt Leacock (2008)
Publisher: Z-Man Games
# of Players: 1-4
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 60+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #48/7.64
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: 1
Category: Co-Op Puzzle Game

Game Overview

At the start of the game, each player will select a role to play, such as the Medic, Researcher, Despatcher etc. Each role has one or two special abilities that affect movement, curing diseases, removing disease cubes and other similar in-game actions.

Several Epidemic cards (number dictated by difficulty level) are shuffled into the player deck (keeping to a rough equal separation throughout) and then the players draw two cards each. Most of the deck is made up of city locations and special event cards that can be played usually at any time. The Epidemic cards are bad as they cause the rate of infection to increase as well as cause havoc with the Infection deck and the disease cubes.

 "Looks much better than before and the Ipad version looks identical"

The Infection deck is then shuffled and several locations are drawn to represent the initial placement of cubes on the board. Some will contain three cubes which is the maximum, some will have two and others one. Players will take it in turns to perform their actions of which they have four "points" worth available to them. Actions range from movement, to removing cubes, to building research stations, essentially there's a lot of different options but most of them are variations on movement.

At the end of their turn they have to draw two new cards from the player deck. If one of them is an Epidemic card, the Infection Rate track increases (meaning more of the Infection deck cards are revealed each turn), a new random city spawns 3 cubes and the discarded Infection cards from previous turns are shuffled and placed back on top of the deck. This means that cities which previously spawned cubes, will spawn further ones over time. After this, a number of Infection deck cards (dictated by the Infection track) are revealed which each spawn a further cube.

If a city already has 3 cubes on it and another needs to be placed, an Outbreak occurs. The track on the left side of the board is increased and one cube of that colour is placed on each surrounding city from the original one. This can in turn cause further Outbreaks so you have to be vigilant in avoiding chain reactions.

To cure a disease, a player must reach a research station and play 5 location cards from their hand that match the colour of the disease they're curing. Once this is done it becomes easier to remove its cubes from the board, but they don't just wipe out instantly - they can still spawn on the table and mess up your day. As soon as all four diseases are cured, the game is won.

Players will lose the game if eight Outbreaks occur, if the player deck runs out of cards or if they are unable to place cubes of a particular colour on the board (essentially the disease has run rampant and the Resident Evil franchise begins . . . . in my mind!)

"Rulebook is nice and clear with plenty of diagrams, easy to teach"

Comparing To The Original Print

Pandemic has already been released in the past, but in my opinion the component quality and artwork in this version is miles ahead of its predecessor. I always got put off the old version purely because it looked bland and dull, especially the board. In this 2013 reprint everything is more vibrant and colourful and it just looks so modern and crisp. It's a nice touch how the flags and population details are shown on each city card - they don't add anything to the game more than flavour though.

The rulebook is phenomenal though. It's colourful, clear and well laid out so it's easy to read through and teach to players. To add to this, the most complex part of the game, being the rules for Epidemic cards, have the procedure explained on the cards themselves.

Other than that, not much appears different aside from a couple of extra roles that weren't in the original version. That's fine and all, variety is the spice of life. . . unless it's a variety of nasty diseases threatening to wipe out the human race, but you catch my drift. Each role seems the same as before, maybe one or two balancing tweaks here and there, but each role is useful in the game in their own way. Saying that though from personal experience I find the Medic, Researcher and Scientist to be easily the best of the bunch in terms of beating the game.

It doesn't play out any quicker than the original print, but it was never a long game to begin with. There is no reason at all that this game should take longer than an hour and with experienced players, 45 minutes is a reasonable time to aim for.

"All the roles available - the Dispatcher is good to take if you're teaching the game to others"

The Alpha Gamer Syndrome

The biggest issue that people associate with Co-Op games is the Alpha Gamer. For those of you that are unaware of this term, this is where one player, typically the owner or most experienced player, will begin dictating to the other players what they should do in a turn and effectively "control the game". This can lead to some new gamers becoming disheartened as they don't feel they're contributing and just simply taking orders.
Some Co-Op games handle this better than others, however Pandemic is one of those that doesn't handle it well. This is one of those games that is best played amongst experienced players who all know what they are doing, that's when it works best. Too often however I see new gamers be led by others because they don't fully understand the most optimal strategy to follow. I sometimes explain the rules and then sit out of the first game entirely only providing rule clarifications and letting them work together. It's more entertaining than you think sometimes.

Now you can argue that this is dependant on the mentality of the group itself and that is true to an extent, but more often than not you will notice that new players will need a couple of games at least to really understand the best way to play. I suppose what I'm suggesting is that the experience of the group should ideally be the same with this game, all experienced or all new.

Some will say that this applies to all Co-Ops, however that's not strictly true. Pandemic differs from a lot of Co-Op games in that it feels less of a thematic team game and more of an abstract puzzle game. This means there is generally an optimal way to play the game regardless of what happens so experienced players are going to know what this methodology is, but a new player won't.

The Infection deck mechanic also means you can lightly predict what's going to happen next and as a result there's always an optimal move to do.  Now compare this to Flashpoint Fire Rescue for example. In that game because the fire threat is random, you can't plan ahead for it and every action that a player can take is always useful. Put out fire, rescue a victim, move a hazmat, use the fire engine, open doors for the rescue dog to get through (from the promo pack), these are all useful actions and rarely are any of them optimal. This means I can teach that game to a new gamer by outlining the potential options and then I let them decide which one they want to go for without even hinting which one I would personally do. They get into the game much easier in that regard.

"Player deck cards including special events and Epidemic cards"

Better Solo Than Co-Operatively?

Because this game feels more like an abstract puzzle game with better visuals, I get more enjoyment out of this game when I play it solo as a puzzle game. It sounds like I've unloaded hate on the game, but in reality I do enjoy this game, but not as a co-operative game. Recently this game has been released on the Ipad in the same format as this reprint and I get the same kicks out of that version as I do this one. This has the advantage of the expansions though, but even that will change eventually when the Ipad inevitably catches up - oh come on, you know it's coming. By the end of 2014 we will have In The Lab released for Ipad as an in-app purchase I bet you!

On that same note though the theme of this game is brought out a lot more with the latest expansion (In The Lab) and even On The Brink provided a lot as well so if you're buying this game, you really want to get those as well as this game will get repetitive quickly without at least one of them.

 "Infection deck cards"


Ok I've checked the security on my flat, it all looks pretty good so I can continue this verdict in safety.

Pandemic as a puzzle game is really good. It's mechanics are more interesting than a typical abstract game and is one of the few games that can be played and enjoyed solo. The problem is though, if you are going to do that, you might as well use the Ipad version (unless of course you don't have an Ipad). You can tailor the difficulty to your heart's content to almost masochist levels and being a quick game, you can get your money's worth in terms of plays.

Pandemic as a co-operative game. . . . . doesn't hit the mark for me. The theme doesn't really spill out from this game as you're just swapping cards, playing sets and removing cubes. It's almost a Euro style co-op in that sense. Now the latest expansion helps greatly with this issue by incorporating the Lab board and I highly recommend this module over all the others available, but as a standalone game it's not going to jump out at you.

The Alpha Gamer problem also crops up more in this game than I've seen in any other Co-Op to date. Flashpoint, Ghost Stories, Marvel Legendary, Shadows over Camelot, and more to note, Pandemic definitely has featured it more. Now if you all have the same experience with this game be it a lot or very little, then this mitigates the problem, but be wary if you have a mixed group, say if you're teaching one new player how to play.

So in summary, it's a great puzzle game, but I find myself drawn to other Co-Op games over this when I'm looking to play as a group. As such I'm going to likely stick with the Ipad version and enjoy every solo game I play on it. The expansions to Pandemic improve the game dramatically, but that's a lot of money to fork out for a solo venture.