Pandemic

(Please note, this version is second edition and the Finnish / Swedish variant)

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Pandemic is a cooperative game for two to four players designed by Matthew Leacock. In Pandemic players move colored pawns on a blue cardboard playing area, remove small colored cubes and collect playing cards in matching colors that they can turn in for plastic tokens.

Before we started writing this review we reached out to Matthew, asking a few questions related to the development of Pandemic. He was kind enough to supply us with two videos of him presenting Pandemic: One for Google Tech Talk and one for LinkedIn. He addressed several topics in the videos, but one that we found really interesting was his view on embodiment.

When he presented the game at an early stage to Days of Wonder, the design involved the participating players controlling the pawns collectively and the number of pawns in the game was not adjusted based on the number of players: There were three grey pawns in the game, none of which had any identity or character traits.

In a way, I think Matthew could feel insulted given the first paragraph in which we describe the game as impersonal and emotionless. But we wanted to introduce this game in this way, as most people actually engage in the game and get emotionally attached to the colored pawns that are moved on the blue cardboard playing area. They get enthusiastic about the collection of cards of matching colors and give the colored cubes names of real and imaginary diseases. I know one common criticism of the game is that the cubes are named by their respective color instead of after actual diseases – making it a bit more stiff. But I love how Matthew manages to add as little information as possible (role cards, thematic intro and real cities), and in doing this, allowing players to freely create their own story or their own adventure on their own game night.

The two presentations that Matthew provided us with
Google tech talk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdTVcFo2EQw

LinkedIn:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et7nNmG6Qkc

Components

Board

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We currently have no possibility to take images of this sort of large pieces. We’re working on it. (-: 

Pandemic’s playing board is a world map with connecting nodes in large cities. It has spots for card decks, throw piles, and counters. It also has rule references about the steps done during each turn, allowing players to leave the rulebook in the box when starting out.

By using some of the space for a number of components that would otherwise be held outside the playing area, Pandemic manages size issues that could have otherwise occurred.

Role cards and pawns

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In Pandemic players take on different roles with different special abilities, as presented on the role cards. By making people draw the cards face down, a bit of randomness is introduced into the game. The pawns represent the characters that players are assigned.

As described in the introduction, the role cards have allowed players to get more attached to their own distinct pawns compared to the grey pawn alternative that was the initial idea. The good thing, and I’m sure some people will agree while others won’t, is that the information about the characters is scarce. You get the occupation, an image and the special skills of the role and that’s it. This allows players to build their own stories about the characters they play, without being forced into a predetermined story.

 There are six different role cards and corresponding pawns in Pandemic.

Player cards

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Pandemic comes with a deck of player cards. The deck contains city cards, event cards and epidemic cards. Two player cards are drawn at the end of each turn.

The city cards are used jointly for travelling and for finding cure. This construction makes players weigh the need to keep cards for finding cure against the need to get somewhere quickly. The map allows players to easily locate the city without having to read all of the names and shamefully taking too long to find it.

The event cards give players a special action that they can do once. The cards have the information needed regarding how they are to be used written on them. The actions are all constructed in a way that timing is necessary. Using the right action card at the right time can be what affects the final outcome of the game.

The last card type in the Player card deck is the epidemic card. Epidemic cards are used to set the difficulty level. The number of cards in the game sets the difficulty level – Introductory (four), Standard (five) and Heroic (six). Once an epidemic card is drawn, one new city gets three cubes placed on it, the infection rate increases and the previously infected cities gets shuffled and re-added to the deck – allowing them to infect again (and thus increasing the risk of an outbreak).

The epidemic cards have rule references on them, once again showing how well Matthew has designed the game to give new players as few reasons as possible to grab for the rulebook.

I am having a hard time calculating the balance of this concept. If we were to look at it from two somewhat extreme viewpoints, we might end up in a pickle.

If there were no epidemic cards, the infection pile would never get shuffled and no city would ever house more than three disease cubes. This way players could easily stay in Atlanta, waiting for the right cards without worrying about outbreaks or epidemics.On the other hand, if there were a great number of epidemic cards, the number of cities that get infected would be quite low. This would allow players to stay in place, not having to move around as much to cure the infected cities.

The only possible explanation regarding the balance that Matthew Leacock identified (and I guess my answer would differ, had I been better at math) is magic… Jokes aside, I’m certain that Matthew has a robust method of finding the balance that allows new players to feel as if they’re not overthrown by the game and at the same time give experienced players the same excitement and challenge. Matthew discusses this concept of flow in his Google Tech Talk presentation (see url at the introduction).

Do you know how to approach this mathematically? Please let me know!

There are 48 city cards, 6 epidemic cards and 5 event cards in Pandemic.

Reference cards

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Reference cards are used to help players stay aware of the types of action they can perform.

Reference cards are used in several games and their main purpose is to allow players to quickly and easily review certain rules.

 There are four reference cards in Pandemic.

Infection cards

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Infection cards are drawn after each turn. The cards have names of cities on them and the cities drawn gets an extra disease cube on them. Infection cards (like city cards from the player card deck) have maps with the city highlighted, allowing players to quickly locate the city without having to be made fun of for not knowing where it is. The map has saved me several times when I’ve been looking for cities I couldn’t locate.

There are 48 infection cards in Pandemic.

Disease cubes

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Disease cubes are tokens for representing people who have been infected.

This version had disease cubes in plastic (This is the second version – please let me know if there’s a list of different Pandemic versions and their content). I almost always prefer wooden pieces when playing games. But that opinion is highly individual.

 There are 96 disease cubes divided into four different colors in Pandemic.

Cure markers

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The cure markers are used to show when a disease is cured or eradicated. Once a disease is cured, the cure marker is placed with the eradication sign facing down on the Cure indicator spot on the game board. When all corresponding colored cubes are removed from the board, the disease is eradicated and the cure marker can be flipped to reveal its eradication sign.

 There are four cure markers that corresponds to the four different diseases in Pandemic.

Infection rate marker and Outbreaks marker dsc_0592

The infection rate marker and outbreaks marker are placed on the meters on the board to help the players keep track of the number of times there have been outbreaks and the number of times the infection rate has increased (equivalent to the number of times an epidemic card has been drawn).

Even though they both get the job done, it’s not very visualizing. In, for example, Hanabi players remove tokens to reveal a shorter and shorter fuse and once an explosion is revealed the game is over. I’m not a very imaginative person, but I would love it if the at least the outbreak marker countdown could be something a bit more relatable.

There is one Infection rate marker and one Outbreaks marker in Pandemic. 

Research stations

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The research stations are small white buildings that players can use for faster travel and curing diseases.

Please see our house rules for a possibility to change the difficulty setting with research stations.

 There are six research stations in Pandemic.

Last stand

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The Last stand was created using pieces from the game, as presented above.

A final note

This has been said in several reviews before, but seeing as the solution might be component related, we feel that we want to touch upon it as well.

There is a risk when playing Pandemic that one of the players will be taking the lead by telling others what to do. This makes the game into a puzzle for one player, in which the other players have become drones for the leading player. This is not the purpose of Pandemic, or any cooperative game (that I know of). I do think that the risk of this happening is elevated due to the openness of information. All players reveal their cards and all information they are using to make their decisions is available for the other players. This allows players to assess the value of other players’ choices. If parts of the information used to make decisions would be hidden, I think this could be avoided.

House rules

#1 If the game is too hard at 6 (5) epidemic cards and too easy at 5 (4) epidemic cards, use research stations the same way as the quarantine specialist – no infections in cities that it connects to. If this becomes too easy, reduce the total number of research stations in the game.

#2 This also makes the game easier but can’t be combined with #1:

If a player is in a city connected to a research station all disease cubes in that city can be treated with one action. For the medic, no action is needed to treat all of the diseases in the city she is in.

Version

Pandemic – Second edition – Scandinavian version

Publisher: Z-man games

Possible product identification number: ZMG7100FI

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14 thoughts on “Pandemic

  1. Very interesting to find that the game was originally designed to run with a set number of pawns rather than adjusting to the number of players.
    Personally I tend to only play Pandemic Solo these days if at all and so I guess I’m kind of just going back to the original design, lol. The reason for this, as you’ve mentioned is the idea of an alpha player taking control.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the problem is that it’s so easy to slip into the alpha player role in a game like this, where as you say all the information is open. They’re not trying to take over much of the time but are simply trying to win just as you are. Lately we’ve been playing the Ghostbusters game which is also cooperative and with open information between the players but just the added fact of the dice rolls adds enough uncertainty that there isn’t a “right” answer for the alpha player to point out.
        Anyway great review, very deep and thorough.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely, I don’t blame people for being alpha players. I have probably been acting like one myself a few times.

        We are going to do an article series (as suggested by Eamon over at board game design forum) about different components and how they are used in different games. I would love to do an article about how different cooperative games go about to reduce the risk of alpha players. I’m gonna make sure to take a look at Ghostbusters when I do that. 🙂

        Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The first paragraph that you call “impersonal and emotionless”, is a great part of this article! As it is about the components, leading off with a colder “just the parts and what they are made of” description of the game, kicks it off in what could be your own style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      I would love to be able to do this for all blogs. I’m afraid we’re gonna run into a bit of an issue with games that actually are abstract as we will actually be describing the game. 🙂

      This time it felt somewhat natural thanks to the presentation that we received before-hand. But it might not be a perfect fit for every review. We’re gonna try though!

      Hopefully the reviews will be more analytical after this as well.

      Thanks again! I really appreciate all of your input.

      Like

    1. Thank you!

      You’re really missing out, though! I was a bit sceptic when I was re-introduced to board games after years of playing Monopoly, Risk and a Trivial pursuit form the 80’s that my parents had in their basement. It’s become my favorite hobby. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been playing Pandemic Legacy recently, which adds far more story to the original game (it is played over 12 months) where the effects of one game, Outbreaks, building research stations etc have an affect on later games. It even comes with dossiers full of new rules to be added throughout the game a certain months, and small black boxes that add new components.
    It is a great game, we introduced a house rule to stop quarter-backing (or alpha players as you call it) that in a players turn, no one speaks until that player has outlined their plan of action, and will ask the others to agree or disagree before any discussion is had.
    The single best thing about this game though in my opinion, and it does something very different to what video games are capable of is its representation, there is a very even split between male and female roles, of all ethnicities (especially when you have some of the expansions).

    Liked by 1 person

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