Doug's Dungeon - Pandemic
Double doors slam open as the scientist charges down the hall. She turns the corner into a cacophony of blaring sirens and monitors clouded in warning signals. Jim, the contingency planner with streams of sweat on his brow, snaps his attention to her.
“Have you got anything?” He barks. His eyes are exuding twin emotions of hope and despair. The woman replies as best she can over the noise
“I have… something. The cure is nearly complete but I need to get to South America for the last pieces of data.”
“I can’t help” Jims voice faltering “The helicopter I managed to hold on to just lifted Hobbes to Russia. If we don’t contain there then-” He cut himself off. Noticing a blue glowing button on one of the keyboards littering the desk, he presses it. “Thavic, what is it? What’s wrong?”
There’s a pause, the static of the call wrestling with the alarm bells
“There’s been an outbreak in Algiers…. Africa…. consumed, and it’s sprea-*crackle* to Europe. The viruses -*bzzz*- mingling… We’re… we’re done” Somewhere far away, the man from the call turns off his walkie-talkie, throws his hat to the ground, and drops to his knees. Now is the fall of humanity.
Yep, that’s me; the guy in the cool hi-vis vest falling into despair. You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation. Well it all started when some friends and I sat down to play a game of Pandemic.This fortnight at the ol’ Hobbymaster Ellerslie, the boardgame theme is ‘Heroes’. So I thought this would be a great game to chat about.
“But Doug!” I hear the critical reader reply, “Pandemic is about viruses, not the Avengers line-up!”
Listen mate. I’ll have you know that not all heroes walk around in capes and purposefully-easy-to-draw lycra suits. Some heroes wear hard hats, and carry a walkie-talkie. These are the heroes you take on the role as in Pandemic, a game about saving the world (which is what heroes do).
Opening the box and laying out the pieces finds us looking at a world map, 2 decks of cards, character cards and tokens, some little white research centres, some ‘cure’ vial tokens and four piles of coloured cubes. The game is set up with the players all situated in Atlanta, with a research station on it and some randomly chosen locations on the board covered in cubes. The cubes represent the presence of each of the four viruses, which start out in the regions of the same colour as them. Make no mistake, however. This is certainly not a restriction to them.
The game plays out as a co-operative turn-based survival horror, where each turn a player works to find a cure for the viruses, while the viruses themselves continue spreading throughout the world. A player can spend their four actions moving between linked locations, flying between locations by discarding location cards, or fight viruses around them. Each action needs to be carefully plotted out as time is of the essence, and any inefficiencies on the player’s part can mean death to the world.
There are a whole lot of mechanics at play in this game. First off, each location on the map has an associated card in the ‘infection’ deck and the ‘player’ deck. As a player’s turn ends, they draw cards from the player deck, which are needed to find cures and used for quick travel (additionally, there are some cool ability cards mixed in here too). After that, cards are revealed from the infection deck, which add a virus cube to the board for each location shown. Once a location has 3 cubes of a colour and tries to add more, an ‘outbreak’ occurs! This makes the virus spill over into neighboring locations, adding a cube to all of THEM instead!
2 spooky 4 you yet? Well we’re not done. If one of those hapless neighbors is already at 3 cubes when the outbreak hits it, it too has an outbreak! This process continues as long as there are connected locations that have not yet had an outbreak go critical mass and explode cubes. Another thing to mention is that when eight outbreaks occur, the game ends in a loss. So yeah.
But let’s back up. Once a given infection card is drawn, no more cubes can be added to it’s location right? Since the card is gone right? RIGHT? Mmmmmmm I haven't been entirely straight with you. You see, the player deck also has these cards in it called ‘epidemics’. When a player draws one of these, they shuffle the discarded infection cards and put them back on top of the infection deck. Bare in mind, this occurs BEFORE infection cards are drawn for the turn. This means that the locations that will be drawn this turn are very likely to be already infected zones, depending on how aggressively the players have been removing cubes. Additionally, each epidemic card begins forcing more infection cards to be drawn each turn, in case you were thinking of getting comfortable in your new diseased life.
These Epidemic cards serve as the game’s difficulty setting. There are 6 of them, however only 4 are needed for the ‘easy’ mode, adding more to make the game harder from there. The term ‘easy mode’ is a bit of a misnomer here because, well, this game is friggin hard.
Don’t stay on top of clearing 3-cubed locations?
Death, by outbreaks. You lose.
Didn’t clear ANY of the yellow cubes and now there aren’t enough to place from the supply?
Death, by overwhelming virus. You lose.
Used up all the cards in the player deck and have no more to draw?
Death, by time itself. Lose.
Hell, you may find there are not even enough cards of a certain colour left to generate one of the cures!
Death, by poor resource management. Lose.
Pandemic is a wondrously crafted experience that hates you and everything you stand for. So how do you beat it? The aim of the game is to find a cure for all four of the viruses. This is done by having a player have 5 location cards of the desired colour in their hand and spend an action at a research centre constructing the cure (centres that you can spend your location cards building). You even get a nifty beaker token on the board to show it off and be proud! Cures are good, because each one brings you closer to winning AAAAND allows players to clear away more cubes. Normally you spend an action to remove one cube in your location, but if you have the cure you can clear them all! This is also a relevant time to mention that if, at any time, all of a colours cubes disappear, that virus becomes ERADICATED! ERADICATED viruses can’t come back, and infection cards in their colour have no effect.
The different player characters are their own basket of boglins. Each player is assigned a random character card with unique abilities. For example, the scientist only needs 4 cards of a colour in their hand to discover a cure. It’s a nifty ability that almost covers up the fact she chose to wear a lab coat and invest in a translucent phone that looks like it’ll break by putting it in your pocket. YAWWWWWN. White-lab-coat-clad scientists in virus-related situations are such an overplayed fashion trope. The medic pulls through here, wearing standard military desert camo. That way, he blends in with the surroundings, so the sick won’t be able to come find him. This is good, because the viruses won’t be expecting it when he removes all their cubes in a single action (as is his ability). SHWAMP. VACCINATED. Also when your team is armed with a cure, he can sweep through eradicating viruses without needing to spend actions yadda yadda yadda
BUT LET’S TALK ABOUT THE OPERATIONS EXPERT!
No messing around. This man watched the PPE safety video until it was ingrained into his mind, and is now one with his hard hat and high vis vest. Always cuts AWAY from himself with the box-cutter, and cuts once so no cardboard gets in the food. No workplace accidents are going to occur within a 5 mile radius of this man, no sir. Top that off with his magic walkie talkie that lets him summon, and I mean summon with arcane magics, a research centre out of thin air right on his location. This normally requires having the corresponding city card, but not this wizard. Oh and I guess I forgot to mention that players can travel freely between research centres as though they were connected locations. So what I’m saying is the operations expert is a construction wizard that creates magic cure-generating portals throughout the world.
You’d think that with all these nifty extra abilities and ‘action shortcuts’ you’d have no problem, but you’d be oh so wrong. Every single action taken needs to be well thought out, and many come with costs to your resources. There are only so many city cards in the player deck, and abusing abilities that consume them will too often lose you the game. Unlike other co-operative game experiences I’ve had in the past, this one has that little something extra. Uncertainty. Sometimes when players work together in titles similar to pandemic in mechanics (e.g. Forbidden Island), a ‘hivemind’ is formed.
In hivemind gameplay, the best decision is discovered for a situation by any player, and it is acted on without discussion. In such scenarios, one could take on the role of multiple players and see little change to the gameplay. But here, a single misstep could mean your collective doom. This makes players apprehensive to take risks or to take actions they do not agree on. The more players you have, the more disagreements. While the active player has final say on actions, Pandemic immerses you into what a real world super virus would do. It will test your collective resolve. It will make you panic. It will stress you out. People will break down into arguments. Pandemic asks the group if they can co-ordinate their thought processes to avoid all pitfalls, and come out with all of the cures, despite their differences.
Pandemic knows you are a series of brains working together to make good decisions. That’s why it’s so hard. The challenges we face in the world as a species, right now, exist BECAUSE our collective minds have such deviations. We bicker over minor details; we extrapolate data in different directions. Pandemic offers us a chance to practice, even in some small way, our communication skills. You want to go to Australia to eradicate the virus? Okay, show your working. Use facts and logic to help the other players see your side of the argument and maybe, just maybe, some of the kangaroos will survive.
Pandemic also offers a bunch of expansions I haven't even looked at (but are stocked by Hobbymaster… just sayin’), so I’ll get to them another time. So that’ll be it for now guys. Thanks for reading and for heaven’s sake, remember to wear your protective gear. You might just save your life, or literally everyone’s.
I'm an avid lover of all things table top. I also have a growing collection of board games which inspire me to create my own. I put my loud and expressive personality to good use as a dungeon master for my friends, having run many campaigns through 4th and 5th edition D&D.