Pandemic is a co-operative game, where you work together (see, co-operative) to try and cure all diseases in the world.
I’d first heard about Pandemic on the YouTube show TableTop, but finally got the chance to play about 18 months ago. In my first game, I found it difficult to get my head around the ‘co-operative’ aspect. I was given some cards, and held them as I would in any competitive game – secretly. Then I saw everyone else had theirs on the table… Knowing that I would be playing with another group of friends a few weeks later, I came away from the game saying “Now I have some experience, I can pretend I’m new… no wait, that makes no sense at all…”
It was a big shift for me, having played mostly competitive games and occasionally team competitive games. In this game, everyone is working together, you win or lose together, there’s no degrees of winning and there’s no possible blame. You can’t lose the game because one person screwed up as it is entirely strategy based and the strategy is discussed heavily by all players. In some ways, the distinction of each player’s turn is blurred since everyone’s turn will be planned by the whole team. Sometimes, you can feel like your turn is not your own because you didn’t have any input, or the other players came up with a better idea for your turn. But on the other hand, the other players will be getting the same from you.
The introduction that I had to the game was “this is the board. These are all the ways that you lose.” Basically, if the epidemic tracker gets to 8, you lose. If the escalation track gets to the end, you lose. If you run out of disease counters and you need more, you lose. And there’s a time limit too, if you run out of player cards you lose. Each player draws two cards every turn, so there’s a limit to how long you can go for.
Every player gets a different role, which gives special abilities to the team. Things like making card trades easier (you can usually only trade a city card if both players are in the same place, and that place matches the city). I think all roles have some utility, although in the case of the Contingency Planner, some games may not see their ability being used.
Depending on the mix of roles a game could go very quickly. One four-player game I was in cured a disease in the first turn. In another game, the placement of diseases made the epidemic tracker advance much too quickly and we lost very fast. Even without that, the time limit does keep the playing time down and it’s a good one to bring out at a games night. Sometimes, you can win by the skin of your teeth, or get really tense moments when you have to drop your plan to be able to keep the team from losing, because someone drew an unfortunately timed Epidemic card.
It’s a great game, and after two rounds you can easily turn into an expert (that is, I turned into an ‘expert’), expounding the virtues of one role over another. It’s quite a complex game made of little, simple bits that interact in a great way. I’ve more than once been in the position of a team working out the next few moves for everyone, and have the discussion of several alternative plans become so in-depth that we forget whose turn it is right now. Being able to discuss strategy around the table is a great change to the games I normally play – I am used to making moves in DreadBall that I hope my opponent either doesn’t think about or doesn’t understand, and trying to analyse my opponent’s moves in the privacy of my own head to work out what their plan may be. In Pandemic, you need to talk to everyone to be able to win at all. It’s wonderfully refreshing to get people to solve a problem together and come up with a plan. It’s even better when that plan comes to fruition – all three or four players analysing, discussing, deliberating and then executing a successful battle plan. I really like the feeling you get when, as a team, you can cure off a disease and get a bit closer to winning.
The biggest problem I can find with the game is that of the “alpha-gamer” problem. I have been lucky enough to play with gamers and smart people, so everyone had a part to play in the game. But as I already said, sometimes you can feel like your turn has been played for you and for people who are not as strategically minded as most gamers are you might end up a spectator and just be doing what you are told. The other is that the game is for a maximum of four players. There is a five-player expansion somewhere, but we haven’t been able to play that version. I don’t think it will scale well to more than five players, since each additional player means that as a team, you have more special abilities – some of which are incredibly powerful – and more cards in your collective hands (maximum of seven per player). The Researcher and Scientist combination is brilliant, since the Researcher can trade cards so easily and the Scientist doesn’t need so many cards to cure a disease. Having more cards is better, because with two players you need to focus on a single disease at a time, and might have to run around to treat diseases before getting back to curing. With three or four, it’s possible for each player to collect cards for different diseases, or leave one player to mop up diseases and prevent epidemics while the others cure them. The co-operative nature of the game, and working as a well-oiled team (even the occasional Aquaman), really appealed to me and I’ll definitely try to bring this to a games night in the future (with two friends owning it, I can probably get away without buying it myself). I’ll be on the lookout for more co-operative games to try out in the future, as it’s a very nice feeling that everyone wins or everyone loses together.