“CAN YOU SAVE HUMANITY?” demands the front cover of Zman Games’ hugely popular Pandemic, which casts you and your friends as scientists, disease experts and various other clever bods teaming up to stop a string of deadly viruses melting the world’s population into grisly pools of gloop. The gentle way the eerie, translucent disease cubes start to spread across the board might initially lead you to think you’ll nail this medical emergency lark at the first attempt. You would be wrong.
Here’s how it goes. Players draw cards each turn with world cities on and use them to zoom round the globe in an attempt to quell emerging sickness hotspots. Stamping out individual occurrences of the four viruses is a slow process, but collect five cities from the same world region and you can trade them in to cure a strain once and for all, rapidly increasing the pace you can send its cubes packing. Hurrah!
Here’s the bad news – these small pockets of lurgy can suddenly burst into terrifying outbreaks thanks to trap-like epidemic cards secreted inside a second, evil city deck – the INFECTION DECK. Players also have to draw several of these each turn to represent diseases popping up in new places, but turning over an epidemic causes all hell to break loose. Here’s Gavin enjoying the full force of that moment. Not pictured – the rest of us all screaming at him:
An epidemic causes cubes to plop into an unlucky city drawn from the infection deck – if it already has three cubes of that colour then instead of adding more the virus breaks out into ALL connected cities, creating a massive problem for the already stretched players. Cities which have already been drawn from the infection deck then get put back ON TOP, meaning those which have previously been hit by disease are more likely to get another cube, which could cause another outbreak, which infects further cities and, well, you get the picture. These surprise assaults form the core of a simple but extremely tense game mechanic – hold your cards and work towards curing all four diseases and you win, but fail to respond to small, scattered outbreaks while you do so and they can suddenly escalate into game-ending chain reactions which devastate entire continents. Need just two more turns to get someone to Tokyo to complete a cure? Then you can guarantee the dreaded epidemic card will arrive to throw your plans into chaos. Here’s what happens when we left Paris alone for FIVE GOD DAMN MINUTES while we quickly treated the disease elsewhere:
Players can switch cards with each other to help complete sets and launch a cure, but only if they both make it to the city on the card they want to swap. The easiest way to do that is to discard the card and fly there – but then you don’t have the card to exchange any more. As such each player’s turn is rife with people clamouring to suggest places to meet up, possible route plans and ideas for who should tackle which virus – and all the while the clock is ticking. Suffer too many outbreaks? You lose. Let a disease take such a hold that you run out of its cubes? You lose. Take too long and draw through the whole city deck before hitting four cures? YOU LOSE. In the half-dozen games we played last weekend we lost basically every way imaginable, and still kept coming back for more.
Pandemic is frequently touted as a superb introduction to the new generation of board games which have sprung up in the past twenty years, and it’s easy to see why. No enormous, complicated rulebooks here, with the few pages of glossy, full-colour instructions clear enough to let you jump straight into a game. People who have woken in a cold- sweat remembering nightmare seven-hour grinds of Risk can rest easy – one way or another you’ll be done with an individual game in about 45 minutes, and more than likely want to launch straight into another. Worried that board games are too expensive? This can be yours for just £25 my friend. Your team wins or loses together, so strategy chat is all out in the open and everyone is included. All the players’ characters have distinct skills, and it’s amazing how proud you can become of your individual’s talent as they fly round the world protecting cities or researching antibodies. Here’s me being the ultra-cool Dispatcher, who can fling other players round the board with abandon. Look at that sexy glowing keyboard!
It also means you all have a specialised job you’ll need to make the best of if the team is going to succeed. And succeed you will! After some understandably car-crash early games we soon progressed to adding more epidemic cards, and eventually began ruling out certain combinations of characters once we felt they were too easy to win with.
And therein lies my one slight concern: longevity. Perhaps it was because we played so many times in quick succession, but by the last I felt we all had a fairly decent grasp of what moves we needed to make to win, despite the randomised starting nature of the diseases. We still have a sixth epidemic card to add which will obviously up the stakes, but I do fear our group is already approaching the need for a bigger fix if the game is going to see continued repeat play. Luckily Z-Man have anticipated this demand with no less than TWO expansions, one of which lets a single player wreak havoc by going up against the others as a nefarious ‘bioterrorist’.
You should buy this game. If you’ve never touched a board game in your life, this is a perfect, lively and fun way to start. If you’re a seasoned pro used to hugely complicated decision-making and rulebooks the size of a piano, well, this is a great palate-cleanser or warm-up for a big day of play. And if you’re looking for something to kick meandering family staples like Monopoly off the table, this is absolutely the way to go. Imagine unwrapping this on Christmas morning and knowing the post-dinner lull is a thing of the past. And you know what else? We’re playing again tonight. Now where did I leave my lab coat?
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