Late Review is a feature where we take another look at trusty (and sometimes dusty) old games we have locked away in the games cupboard.
“Can you save humanity?” It asks politely on the box, showing your good-looking medical team striking heroic poses as if they were on a blockbuster movie poster. A tent-pole film, $100 million+ budget, slinky special effects, in which the whole world is absolutely fucked. At least it is when we play it, nine-out-of-ten times.
Pandemic is a game for people who are unhinged, or have serious hero complexes. For people who want to share in a wallowing sense of failure as the game kicks your ass over and over again. For people knocking back lighter fluid like a cement mixer because the vodka has run out and the alcoholic despair won’t go away.
It’s a game that – if it were alive – would let out a visceral gut laugh as it convinces you that you are going to win, right before revealing that it had already won and was merely humouring you as you stumble towards your demise. It’s the Emperor Palpatine of games.
I hate Pandemic.
I also love it.
Because, after all the heartbreak, the tears, the communal sadness that comes in defeat, the euphoria you experience when you actually win is unlike pretty much any other game I have played. It’s a shared catharsis: a fist pump moment. “We beat Pandemic!” we would scream. And then, because we are idiots, we’d say “let’s play on a harder difficulty.”
Pandemic is a co-operative game, meaning that rather than playing against others, you play against the game itself. It’s a welcome change of pace, particularly if you only know overly-competitive people who are the kind of jerks that laugh at you when they beat you: the bastards who know how to torture you in Monopoly at Christmas, wafting their sprouty, stale, meaty breath at your tired face as you try desperately to find humility while wearing a knackered paper hat.
…after all the heartbreak, the tears, the communal sadness that comes in defeat, the euphoria you experience when you actually win is unlike pretty much any other game I have played.
It’s breathtakingly simple in execution. There’s a lovely illustrated map of the world with cities on it that are about to become riddled with enough contagion to make World War Z look like a primary school assembly.
The setup is simple: infect several cities with colour coded mini-cubes that represent one of four different diseases you must work to cure. You cure diseases by collecting city cards that you draw each turn – when you have 5 of each colour, you can go to a research centre and cure it. While this is going on, the game is laughing at you.
Cities are infected every turn, and every now and again the game deals you an epidemic where it infects a new city to its maximum level before shuffling your already infected cities back in to the draw deck, ready to be re-infected. As this goes on, it gets harder to fire-fight the various infections popping up, and more cities can be infected.
And it’s still laughing at you. Why? Because when cities that have the maximum three cubes get infected, they outbreak, spreading new cubes to connected cities. If those cities are at their maximum three cubes, then they outbreak as well! 8 outbreaks and you are fucked. Run out of cards before all of the diseases are cured and you are fucked. Run out of disease cubes and you are fucked. Basically, you’re fucked, most of the time.
There are a few boons to lure you into a false sense of security, like a duvet posing as body armour in a firefight. Event cards disrupt the spread of diseases, or allow you to build research stations without spending actions – the in game currency of doing stuff. Different team members have different abilities, and choosing the right team is the difference between suffering from a cold at a 5-star rated hospital and trying out experimental surgery in an abattoir.
The culmination of team abilities, haggling over which cities to move to, the luck of the draw and the frequency of epidemics is what makes Pandemic infinitely replayable. The only way it could be better is if there was some sort of campaign version of it where you could self-harm on a regular basis with new challenges…
Oh, they did that. Bastards.
Pandemic is a cooperative board game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Z-Man Games in 2007.