With the tagline "Can you save humanity?" adorning the cover of its recent printings, Pandemic is a game that lets you know it's not fucking around before you even open the box.

Cooperative games (a genre previously discussed here with Castle Panic and Elder Sign) need two things to have any chance of being good: Robust interaction and discussion between players and intense moments of suspense. Pandemic delivers those in droves, no surprise when you consider its designer, Matt Leacock, has made his day job living designing interactive environments for companies likes Yahoo!, AOL, Apple and Sococo. With Pandemic, that suspense is heightened by the fact you're not really escaping reality: You're looking at a map of the world, that world is slowly dying right in front of your eyes, and you're hanging on by a thread at hopes of saving it.

Hope your shots are up to date. It's time to play Pandemic.

Game: Pandemic
Players: 1 to 4
Gametime: 45 to 75 minutes
Designer: Matt Leacock (USA)
Key Mechanics: Cooperative play, action point allowance, set collection

Story: The world is sick — in the literal sense this time. Not one, not two, but four different diseases are currently wreaking havoc on the entire globe. It's now up to an elite team to travel the globe, curing what they can while trying to research and develop cures to the diseases before it is too late.

What do you do? To start off, players are given a role card. There are seven different roles a player can have, each having a special ability in regards to movement, sharing cards, healing, or so on. The players, along with a research station, begin the game located in Atlanta (mimicking the actual location of the Centers for Disease Control). The game's two decks of cards, the player deck and the infection deck, are shuffled. Each player is dealt some cards out of the player deck, then some cards are drawn from infection deck that notes which of the 48 cities on the game board start off with varying levels of disease. Now you're ready to play.

Let's talk about the player deck. It contains three kinds of cards: First, each city on the board has a corresponding card in the deck, which can be used for transportation or finding disease cures. The second type of cards are special action card which offer super-awesome one-time use actions like building new research stations for free or not having to add infections to the board on a turn. The third kind of card are epidemic cards, which are fucking horrible and pretty much derail any plans you make.

So, on a player's turn, they receive four actions to use. The action options are:

  • Moving to another city. This can be done by either traveling from one city to an adjacent city, discard a card from your hand to either travel to the city on the card or out of it, or by moving from one city to a research station with another.
  • Build a research station. This is done by discarding the card of the city your player is currently in.
  • Treat disease. You can spend an action to remove one infection cube from the city your player is currently in.
  • Share knowledge. If you and another player are in the same city, you can exchange the card of that city from each other's hands.
  • Discover a cure. If you have five cards of the same color in your hand AND you're in a city with a research station, you can discard those five cards to successfully a cure for that color disease. This is good in several ways. First, curing disease is how you win the game. Second, that treat disease action will now wipe out all the cubes in a city instead of one, and if you eliminate all the cubes of a color off the board, that disease is eradicated and won't come back.

Because oh yeah, as you're working to get rid of disease, the game keeps adding more disease onto the board. That's courtesy of the infection deck. After a player uses their actions and draws two cards off the player deck, cards are drawn off the infection deck. Whatever city is revealed on the card has a disease cube added to it. This starts off being two cards at the beginning of the game, but can increase to three or even four cards as more of the Epidemic cards are drawn from the player deck.

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Ah yes, the Epidemic cards. Let's talk about these fucking assholes. Every time you draw an Epidemic card, three very bad things happen. First, the infection rate track goes up by one, meaning you may have to draw more cards from the infection deck on subsequent turns. Second, the card on the bottom of the infection deck is revealed and has three disease cubes placed on it. Finally — and this is the groan-inducer — all the infection deck cards that have already been revealed are reshuffled AND THEN PLACED BACK ON TOP OF THE FUCKING INFECTION DECK, WHICH MEANS CITIES THAT PROBABLY ALREADY HAVE DISEASE ARE GOING TO GET MORE DISEASE.

Why's that bad? Because of outbreaks. If a city already has three cubes of a disease and has to add a fourth, an outbreak occurs, which means EVERY CITY CONNECTED TO IT gets a disease cube. And if one of those cities had three cubes already as well, it also outbreaks, meaning one outbreak can trigger a massive chain reaction of suck.

Believe it or not, this actually makes it fun. I swear.

How to taste sweet, sweet victory: There's only one way to win Pandemic: successfully cure all four diseases. There are three ways to lose Pandemic: Either go through the entire player deck before all the diseases are cured (there's no reshuffle), run out of cubes of any of the four diseases to place, or have eight outbreaks occur.

So, what makes this game awesome?

  • Drama. Good cooperative games have a lot of tension. When you're at risk of a chain reaction of outbreaks, or you're waiting for the one card you need to be ready to cure a disease, there's serious tension as cards are revealed.
  • There can be major swings in who is "winning" the game: The players or the game. The players can be in a solid position, then get hammered with a couple of epidemic cards in rapid succession that turns a part of the board into a festering pool of disease threatening to outbreak. Similarly, the players getting the right card to get a disease cured can provide a faint glimmer of hope before the game inevitably crushes it again.
  • Like many co-ops, Pandemic has optional levels of difficulty. In this case, less experienced groups can use fewer Epidemic cards in the player desk. Sadistics bastards can use all six.

Variety is the spice of life: Pandemic has two official expansions, called On The Brink and In the Lab. I haven't played either one, so I can't comment on what they add to the game. Sorry.

Other ways to play: Pandemic is available as an app on iOS for $6.99.

See it in action: Pandemic was featured in Season 1 of Tabletop.

Board Games With OB, is somewhat profane feature where OregonBeast gets a board game he likes and briefly explains how to play it and hopes you would be interested in playing it, too. Because board games are fucking awesome.

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Previous Board Games With OB:[Takenoko] [Snake Oil] [Tsuro] [Dixit] [The Resistance] [Hey, That's My Fish!] [Ticket To Ride] [Survive: Escape From Atlantis] [Castle Panic] [Small World] [Qwirkle] [Elder Sign] [Carcassonne] [Jaipur] [Tokaido] [Blokus] [Puerto Rico] [Love Letter] [Can't Stop] [The Red Dragon Inn] [Dominion] [King of Tokyo]

Images via BoardGameGeek