This past weekend was my first time playing Matt Leacock’s Pandemic, and I think right now it may be my favorite new tabletop game.
The premise of Pandemic is that four killer diseases have broken out in different parts of the globe. The (2-4) players are the specialized CDC team that must work together to keep the spread of the diseases in check while simultaneously developing the corresponding cures. Each player takes on a “role” at the beginning of the game that gives special abilities and advantages that can benefit the team’s overall efforts.
The game is played on a map of the world (like Risk), with little wooden cubes representing the diseases and their spread. Using a deck of game cards, players spend their turns moving their individual pawns to various major cities all over the globe, treating sick populations, building research laboratories, meeting other players to exchange information, and discovering cures. After each player’s turn, he or she plays a turn for the “infector,” which basically means placing disease cubes on the board according to some fairly straightforward rules to simulate the spread of the diseases.
The most enjoyable thing about the game is that (unlike Risk) you are collaborating with, not competing against, the other players; the only enemy is the game. It actually felt a lot of the time like we were sitting in a meeting (a super-fun, high-energy meeting with friends), and in that way it really approached what I’ve enjoyed so much about playing GURPS or other roleplaying-type games in the past. We talked about what needed to be done and who was most suited to carry out specific tasks, and we gave each other assignments. When the epidemic hit, and disease broke out in Paris, all of us were in it together; and when disease was eradicated in Africa and South America, it was a victory for everyone. In the end we actually failed to save the world, but I’d never enjoyed losing a game quite so much. It was refreshing for the four of us to walk away from the game table with absolutely no hard feelings.
Since one of our players was severely jetlagged, and anxious to get to bed, we were pleased that the estimated game time printed on the outside of the box (45 minutes) wasn’t too far off the mark; the four of us learned and played Pandemic in a little over an hour.
Add to all this the fact that it is a fairly affordable game ($27, including shipping, from amazon.com, or, if you can’t wait, about $35 from your local game store) and it’s hard not to recommend Pandemic, even after playing only once.
Now, take that for what it’s worth. How well Pandemic holds up as players get more experienced is definitely a concern; I have one friend who says he and his wife never lose anymore now that they’ve got a good strategy figured out between them. It should be noted, though, that the game can be played at three different levels of difficulty in order to at least keep with the initial learning curve. Also, I understand that the Pandemic expansion is up for release in the next month or two, which supposedly will offer a number of new challenges for further replayability.
For first-time players, I would suggest that you don’t over-study the instructions before starting. The game manual is well-designed to be used during gameplay while players are still learning the ropes, walking you step-by-step through the game setup and player turns. There are a number of rules and components to figure out, but most of these come together a lot better once you’re playing than they do as theoretical pre-game abstractions.
I also recommend each player coming up with a name to go along with their role (e.g., the Medic = “Dr. Vivian Rothe” or the Operations Expert = “Col. Marcus J. Lee). No, this isn’t how we played it, but the roleplayer in me feels like things could so easily be that much better:
LEE: Dr. Rothe, it would be useful if you could meet me in Algiers to exchange information about this European strain.
ROTHE: Of course, Colonel. I’ll catch a shuttle flight as soon as I’ve finished administering our treatments in Bogota.
Yeah, that would be so cool.
And that is all I have to say about that.
My grade: A-