But I don’t want to take any cards
When you talk cooperative games to gamers, the first example from many players is Matt Leacock’s Pandemic.
It’s joked to be such a wonderful, team building experience – the world is dying thanks to the outbreak of four virulent viruses, and your 1-4 player team (usually at least 2) has to save the world. No pressure at all.
Games of Pandemic can get tense, but usually only in a good way. Trying to decide how four people can take on the massive task of curing four disease outbreaks is stressful.
But you don’t do it alone – you work with your team. There is no single winner – the team succeeds, or the team fails. There are not a huge variety of actions and strategies to keep in mind either, so it is a game you can teach in just a few minutes and refine as you play.
There are many games described as ‘Pandemic Like’, including the Forbidden series from the same creator – Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Sky. Pandemic itself has turned into a new yearly game thanks to the survival series tournaments. But this is the game that started it all.
When you see Pandemic setup for the first time, it can look incredibly daunting. Piles of cards and heaps of little cubes surround a stylised world map (that still forgets places like New Zealand and Alaska!).
But that is part of the magic of Pandemic – there are a number of steps, but each step has very simple choices or clear instructions to follow.
Your goal is simple – cure the four diseases currently rampaging all over the world. You do not need to get all of the cubes off the board, just find the four cures – this is something that sometimes gets confused. But while the goal is simple, the strategies for achieving this goal are not always as straightforward.
The first thing I do when teaching Pandemic though is break down the three steps each player turn consists of – usually as I take the first turn.
Step 1 – Player Turn
On their turn, a player uses four action points to try and find cures or treat the sick. Each Basic or Special Action costs a point, so it’s all a long way of saying you can do four actions. It is easier to remember the things that don’t cost an action point than try to hit home the actions that do.
The basic actions deal with movement. You can Drive (or Ferry) to the next town connected by a line. You can discard a city card to fly directly to that city (e.g. Discard Atlanta to fly from anywhere to Atlanta). If you discard the card of the city you are in, you can Charter a flight to anywhere in the world. Lastly, you can Shuttle between two Research Stations without discarding any cards.
Technically you can also pass as a basic action, but generally I avoid this as an action by teaching that players can take up to four actions on their turn. While I am not alone in this method, this is the most common ‘house rule’ I have heard complaints about, even though it is not technically changing any rules.
The Special Actions are the ones that will need to be carried out to win the game. The most common is Treating Disease, that allows the player to remove one infection cube per action from the city they are in.
If players can remove all of the infection cubes from a disease that is cured, that disease is considered eradicated and infection cards no longer have any effect. Infection cards will be explained later as they are drawn at the end of a players turn.
Another action that is used is Building a Research Station. These are important as they can become movement hubs as shown above, and are also required to Discover a Cure.
The next special action is Sharing Knowledge. When two players are in a city, the active player can give or take the card of that city to the other player once per action. You usually want to share cards around for the big action – Discover A Cure.
The ultimate goal of Pandemic, to Discover A Cure you simply hand in 5 of the same coloured cards as the disease you want to cure at any Research Station. Now, I say simply, but Pandemic has a 7 card hand limit, so it takes a lot of luck and management to get five in your hand!
With one exception – Event Cards – this is all a player can do on their turn. Each individual action is simple enough, but when you first look at a Pandemic board it can still feel overwhelming. Knowing what you can do isn’t the same as playing, but I will talk about how I usually manage this later.
Step 2 – Drawing Cards
Drawing cards seems simple. Once you have used your four actions, draw 2 player cards from the deck. This is where you will get new city cards, and if you are lucky some Special Event Cards.
The Special Event Cards are the player actions that universally break the Action Point rules. To a degree, they can be played at any time with no action point cost. The only time they can’t play Special Event cards is when they are in the third Infection step, so it’s a little timing to learn.
Special Events are generally powerful, but not always obviously so. One Quiet Night allows you to skip one Infection step, or Forecast lets you see the next 6 cards in the Infection Deck. Airlift allows you to move a character to another location for free, which has allowed me that crucial extra action many times.
The hardest thing to remember is you always have a 7 card hand limit. Unlike many games, you don’t draw up and then discard. If you have 7 cards in your hand before you draw, you have to discard one card before you can draw the second card – no looking ahead to decide with!
The exception to this rule are the Special Event Cards – you can play them during this time instead of discarding them.
The cards that change everything though is the random cards in the deck known as Epidemics. These are the cards that at best just make things harder, at worst can lose you the game.
Like most parts of Pandemic, and Epidemic has some simple steps and are all printed on the card.
Firstly, you increase the Infection Rate – you now put out more infection cubes each turn.
Secondly, take the card at the bottom of the infection deck, and place 3 cubes on it. There would never have been any cubes beforehand.
Lastly, shuffle the cards that have been shown already and place them on top of the deck. This is the part that makes Epidemics so dangerous.
Each city that has already been infected is now queued up to be infected again. Areas you thought were clear now run the risk of becoming hotspots. Hotspots you thought left as a calculated risk can now come back to bite you.
It’s amazing how quickly this changes the game. While you know the cities under threat as they have already been played, you now have to juggle the odds and decide which cities are safe and which you may just have to accept is going to hurt soon.
Either way, if you pulled an Epidemic card or not, the final player phase begins.
Step 3 – Infection
While the Epidemic cards can set up catastrophe, the Infection Deck is where all the bad things come to pass.
Draw one at a time a number of infection cards up to the Infection Rate. This starts at 2 but can increase quickly. For each city shown, place one infection cube of that cities colour.
The only reprieve is if you have eradicated a virus – that colour becomes a ‘dud draw’ and gives you much needed breathing space.
If you need to place a fourth cube of any one colour, this starts an Outbreak. This is where things go from bad to worse quickly, as a chain reaction of infection begins.
When an Outbreak occurs, increase the Outbreak counter and then place one infection cube in each connected city to where the fourth cube was added.
This can lead to other towns having a fourth cube added as well, causing further Outbreaks. The worst case we have had was chained four Outbreaks in a single turn, turning the game from doing OK to instant loss. Hence, draw a card and lose! Speaking of losing…
How to Win / Lose at Pandemic
As mentioned, winning is simple – cure all four diseases.
Losing though, well that’s even easier.
You will lose if any of the below conditions are met:
- You cannot place a required infection cube onto the board
- You cannot draw a player card in Step 2 (Note – running out of cards doesn’t end the game, just not being able to draw any!)
- The Outbreak Marker reaches the 8th Outbreak.
It may sound like Pandemic is easy to lose, and honestly, it is. But the feeling of satisfaction when you win is outstanding! One of my favourite endings to a game of Pandemic is watching new players exclaiming they won. Not because of the victory, even though it is deserved. It is almost always ‘We Won’ rather than ‘I Won’ at Pandemic, and I love the camaraderie that builds.
So who would want to play Pandemic?
Well, a whole lot of people. Forgetting about the huge number of spin-off games and the annual world championships, Pandemic is one of my go-to games if a group wants to learn board games.
Pandemic was a game that popularised a fairly common board game mechanic today – cooperative gaming. Put some new players down around a Pandemic board, and instead of the winner being the one that catches on the quickest or had the luckiest draw everyone wins or loses. Each player has an equal chance of helping the table win, not just themselves.
Because Pandemic is a game of cooperation, each player can ‘play’ each character turn at all times. The best games of Pandemic are the ones where the table actively talks about and plans actions, and adapts when the cards change those plans.
To help with this, each character has a special rule-breaking power. The Medic, for example, can treat (remove) all the cubes of one colour in a single action in their location.
The Dispatcher can help move other characters to where they need to be by moving others on their turn. The Scientist only needs 4 cards instead of 5 to Discover a Cure, and so on.
For a family games night, an ice-breaker with strangers, or even a great challenge for veterans – Pandemic is a game that will always be in easy reach on my shelf.
Pandemic changes with you
A gripe I hear from a lot of ‘veteran gamers’ is that Pandemic is just too easy. This is true, but in my opinion only to a degree. When I ask a lot of these players why it is so easy, it soon comes to light that they only play one set of characters on a usually lower difficulty.
The quickest way I have found to change the challenge is randomly assigning characters from the 7 available choices. Some players (like in many games) get comfortable with a specific character, race or class and this forces a change in thinking. It doesn’t detract from the game though, as collectively the table will be helping each other. So a player with more experience with the Quarantine Specialist will usually point out where powers could be better utilised.
The difficulty in Pandemic can be increased by adding more Epidemic cards to the deck. This means that players have less time to set up, and also means that fewer cities get hit with infection much harder.
Combine the two, and you have many games before you to try and ‘solve’ every possible combination!
But something little known to even some Pandemic veterans is you can have new game modes without buying expansions to the base game.
Available for free from the Z-Man website, there are free scenarios that can be played for a similar yet vastly different experience. To be fair though, for Scenario 2 you do need an expansion if you have more than 3 players, so keep that in mind.
While the game is played the same, preset character configurations and some changes to the board (such as some cities no longer exist) change the flow of the game drastically, and all it costs is a print out if you want to leave it in the box.
Pandemic is also great for finding out who NOT to play with
Quarterbacking is a term people would have heard me use. It’s when one player (usually the loudest and/or angriest) shouts down everyone else and tries to control the game. They are the ones that claim sole victory if there is a win, and blame everyone else for not listening during a loss.
That’s why I tend to use cooperative games as a litmus test for new players to a board game group, especially if they know the game. Do you really want to play with people like that? If someone tries to take over a game like Pandemic and doesn’t listen to or help others, they tend to not be invited back.
Did you say Spin Off’s and World Championships?
Yep. Pandemic Survival Series has been an international competition for a number of years now, with many countries competing. In 2018, the Netherlands took the cup in Italy.
But the championship itself has been only part of the draw. There is a much more selfish reason the Pandemic world watches these events. Over the last few years, Matt Leacock has worked with a game designer from the host country to create a new game experience.
Each game shares many core Pandemic concepts but adds something unique. Pandemic: Iberia took place in the 1800s and introduced railways. Pandemic: Rising Tide replaces diseases with fending off the rising waters around The Netherlands. Pandemic: Fall of Rome has you facing various armies trying to take advantage of a weakened Rome.
And that’s just the ‘official’ championship games. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has you exploring Arkham and stopping various Lovecraftian dangers.
But if you are interested though, the first game series I tried a few years ago was Pandemic Legacy Season 1. The first game is the most ‘Pandemic’ like though, so if you wanted to have a watch you can see it on the YouTube channel.
But 10 years later (11 now technically?) Pandemic is not only still being played, but still being improved upon. Not many games reach this status, and Pandemic definitely earned its spot as a modern gaming classic in my opinion.
Until next time,
What can I say – I love Pandemic. As a cooperative game, it’s great for introducing new players to the hobby. Having everything open is a great way for everyone to learn the game, and the shared victory and lose conditions puts everyone on equal footing.
Yes, quarterbacking can be a problem. Having the loudest person run the game can destroy the experience for people. But to blame Pandemic for this isn’t fair, that is very much a player thing.
But it’s been 10 years, and I will still happily play the base Pandemic and pull it off the shelf to teach others over a lot of newer games. And for that achievement, Pandemic has earned first confirmed 10 rating from JohnHQLD.com.
- Game that can scale with player experience
- Great medium weight game to show players new to gaming
- Cooperative nature of the game makes even tense games social
- More experienced players would not have the same challenge
- Quarterbacking and similar behaviour can put off new players