Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Pandemic, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In our previous entry we looked at the box contents of Z-Man Games' 2-4 player co-operative board game, Pandemic.  Now we're going to look at how the game plays, and then give the run down on Games & Tea's opinion of the experience.
The players are dealt their opening hands and randomly assigned their characters, being given their character cards and matching pawns, which are then placed in Atlanta along with one of the Research Stations.  Atlanta is the home of the Centre for Disease Control, so this is certainly a nice little touch by the creators of Pandemic.
Now the pawns are ready to go, the top cards in the Infection Draw Pile are flipped to see which cities start off infected, and then it's time for the players to wade in and deal with the situation!
In their turn the player may take four actions.  These actions include moving, removing a Disease Cube from their city, building a Research Station, giving/receiving a card from another player, or curing a disease.  In order to cure a disease a player must have 5 Player Cards of the same colour in their hand, and then discard them in a city with a Research Station.  Seeing as the only way to win the game is to cure all four diseases it may seem logical to rush out collecting cards and try to cure everything as quick as possible, but this may not be the best option.  The key to Pandemic is to work as a team and use each character's special ability to the full.  The Scientist only requires 4 Player Cards to cure a disease, whereas the Medic only requires a single action to remove all Disease Cubes from a city.  So it may be in your best interests to have the Scientist finding the cures whilst the Medic plays at damage control.  After all there's only one way to win at Pandemic, but there are plenty of ways to lose...
Each city can only have a maximum of three cubes of each colour on its space.  If a fourth cube were to be placed then an Outbreak occurs (see below), and one cube of that colour is instead placed on each connected city.  For example, in the above picture Milan is already infect with three blue Disease Cubes.  Instead of receiving another, Essen, Paris and Istanbul would each receive a blue cube instead.  If Paris were already infected with three cubes then the knock-on effect would result in London, Madrid and Algiers also receiving a cube, and Essen receiving another.  It's easy to see how the game can quickly spiral out of control if no one is mopping up the infections.  If at any point a player needs to place a Disease Cube on a city and there are no cubes left of the required colour then it's game over - your team has lost control of the disease and it's curtains for humanity.
Each time an Outbreak occurs, the Outbreak Marker is moved one place down the indicator track.  If the marker ever reaches the skull and crossed-bones at the bottom of the track then (you've guessed it!) it's game over.  Your team has failed to contain the outbreaks, and humanity is lost.
The final phase of each player's turn is to draw two cards from the Player Draw pile, and then infect more cities from the Infection Draw pile.  If ever the Player Draw pile is depleted then, once more, the game is over.  This event is very unlikely, however, and this rule seems more to be there to answer the question of "What happens if we run out of Player Cards?"
So that's Pandemic in a nutshell.  A slow trek across the globe, attempting to gather the resources needed to cure these four mystery diseases before they wipe out our entire way of life.  Time to see what we thought of it...
The Good Points
  • Many of these specialist games are based on a 'winner takes all' mentality.  As such it's nice to play a co-operative game where everyone must work towards a group victory.
  • The random assignment of the characters prevents regular players from becoming complacent with one character's special abilities, keeping the game feeling fresh across multiple playthroughs.
  • The 'difficulty setting' option provided by the Epidemic Cards allows even seasoned players to give themselves a challenge.  And though it's not in the instructions, struggling players can reduce the Epidemic Card count to 3 whilst they try to get their bearings.
The Bad Points
  • The Infection Cards are printed on textured card, and will start to get dog-eared very quickly.  An investment in card sleeves would be recommended, or else some very careful shuffling.
  • The difficulty of the game is heavily influenced by the number of players (see below).
Recommended Number of Players: 3 (4 if you're a team of masochists)
Although advertised as a 2-4 player game, Pandemic suffers from a design oversight in terms of player numbers.  Whilst many games have special tweaks to their rules for more or less players, Pandemic plays with the same rules regardless.  As a result, 2 player games of Pandemic are incredibly easy, and will almost always result in a victory for the players.  4 player games, on the other hand, are fiendishly difficult, even on the easiest 'setting'.  In the dozen 4 player games we've played at Games & Tea, we've never cured more than one of the four diseases.  As a result, the game seems to be pretty much designed for exactly 3 players.
Average Game Time: 60 minutes
An average game of Pandemic seems to be around an hour, regardless of player numbers.  The pace of the game is dictated by the Infection Cards, and as these are flipped after each individual player's turn they set a fairly standard game time.
Replay Value: High
As mentioned, the randomised characters keeps the game fresh for repeat visits.  With 3 player it's enough of  a challenge to keep you on your toes, and even in its near-impossible 4 player state you'll still find yourself drawn back to try and beat it once and for all!
The Future: Bright
Pandemic already has two available expansions; On The Brink and In The LabOn The Brink introduces new rules, new character types, new diseases, and a bioterrorist option which allows one player to compete against the others.  In The Lab adds a new dimension to the game by taking you inside the labs to take samples, test cures and sequence diseases.  We hope to be able to review both of these expansions at Games & Tea in the future.
Price: £30
Pandemic will burn a hole roughly the size of £30 in your pocket.  This is average fare for a specialist board game, and you certainly don't feel like you've been cheated.  Due to its popularity it's very easy to track down in specialist game shops, but does tend to sell out around holidays and Christmas.  Although the internet is once again an option, bear in mind the shipping costs a decent-sized board game will come with.
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Monday, 3 June 2013

Pandemic, Part 1: Box Contents

This week Games & Tea are going to be looking at Z-Man Games' Pandemic, a co-operative board game for 2-4 players.  In you must work together to find the cures for four deadly diseases which have broken out worldwide, the game ending when either all diseases are cured or the human race is lost!

Pandemic was released in 2008, and since then a newer 2013 edition has been released, featuring new box art and extra character types.  In our review we'll be looking at the 2008 original.
We established in our previous post that part 1 of any board game review would cover the contents of the box and what those pieces represent, so let's take a look at what you'll find when you open up your copy of Pandemic.

The Pandemic board is a map of the world, with 48 major cities highlighted.  The cities are split into four different colours to represent the four diseases.  At the top of the board are the Infection Draw/Discard Piles and the Infection Rate Track - these dictate the spread and severity of the outbreaks throughout the game.  In the bottom-left corner is the Outbreak Indicator, which keeps track of how well the players are keeping these diseases under control.  In the centre of the lower board you'll find the Cures Discovered Area, which shows which diseases have been cured, eradicated, or not yet dealt with.  To the right of here you'll find the Player Draw/Discard Pile, from which the players take cards at the end of their turns.  In the very lower-right corner you'll find an Order Of Play summary, just in case you ever need a reminder of the turn order.
The 48 cities are connected by red lines.  These lines are the paths the players may take to move from one city to the next, but when a disease reaches it's maximum level in any city these red lines are also the paths upon which they move on to infect other cities.
Whilst Pandemic is for 2-4 players, there are 5 different characters, and these are assigned randomly at the beginning of the game.  The extra character allows a certain random element, so that 4 player games aren't always the same.  The characters in the game are the Operations Expert, the Dispatcher, the Medic, the Researcher, and the Scientist, and each is represented by a wooden pawn in the colour of their card.  During each turn in Pandemic the players have a selection of actions they may take, and each character has their own special abilities which must be used effectively if your team is going to succeed in their mission.
The four diseases in the game are simply represented by small wooden cubes of the appropriate colour.  There are 24 of each, and when a disease hits a city 1-3 blocks will be places on that city's space.
In order to cure the diseases the players must get their characters to a Research Station.  These are represented by 6 Monopoly-style wooden buildings, and can be placed in any city around the world in the right circumstances.  As well as providing a cure location, these can also be used as fast-travel points, to help the characters hop across the globe more effectively.
The Infection Cards determine the spread of the diseases.  This deck consists of 48 cards, so there is one card for each city, and every time the top card(s) are revealed from the deck, those cities gain an extra Disease Cube of their appropriate colour.
The Player Cards are used to form each player's hand.  Like the Infection Cards, there is one for each city on the board, but these serve multiple purposes.  The Player Cards can be used to fast-travel between cities, build Research Stations, and most importantly to cure the diseases.  As well as the 48 cities, the Player Card deck includes 5 Special Event Cards, which will be invaluable throughout the course of the game.  These include actions such as building a Research Station in any city the player chooses, or removing a city from the Infection Deck.  There is one more type of card which resides in the Player Deck...
...the Epidemic Cards.  Whenever an Epidemic Card is revealed from the Player Deck the Infection Rate increases, a random city is infected, and the discarded Infection Cards are placed back on top of the Infection Deck.  This means that the same cities are constantly being infected, and the game can quickly spiral out of control once an Epidemic Card rears its ugly head.
There are 6 Epidemic Cards in the box, and the players can choose to begin with 4-6 of them in the Player Deck, depending on the challenge they wish to set for themselves.
Now we've seen the contents of Pandemic, it's time to see how the game plays and to give it the all-important Games & Tea final score!  Come back for Part 2 to find out what we thought!