Matt Leacock’s Pandemic is one of those touchstone games that changes the entire landscape of gaming. In this case, it ushered in a new genre – the cooperative game. While there had been co-op games prior to Pandemic, the simple mechanics and intriguing theme brought this type of game to a larger audience. The game has sold thousands of copies over the years since its initial release, but how is it as a game?
Pandemic allows 2 to 4 players to take on roles of disease fighters with the CDC as they travel around the world in search of cures for 4 deadly diseases. The game is fully cooperative: that is, all the players work together against the game and win or lose as a team. The game can also be played solitaire by one player controlling multiple characters.
How to Battle a Pandemic
Pandemic’s board is a map of the world divided into different regions corresponding to the continents. Major cities are shown with pathways connecting them. The game begins with all players present in Atlanta, U.S.A., home of the Centers for Disease Control. From there they will need to spread out and cover the globe as they battle to keep outbreaks of four deadly diseases under control.
The game controls the diseases, which are represented on the board by different colored cubes. A deck of city cards is used to determine where outbreaks begin and spread. Semi-randomly inserted Epidemic cards will trigger major outbreaks of diseases and ramp up the speed and severity of the spreading diseases. If too many major outbreaks occur, the player will lose the game. They can also lose if one of the four diseases spreads so far that there are no cubes of that disease left when one needs to be placed on the board.
The players need to ultimately cure all four diseases before the game defeats them. They accomplish this by collecting five cards of the disease’s color and taking a cure action while at a research station. However, the players will spend much of their time trying to contain the diseases. Each player has 4 actions to perform on their turn. These actions allow players to move to adjacent cities, take a plane to anywhere on the board if they have the proper city cards in hand, trade cards with their colleagues in the same city, build additional research stations, and remove disease cubes from their current location. At the end of their turn a player draws two cards from the player’s deck to replenish their hand. Each player’s character possesses a special ability that can be used during their turn, making each role unique.
The deck of player’s cards contains a number of special events that can help the players out in a pinch. The players really need to work together as a team or things will so very bad very quickly. Outbreaks cascade into adjacent areas and a situation that looks under control one turn can spiral into defeat the next.
The Expanding World of Pandemic
The incredible success of Pandemic created a brand of its own. There are expansions for the original game that, among other options, allow for a one vs many bio-terrorist game. But beyond just expansions, Matt Leacock’s creation spawned a series of stand-alone versions. There are legacy versions that change the game with each play and tell an ongoing story. Pandemic ventured into the realm of H.P. Lovecraft with Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, which casts the players as investigators attempting to stave off the coming of a terrible Great Old One. Pandemic: Rising Tide is set in the Netherlands and players are trying to prevent destructive flooding. Pandemic: Iberia is set in the 19th century and features real diseases that must be cured. The Hot Zone games offer the Pandemic experience in a portable, faster way, concentrating on either Europe or North America. In these variants, only 3 diseases need to be cured for players to win the game.
The Pandemic game family has also ventured into the realm of licensed intellectual property with World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These versions are not like the myriad Monopoly licensed games, where only the names of the properties and the player tokens are changed from the basic game. The Pandemic licensed games use the basic engine to power a unique game that captures the essence of the source material.
Perhaps the most interesting Pandemic game so far is Pandemic: Fall of Rome. This game takes place in the late Roman Empire, where players are struggling to defend the Empire from numerous barbarian tribes closing in from all sides. Players deploy Legions to slow down the invaders. What makes this game so fascinating is that it is not only a Pandemic game, but also a light wargame. Combat is resolved through the roll of a special die, and this adds an element of uncertainty to the game, as players may lose Legions at critical times. Pandemic: Fall of Rome illustrates the versatility of the basic Pandemic engine and bodes well for future releases in the line.
A quick note should be made of the subject matter of the game and its relation to real life events. The game was originally released in 2008, over a decade prior to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Some gamers may be leery about the theme due to personal experiences, which is completely understandable. In these cases, they may not want to play the original game. Fortunately, due to the expansion of the line, there are many choices with different themes that all provide the experience of the original game.
Matt Leacock’s original creation made a major impact on the boardgaming world. It popularized the cooperative genre, spawned an entire line of stand-alone games, and inspired other designers with its unique mechanics. Pandemic is a seminal game that should be in every gamer’s collection, whether in its original form or one of its many successful offshoots.