Viral is a game with an interesting concept. In terms of theme, much like Pandemic, it pits humans against viruses in a battle for supremacy, but instead of working together to overcome disease, you are the disease.
Players take on the role of one of several different types of viruses (color coded of course), that are ravaging through the human body, attempting to reign supreme over the faceless person the board represents. An area control game, you’ll play cards and manipulate the board in an attempt to have supremacy and in some cases, complete control over certain systems and organs within those systems.
On its face, Viral is a fairly standard, if not particularly complicated, area control game, but combined with the integration of theme and the clever ways it manages to keep the game moving quickly, it’s an interesting take on the genre.
How Viral Plays
In Viral, you are one of five potential viruses attempting to gain VPs (NOT victory points, but viral points…get it?). You do this by controlling different zones of the body – each of which consists of one or more organs. The brain for example is a single zone, while the heart consists of both the left and right sides. Zones have between 1-3 locations in them, depending on the part of the body, and they are all connected to each other by a series of one-way arteries, allowing you to move around.
Every round, during the second step, you will evaluate who is in control of a particular zone and that player will receive VPs and their research track will advance accordingly. That last part sounds like a good thing, but it actually represents doctors working on the faceless human you’re trying to infect, getting closer to finding a treatment to your infection.
Once you reach the top space of the research track, all of your virus tokens will come off the board. This sounds cruddy, but it actually keeps the game flowing smoothly and will happen to every player an almost equal number of times. It’s managing when and how it happens that will be a big part of how you play the game.
The game takes place over six rounds, during which each player will play four cards. You’ll pick a zone card and a mutation card – the latter of which will act on that particular zone for your turn. Each mutation card has a number of different actions on it, which you can perform in any order – you might attack other players, move your virus, or take other instant actions to affect the game board.
The event card will be visible throughout this, and then will activate in step three so you can prepare for it. These can be good or bad depending on how you prepare for them, so don’t get too carried away with a strategy that you can’t fully plan for.
Viral is a quick game – the box says 60-90 minutes, but each of my plays were closer to the one hour mark. Teaching the game takes all of 5-10 minutes, and the flow of the game is intuitive – it’s a great example of how a complex genre of game like area control can be boiled down to a mid-level game that is accessible to a wider audience. Which makes it odd to me some of the design and presentation ideas behind the game.
What We Like About Viral
Viral does what a game like Blood Rage does, but in a package that costs half as much and takes half as long to play. In terms of ruleset and complexity, it’s a much more accessible game than other area control games that take a similar approach to the genre.
Does it revolutionize how area control works or introduce groundbreaking new concepts into the hobby? Not really, but what it does, it does very well – it’s a polished, accessible, and to learn and teach game. It’s rare that I review a game that didn’t have at least one or two players scratching their head during initial play throughs. It’s the nature of board games – not everything clicks for everyone. But Viral avoided this problem and people were able to jump right into the thick of the game, as if they’d played it a dozen times before.
The hand-building component of the game, combined with the research track that forces you to plan your moves carefully within a window that will eventually force your virus tokens off the board, makes for interesting strategic decisions. At the same time, players are presented with a limited number of options each turn, keeping the decision making process short and sweet – exactly what you want from a game of this weight.
What We Don’t Like About Viral
Much of what I said above could be pasted down here. This is a perfectly accessible, well implemented and polished game, but it doesn’t do anything unique or different in the space that would make it a go-to area control game for me.
The theme in particular I find to be unpleasant, as did several players at the table each time I played it. That’s not a knock against the game anymore than for those who don’t like the idea of a global pandemic in Pandemic or slavery and colonization in Puerto Rico – but where those games abstract their themes to focus on gameplay, Viral puts it right in your face. From a cartoonish representation of the body on the board to splatters of color on the cards, it’s a lot to take in if you’re not a fan of the theme, which some people won’t be. Bring it to a public game night with caution. That said, Viral does a fantastic job of integrating mechanic with theme – if you do like the theme, this whole paragraph could easily go in the section above.
There are other, real issues with Viral as well. The rulebook can be at times unclear, especially for a game that is relatively simple. Once you learn it, it flows easily, but the first play can be more complicated than needed. The nature of the events and player cards can also lead to a bit more chaos than you might like in your area control games – in a five player game, you may have all of your efforts undone before scoring, negating an entire round. It’s par for the course in an area control game, but is amplified in a short, family-oriented game like this.
Player count is an important note as well. The box says 2-5 players, but five players is tight and feels more chaotic than it should, and two requires a dummy player, The game is really a 3-4 player game in most circumstances, so keep this in mind for your game group.
The Bottom Line
Viral is a good game – a distillation of the area control genre that works as a quick, 60-90 minute game for 3-4 players. It does some clever things with the research track and hand management, and while it suffers from a fair bit of randomness in the early game and can be tight and unforgiving at higher player counts, the strategic elements fit this game nicely.
If you don’t like the theme, and you can determine that with a quick glimpse of the board or the pictures in this article, I don’t recommend the game, however. This is not an abstract take on disease in the human body – it’s well integrated with the theme and while that is a plus for many, it’s a point worth mentioning as a potential issue for some. I haven’t altered my score based on this as a factor, but feel it’s important to reiterate for those who aren’t a fan of the presentation.