Pandemic Review: Saving the world from super bugs since 2007
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
You and your team of colleagues from the Center for Disease Control may be the world's last best hope. There are four incredibly deadly viruses spreading around the globe. You must work together traveling around the world to prevent further outbreaks by treating the diseases and eventually finding the cures. You must prepare and anticipate the next city that will endure an epidemic or the world may not be able to survive the next infection.
Pandemic is the 2007 cooperative classic that has cemented itself as a modern classic in the board gaming community. It has aged incredibly well and the theme continues to be relevant in our world with the discovery of new fast spreading super viruses every few years. The latest epidemic has people finding catharsis in a mobile game in which they can save the world from the spread of disease. So slather on the Vick's vapor rub and chug your cough syrup*, get a group of friends together, dose them with sanitizer and find catharsis being the expert team that saves the world from the latest super viral threat.
Pandemic comes in the digital variety as well, with ports to mobile phones game consoles and computers, but some of the best fun is packed into the cooperative nature of the game and saving the world across the table from your friends.
In this game, up to four players work together to prevent the spread of four viruses. Then each round is one players turn. The player that goes first is the one who has most recently been (cough, cough) sick. That player will take four actions, draw two cards from the player deck, then play the role of the diseases and infect more cities by placing disease cubes. Players win as a team if they can find the cure to all four diseases (more on this later). They will lose if they have now more diseases cubes to put on the board, run out of player cards or there are 8 outbreaks over the course of the game. With that in mind, you are ready to play Pandemic!
Because it's a fully cooperative game, cards can be kept open handed so players can see and communicate about what their plans are. Most cards from the player deck have a city and a color on them. If any one player has five cards of the same color, they can cure the disease that matches that color by heading to a research station or back to the CDC in Atlanta. After all four diseases have been cured, you have won! The world is finally disease-free (let's see the real CDC do that), well, at least until you setup a new game and have to reinfect the entire globe once again.
Pandemic's cooperative nature makes it easy to ask questions and discuss strategy openly around the table. What's so beautiful about the cooperation and simplicity of the rules is that teaching a game to a group of new players takes only a couple minutes. The other rule complexities and exceptions can be covered during gameplay which is great for both impatient gamers and people new to the hobby.
One of the best things about Pandemic is how well balanced the gameplay is. Having played this so often over the years, I can tell you that most games come down to the wire so you feel like the world was just about to succumb to the plagues. When you win, it feels like you were only a round or two away from failure and when you lose, you think "if only we had a couple more turns!"
Let's take a closer look at Pandemic using the (far from) P.E.R.F.E.C.T.E.D. review system.
Play time (How long are you at the table?)
Play is fast paced after the first couple rounds and most four player games can easily be finished in under an hour.
Ease of Play (Are the rules clear and easy to follow? Is play intuitive?)
If you are brand new to cooperative games with variable player powers (role abilities) and action counters, it may take a little getting used to but once you've player a couple of games, Pandemic should feel very natural as the rules make sense both thematically and procedurally.
Replayability* (Is this a game that you will be able to play over and over?)
I have personally replayed this game more than any other in my collection mainly because it is so quick to setup and easy to teach. The challenging puzzles the game presents with the starting locations for diseases being randomized and trying to win with the various role combinations, allows for a varied experience over many play throughs.
Additionally, the base game comes with nine different roles. Each player gets a role which gives them certain skills that are unique allowing them to face the challenges with a new ability. Additionally, you can mix in more of the epidemic cards, which cause outbreaks in new cities, for a greater challenge. The introductory game starts with four and as you get more experienced you can take on the Herculean challenge of six epidemics!
Focus Audience (Who is this game for?)
This can feel like a family weight game but I've seen "serious" gamers thoroughly enjoy this especially when there is a mix of experiences amongst the players. The scalable difficulty is a huge asset here. As for age, the box says ages 8+, but I have heard from friends who have played with their 6 years olds. While there is some reading involved, with a little help, even some of the younger kids in your home might enjoy this one. It can also be played a single player great for your next self-quarantined sick day.
Essential Strategy (What strategies/tactics does the game use?)
The cities that are infected at the beginning of the game will be recurring problems but the order of each city will be randomized. Because of this, you will need to start planning in order to anticipate what might happen next. The strategy here is to work together to optimize every player's turn while trying to think a few turns ahead.
I should mention here that this game can have what is often referred to as an "alpha gamer" problem, which is where one person at the table tells everyone else what to do. Most of my play time did not have this issue but it will obviously vary from one game group to another.
Complexity (How easy is it to learn and play?)
This is one of my favorite games to teach to people new to modern board games. The quick rule explanation followed by getting right into the gameplay is great for those who are hands-on learners and for those who need to see concrete examples to understand a game. Given that players are working together there will be lots of opportunities to remind the table of any rules that players have questions about.
Theme (Is the theme applicable to gameplay?)
The theme really shines in Pandemic. Every role you play and the actions you take remind you of the game's theme and game play is inextricably tied to working together to cure these viruses and/or prevent their spread. If you want a cooperative game that feels a little bit like the classic board game Risk, Pandemic might be a great option. Obviously, in Pandemic you will be fighting against the world domination of disease instead of your friend Steve amassing an army in Australia.
Economical (Price and Value)
Typically running around $40, this game has a decent price tag given it's replay value. However I can understand some baulking at the price tag especially if you are trying it for the first time and are new to the hobby. Personally, I would say when it occasionally goes on sale for around $30, it's a no brainer.
Design (Quality of artwork, iconography and components)
The artwork and components in the game are great, but what really stands out is the iconography. The colors and the icons in the game make it very easy to interpret cards at a glance. The board itself gives you plenty of room to move your player pieces and place virus cubes. A nice touch is that the board will get very claustrophobic when there are three cubes on a city edging a little more tension into the game.
The Botton Line
Pandemic is one of the best coop games out there and will work for a variety of gaming groups. It's puzzle-y, strategic feel will keep you entertained over many repeated plays. The next time you reach for a cough drop, you may find yourself pulling out Pandemic as well. So if you've ever wanted save the world from the all it's super viruses, get a group of (symptom-free) friends together and to spend the next hour facing the compelling challenges of curing the world's most deadly diseases.
It should be mentioned that if you like the base game of Pandemic, it's popularity has lead to excellent expansions and different flavors (Pandemic with another theme) of the game. If saving the world from viruses isn't your thing, I'd recommend checking out Fall of Rome or Reign of Cthulhu and if you want a similar game to Pandemic with more challenge, Iberia is worth a look. If you want to play in a campaign that adds story, new rules and roles, where your choices have long term consequences, Pandemic: Legacy is an immensely fun but highly challenging version of the game.
Easy to teach/learn
Great game for a wide variety of gamers
Excellent iconography, extremely easy to read the cards and the understand the situation with a glance at the board
Cooperative play leads to dynamic puzzle solving, communication and teamwork
Turns are quick and gameplay can be under an hour
Incredibly well balanced game, making each victory/loss feel like a close one
Theme shows through in ever part of the game
Highly replayable, especially with great expansions
Can be played solo or with up to four players
Can suffer from the "alpha gamer" problem leading to one player running the game and other players might disengage from gameplay
May not be strategically as deep as some coop games