It’s post-Christmas time, which means time for the unwrapping, playing and reviewing of presents. This year we received Pandemic and its expansion On the Brink, and couldn’t wait to crack it open.
Pandemic is a co-operative game where you play as 2-4 infection specialists aiming to stem and cure 4 simultaeneous epidemics raging across the globe. Incidentally, I have imagined Pandemic to be Difficulty levels can be adjusted, so that you can get a challenging experience regardless of how well-versed you are in the game. For veterans to the game, the expansion On the Brink brings a whole slew of variable vectors and options to the game, guaranteeing you the fight for your life.
But let’s start with the easy stuff first: Unboxing! Made by Z-Man Games, Pandemic comes in a relatively small box, which I appreciate because a lot of the boardgames out there seem to just pack in air. Not so for this game, which feels pretty weighty. In the box you’ve got a foldable board, 96 infection counters, assorted player pieces and counters, and most tellingly, an 8-page manual that is literally all you need to learn the game.
Pandemic is a wonderfully difficult game that is played with wonderfully simple rules. You have 4 diseases that is ravaging the earth. You have to find the cures for each disease (via collecting cards of the same colour. A point to note: more players may actually make the game more difficult, since it’s more difficult to collect cards of the same colour) while simultaneously ensuring that the diseases don’t run rampant. Each player has 4 actions on their turn to travel around the globe or to cure members of the population. Each player also assumes a different role with different benefits: be it the Medic that is capable of curing swathes of the population at one time, or the Scientist that requires less cards to find the cure.
That doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels though: each time a player’s turn ends, the infection spreads, which means there’s never a moment where you can catch your breath. How does the infection spread? After every player turn 2-4 cards are drawn from the infection pile, determining where the infection grows. If the infected populace in a city grows too much, an outbreak occurs, infecting every adjacent city instead. And if an epidemic occurs you shuffle in all the infection cards back into the top of the deck again, which means… yes… all the infected cities will be reinfected, and your efforts have come to naught.
As mentioned before: the rules are beautifully elegant for a game of this frightening difficulty. You could literally learn the rules in about 10 minutes (maybe even 5 if you’re an experienced boardgamer); the difficulty comes in all the lose conditions. You only have 1 win condition (find all the cures), while the lose conditions are plentiful. Running out of disease tokens, running out of player cards to draw, experiencing too many outbreaks, all are paths to defeat. And let me tell you, when you see chain outbreaks occurring and a particular disease exploding across the map, it is easy to lose your head and panic.
If you find the main game too easy (say whaaaaat??), On the Brink brings a new spin to the game, together with some shiny new toys and the option for a fifth player. Considering it’s almost as large as the original game box, it’s quite a few shiny new toys. As a guy with a bio background, what I loved the most were the petri dishes to hold the infection counters, but you also have a lot more roles, a lot more player counters, as well as cards and rules for a fifth disease.
The options really change the game up. With the virulent strain variant one particular disease becomes more lethal (either more difficult to cure, more infectious, etc). The mutation variant involves a fifth disease that threatens the world, and the bioterrorist variant has one player being the enemy with everyone else trying to stop him. The game is just as elegant, with each variant usually explained in 1-2 pages. The Bioterrorist variant is the exception though, needing more than 5 pages of explanations. Understandable, since it’s the most divergent variant out there.
The new player roles available in the expansion also increase options and learning experiences to game veterans. I’d recommend the basic roles to most starting players though: they’re a lot easier to understand and to use well.
The expansion still keeps what I love about the game though. It’s not something you NEED to use, but if you’re interested in a herculean battle against the diseases, by all means break out the variants. All in all Pandemic has elegant rules, scaleable difficulty and is always a challenge. Add that to a fun and strategic co-op game means that its a game that I will play and replay multiple times.