Viral Victory: A Pandemic Review

by Corey Whelen
4 September 2019

2-4 Players, ~30 Minutes, Medium Complexity, High Strategy

Congratulations! It’s your first day working at the World Health Organization, where you’ll be studying illness, researching cures, and SAVING THE WORLD! Let’s start with that last one, actually. Four new virulent diseases are ravaging the planet, and it’s up to your team of super scientists and doctors to stop them before it turns into a global PANDEMIC! That’s right, we’re reviewing the modern classic, the granddaddy of co-op games, the sickness-smashing, disease-dueling, illness-eradicating game of strategy and stress!

Pandemic Board Game Layout for Critic's Corner Review
It's a small world for a big virus...

Pandemic might be familiar to you if you’ve been in a game store recently; with three expansions, two spinoffs, four variants, and a tenth anniversary edition that comes in a metal medical kit, it’s been a power player in the board game industry since it hit the scene in 2008. One follow-up, Pandemic Legacy, is considered one of the greatest board games ever, ranking second on BoardGameGeek.com. It’s easy to see why, even 11 years after its initial release. Pandemic enraptures new players from the minute it hits the table. The board is beautiful, presenting a light blue map of the world (à la Risk) reminiscent of computer simulation from a summer blockbuster. Your objective lays before you and the stakes are immediately obvious. “Protect this planet!!” the game screams, and with so many helpful player aids, you feel more than up to the task.

Learning Pandemic is incredibly simple for the same reason it’s such a fantastic gateway game for getting new players into the hobby- it’s entirely cooperative. Experienced players will guide newer ones, or everyone will stumble through their first game together. Either way, they’re playing against the game itself, which doesn’t pull any punches. Pandemic presents its players with a clever puzzle full of difficult choices and pain-staking priorities.

Pandemic Board Game Card Example for Critic's Corner Review
What better time to brush up on your Geography than while saving the world?

Gameplay itself is simple and based around two decks of city cards. Players will collect one set of cards, and if one player can discard five cards of the same colour while at a research station, they cure the disease of the same colour- do that four times (with different colours) and you’ve won! At the end of their turn, players draw cards from the “other” deck to act on behalf of the game. The second (evil) deck causes diseases to spread, and you add a colourful disease cube to every city you draw. If you ever need to add a cube to a city that already has 3 cubes, it’s bad news- an outbreak occurs, and a cube goes on every surrounding city instead. This can lead to some pretty horrifying chain reactions where things spiral out of control in an instant. The worst part is that the discarded cards from this deck are periodically shuffled and placed back on top of the deck, meaning the same cities are going to be under assault for the whole game, making natural “hot zones” for the diseases to thrive, raising the stakes, forcing players to prioritize, and putting the tension levels through the roof. Players even receive different roles with special powers, like the Dispatcher who can move other players around the globe, and the Quarantine Specialist, who can stop disease from entering certain cities. This small detail gives players a sense of urgency, immersion, and a unique role on this elite disease-fighting team.

Pandemic Board Game Layout for Critic's Corner Review
Orange and white need to meet in Kolkata to trade cards- but do they have time with the red disease looming in Asia?

There’s a lot more depth to these systems then I can get into here, but they’re fantastically clever and surprisingly unforgiving. Pandemic puts up a good fight against inexperienced rookies and seasoned veterans, and a lot of games will end in defeat for the players. Victories are hard fought, well-deserved, and often very, VERY, close. It’s rewarding! It’s engaging. It’s educational, and most importantly, it’s FUN. If you’ve never played Pandemic before, absolutely give it a shot. Much like a viral infection, this game just keeps spreading…

Disclaimer: Game not sold by Outset Media