Thursday, March 06, 2008


Pandemic has been on my want list since the day the blurb for it was posted. It's one of those games--like Dune, Khronos, or King of Siam--whose concept alone is enough to get me excited. And that excitement continues after 3 plays.

The components are top notch. The box is super sturdy, perhaps the thickness of Mission: Red Planet, but made of the same materials as more standard boardgames. The cards are thick and coated, but not sticky. They aren't cut as perfectly as playing cards, but they shuffle well enough. The board is smooth, almost glossy, but not plastic feeling. The bits are nice, if a little chunky for the playing surface. But other than setup (all players and a research station in Atlanta), there's rarely too much to handle in one location. I didn't get a look at the insert; it had been discarded before I arrived. I'll try my best to salvage it when I get my copy of the game. My only minor gripe is with the role cards. They all have a dark purple background with a small colored pawn making it a little difficult to tell who's who from across the table.

The system for the spread of diseases and Epidemics is inspired. One card per city in the player deck and the Infection deck: My intuition would have been that this wasn't enough. Putting the discard pile on top of the draw deck after each Epidemic: My intuition would have said this was too likely to leave much of the world untouched. But it all works very well, and keeps the tension high all the way through.

I would describe the infection system as semi-random. Cards are drawn from a shuffled deck, each causing a new disease cube to appear. If a 4th cube of a given color is to be placed, then a cube of that color is placed on each adjacent city instead. This is called an Outbreak and can potentially cause a chain reaction of Outbreaks.

However, at any given time, you do know things. There are 9 cards in the discard pile from the setup. As each card appears, it cannot be drawn again until after the next Epidemic. Once an Epidemic occurs, you know you will be drawing all the cards that were in the discard pile before you draw any new cards. Each Epidemic can only occur in a city whose card has never been drawn before (from the bottom of the deck). So it's a constrained kind of random. You can make plans, even beyond dealing with the current situation.

The 5 player roles (Medic, Scientist, Operations Expert, Researcher, Dispatcher) are all fun to play. In my 3rd game, I was the Dispatcher. His special ability is that he can move other players, and can also move any player to another player. My first thought was that it wouldn't be as fun because you are essentially letting other players do the important and/or fun stuff (treating/curing diseases). So very wrong! Being able to continually put people exactly where they need to be in order to use their respective abilities is a very fun part of the game. In fact, the Dispatcher role may be the one with the most cooperative nature since his use requires the most planning and agreement. I would play that role any time.

I would recommend Pandemic to anyone who doesn't vomit at the sight of wooden cubes. The copy I played tonight had already been played 9 times in its first week. In fact, Z-man sold out the first print run in less than a month! How often does that happen?

Pandemic image by clloyd09


At 12:40 PM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

I finally saw Pandemic at OrcCon a couple weeks ago, Eric Burgess was running a demo of it. I watched a game, then played a game, and later played another to teach it.

My first reaction to the game was that it was pretty good for a coop game - better than Lord of the Rings, and Shadows over Camelot - for a number of reasons:

* The theme is very strong, and connected to the gameplay. Some people complain that in SoC the card play doesn't feel like you're fighting a dragon or searching for the grail. In Pandemic, it really feels like disease is spreading, and that you're running around the country trying to treat and cure it.

* LotR and SoC have a sort of system, and once a group learns the system, it gets easier to win the game. SoC complicates this with the traitor, but it's still sort of true. In Pandemic there doesn't seem to be a system - the only way to get "better" at the game is to get better at teamwork. This is the first cooperative game I've played where I feel like that is true.

Unfortunately, there was one big downside I initially saw in Pandemic... it suffers from the same problem all cooperative games suffer from. it's solitaire. It's not even multi-player solitaire, just solitaire! To maximize chances of winning, it's in the players' best interest to (a) always reveal all the information they have, and (b) come up with 1 unified course of action. Because any 1 player can come up with a course of action, it's often the case that a single loud or stubborn player basically plays the game, while the rest of the players do nothing. In fact, while I played at OrcCon, a gentleman who had walked up and was watching ended up barking orders to the players.

In Pandemic, you're not supposed to show your cards, but you're allowed to discuss what's in your hand. Since reciting your cards is equivalent to showing them, it makes little sense to hide the information and then reveal it verbally over and over, and we were learning, so we played with our cards face up. This makes it easier for the "alpha gamer" in the group to sort of run the show - I was doing so despite trying not to!

After some discussion on BGG, it occurred to me that the point of the game isn't necessarily to have each player play their own turn separately, but for the group to discuss and come to a consensus as to what that best course of action is, then act accordingly. The problem of course is with the group dynamics of said discussion... which could easily consist of that alpha gamer just saying "do this, we have to do this" a lot.

What was pointed out in the BGG threads was that hiding the information and making people share it verbally might actually make it harder for the Alpha gamer to plan everyone's turn than to really just cooperate. Sure, you could recite your hand every turn, but perhaps it'd be more time effective to use teamwork than to feed information to the decision maker.

this said, I think Pandemic could be a very interesting team game - especially if a time element were introduced. I'd love to play the game with hidden cards, team vs team, with a clock... where the point isn't just to cure the diseases, but to do it fastest. this could work in a single game as well with a countdown timer, where you lose if time on the clock runs out. Alternatively, a group could simply time their games, and see if they can get faster.

I posted something about that in the variant forums on BGG, as well as a way to play competitive Pandemic, where each player plays solitaire with a duplicate deck - another format I think would be fun.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

What Seth said. If you're going to allow players to tell each other what they're holding, why would you prevent them from disclosing their hands?

It sounds like the best course of play is obvious, no appeal to me.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Maybe it's from inexperience, but at no point except maybe the final winning play in our 2nd game, did I feel that there was only one best choice. Each player had different ideas, and was free to do what they wanted with their character. That's how coop games work. We rarely stated what cards we held other than taking a roll to figure which disease to cure and who should do it, or when we really needed to get somewhere fast.

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

Ryan: I totally agreed with you at first, however the BGG threads enlightened me to 2 things. First, Matthew Modine mentioned that hiding hands but allowing free verbal disclosure of cards, while functionally equivalent while playing solitaire, actually makes you communicate with your teammates. This may seem like a chore, because you and I want to just be given all the info so we can make a plan, but it actually forces teamwork and cooperation. I have a feeling it'll be too tedious to actually recite all the contents of your hand, and more efficient to just make a strategic plan and trust your teammates to execute their responsibilities on their own, and let you know if they draw something that'll help another teammate.

Second, it's possible that the "best course of play" which is "obvious" to one player, may not be the same course which is "obvious" to another player. And without seeing all the cards, it's not clear what that "best course of play" is to any given player. I think perhaps the idea is that the group is supposed to discuss and figure out what the "best course of play" is. I think maybe hiding the cards will make that come through more than showing them and letting 1 player (each player?) figure out their own "best course."


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