Co-op games aren’t exactly a new concept for video gamers. They’re not exactly new to board gamers, either. Good co-op board games, though, well that’s another story. It’s a type of gameplay that until recently has been left to horror games and dungeon crawls. There’s nothing wrong with that, I love me some good dungeon crawling and Cthulhu hunting. My non-nerd friends don’t exactly jump for joy with those game themes, though.
Pandemic, released in 2008, was the first game on the scene that I would consider a good co-op game. It pits players against an outbreak of four different viruses, which spread from four different corners of the world. The goal of the game is to work together and discover the four cures before all hope is lost.
Because Pandemic is a cooperative game, all the players either lose or win together. To win, the players need to find the cure for each of the four diseases. They lose if they can’t do this before the player deck runs out of cards, an eighth outbreak occurs, or all the disease cubes of one type are used.
The game starts with an epidemic in random locations, determined by the top nine cards on the Infection Deck. Diseases are denoted in this game by adorable little colored blocks, which you will learn to respect and loathe by the end of your first time playing. These seemingly innocent cubes are placed in a city whenever that city’s card is drawn from the Infection Deck. The more cubes present in a city, the more active and dangerous that disease is.
Each player is assigned a role, which makes them a specialist in one area of Disease Control, such as research, planning, or operations. There are seven unique roles in total, which players are randomly given at the start of the game. These roles grant special abilities to their players that allow them to do more powerful versions of the basic actions available on each player’s turn.
Every turn is divided into three phases. The first phase allows the player to take up to four actions, the second sees the player drawing two additional Player cards, and the third has the player drawing from the Infection Deck and adding one disease cube to the cities drawn.
The four actions that a player can take at the start of their turn can be a combination of any of the following: remove a disease cube, move about the board, establish a research facility, share a resource, or try and discover a cure. Most of these actions require specific cards from the Player Deck, which has a card for every city on the board, in addition to Special Event and Epidemic cards. Special Event cards allow you to do various helpful things, but that’s not what makes the game interesting. What makes the game interesting is the Epidemic cards.
When a player draws the two Player cards at the end of their turn, there’s always the chance that they could reveal an Epidemic card. These cards are nasty. Whenever one is revealed, the players must increase the infection track, which determines how many infection cards are drawn each infection round. Then, they must draw the card from the bottom of the Infection Deck and infect that city with three disease cubes, discarding the card afterwards. Once that’s done, players then reshuffle the Infection Deck’s discard pile and place it on top of the Infection Deck. After all of that, the player continues onto the Infection Phase, which is now guaranteed to reveal cities that have been infected previously.
During the Infection Phase, the player draws however many cards required and places a single disease cube in each city drawn. If three cubes of the same color are in a city and a 4th is to be added, instead that city outbreaks and spreads a new cube of that disease to each connected city. This can have dire consequences, as an outbreak can trigger a chain reaction of outbreaks across the globe. And if the 8th outbreak occurs in a game, players lose immediately.
No two games of Pandemic are ever the same. How your team decides to tackle the world’s impending doom will change with every game, either due to player experience or the fate of the Player’s Deck. When most people first play this game, they don’t take their actions seriously. They think they have time to gather the resources needed and get them to where they need to go. They figure they can waste a turn waiting on the Medic to cure a city instead of just picking off one disease cube now. Then, of course, an Epidemic occurs and the city that was doing fine is now causing an outbreak of SARS down the western coast of Asia.
Of course, if players find the game a bit too simple, they can increase the difficulty by increasing the number of Epidemic cards in the Player Deck, or by making it so that players need to eradicate each disease to win (remove every cube from the board).
This game forces players to talk and to plan across multiple turns, together. Everyone needs to have an eye on the board and their head in the game if there’s going to be a chance of survival. This is a game that turns complete strangers into comrades. It suggests for your first game, you play with open hands so that everyone can see each other’s cards. If player interaction needs to be forced for your group, the game recommends you have hands be kept secret, forcing players to talk to one another. Getting people to talk to one another and work as a team is a key part of this game’s design, and they want every game to be as cooperative as possible.
This forced cooperation on a theme that is so well executed is one of the reasons I think this game has done as well as it has. Saving the world from a viral outbreak is something that most people can get behind, thematically. The fact that the diseases are unnamed allows every game to be customized to the players’ imaginations about what exactly they’re fighting against. For some players, those little cubes are just cubes and will always be cubes. For others, they’re hordes of zombies or flocks of infected birds. Whether or not you roleplay on top of this game or treat for what it is, it’s still a great game.
Pandemic: A New Challenge is the 2013 re-release of the game, which features an art and component upgrade. The pictures used in this article are of this version of the game, though the original is just as beautiful, in a 2008-kinda way. The 2013 edition also introduces the new Quarantine Specialist and Contingency Planners role.
Otherwise, it differs with a new font and art style, in addition to an overall component upgrade. Most all of the original game’s wood components were upgraded to plastic, and the cardboard components to wood. The disease cubes have also shrunk a little bit, as well as the player pieces, making placement on cities much easier. Other than that, gameplay is basically the same, though I recommend players upgrading to the 2013 edition skim the new rule book, just in case.
If Pandemic has tickled your fancy, Z-Man games has released an expansion for the game, called On the Brink. This expansion introduces multiple scenarios to play through, including a Bioterrorism scenario, where one player is given their own disease to spread about the world. In addition to two new character roles and the Bioterrorist disease, this expansion comes with petri dishes for you to store all your base game components in!
Z-Man games has also announced a second expansion coming this year called In the Lab, which will introduce an additional board that depicts a laboratory where players will have to conduct experiments to try and find cures.
Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic, has also designed another popular co-op game called Forbidden Island, in which players try and collect artifacts from a sinking island before they’re lost forever. This island adventure is a light alternative to the heavy gameplay of disease control found in Pandemic, and is great for all ages. Also, for those interested, there’s a great iOS version of the game that like board gaming on the go.
Board Stiff is GrE’s regular foray into the deep, dark, cardboard-smelling realms of analog gaming. Boards, cards or dice, it doesn’t matter, our writer Tiffany will play them all. Follow her on Twitter here.