Remember when it seemed that everyone in the world was constantly washing their hands with Purell and worried about bird flu? Well, add three diseases, have them appear and spread through the world an alarming rate, and you have Pandemic. This cooperative game from Z-Man Games has 2-4 players working together to cure these diseases before they ravage the globe.
Pandemic is played on a board reminiscent of Risk, where major cities are connected by lines and wrap around from one side to the other. Four diseases -- represented by yellow, red, blue, and black wooden cubes -- are breaking out and spreading through the world. At the star of the game, three cities have three cubes, three cities have two cubes, and three cities have one cube each. These cities are picked from cards the Infection Card pile, and their cards go in the Infection Discard Pile. (This will become significant shortly.)
The players all select a random role, get a number of Player Cards (usually a location on the board, though sometimes a useful Special Event card) based on the number of players, and place their pawns at the Research Station in Atlanta. On each player's turn they can perform four actions: move from one city to a connected one; discard a card from their hand to move to that city; discard the card of their current city to move anyplace on the board; discard the card of their current city to build a Research Station there; move from Research Station to another one; discard five cards with the same color to cure that disease; treat a disease in their city by removing a cube from that city; or giving another player in the same city the card for that city. Each role has a unique benefit; for example, the Medic can remove all the cubes from a city with one action, while the Scientist only needs four cards of the same color to find a cure. If all four diseases have been cured, the players win! If not...
Then there are Epidemics and Outbreaks. The Player Draw Pile has a number of Epidemic cards (four in an easy game, six in a normal game, eight in a hard game) that make things much, much tougher. When an Epidemic is drawn, the Infection Rate counter goes up, then the bottom card of the Infection Draw Pile is drawn and that city gets three cubes. Then all the cards in the Infection Discard Pile get shuffled together (including the card just drawn) and put on top of the Infection Draw Pile. This makes an Outbreak much more likely.
Any time a city would have four cubes, it has an Outbreak. This means every city connected to that city gets a disease cube of that color from the stockpile; and if one of those cities has three cubes, it has an Outbreak, spreading a cube from the storkpile to each adjacent city (though a city can only have one Outbreak per turn). In addition, each Outbreak moves the marker down on the Outbreak Indicator.
There are three ways to lose, and all are very possibe. If you ever need to draw cubes of a certain color but no more are available (usually to Outbreaks), the players lose. If the Outbreak Indicator reaches eight, the players lose. And if the Player Draw Pile runs out of cards, they lose.
Pandemic is a very challenging, tense, and thoughtful game. If players focus solely on finding cures, the diseases can spread and make the number of cubes run out. If players spend their turns getting rid of the cubes on the board, they won't find the cures they need to win. The cards played to move around the board are same ones needed to cure the diseases, and they don't return to play once used, so card usage is critical. (The seven-card hand limit is also a problem, as you discard cards someone else might have needed.) And the game ending when the Player Draw Pile runs out puts a very real ticking clock in front of all the players. Pandemic is a fun challenge for the players to work together and figure out how to win, while watching out for the multiple ways they can suddenly lose. It's possible to think victory is assured and then find things take a turn for the much worse, and no matter how often it's played there is no one clear path to victory.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch