The virus is quickly spreading over the Earth. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and medical personnel are fighting to send vaccines to remote parts of the world, all the while outbreaks keep happening on an almost daily basis.
Don’t worry, you’re not reliving the lockdown days – it’s just my Pandemic review. So, let’s see how saving the world cube by cube works and whether it’s still worth playing this classic game in the year 2023.
|Playing time:||45 minutes|
|Number of players:||2 to 4 (1-6 with expansions)|
|Genre:||Family, strategy, cooperative|
- A classic cooperative game
- Lots of variety out-of-the-box and with expansions
- Unique theme
- Easy to learn
- Difficulty greatly diminishes over time
- Expansions could’ve been cheaper
The Viral Success
Pandemic was the right game at just the right time. In 2008, there were almost no other cooperative board games, let alone those that served as a great entry into this hobby. Pandemic was an important title, and it still is because it’s quick, dynamic, and really brings the table together.
It also helps that it’s incredibly easy to learn. When you open up the rulebook for this game, you’ll find just three pages of fully illustrated rules. Even better, all the necessary rules fit on a playing card that you’ll have by your side as a reference. That’s how easy it is to learn the rules of Pandemic.
The theme also helped spread the popularity of this game. Instead of fantasy races, space marines, or traders in the Mediterranean, you’re all medical personnel fighting to save the world from deadly diseases. It’s a theme that still resonates with many board game players, especially those tired of old fantasy and sci-fi tropes.
What also sets this game apart is that it’s educational. The Pandemic board is the map of the world, our world, and you’ll be visiting and helping save cities over six continents. But, even more importantly, it can get incredibly tense. I’ve had games of Pandemic where we won in the last possible turn or a split-second decision saved our bacon. Even though it doesn’t have many moving parts, it’s a very cinematic experience.
Saving the World in Four “Easy” Steps
The game puts a fairly simple task in front of you – find the cures for all four diseases (represented by four primary colors). You don’t even need to eradicate them from the board, but it sure helps.
Finding a cure requires collecting exactly five cards of the same color and bringing them to a research station. Easy? Well, not entirely.
When you set up a game of Pandemic, you’ll draw some cards at random, populating the board with red, blue, yellow, and black disease cubes. Those represent the starting infections around the globe. Worse yet, those same cards will be coming back to haunt you from time to time, so the game also requires some memorization if you want to win.
All players start at Atlanta, the main CDC research station. On your turn, you’ll do exactly 4 actions, and you can pick from any of these:
- Drive or ferry to an adjacent city.
- Spend a city card to fly to that city on the map (direct flight).
- Charter a flight by discarding the card of your current city to fly anywhere on the map.
- Build a research station in your current city when you discard the matching card.
- Shuttle flight between two research stations.
- Treat a disease by removing a cube from your current location.
- Discover a cure in the research station.
- Share knowledge with a player you’re sharing the same city with.
Now, that may seem like you’ve got a lot on your plate, but the turns are very breezy, and you’ve also got reference cards that remind you of all these actions. The latter is something I really like seeing when playing games as it helps players learn the rules better and, if you’re playing with less experienced players, they will feel more confident playing on their own.
What’s also great is that you can repeat each of these actions throughout your turn. For example, you may charter a flight to Karachi, treat two disease cubes there, and then build a research station so your teammates can travel around the board quicker. Or, you can just move four spaces. Yes, sometimes you may end up making those boring, unproductive turns.
Tough as Nails
The Pandemic board game is really a game of efficiency. You’ll want to discover a cure as soon as possible since the infection spreads rapidly and somewhat unpredictably.
Once you’ve played your actions, you draw two cards from the player deck, and then it’s the game’s turn. You’ll have to draw as many cards from the green infection deck as the current infection rate marker dictates – that’s where the diseases will grow stronger.
Even worse, you might end up drawing an epidemic card instead of a colored city card on your turn. These cards speed up the game as they increase the infection rate, infect a new city, and then intensify the challenge by placing all the flipped infection cards back onto their main deck.
Oh, and the viruses spread quickly. Whenever you need to place a fourth cube of the same color on a city, that space instead infects all the surrounding cities. That’s called an outbreak, and, you guessed it, this can very well lead to some terrible chain reaction events. I lost count of how many times I grabbed my head and panicked when an outbreak started in Pandemic.
To summarize, players lose a game of Pandemic if:
- The player deck runs out of cards.
- The outbreak marker reaches the top position of the outbreak track.
- You run out of disease cubes of any color.
Yes, it’s a game with multiple losing conditions and only one winning condition. Furthermore, you can make your Pandemic game harder by putting more epidemic cards into the deck during the initial setup.
An Ace up the Sleeve
The Pandemic board game lets you turn the tides in your favor with exactly two tools – player roles and action cards.
Before the start of the game, each player draws a role card they’ll keep throughout the game. These roles affect how the game plays for them. So, for example, they might need one less card to discover a cure, or they’ll always cure all disease cubes of the same color without needing to find the cure first.
In my very first Pandemic game, roles played such an important part in the experience that my group associated themselves with those characters. Some of the players were reluctant to try out other roles because they really liked the powers they had with the characters they grew familiar with.
Another helping hand is in the action cards. You’ll collect them from the player deck at the end of your turns, and these are free actions that let you do some really cool, really powerful stuff. Don’t want to draw from the infection deck this turn? Sure, you can have one quiet night during which the game won’t infect cities. Need to instantly move a player to the other side of the game board? There’s a card for that, too.
So far in this Pandemic board game review, I’ve only talked about all the fun stuff. But, there are a few things that might put you off from getting this game for your collection.
Most cooperative games work as a sort of puzzle. And puzzles can be solved. Pandemic is no exception to this rule. After a while, you’ll figure out the optimal ways to play, pick the roles that best complement each other, and turn this game into a breeze.
Quarterbacking is another frequent occurrence when playing Pandemic. The most experienced player can quickly turn this co-op experience into a solo game, where other players just move the pawns and trade the cards the way that this player tells them. This is why it’s not recommended to play open-handed.
Expanding Your Pandemic Experience
Like with any cooperative board game, you might reach a point where you’ll “figure out” Pandemic and breeze through every game of it, even on the highest difficulty. Or, you might want to breathe some new life into the game and explore the new game mechanics, challenges, and stories that this game creates.
That’s where the Pandemic expansions come into the mix. Each of these boxes is as big and jam-packed with content as the base game, vastly expanding on the basic premise of the game. On top of that, some of these expansions bring upgrades to the game’s storage system and add nicer components to play with, so they’re worth grabbing.
There are currently three expansions for Pandemic and they can be mixed and matched with each other – alongside the base game – to create an unforgettable experience. So, let’s take a quick look at them.
Pandemic: On the Brink
Arguably the most important expansion for the game, On the Brink is the quintessential purchase for Pandemic players that want to increase the challenge and introduce some really cool mechanics. It’s also a way to play Pandemic with five players instead of just four with the base game.
First of all, this expansion upgrades the cure, infection rate, and outbreak markers, along with the research stations, to fancy plastic ones. It also includes Petri dishes for storing all the disease cubes (you can name them!), effectively doubling as the storage solution for new content and all the stuff from the base game. Neat!
What On the Brink adds to the game is the fifth, purple disease that can mutate through the Mutation Strain game mode, adding unpredictability to the game. You can also play the Virulent Strain challenge for greater difficulty, or you can pit one player against the rest through the Bio-Terrorist challenge. The latter is a great way for seasoned players to enjoy Pandemic without becoming an alpha player.
The On the Brink expansion also adds new roles and event cards, additional colored pawns, and extra Epidemic cards so you can play on the Legendary difficulty level.
This is my favorite expansion and a personal must-have for anyone looking to enjoy Pandemic to the fullest.
Pandemic: In the Lab
The second expansion for Pandemic raises the player count to a whopping six. Similarly to the On the Brink expansion, it adds new roles, event cards, pawns, and very cool vials to act as the cure markers.
But the biggest change comes in the form of an additional board representing your lab. The Lab challenge requires you to collect various samples across the main board and combine them to create cures instead of relying on simple card collection like in the base game. As a matter of fact, this variant introduces some tough decisions during gameplay, as you might not want to eradicate a disease so you can collect samples.
With In the Lab, Pandemic has finally gotten an official solo mode. While the base game allowed you to do this by “two-handing” (playing as two separate players), with this variant – and a little help from the CDC card – you can try Pandemic as a solo challenge. Finally, there’s a team mode for four or six players in which teams are racing each other to be the first to develop the cure.
Pandemic: In the Lab is an amazing experience, but you shouldn’t jump to it straight away. This expansion requires that you own both the base game and the On the Brink expansion, as parts of it rely on mechanics introduced in these earlier games. This is one expansion for die-hard Pandemic fans only.
Pandemic: State of Emergency
Released in 2015, the third and final expansion, State of Emergency, introduces three more modules to the game. It also expands the role and event decks and adds new ways to fine-tune the difficulty of the game.
The Hinterlands challenge is the main addition – two small boards and the mechanic that introduces the diseases spreading from animals to humans. There are also more dangerous, unpredictable events you can add to the main deck, or you can play the Superbug challenge, which requires you to develop vaccines and organize quarantine zones across the main board. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a die in any of the main Pandemic games.
State of Emergency is meant to be the ultimate challenge, the grand finale to everything Matt Leacock and the rest of the Pandemic team prepared for the classic game. It’s also just… too much for its own good. Bringing everything to the table ramps up the game from a relatively breezy family experience to something that needlessly overcomplicates the game and overwhelms the players.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a good addition to the game, but since it’s meant for seasoned players, chances are you’ll get fed up with Pandemic long before you’ll even consider purchasing this expansion. Not to mention all of this stuff will bump the price quite a lot, and you might as well purchase a bigger game instead of continually expanding Pandemic.
Ever since Z-Man Games released Pandemic in 2008, the game has been considered a modern classic. It introduced many people to the concept of playing a board game cooperatively instead of against each other. The system proved to be so good that, over the years, there were several versions of Pandemic, like Pandemic Legacy, which explored the formula even further and is arguably one of the best cooperative games ever made.
And that’s because the main game is just so solid and easy to learn, with quick turns and a really interesting theme. Pandemic remains a classic board game, even several decades later. Although some board games have improved the way we approach co-op gaming, there’s always room for this board game in every collection.
Yes, despite being more than a decade old, Pandemic still holds up as one of the best entries into the board gaming hobby. It’s a smooth, exhilarating co-op experience that’s easy to learn but hard to master.
Absolutely. Pandemic is great for beginner players and should be a part of every gamer’s collection. There are now multiple versions of the game and expansions, so make sure you’ve browsed through all the Pandemic game versions. Maybe you’ll find your next favorite among them.
Both games are considered classics, and they also fall into different genres of games – Pandemic is a fully cooperative, action-based game, while Catan is a highly competitive game of trading, and managing an economy.
While the original game is still a favorite for many people, the best game in this series is definitely Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. This game revolutionized the way Pandemic is played by evolving from game to game and giving players a connected narrative they follow through their campaign. It’s a bit more expensive, but the experience is absolutely worth the price.