What you really need to know: Pandemic is one of the most fun board games I’ve played in quite some time. With that out of the way, let me explain.
Players are part of team of experts frantically trying to stop four viruses from causing a devastating pandemic (how topical). Reading between the lines, that means that Pandemic is a co-operative game. There’s no competition between you and your fellows, just a nagging feeling that even when you put your heads together, things can still go horribly wrong.
That’s mainly because your opposition is automated. Each player’s turn will conclude with drawing cards to indicate which locations in the world will become infected with one of the viruses. If a virus manages to infect a location more than three times, an outbreak will occur and the virus will spread to neighbouring locations (possibly triggering more outbreaks). Meanwhile, the players are trying to research cures for each of the four diseases. Obtain all four cures and the players win. Trigger eight outbreaks or let the viruses spread too far and everybody loses.
There’s something oddly compelling about that all or nothing approach. The first session I played with friends, we got wiped out pretty quickly by underestimating just how fast a disease could spread. But even when wiped out, there was still a sense of fun and enjoyment that’s usually absent with competitive games. It also got everybody pumped to immediately play another session.
Next to that, there are a few elements that enhance the replayability of this game. First, there are the roles. Every player gets a random role assigned that will allow for a certain ability: a researcher can more easily obtain a cure and a medic can more easily fight infections, for instance. As there are always more roles than players, you could end up without certain wanted abilities in the team, adding tension.
Second, there’s a difficulty setting. The game’s player cards allow for travel and researching cures, but hidden in that same pile are epidemic cards. Draw such a card and the infection rate shoots up, while all infected locations get another chance of becoming infected again! Depending on the desired difficulty, more or less epidemic cards are used. It’s a great mechanic and keeps the game interesting even when players get the basics down.
Third, the random nature of the game is mainly focused on ‘the enemy’. You don’t know how a virus will spread, but you do know how players can act. Actually, as everybody is co-operating, your turn never really ends. You’re constantly involved and and talking about the next course of action.
It removes the idea that your own actions are down to chance. Sure, the enemy can win through sheer bad luck, but losing doesn’t feel unfair. Even the randomly drawn player cards can be exchanged between players under certain conditions, leading to all sorts of plans and ideas. Choice is with the players, chance is with opposition and that provides a solid base.
The game creates an excellent sense of camaraderie and teamwork that wouldn’t go amiss in a project management course. True, the stakes aren’t as high as in a competitive game, but to maintain a friendly atmosphere among friends, there’s nothing like a pandemic.