Educates about public health
Steep learning curve
The best board games are contagious. Once you find one you really like, you tend to get hooked and then pass the obsession on to family and friends in rapid succession. This is what happens with Pandemic, which just so happens to be about the threat of worldwide contagious diseases, or pandemic, itself. As a fan of both medical intrigue and games, I was eager to give this game, first released in 2008, a try with my own kids, ages 12, 14, and 15. Read on to see if it was contagious fun or dead on arrival.
Concept: Find the cure
In the wake of recent measles, Zika, and Ebola epidemics, a board game about the global threat fast-moving pathogens pose to human life feels eerily appropriate, if a little too real. In Pandemic, each player takes on the role of one member of an elite disease control team, with the goal of collectively keeping four deadly diseases at bay.
The captivating storyline drew us in and sparked intense emotions.
Everyone works together, traveling the globe to treat infections while collecting the cards to discover a cure for each disease or spur new outbreaks. The goal of the game is to find all four cures before any of the game-losing thresholds are reached. The captivating storyline immediately drew my family in and sparked intense emotions.
Pandemic is a beautifully designed game with attractive pieces. The board is a world map showing a network connecting 48 cities. Six shelter-shaped blocks represent research stations. One goes on Atlanta, the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and where the game begins. The others should be grouped nearby, as should the 96 colored cubes (24 each of four colors), which stand for each of the four diseases.
A green outbreak marker (with four outward arrows) starts at 0 on the outbreaks track at the bottom left. Cure markers should be lined up and ready to be moved into the color-coordinated spaces at the bottom of the board when the diseases are cured (blank side up) or eradicated (Ø side up).
Pandemic is designed to be played with two to four players. With the purchase of a game extension, a fifth player can be added to the mix. Each player is assigned one of seven characters via cards dealt at random—a contingency planner, operations expert, medic, researcher, quarantine specialist, scientist, and dispatcher—and moves around the board using a pawn that matches that character card. (With an extension, more character roles are included, as well as a “bio-terrorist” who seeks to undermine the efforts of the other players.)
Though they’re technically on the same team, my family noticed that some of the characters’ abilities seemed to be more effective at times than others. We wish it felt like each character had equally beneficial "skills,” but this could also be a case of “the grass is always greener,” as each role does offer varying abilities that will be useful in the right circumstances. It also might be interesting if there were two teams: one that played for the diseases and one that was trying to cure them.
Setup: Ensures a unique, challenging game
I already mentioned some of the setup in the previous section, but the rest involves distributing the diseases across the map. Place the green “infection rate” tracker on the leftmost space in the “infection rate” bar at the top right of the board, and set the infection cards face-down on the draw pile area above that bar. Turn one infection card over into the discard pile area and place three corresponding disease cubes on whatever city is indicated by the card drawn. Repeat twice, again placing three cubes on whatever cities are drawn. Then draw three more cards, this time placing just two corresponding cubes on each of those cities, and finally three more, which get only one cube.
The game could be improved by streamlining the instructions and some of the variables to make it a bit simpler.
Set aside epidemic cards and deal out a set number of cards per player (depending on the number of players) from the remaining deck. Decide how many epidemics you want to include in your game and divide the rest of the deck evenly across those epidemics, shuffling the epidemic card into each portion of the deck before stacking the decks up and placing back onto the player deck space.
Initial instruction-reading and setup time probably took an hour. My kids and I thought the game could be improved by streamlining the instructions and some of the variables to make it a bit simpler, at least at the start. If you’re struggling to learn, there are a number of video tutorials on YouTube.
The player with the highest-population city in his or her hand begins, and the rest follow in clockwise order. Each turn, players choose between different actions: drive/ferry (travel to any city connected by a white line), direct flight (discard a city card from your hand to travel to that city), charter flight (discard the card for the city you’re in and travel to any city), and shuttle flight (travel from one city with a research center to another with a research center).
You can also build a research center (play the card for the city you’re in), treat a disease (remove a disease cube from the city you’re in), share knowledge with a teammate in the same city (give or take the card matching your shared city), and cure a disease (at any research center, discard five city cards with the same disease color).
Once a disease is cured, the cure marker can be placed on the corresponding space. Instances of that disease may remain or keep spreading on the board, but by treating that disease, you can now knock out all of the cubes rather than just one. If no cubes remain on the board for a cured disease, that disease is eradicated, and the marker should be flipped over. Once a disease is eradicated, no more disease cubes can enter the board.
As you pick cards with each turn, diseases can swell to outbreaks (four cubes of the same color in one city), meaning that all connected cities receive a cube as well, and the outbreak marker advances on the tracker. If the outbreak marker reaches the last space, everyone loses.
When you draw an epidemic card, you must follow the steps listed to increase, infect, and intensify, unless that disease has been eradicated. In addition to city cards, there are also event cards such as government grants, which can be played at any time; they are not considered actions and do not require a discard. Players can have a maximum of seven cards in-hand at all times.
I know, it sounds confusing—and it is. In fact, the steep learning curve is the major drawback of this game. However, this is where the co-operative nature of this game really shines. If just one or two of the players know how to play, they can help the other players get up to speed as the game moves along. My kids played several rounds before I joined, and their expertise allowed me to jump right in without spending an excessive amount of time perusing the rules.
Entertainment Value: Challenging but addictive
As I said, figuring out this game was confusing. So confusing, my family was actually very close to giving up on it. Initially, we had lots of arguing and accusations: “You’re going to make us lose.” “No, you are!” “How do you win?” “It seems impossible!” “Ugh! We were trying to eradicate all of them; you only needed to cure all of them! We are literally so dumb.” The word hate came into play frequently as we struggled through our first few games, and I was afraid it would end in blows.
Finally, though, we won, and victory never tasted so sweet. The same group that had been at each other’s throats was high-fiving and hugging. There is something unique and appealing about the way teams feel like they are fighting against the game, ultimately spurring great camaraderie and the desire to keep playing again and again.
There is something unique and appealing about the way teams feel like they are fighting against the game, ultimately spurring great camaraderie.
We have played this game close to 20 times now, several times back to back, probably for a total of about nine or 10 hours. The instructions estimate each game takes 45 minutes, but ours tended to last about 20 to 35 minutes. The shorter game times inspired us to play multiple times in a row.
While the instructions are complicated and the gameplay is, at first, frustrating, my kids and I found that Pandemic is actually really fun in the end. You just have to stick it out.
Educational Value: Promotes teamwork and communication
Not only is the game fun to play, but it’s also very instructive on public health and how diseases spread on a global scale. This game poses the question, “Can you save humanity?” and certainly prompts a lot of interesting conversation. Plus, I love the emphasis on cooperation, decision-making, role-playing, and strategizing, all of which improved the more we played.
A lot of cooperative games aren’t very competitive. Not so with this game, where you battle the game (and sometimes each other). An enticing sense of urgency builds as the group strives to eradicate the pandemics before time runs out. The fact that this is no easy win (we still lose about half the time) makes success feel even sweeter.
Age Range: Double digits
The manufacturer recommends Pandemic for ages 8 and up, but I found it is better suited for tweens and teens. This game requires patience, complex thinking, and doomsday scenarios, which can be a bit much for younger kids. My 9-year-old found it hard to follow and somewhat frustrating. Younger kids can certainly play as a team, but not as well as older members. I would say 10 and up is ideal.
Price: Game-night gold
You can find this game for a wide range of prices, from $24 all the way up to $40. I think this is fair for a game of this caliber. The pieces, board, and the cards are all exceptionally well designed. The complex concept also justifies its cost; it’s pretty much guaranteed to get you hooked.
If you love this game, there are multiple extensions and versions available. Try its offshoot, Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 (Blue Edition) which retails for around $40 and is recommended for ages 13 and up. In this version, players have the opportunity to influence elements of the game, including the parameters of the diseases, the characters, and the world they play in. Since everything evolves over the course of play, players are guaranteed a unique experience each time.
Pandemic vs. Catan
Both of these are popular, strategic games that my family loves to play again and again. While Pandemic focuses on global disease epidemics, Catan delves into the development of small outposts into towns and cities and how access to resources (think building materials, armies, roads, and food) impacts a settlement’s success.
Pandemic is more collaborative, with the team playing against the game, while Catan is a traditional game where opponents battle each other. As someone who tends to lose at Catan (but is still a fan), it often feels like I’m battling that game as well. Personally, I prefer Pandemic, as it feels like I’m improving at the game the more times I play, but both games deserve a spot in any family’s game night rotation.
- Product Name Pandemic
- Product Brand Z-Man Games
- MPN ZM7101
- Price $39.99
- Weight 2.3 lbs.
- Product Dimensions 12 x 8.6 x 1.7 in.
- Players 2-4
- Manufacturer Recommended Age Range 8+ years
- What’s Included Game board, 2 decks of playing cards, pawns, tokens, and “disease” cubes