“I really like Pandemic,” you say. “But you know what’d be cool? If all these disease cubes were actually dice.”
Maybe you’re a prophet, or maybe you have possession of a magic lamp with a genie, but your wish has come true. Pandemic: The Cure comes with not just one, but two full bags of dice instead of those boring ol’ cubes.
Does this Cure bring on the cowbell? Let’s find out, because I’ve got a fever.
How It Plays
In Pandemic: the Cure players are tasked once again with ridding the world of 4 nefarious diseases. This time, everything is dice dice dice, and players must roll their way to treat, sample, and cure diseases before the world is overrun with outbreaks or the infection rate is out of control.
The setup is simple: 6 circular numbered tiles represent major continents (sans Antarctica, they don’t get sick down there. It’s too cold even for germs) are placed around the circular Treatment Center which tracks infection rates and outbreaks. Dice are pulled from the Infection bag and rolled, and then place on the appropriate tile. 3 cards from an Event deck are placed faceup near the CDC tile.
On your turn, you roll your dice (each role has its own set) and get actions based on the results. Fortunately, you aren’t stuck with your first roll. You can re-roll as often as you like; the catch is, each die has a Biohazard symbol which, if rolled, increases the infection rate (which can trigger an epidemic) and cannot be re-rolled anymore.
There are 4 basic actions:
- Ship: Move to an adjacent continent
- Plane: Move to any continent
- Syringe: Remove an Infection die from your location to the Treatment center, or move a die from the Treatment center back to the Infection bag
- Bottle: Stack your die on top of an Infection die from the Treatment center and place the stack by your player card. You’ll use these Samples to aim for a cure.
Each player has a different combination of these abilities on their dice, and some have sides with dual symbols (they can be used for either, but not both). Some roles have unique symbols, such as the Medic who can remove a lot more dice at once, or the Dispatcher who has a Helicopter symbol that can be saved and used later to move other players.
After resolving actions, you can pass any of your samples to another player in the same location, if you wish. After that, you can roll for a CURE.
To cure a disease is simple – you take all the Infection dice you have samples of, and roll them. If your roll adds up to 13 or more, you’ve cured the disease! If not, you’re still working on it, and you keep the samples. It’s harder than you think, though, because the dice are all custom and have more low numbers on them than you’d like.
Finally, you infect the board. You take dice based on the current infection rate and roll them, placing them on the appropriate continent. If you’re lucky and roll + signs, you put those on the CDC. Those dice can be spent to activate Event cards, which grant temporary bonuses or abilities.
If you ever add a die to a continent that has 3 of the same color already there, you trigger an Outbreak. Extra cubes move clockwise to the next continent (and can theoretically trigger a long chain of outbreaks). Too many outbreaks, and you lose.
You also lose if the infection rate gets too high. Or if the Infection bag is empty and you need to draw more dice.
You win if you find the cure for all 4 diseases before any of these happen.
I’ve Got a Fever, and the Only Cure is…
Dice games. Not everyone loves ’em. It’s undeniable that luck plays a heavy factor; whatever push-your-luck elements or post-roll decisions you have to make, if never roll something useful, you’re not going to make any progress. If you can’t stand that sort of thing then let’s face it; there are plenty of games out there that avoid dice completely and you should probably be playing those. You might consider, y’know, Pandemic.
But there’s a certain charm to the Pure Dice Game; rolling fistfuls of dice, hoping against fate that you roll what you need, the thrill of pushing your luck as far as it can go and maybe just too far. The best dice games use their dice to simplify and streamline more complex mechanisms while keeping players in the driver seat as far as what to do with their options, actions, or results. And, while luck can throw you for a loop, it tends to even out over time thanks to the Laws of Probability. You’ll have good turns, bad turns, and everything in between and the hope is that you win because you pushed your luck just far enough or made the right choice at the right time.
Enough speaking in generalities and let’s get down to the brass tacks: The Cure is a masterful expression of the Pure Dice Game, a heavyweight champion of the genre. It simply lands every punch in the right place. Every stinkin’ punch. Yeah, it’s chock full of dice, but the game is a substantial, rewarding experience. Designer Matt Leacock clearly has a simply excellent grasp of what makes a game fun to play, as well as how to give players agency in a system that is clearly stacked against them.
So, you ask, what is it that makes a dice game great? How do you tally the score? Well, I’m glad you asked. Allow me to break it down for you.
Rolling fistfuls of dice
Of course we’re rolling fistfuls of dice! It’s a dice game. There’s no shortage of that here, my friends. Drink it in. Listen to the cheerful pitter-patter of those precious cubes bouncing across the table. You chuck the dice to get your actions, you chuck ’em to see where the bad stuff happens. You chuck ’em again to find the titular Cure. You don’t stop rolling those dice until you are dead because you are overrun by dice. You’re buried in ’em.
Actually, it’s not too much Luck
Inexperienced designers love to compound luck with more luck, and dump that in to a big ol’ pot of luck. “Look at our pool of dice!” they shout but they have no idea what actually makes a fistful of dice work inside a game. But we’re not talking about those games, we’re talking about the Cure, and guess what? After you roll all those dice, you can do stuff with ’em. One of the things you can do is re-roll your own dice if you didn’t get what you need; sure, it’s a risk, but this is straight out of Dice Games 101. If you can’t re-roll at all, the game plays you and not the other way around. Then, after you’ve got what you want (or decide to stop pushing your luck), you choose how to apply your results. Sure, there’s plenty of luck, but it’s nicely balanced by actions. And you know what? The unpredictability of it all works well with the theme of spreading disease. Mistakes happen, outbreaks pop up in unexpected places. Your team is hired to deal with the volatile nature of these deadly diseases, not to complain about your misfortune! Luck is present but not overwhelming.
It Keeps Players in the Driver’s Seat
The world is going to pieces, that’s just a fact of the game. You can watch it happen. You can stand there and do nothing, and sure that infection rate won’t go up. Or, you can fight against it. You can roll your dice and use your actions and hope to stem the tide. It’s a massive tide, but maybe you can hold it back just long enough to find all the cures. Which continent will you travel to? Which disease will you treat and sample? Do you clear out the Treatment center or fill up your Sample jars? Do you spend more time collecting samples of a single disease, or do you stick with the minimum, hope for a bit of luck in rolling the cure, and spread your resources to work on multiple diseases at once? There are so many options and what you do with those options will have a huge impact on what happens in the game.
Your actions prevent outbreaks; your actions provide samples to reach the cure. Your actions keep the board under control so that when you do add more dice, their unfortunate numbers won’t flatten you. You make predictions, you take risks, and everything that you do matters; not only that, it feels like it matters. “Phew!” you’ll say as you add 3 yellow dice to South America, “Good thing I treated all the yellow dice in South America!”
That’s the point of a dice game, right? To take a complex system and “dumb it down,” so to speak, to shorten the game time and ease up on the rules? In this case we have a direct comparison. Pandemic requires a lot of setup – drawing cards, placing cubes, sorting piles, shuffling in epidemics. Every turn you draw from 2 separate decks, manage a hand size, look for outbreaks across the board, and possibly draw from the bottom of a deck and reshuffle the discard. There’s a lot going on, even for a relatively straightforward game. Yes, The Cure simplifies all this with dice. You just draw the dice, roll them, and put them in one of 7 possible places they could go. It’s quick and easy. Fewer locations means less looking around the board for where to place things; no cards to shuffle or hands to manage means you can focus on the board and what to do with your dice. It’s very successful in taking a complex system and smashing it down to a roll of dice, in a way that’s still exciting, tense, and fun.
Players Have Cool Powers
You’d think that designing cool player powers would be something not so difficult. Okay, I get it – balancing those powers might be a challenge, but you’d think the problems would err on the side of too much power, especially in a cooperative game. Yet I’ve run into so many “unique” player powers that could also be called “dumb” player powers because they provide very little of a boost, if anything at all. Guess what? Pandemic: the Cure has fantastic player powers. These powers are two-fold: each player has a unique set of dice with unique sides, and a special ability. Dice adjust the probability of getting certain actions, and in some cases provide unique icons that allow a role to tackle certain actions with greater efficiency. The medic is great at treating disease, with double and triple syringe icons, while the Dispatcher is fantastic at moving around the board – and moving other players around the board, even outside his own turn. The game conveniently depicts all sides of the dice on the role card, so it’s easy to see what you might roll.
The unique powers are active, not passive – they don’t just “happen” to the players. Instead, each power is something that role can actively pursue and use to achieve victory. The Dispatcher can move people from his location freely. The containment specialist removes disease wherever he travels. The scientist adds 2 to a roll-for-the-cure, but not just for herself – for anyone else attempting a cure in the same place. These don’t require a series of special conditions, meaning any player can see where to use their talent and then go for it. I’ve played too many games where powers only activated under very specific conditions completely out of player control, and often rarely came into play, even as a deterrent. On the other hand, in The Cure I once spent an entire turn (as the Dispatcher) following the Containment specialist around and then moving him to another region. We treated WAY more disease together that way, and I was able to set the Scientist up for a series of cure rolls on the same turn. It was awesome! And everyone gets to do stuff like that. You see a cool opportunity and you grab it, because you can and only you can, and that’s what a co-op game is all about.
The Probability is Under Control
I have to assume designer Matt Leacock really gets probability. Not everyone does; it’s pretty complex and can get confusing very quickly, especially with handfuls of dice. Yet Leacock seems to have mastered the use of probability to create excellent pacing, whether it’s by cards or dice. I don’t know if you realize this, but every time you draw an Epidemic card in the original pandemic, you’re actually setting the deck, not randomizing it. The system builds into itself an escalating frenzy of disease by cycling a subset of cities again and again. Every once in a while that system blows up and ends a game outside of player control, but more frequently it gradually ramps up the tension over the course of the game.
The Cure does the same thing by using custom dice, and using them well. Player dice have only 1 “bad” side, but it’s a looming threat that makes it a risk every time you roll. Yet because it’s only 1 side, it happens infrequently enough that you’re not getting killed and losing actions every turn. Still, because of these bad sides the Infection rate keeps growing, increasing the intensity of the situation on the board.
The Infection dice are ALSO customized, even if you don’t realize it at first glance. They look like normal 6-sided dice with pips and one special side, but you soon realize that each color has a different set of numbers. Some have multiple 1’s, a 3 and a 5. Some have 2’s and 4’s. This narrows the chaos; since certain colors only appear in certain places, you eliminate a grand range of possibilities, and the mechanisms – the number of dice pulled from the Infection bag, and the quantity of each die – serve to keep outbreaks in check while establishing a looming threat at all times. You won’t get a board filled with outbreaks without letting things get out of control, but you also won’t get a boatload of dice piled up in one location or a quiet, even spread of all colors safely across the board.
You Can See The End
I think one reason players find dice games distasteful is the fear that it will all suddenly end for no reason. You roll, and then out the blue you’re just dead. The Cure does a great job of letting you see it all coming – while there’s still time to do something about it. As outbreaks loom, you may spend more actions moving dice off the board, sacrificing a turn or two towards setting up a Cure roll. As the Infection bag lightens, you may have to send some dice from the Treatment center back in the bag instead of sampling it. The Infection rate gives you the least control over stopping it, but it’s long enough that it won’t suddenly kill you. It merely puts the pressure on as you know you can’t just remove Infection dice forever, you have to balance that with the search for cures.
Fortunately, it lets you see victory coming too. It’s only 4 cures away, then three, then two. You can focus on a disease until it is cured, and you have a good sense of how close you are based on who has the sampling dice in hand. You can always decide whether to go all out for a cure or treat more disease on the board, and you have the information to make a good choice.
The Right Prescription?
Hopefully you’ve picked up by now that I’m a big fan of the Cure. It’s hard to find anything bad to say about it. Sure, it’s gonna hit you with bad rolls sometimes, and you’ll lose games suddenly due to a series of epidemics or a deadly chain of outbreaks. But that’s to be expected; it’s a game of dice. You’re playing with fickle fate; or, you could say, you’re playing with deadly and unpredictable diseases and sometimes they just can’t be contained. You did your best. Or, maybe you didn’t and that’s really why you lost.
Even the components are pretty darn good, with excellent, easy-to-read custom dice, a clean design on the cards and continents, and a solid plastic ring for the Treatment center. The only real component issue I had was that the pegs to track Infection Rate and Outbreaks didn’t fit into their holes very well the first few times. Now they’re fine.
I do, however, question the size of the box. Despite the fact that basically everything can fit inside the included dice bag, the box is bigger than the original Pandemic box. In fact, all my pandemic stuff including the two expansions would fit neatly in the Cure box instead of pushing up the box top a few millimeters. I’m tempted to switch boxes, although there is something inside of me that cringes at having the wrong game in the wrong box.
But I did mention that everything fits in the dice bag, which makes this game extremely portable if you want it to be. That’s a neat feature.
I have a fairly difficult time coming up with something bad to say about Pandemic: the Cure. In fact, the only thing I can really say against it – which isn’t much of a thing at all – is that it doesn’t really do anything new. The pacing and overall format is nearly identical to the original pandemic, and none of the mechanisms are particularly new or innovating. But you could also say there are no gimmicks here; this is just a well-crafted game, professionally executed. It may not be the fanciest thing on the shelf, but it just gets every detail right.
And it’s a lot of fun to play. In the end, that’s what really matters. For a game, anyways.