[Editors note: The following is a Nemesis Review, featuring opinions from our in-house thematic-loving @futurewolfie and his ferocious opponent, the stodgy euro-loving @Farmerlenny. Make sure to read both opinions to get a better overall picture of the game!]
Not every board game in the world pits every player against each other. In some cases, you’ve got to work together to conquer the game before it conquers all of you. These sorts of games can be a great break from tough head-on-head action and intense rivalries, and especially bitterness and resentment that often happens after one player beats another by a few too many points or a few too many times in a row.
Pandemic shines at (or at least very near…) the top of these sorts of games as a solid, well-put-together game that requires strategy, cooperation, and communication between all players.
How it Plays
Pandemic is pretty straightforward. Each player gets 4 actions on their turn. These actions can be some combination of moving from one city to another, either along a red line, between research stations, or by discarding a city card; removing “infection” cubes from their current city; building a research station in their current city; trading a card to another player in the same city; or “curing” a disease by discarding 5 cards of the same color as that disease while at a research station. In addition, each player is one of five “roles” which grants them a special ability. The Scientist cures diseases for 4 cards instead of 5; the Researcher can pass cards to another player regardless of city (normally you can only exchange the card of the city you’re in); the Operations Expert can build research stations for free; the Dispatcher can move other player’s pawns, and the Medic can clear off multiple infection cubes at once (or for free, once that disease is cured).
After those 4 actions, the player draws 2 cards – these might be colored City cards (used for movement, building research stations, and curing diseases). They also might be one of 5 (on normal difficulty; 6 for hard, 4 for easy) Epidemic cards – which I will explain in a moment. Player hands are limited to 7 cards, and if they every exceed that number they must immediately discard or play cards to get back under the limit.
After the player draws his or her cards, another set of cards are revealed from the “infection pile” – depending on the current infection rate, 2, 3, or 4 cards are revealed. These cards only have city names on them, and Infection cubes are added to those cities. Any city that already has 3 infection cubes on it when cubes are added “Outbreaks” – adding an infection cube to every single adjacent city.
Epidemic cards change this infection phase up slightly. When an Epidemic card is drawn from the player deck, the BOTTOM card from the Infection pile is revealed, and 3 cubes are added to that city instead of one. In addition, the discard pile of the infection deck (included that city you just drew and added 3 cubes to) is shuffled and placed ON TOP of the infection deck. The infection rate increases one step (which may or may not increase the number of infection cards drawn – it starts at 2, then each level is 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, respectively). Finally, the game proceeds with the normal infection phase as described above.
To win, players must cure all 4 diseases. They do not have to eradicate any diseases, although doing so (eradicting a disease means to remove every infection cube of that disease’s color after the cure is found) prevents any more of that disease infecting the board, even when its cities are revealed in the infection phase.
However players lose in a number of ways – if the player deck empties, if there are 10 outbreaks, or if every cube of a single disease is on the board.
Pandemic may sound fairly easy (or maybe it doesn’t, I dunno.) But the truth is, it’s challenging. It’s very easy to lose and very satisfying to win.
Actually, the difficulty scales with more players. Though there are 5 roles, the game recommends 2-4 players – and from my experience, I think it’s pretty much impossible to win with 5 (until you buy the expansion pack). 4 is quite challenging; you really have to work together and plan.
It’s not a perfect game; there are a few flaws. Sometimes the cards just hit you hard and fast, causing a quick loss that is completely out of your control. We had a game end in about 5 minutes when the red disease exploded in about 3 turns – where there had been no cubes at all, so no one was over there to do anything about it. When playing with 2 players, the game is a lot easier – even moving up to the “hard” mode with all 6 epidemic cards in the player deck, we are usually successful.
Like many cooperative games, it is possible for one person to “take charge” and just tell everyone what to do. This may make the game easier to win – especially with new or inexperienced players – but it takes away some of the fun and participation. If you are a leader in your group, make sure to bring the other playesr in, not just command them to do exactly what you say.
Player roles aren’t necessarily balanced. We groan every time the Medic isn’t dealt in on a 4-player game, because that role is quintessential to managing infection cubes. Meanwhile, the Operations expert really isn’t all that useful; it’s generally pretty easy to get research stations down, and once 2-3 stations are placed you don’t need to worry about those much, and that role gets no other benefit.
Also, I don’t always mention box art, but good grief- this game has some of the worst box art I have ever seen. It is ugly and likely off-putting to anyone who doesn’t already know what it is; Trust me, look past the box. The game inside is worth playing, and it’s a lot more fun than it looks.
Okay back around to the good stuff. Pandemic only takes about 45 minutes to 1hr to play. When it does swing wildly against you, the game ends a lot quicker, ending the suffering pretty quick.
The single-player-taking-command thing is slightly negated by the rules that do not allow players to show their hands; they can only tell the other what they have. This at least requires some element of participation from every player, though not solving the problem completely.
Pandemic requires planning, discussion, strategy, and thought. You can’t simply throw your cards at the game to win. Aside from the occassional outlier, Pandemic is very challenging but always possible. You have to balance moving around the board and clearing infection cubes with managing hand sizes and getting to the cure. With the hand size limit, you can’t build up 2 cures at once, which means you might have to get rid of cards that would be helpful in the future. There’s always at least 1 role not being filled, so you have to make up for that role’s special ability.
Games often come down to the last turn, win or lose. The situation always feels desperate, like you just need a little bit more room. When you finally emerge victorious, you really feel like you’ve accomplished something, like you’ve overcome the odds to save the world!
… even if your world is pathetically overrun with infections by the time you reach the fourth cure. It doesn’t matter, you’ve still won!
Sometimes it’s great to play on a team. Instead of fighting your friends, you’re working with them. And no one likes sickness and disease, so it’s a worthy opponent. Pandemic is a great game with only a few very minor flaws, and you should try it.
I’ve already written a review of Pandemic on my blog. The gist: Pandemic is one of the best games at creating good tension (another one is The Resistance). It can be a little easy, but it’s hard to beat as far as cooperative fun is concerned. And it’s nice for once not to have a nemesis attempting to thwart my schemes.