Someone has just collapsed. Perhaps he was just incredibly nervous… Or maybe he ate a bit of bad beef on the airplane…
But no. His recent travels, his various destinations, and the symptoms all point to one thing: disease.
And unfortunately, he is but the first in the epidemic wave. Can you isolate the virus and create the antibodies for the vaccine before it wipes out all of humankind?
How It Works
Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp is a solo puzzle/resource management game. The player is the director of the Department of Plague Control and is working to develop the cure to a virus before the virus can no longer be contained. If the player can eliminate the virus before the death toll gets out of control, he or she wins.
First the player chooses which side of the board to play on (the easier “bacterial” side or the harder “viral” side) and then adds and removes molecules as necessary. The player draws seven random molecules to form the basic virus, then randomly adds two positive events and two negative events to the molecule pool and shuffles it. The player shuffles the lab cards, the status report cards, and the protein pool.
Gameplay in Infection progresses through rounds of four phases: status report, player actions, containment, and clean-up.
In the status report phase, the player reveals the top card from the status report deck and does what it says. Each status report card has three events: a mutation event (which affects the virus, either growing it or changing it), a lab event (which affects the lab equipment or the relationships of lab workers), and a containment event (which affects the likelihood that people are dying from the virus). These events can be good or bad.
Next, the player takes actions. These actions can include buying lab equipment or hiring lab workers, harvesting proteins and placing them in vaccine antibodies, using lab workers and equipment, and fighting the virus with known antibodies.
The player then rolls a die as a “containment check.” The game has ten containment spaces, and the lower spaces offer a higher chance of success. Still, each roll is modified by the containment event and by the growth of the virus. Success becomes harder and harder to ensure as the game progresses.
After containment, the player resets the board (including available lab equipment and proteins) and collects funding (if playing the bacterial side) and then plays a new round.
The game ends in defeat if the containment check fails nine times or if the player is ever out of options (proteins to harvest). The game ends in victory if the player successfully destroys all the molecules in the virus.
Good Medicine, or Malpractice?
Board games are often praised for the way they bring people together around a common table, how they foster competition and interaction. And it’s true. I love those attributes of board games. But there are also times where other people are either absent or lame or flaky or tired, or they would rather do something else. And sometimes in spite of this, you still really want to play a board game rather than watching another episode of Doctor Who or trying to get every last quest object in Legend of Zelda. What are you to do in such a situation?
Play a solitaire game, of course. But not all solitaire games are created equal.
Victory Point Games has built up an impressive stable of solitaire games that are fun and engaging, including Zulus on the Ramparts and Mound Builders. But today I’m talking about the best one yet (at least of those I’ve played): Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp.
Looking at the cover of Infection, you might think the game is a horror ghost story. And, indeed, the game certainly brings you to the precipice of despair. But the game is also surprisingly lighthearted at times. One of the interns depletes the lab power because he’s watching Star Trek reruns, or another intern is caught sleeping, or any of a number of ridiculous entries in a comedy of errors are out to hamper your efforts to save the world. (Apparently even high-powered researchers aren’t all work and no play.) Infection is, surprisingly, dripping with theme. The game mechanics lend themselves to a puzzly abstract game (build this antibody out of matching shapes!), yet the game is infused with lots of flavor via its status report cards and even the visual presentation of the game elements. The game tells a story if you want it to, with each status report card detailing the reason why things will be harder or easier this round (and why you ignore the intern who blew the fuse).
That being said, the theme can also be ignored, which is something I appreciate. The important text on each status report card is bolded, so you can easily skip to the necessary bits. The first several games I played, I read every card and was engrossed in the theme. (Those were also games I won.) But as I switched to the harder-difficulty mode, I was more interested in the gameplay. Losing several games in a row fueled an obsession to try to win the game again.
In fact, the dual difficulties offered in Infection are one of its strengths. The game has a unique flow that is best learned on the bacterial side, which is much easier to win at. The reason the bacterial side is easier is that different molecules and antibodies are included for the virus and funding comes to you automatically at the end of each round. Both of these simple rule tweaks are a huge boon to heroic action. More funding allows you to get more done, to be more cavalier in equipment purchases and personnel hires. The different (and easier) molecules are both more prevalent and less complex, meaning you get a better return when you discover antibodies. The bacterial side of the board is still a little difficult–my wins were snatched from the jaws of defeat–but nothing compared to the viral side. The viral side is brutal and unforgiving, much the way certain flus have ravaged my body in years past. The world is in dire shape, and good luck to you if you can stop the virus in time. Funding is scarce and not at all automatic (apparently no wealthy philanthropists cares that the earth is about to be consumed in plague), and with the inclusion of the complex molecules, more protein resources are spent to worse effect (only one molecule each of M, N, and O are in the pool, as compared with the prevalent A, B, C molecules, and they have lots of protein slots to fill). I’ve not yet beaten the viral side without cheating.
And that’s the way I like things. One of my favorite solitaire games is Star Realms. In my several games against the Pirates of the Dark Star, I never lost (or even came close to losing). They went back in the box and haven’t returned to the table. The Nemesis Beast, on the other hand, beats me 75% of the time or more. And he’s the one I keep returning to fight. The same is true with Infection. While snatching victory narrowly from defeat is fun, it becomes less compelling when every game is a victory. But the viral side provides the kind of challenge that I like and that keeps me coming back for more.
As I mentioned, the game is very puzzly. You are trying to harvest proteins that will help you form antibodies, but you must also keep one eye on the virus and work on the antibodies that will be most effective in reducing its size. In order to destroy a molecule, it has to be exposed on three sides, which is easier said than done. So you’re trying to balance just getting antibodies made (since all molecules will have to be destroyed by the end of the game) and making antibodies that will help you at this moment. Further, you have to balance your funding. Funding can hire personnel (which help mitigate bad events or bad rolls), purchase proteins (which form antibodies), and acquire lab equipment. All of these things are helpful in managing your progress in the game, yet you also have to determine where funds will be best spent (especially in the viral game, where money is tight). Lab equipment is useful, but all of the pieces are situational, and you can use only one per round, and it has the potential to fail. Still, the more equipment you have, the more situations you have covered should bad events affect your lab. The game is thus an enjoyable balancing act between mitigating bad luck and managing meager resources.
Which leads to the “negative” portion of the game–negative, at least, for many players. Infection has a large dose of luck in it. You roll dice to determine whether the virus is contained, you roll dice to determine whether your lab equipment works. You draw proteins and molecules randomly. Status reports can be either good or bad and are drawn randomly from a deck. Random, random, random. I’m usually opposed to reckless randomness in games–for example, the wild imbalance of Cosmic Encounter, while fun for some players, is something I can’t stomach often (and wouldn’t choose to stomach ever). So much is dependent upon good draws at the beginning and during the game. Yet while I don’t usually like out of control random elements, I think they work fine here. Why? Because, first of all, they are very thematic. If a virus really were to break out across the globe, I would expect a little uncertainty among virus researchers. Secondly, there are really two types of antagonists in a solitaire game: a shadow opponent, and a force of nature. A shadow opponent I expect to behave in predictable ways. The Nemesis Beast in Star Realms, for example, is difficult to beat but easy to predict. A force of nature, on the other hand, is, like Mother Nature herself, untamable. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island does a great job of simulating this. And Infection falls into this second camp as well. Like Robinson Crusoe, it succeeds on two levels: 1) by telling a story about the random acts of nature, and 2) by offering players enough strategic choices that a defeat isn’t (usually) fully a defeat by blind luck: there’s some tactical error exposed through the randomness of events. To recap: if you are totally luck-averse, Infection isn’t for you. If you don’t mind some luck, Infection should be okay, since you have plenty of chances to mitigate your luck.
The rulebook for Infection is the other potential negative for the game. It is complete and adequately addresses each case in the game, but as with the other Victory Point Games rulebooks I’ve read, it’s a lot to take in at first glance. The organization is regimented, but almost too regimented. It’s hard to get an overarching sense of game structure as you read the rules, so for me, at least, I had to read the rulebook several times before feeling like I had a good handle on it. That being said, again, the rulebook is complete and easy to navigate once you know what you’re looking for. There is also a handy player aid on the last page of the rulebook, which should serve as an adequate reminder for most situations that arise in-game. The components for Infection are typical Victory Point Games components–that is to say, they are good, but not outstanding. However, of the Victory Point games I’ve seen, Infection’s components are the best. The artwork is great, and the tokens are fun to handle. The cards and rulebook are text heavy, but that’s not too big a deal. I’m pleased with the quality of the components included, but I’m not wowed.
Infection is a fun solitaire game that offers a real challenge (especially on the hard difficulty), compelling choices, and a thematic backdrop, all in a fairly short package. The game takes some space to set up, and the set up can be a little fiddly, but it’s not as bad in that regard as many other solitaire games (Robinson Crusoe or Nations, for example). The game succeeds in giving you a player vs. nature challenge to defeat, and the game, while epidemic themed, is distinct from the elephant in the gaming lab, Pandemic. All told, Infection is a very good solitaire experience. It’s tough to beat, which makes me want to don my labcoat again and again.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing us with a review copy of Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp