There are a lot of co-operative board games out there. For those occasions when you don’t have five hours to spare (cf. Arkham Horror), Pandemic is a good choice. Pandemic is one of the more commercially successful board games around and has and garnered quite a lot of critical praise. The reasons for its mass appeal are obvious: you can play it in less than an hour (a quick game can be over in less than thirty minutes), and it’s playable by a relatively wide audience, including those who recoil from a game of Eldritch Horror in, well, horror.
Part of Pandemic’s broader appeal is that its premise is immediately accessible. The world is under threat from four different diseases and it’s up to the players to cure them. Each player gets an investigator and some starting cards, and takes it in turns to perform actions to treat infected populations and travel around the globe, building research stations which can eventually be used to cure diseases. Each turn involves several phases: an action phase, draw cards phase, and ‘infection’ phase, which is the game’s chance to make things harder for you. When drawing cards there is a chance you will draw an ‘epidemic’ card, which causes more infections and ramps up the difficulty. There is a mechanic whereby repeated outbreaks in infected cities can cause a chain reaction, and a succession of these can cause you to lose the game. In reality, you have to be very neglectful to let this happen, and after a number of games we have never even come close to losing by this method.
Pandemic is not a particularly difficult game, and the main threat comes from running out of cards. Indeed, that’s the only way we have lost (once in about ten games), and the game’s strategy really revolves around trying to find the most efficient way of curing the diseases before the cards run out. This ‘card economy’ aspect of the difficulty is quite well balanced, but I would have liked there to be a bit more threat from infections. As it is, the best thing to do is just keep your head above water while ‘curing’ diseases, as otherwise you will run out of time, and if you’re out of cards then you lose even if there are very few infections on the board.
The investigator characters are a bit unbalanced, as well. One of them, Operations Expert, is extremely useful as he can travel anywhere on the board and build research stations anywhere for a trivial cost, making it easier for other investigators to travel as well. Another character, Researcher, has the ability to trade any city cards anywhere. You need to spend city cards to cure diseases, and to trade them both investigators usually need to be on the same city depicted on the card they are trying to trade, which is painstaking and time-consuming; but this one character trivializes the whole mechanic. Having either of these characters is a massive advantage, and having both basically breaks the game’s difficulty. There are ways around it, but it’s not ideal.
That said, the limited number of cards available does still put you ‘on the clock’ and this aspect of the game’s pacing is enough to give it a tactical feel, and debating the best course of action among yourselves is the best part of the game. On the whole, it is a relatively deep strategic experience for the limited time you invest, and certainly a good introduction for those, by age or inclination, not suited to playing more ‘hardcore’ games like Eldritch Horror.
The game can be picked up for £25-£30 and is pretty reasonable value for money. As the game is fairly streamlined, the box is not particularly full, and the limited character art is rather basic; but you do get a bunch of rather appealing transparent coloured ‘disease cubes’ which essentially look like tiny plastic cubes of raw jelly. The game’s success has inspired a number of expansions, as well; next time we’re on holiday with friends we might look into picking one up, to freshen the experience a bit. But Pandemic is definitely worth a go if you’re looking for a co-op game you can play with almost anyone and which won’t take up your entire evening.