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Pandemic Review

One piece that has been requested is for me to write up my review of Pandemic, by Matt Leacock. It was requested in the vein of “If you don’t like it, justify that verdict”. So I’ll skip to the end, which you’ve guessed already. Verdict: 🙁 .

Now onto the explanation. I’ll start with a very brief overview of the game, for enough detail as to be able to play it see as I prefer to use general game terms. Each player has a pawn, placed on a board which is an unweighted and sparsely connected graph of locations. Players can interact with the location they are at, or move during their turn. Each player has four action points on their turn, and a special ability. The game world is advanced after each player’s turn by drawing ‘infection cards’, which spread the diseases the players must fight (this is the opponent). Players also have cards, and they are allowed to discuss them but not show them to other players. This arbitrary distinction does force the players to talk to each other, meeting the minimal requirements for a cooperative game, but ends up meaning that everyone describes their hand each turn.

The point of Pandemic is to be a cooperative game. Thus I am harshest on how it encourages team-work and is enjoyed by multiple players as a group. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had a sheltered life in the corporate world, but I don’t believe it counts as team-work when you all do what one person says. Perhaps it’s just because I was a common player in all the games I played, but that’s what it turned out to be. The problem isn’t just one of bossy personalities though, the issue is with how the game plays. The only information unique to each player is the cards in their hand, and nothing prevents players from asking for that information at any time, as much as they want. Effectively all information is shared, which makes truly cooperative strategy difficult. In a complex game discussion about the correct strategy is possible, but not required. Regardless of whether Pandemic contains complex strategy, I have not played it as such and so the result was predictable: Everyone agreed on the obvious course of action and then we did it. It feels hollow to have cooperation where everyone feels like they could have played it themselves, that the other player moved the pawn was an arbitrary distinction.

Compounding this problem is how the turns are structured. Each player has several actions and the game state advances every single player’s turn, not once every time around all players. This is presumably to enhance the cooperative feeling, because a lot happens before it’s your turn again. However I find that it detaches me from the game, because there are large and influential swathes of time where I cannot directly affect the game state – no wonder I keep trying to tell other players what to do! This mechanic not only makes the player feel powerless, but also inhibits engagement in the game world. Perhaps this is due to my impatience, I’ve never been one to enjoy waiting through other player turns in turn-based games and that aspect is magnified by this design.

Now there were several “perhaps” in there. This problem does require certain players, perhaps whom all think alike and quickly. Or who happily list their cards because it seems obvious. Maybe it’s not common for people to quickly reach consensus about every move before it’s made, but this game is setup so that groups do not require high-speed telepathy to do that. The design may work for some people, but there is this hole that ruins it for certain players.

This isn’t a problem endemic to Pandemic. Most of the other cooperative games have this same feeling, about how you could have played it yourself and gotten the same result. Other cooperative games I’ve played with this issue include Star Trek and Forbidden Isle. It’s not an easy problem, as you get this feeling in any game with perfect knowledge, and you get perfect knowledge if the players are allowed to say anything they want to each other (arbitrary restrictions there will probably be resented by even more players). The one cooperative board game I’ve played which solves this is Space Alert, which has a real-time element which prevents you from just listing the contents of your hands. Another I’d like to try is Meteor, reviews of which highlight the same problem in other games ( I’ve tried brainstorming about my own solutions too, but nothing concrete yet.

Although that is my central pain point, I’m not a fan of other aspects of Pandemic. While the previous argument was that it feels like solitaire because of the strategy, the difficulty is comparable to solitaire as well, and one of the harder variants. By randomly adding infections based on a deck that’s frequently shuffled, there are times when you are theoretically doomed to lose (although based on random chance, just like solitaire). I believe that one of the key distinctions between a game and real life is that games should always be winnable situations. I’m not saying the players should always win, it can be a real struggle and the players can always fall short. But if the players lose, they should be able to point to their own mistakes in an after-action review and think “maybe next time I can do that right and progress farther”. It’s hard to do this fully in a game with random state from a deck of cards, but the frequent reshuffling of the infection deck makes this more likely in pandemic than a card based game necessarily has to be.

The final thing I don’t like is the theme, but that’s purely a matter of opinion. I’m just not a big fan of bio-hazards. Given the few themes that I do like, I’m not going to condemn it solely on this. Especially since the production quality seemed quite good, for people who like a bio-hazard theme the theme is done well enough to be a plus.

Overall I can imagine a group of people who’d enjoy this game, so I won’t think less of anyone for enjoying it. But I certainly did not. Verdict: 🙁 .

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  1. Frank Frank

    Good points made in this review. I like that this review is not just negative, but points to some better alternatives (eg Space Alert).
    You now have me interested in meteor!

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