Reviewed by: Dave
Strap on your hero gloves, kids, it's time to save the world from the epic threat of... e.coli?
First released in 2007, Pandemic is a game that has earned piles of accolades over numerous years, multiple expansions, and even entirely new games spun off, the same idea built around different mechanics. But it's the original game that keeps players coming back, and rarely leaves first-timers walking away wondering if they'd like to play again- they always do.
For the uninitiated, the game works as follows: players take a role card at random, each having a special ability which 99% of the time needs to be used well in order to win. Diseases come in four colors, and spread according to the draw of infection cards (a certain number per turn, plus more disease placed when an epidemic card comes up). Players attempt to cure diseases by collecting five city cards of a given color and turning them in at a research station; players win when all four diseases are cured. (Diseases can also be eradicated by having both a cure and no disease cubes of that color on the board simultaneously. This is very helpful if it can be done without too much hassle, but not a prerequisite for victory.) Players lose if they run out of cards in the city deck (setting a timer on the game), if there are too many outbreaks (which occur if a disease is allowed to pile up unchecked in a city), or if they have no more disease cubes of any color when that color needs to be played (ie. that disease is now out of control).
To say Pandemic is perhaps the best co-op board game on the market is an arguable point, but a very defensible one. The strength of the game lies in the fact that every facet of it is strong, as opposed to being uniquely remarkable in some particular aspect.
-Complexity: Few enough rules that anyone can learn how to play within a few turns, yet every turn has options and most turns have multiple reasonable ones. The draw pile acting as a timer means that even on lower difficulty, players often find themselves needing to come up with the best possible strategy in order to win before the cards run out. Thus, outside of the rare game where the cards hit perfectly, there is quite a bit of, "Oh man, are we sure this is the best play?"
-Difficulty curve: Difficulty is adjusted by adding or removing epidemic cards from the city card deck. The suggested difficulty ranges from four epidemics as an introductory game, to six for the top difficulty. (The "On The Brink" expansion adds a seventh epidemic card for Legendary difficulty, along with virulent strains and a fifth disease that can be added if desired for an even tougher experience.) The difference from adding just one epidemic card is noticeable, but the addition does not ramp the game up so much that players are stuck feeling like one difficulty is too easy and the next too hard. The game is the same; success becomes a matter of perfecting strategy, which makes the game never feel unbeatable- just, sometimes, very very hard.
-Speed: Games take one hour or less. Given the complexity, this is very fast, and the game never feels like it's dragging.
-Replayability: With seven roles randomly distributed, the mix between even four regular players will almost always be different (though some combinations will prove stronger than others). Adding On The Brink (highly recommended) brings the number of roles up to fourteen, which makes the replayability endless and the need to adapt rather than rely on favored role combinations becomes of pre-eminent importance.
If anything will kill a co-op game, it's reaching a point where you can beat it every time. Pandemic is always beatable on the highest difficulties, but it will always have times where it beats you, too. You can't ask for more than that.