Saturday, November 6, 2021

Cardboard Corner: Review of Pandemic

With the COVID situation burning a hole in our understanding of work, society, the world, even existence, what better thing to do than try and relieve some stress by cracking open what many board gamers revere as the granddaddy of all cooperative board games, Pandemic? Is it just what the doctor ordered (har har), or a relic of the past which has since been surpassed by the numerous other coop games on the market today?

In Pandemic, one to five players are charged with finding the cure to a global, viral outbreak. The board a map of the world with major cities interconnected by travel routes, players start by taking on one of five unique roles to fight the virus, then set forth on their globetrotting mission. Set collection combined with action points, players must collectively use their wits to move efficiently around the board knocking back outbreaks, setting up research stations, and collecting the cards necessary to find a cure. There are, after all, three losing conditions compared to only one winning condition.

If anything, Pandemic does an excellent job imbuing the player with a sense of urgency. Making them the proverbial Dutch boy standing at the dike, after a while it feels like there are more holes than fingers as the virus breaks loose on the world. Traveling to one location to eliminate the virus results in an outbreak in another part of the world, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to take the actions necessary to find the cure. Thus, as we’re seeing today where COVID is hitting hardest, sacrifices must be made, and a sad sense of utilitarianism must be deployed in order to decide who gets help and who doesn’t in the quest to eradicate the disease.

I have played Pandemic only five times, and while those five times were stressful, tactical fun, I question the longevity of the game. I can’t help but compare it to Arkham Horror: The Card Game, another cooperative game which sees players urgently trying to accomplish a goal while the horrors of the cosmos threaten to swallow them. And the comparison is not 1:1. Where Arkham Horror evolves (each scenarios’ mechanisms change to complement the setting), Pandemic does not. It’s the same setup and board every game, all the time, every time. And where Arkham Horror offers campaigns with narrative arc and depth, Pandemic is the same story, every time, all the time.

To be clear, Pandemic is well designed and fun. It’s a game that you and the kids (not too young) can certainly have an hour or two in laughter, surprise, and satisfaction—regardless winning or not. There is a wholesome sense of team work needed to play. But given the variety of cooperative board games on the market, it feels more like an introductory co-op game. I have not played the Pandemic Legacy games, but it appears they address this issue head on by converting the repetitive experience into one with evolving variety; players make permanent changes to the board, rules, game play, etc. in the course of the game’s narrative, which seems a more sophisticated, engaging experience. All that being said, there are thousands which consider Pandemic the greatest game of all time. Maybe you too?

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