Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You know how hard it is for me to shake the disease

I'm a bit late on the post, but we got to play three games of Pandemic over the weekend, and it has already jumped onto our "favorites" list.

This was our first taste of a 100% cooperative boardgame (aside from a really screwy Lord of the Rings game I was in several years ago that I later discovered we hadn't been playing even remotely correctly). We weren't quite sure what to expect, since it's pretty rare that a game that isn't specifically designed for two players scales down correctly.

The players take on the role of scientists from the Center for Disease Control, responding to simultaneous outbreaks of four deadly diseases around the world. Players have to balance treatment and containment of each disease with searching for cures; you can't win without discovering all four cures, but you lose if any of the diseases get out of hand or if there are too many regional outbreaks. Each character has a different role with its own special ability (for example, the Medic can treat an entire city in one turn, while the Dispacher can instantly move players around the world), so players have to use teamwork and communication to contain and ultimately cure each disease.

The game design feels like it's heavily stacked against the players, with several Epidemic cards seeded into the player deck that both cause new infections and intensify the existing ones. There's only one criteria for winning the game (finding all four cures), but a multitude of ways everyone can lose (eight outbreaks throughout the course of the game, running out of disease tokens of a specific color, or exhausting the player card deck). Even though it can be frustrating, the level of difficulty is a good thing for the longevity of the game. After all, if we knew we were going to win every time we pulled Pandemic off the shelf, it wouldn't come out very often.

Our first three games were on the "beginner" difficulty (four Epidemic cards in the deck). We quickly lost the first game to mass outbreaks as we figured out the rules. Our strategy formed pretty quickly, as we managed to win the next two games (barely -- at the end of one game there were only three cards left in the player deck, one of which was an Epidemic that would have put us over the outbreak limit). We're going to start stacking the deck with more Epidemics next time and see how the difficulty scales; I've read that five is hard, and six is absolutely brutal.

Pandemic is definitely going into our regular rotation of two-player games, and it looks to scale very well up to four players as well. It's definitely worth checking out if you want to take a truly cooperative game for a spin.


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