The Jaded Gamer

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Humble Pie

Alec Chapman
United Kingdom
Lincolnshire
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Anyway, how's your sex life?
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"She said the same thing about waffles."
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Microbadge: Offline from The Geek for a while
A game I repeatedly sneered at for years is Pandemic.

The central problem of any co-op game is not, as some would say, the alpha gamer (which is a problem with the gamER, not the game) but instead the difficulty in balancing the solvable puzzle parts of the design with random elements, forming something that isn't too obviously one or the other.

Simply put, I didn't think Pandemic did a good enough job hiding the maths from the players - in its original form (which I played a few times) it seemed to me that it was solitaire with a scoreboard. I was enough of a snob to point out that really your win or loss was already determined by the shuffle at the start and you were just going through the motions.

That is, obviously, still the case if you were to somehow play every game optimally - the deck can still be set up in an impossible way. The mistake I made in my earlier gaming days, was to think this actually matters.

As I have grown into a less dogmatic gamer I have come to accept that the real goal of gaming is to have fun, not to achieve some indefinable sense of every game being beatable with the right approach. This has led me in time to reinvestigate Pandemic, finding that it actually has a lot going for it.

1. Theme
There aren't a lot of untapped themes in the world of gaming and it's great to have a theme that is so universally inoffensive (very few people want to see diseases win) and without the super geek baggage that sci fi and fantasy themes have. The artists have also done a good job of showing gender and racial diversity in the cards.

2. Teaching
When the hardest things to learn in a game are the movement rules, you're probably onto a winner from this point of view. I still regularly forget the "discard the card showing the city you're in to move anywhere" move myself, which may well be why I lose so much. Usually it can be taught to brand new players in about ten to fifteen minutes, max. Less if they're happy to be talked through their first game.

3. Size
For a long time I preferred Defenders of the Realm because it had dice; it has models; It has nice cardboard sheets. However, it's also too big to take anywhere without large logistical considerations, meaning I never actually played it. Pandemic in the new edition and even with both expansions may be heavy, but fits into a messenger bag with room to spare. This means most importantly....

4. It will actually get played
The combination of the three factors above means that unlike Defenders of The Realm or Arkham Horror, which have more rules, are harder to transport and have geekier themes, I actually play Pandemic far more regularly that either of those. It is obvious from my other blog posts that I view a game that gets played as more valuable than one that doesn't, making this a huge consideration.

and finally..

5. (Mostly) great expansions.
My main complaint with Pandemic's expansions are that they contain an awful lot in which I have no interest.

The bioterrorist from On The Brink looks utterly pointless; the Team Game seems a waste of cardboard; the solo card is just a bizarrely unnecessary variant. All of those explore design space that is just more interesting in a dedicated game or, in the case of the solo card, by picking two roles!

This doesn't mean those bits are bad, but I just will never use them. However, the addition of the new roles, virulent strains and purple disease in On The Brink and then the far more thematic cure mechanism from In The Lab are exceptional.
They make it possible to exprience more interesting stories and unexpected events in each game in a way that I always felt was lacking from "vanilla" Pandemic.
The large number of extra roles means that there are more interactions to discover and exploit and while some are more useful than others, all of them can be great!
e.g. I was less than enthused by the idea of the contingency planner. Then I saw him in action.

Also, I'm shallow enough to know that new players will love the petri dishes and cure vials - increasing the "oooh what's that?" factor of the game (see 4, above)

There is still one thing that niggles me no end - and its the player pawns.
Why oh why oh why did they ever think they needed to release a new pawn for every single new role?

It is unnecessary, and if you pick two with very similar colours then you're totally screwed and have to use a proxy in any case. This is also exacerbated by the need to swap your pawn when using the role changing event card. Just an unnecessarily fiddly bit of component design.

Take a quick look at Flash point: Fire Rescue for what is undoubtedly the best method. You need only five pawns. Each player gets a card with their pawn colour on it, and roles are uncoloured. Sorted. I'll be making my own colour cards for the future, since it's hardly expensive to do so, but the way Pandemic has approached this has pushed the costs and fiddliness up unnecessarily, I think.

I think by removing things like the pawns, the bioterrorist and the team game, a single combined expansion of the rest would be better value for your money. I do realise that In The Lab didn't exist when On The Brink came out, and firms can make money however they want, but... er... that would be what I would do.

So in summary, this post is my apology to this well designed, accessible game that has already been a huge hit for me with gamers and non-gamers alike. Even better than that, my wife enjoys it too.

I was wrong. I have humble pie in the oven, for dinner.

A

PS: I also prefer the new artwork. I know many don't, but I do.
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