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Subject: A gamer's and gamer's wife's review of Pandemic rss

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Keith S.
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I consider myself a casual gamer at present. I enjoy playing board games, and have a decent collection, but don't currently have a "game night" and don't go out of my way to put games in front of various circles of friends/family (at least anymore). So, I'm not the kind of person that camps out at the local M&P for the latest releases. In this case, judging by how long it took to get a copy in stock and in my hands, I probably should have. Z-Man produces excellent games, but his access to the necessary printing/binding equipment seems to be limited. I chanced across a couple of copies hanging around in a Go Toys And Games store this Christmas season, the result of a special order for some other gamer, and "self-gifted" a copy.

Pandemic is firmly seated in the unusual but growing category of cooperative board games. It's not a new category, depending on your definition of "new"; I remember ads for The Omega Virus from much younger days, and the perennial favorite Arkham Horror dates all the way back to 1987. I do not own either of these, but I do own Red November, which has a similar "things spiraling out of control" feel. Most of my comparisons will be to RN as the games are conceptually very similar, but mechanically and thematically very different.

Upon opening the box, there was an "uh-oh" moment. The wooden Medic player token, arguably the most-requested role in the game, had a big split in the side all the way from top to bottom into the center of the token. Though it doesn't affect gameplay, the look and condition of my games is one thing (of very few) that I'm OCD about, so it bugs me. I'll grab some filler putty and a can of orange semi-gloss spray paint and fix it when the weather turns a little more pleasant outside. Likewise, a few of the cubes are a bit wonky; again not affecting gameplay, but slightly irking.

In Pandemic, the threat is the spread of four deadly diseases, code-named red, blue, black and yellow. That's one of the pleasant surprises for my wife and I; the game introduces but does not overdo the whole disease theme, so you're free to accentuate or downplay it in "table talk" as befits your gaming group. I think the level of presence of the theme is perfect for encouraging an objective view of the game's challenge, while not disallowing table talk on a far more personal and grisly scale. Red November's art and theme are far more present, which has directly contributed to the lack of table time it has received; when your gaming group includes a war historian and a U.S. Navy veteran, it's hard to get the group excited about saving a Soviet Gnomish submarine from the threats of fire, flood and malfunction that, at one point, were very real to some of the group.

However, like Red November, collusion between the players is outright encouraged, double-edged sword though it may be. Where in most other games it would get you called all sorts of nasty names, the game is the enemy, and the game board and pieces couldn't possibly care less if you teamed up against them. I call it a double-edged sword because people have different ways of "teaming up" that can be incompatible. The most game-death-causing player style is the "dictator"; the one who starts giving orders as to what the players should do on their turn, stubbornly clinging to even a flawed or failing plan of action because he thought of it. While coordination and a sound plan are key to winning the game regularly, the Dictator, like in many games allowing cooperation, can easily kill the fun of the game for other players, especially if there is more than one player vying for the Dictator role. If you have potential Dictators in your gaming group, be prepared to control or even exclude such players when playing this game.

Conceptually, the game's mechanics are similar to Red November; players each spend available time performing tasks that will hopefully improve the overall situation, while during that time, the game keeps throwing hurdles into the players' path that worsen it. However, the mechanics in Pandemic are, IMHO, far lighter and more intuitive than RN. In RN, players get up to 60 minutes to spend performing tasks to help keep the sub afloat, and there is a careful balancing act to consider when deciding how much time to spend on a task; spend too little time and you could fail, while spending too much time can cause other bad things to happen. In Pandemic, the mechanics of a turn, though similar in flow, are far simpler to track; you perform four actions (which ostensibly all take the same time and cannot fail), draw two cards, and then infect X cities depending on the current Infection Rate. There are cheat sheets provided describing most available actions and how to perform them, and most special cards and Role-based rule modifications are very intuitive.

However, it is possible to lose track of, or incorrectly count, actions taken, especially when certain Roles are in play. For example, my wife played her first two games as a Medic, meaning she had different rules for the Treat Disease action than I did. This confused her to no end, as she would alternately think more or fewer actions were necessary to treat the disease, and when I corrected her she asked a lot of questions that were succinctly answered with "because you're the Medic and I'm not". Similarly, when she was the Dispatcher, the extra rule for moving one pawn to where another pawn was located confused her; she thought the two rules on the card were redundant until she understood the significant difference of moving a pawn to where another pawn was located.

To combat this confusion, when explaining the game, I highly recommend leaving out the Roles until the very end; the game will be far more intuitive to new players if you first explain how things work normally, then pass out Role cards and explain that if a player's Role card says to do something differently than how you just explained, then THAT PLAYER ONLY should do the action the way the card says. The Dispatcher card should be the only one requiring any clarification, because it basically introduces two additional overlapping rules: 1) the Dispatcher can move any pawn, not just their own, but must discard cards and spend actions just like the other player would have to if they were moving, EXCEPT 2) if moving a player to another player's current location, it just costs an action; no cards are required to be played.

Despite all the initial confusion, my wife, who generally dislikes 2-player games, loves this one; the big draws in our opinion are the cooperative gameplay and the relatively lightweight gameplay mechanics, making it "one for all, all for one, let's dive in and get it done". In summary:

Pros:
+ Co-operative; players form a single team and win or lose as such.
+ Lighter mechanics; the general flow of a turn and the resolution of infections is easy to understand compared to other games with similar multi-phase turns.
+ Light theme; though present and contributory to the game experience, there's nothing overly graphic about any game bit, image or mechanic that would be a turn-off to squeamish players.
+ No player elimination; in RN, players can "die" in certain situations (usually when trapped in a flooded or on-fire compartment), usually requiring the "less deadly dying" optional rule to avoid arguments and hurt feelings about losing your gnome. In Pandemic, nothing is fatal except losing the game, and players contribute from start to finish even when it isn't their turn.
+ Good replayability; scalable difficulty and randomization of roles and infected cities creates a different game for each player each time.
+ Allows a decent amount of house rules to further scale difficulty without "breaking" the game; for instance, players may choose their roles in a non-random fashion, using roles that do or don't work well together, or choosing roles with which players are tactically familiar or unfamiliar. Similarly, starting cities may be chosen non-randomly so as to maximize or minimize the likelihood and impact of Outbreaks.

Cons:
- Though lighter than many games on my shelf, there are still a lot of specific rules as compared to others, requiring a thorough, easy-to-understand explanation when the game is introduced to new players and/or casual gamers. Rules regarding movement and treating diseases in particular should be explained thoroughly before trying to play, or else the first game or two will be very frustrating for new players.
- Certain roles seem unbalanced; the Ops Expert, for instance, is useful only until all research stations are placed (which should happen as early as possible when he's in play); he then becomes a practically role-less player for the remainder of the game. Contrasting that, the Medic is a very powerful player for the entire game, which is very obvious from the first game, after which everyone wants to be the Medic to the point of being bummed about drawing something else.
- The cooperative aspect of the game requires a set of players who work well together; a gaming group that plays "every man for himself" or even "us vs them" games very well and civilly may fall apart when told to team up against the game itself.
- This one is definitely a nit-pick, but setup of the game is kind of unbalanced in terms of effort. Specifically, the guy who gets the task of setting up the Player Card deck is screwed; shuffle, deal to each player, then deal the rest into piles, add an Epidemic to each, re-shuffle each pile (which are small and nigh impossible to riffle), and stack. Very time-consuming in our experience. Even if that's the player's only setup task and he's reasonably efficient at it, the other players will probably have the rest of the game setup/reset before he's done, perhaps even infecting the starting cities.
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Steve Duff
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Nicely done.

A couple of recommendations: Email your publisher (Z-man etc) for a replacement pawn. And overhand shuffle.
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Joshian Grr
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Might I suggest the "On the Brink" expansion?
In addition to being an excellent expansion, and having the cool petri dishes for storage, it also specifically solves 2 of the minor problems you presented in your review: 1) The Ops Expert is revised with the additional ability to use any card to move anywhere from a Research Station, and 2) you won't have to worry about your Medic pawn being damaged, because there's a whole new set of (more-appropriately-sized) pawns.

 
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Keith S.
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jozxyqk wrote:
Might I suggest the "On the Brink" expansion?
In addition to being an excellent expansion, and having the cool petri dishes for storage, it also specifically solves 2 of the minor problems you presented in your review: 1) The Ops Expert is revised with the additional ability to use any card to move anywhere from a Research Station, and 2) you won't have to worry about your Medic pawn being damaged, because there's a whole new set of (more-appropriately-sized) pawns.



Thanks. We are indeed considering adding the On The Brink expansion, for the reasons stated plus the additional replay value of the various scenarios. However, for the moment the game has been shelved in favor of some old favorites, so we'll probably pick up OTB later on.
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Jeff Canar
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Also,

check the variants forums for two fan made expansions (the names escape me at the moment), both of which are sizable, add new roles, new rules, more variability in terms of how epidemics play out, new types of research facilities, etc...

Both are available from Artscow, and come in around $30.00 total (as there are some 150+ new cards). You can bascially pick and choose which elements you want to play with, and simply incorporate them into the game. Along with these fan made expansions and On the Brink, you have virtually unlimited re-playability. Granted, this also takes the total cost upwards of $80.00 for everything, but really seems to open up tremendous value given the base game.

take care,
jeff
 
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Paul Owen
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Any comment on how well Pandemic plays specifically as a two-player game (you and your wife)? We've had mixed results buying games for 2-4 or 2-5 players and then trying them as two-player games. Sometimes it works great (Agricola); sometimes it's a disappointing accommodation of a game that should really be played with three or four (Pillars of the Earth).
 
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Wulf Forrester-Barker
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It works great. I bought the game as a present for my wife for Christmas, having been looking for something we could play together; the idea of co-operation and the medical research theme (wizards and battles and spaceships are not so much her thing) made it look ideal.

We've played it a lot and still enjoy it. Having just two roles in the game can be challenging because each special ability is made more valuable when used in interactions with others. For example, Researcher, Dispatcher and Scientist would be a good set up, as the Dispatcher can get the Researcher to the Scientist to give cards over; take away any one of those roles and the logistical challenge of getting together in a suitable place to swap cards is much harder.

However, even if you lose the game, sitting down and enjoying time together is always a win.

Wulf
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Paul Owen
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Oh, how right you are! I just picked up a copy on eBay and have played twice now - once just with my wife, once with my wife and two sons. Both were terrifically fun. This has quickly become one of my favorites.
 
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Keith S.
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pdowen3 wrote:
Any comment on how well Pandemic plays specifically as a two-player game (you and your wife)? We've had mixed results buying games for 2-4 or 2-5 players and then trying them as two-player games. Sometimes it works great (Agricola); sometimes it's a disappointing accommodation of a game that should really be played with three or four (Pillars of the Earth).


The game works very well with two players, given that you understand two things.

First, the difficulty of the game, all other things being equal, goes up as you add players. While you get the extra advantages of each new role, because the Player Card deck doesn't get any bigger, there are roughly the same number of player turns in 4-player as 2-player, meaning each player takes half the number of turns they would in 2-player, and gets half the cards. This mitigates the value of the extra role advantages and the higher number of Player Cards in play overall. This means that two players will generally have an easier time winning, as they can each take more actions and draw more cards.

Second, while easier, if you use random role selection the challenge of the game based on the roles in play becomes far more variable. Grab pretty much any combination of the Researcher, Scientist and Medic, and the game will be much easier to win. Grab the Dispatcher and Ops Expert, and your only advantage is mobility; you get no advantages in treating disease or working with Player Cards.

Thus, the two-player game can be a little more luck-based in general; If you were lucky enough to draw the Medic (a 40% probability given random role selection), he can make the game very quiet given the right distribution of diseases and a good pairing role like the Scientist (cures disease with only 4 cards instead of 5) or Dispatcher (can spend their turn moving the Medic where he'll be needed in addition to moving themselves). If you don't have the Medic, you pretty much have to be able to cure and then eradicate at least one disease very early on in order to have a prayer, which requires very lucky hands dealt and/or advantageous initial distributions of diseases (like having one disease fail to appear in the initial setup).
 
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Jake Conde
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Just picked this game up and a full review coming. Played it four times now, three times with just my wife.

To the folks bashing the Ops Expert remember that 1) you can build new camps throughout the game (you move an older one) and 2) mobility is everything if you don't have a medic (only had Medic one time in one of the games).

Because you can't afford to burn up cure cards for travel purposes (at least not too often) the ability to build camps means you can cure diseases at their crisis centers and start eradicating hotspots immediately. This is literally how we won the only two-player game we won: My wife was the scientist, we were 1 outbreak and 2 cards away from losing, I cashed a card to travel to where she was containing some yellow fever, cleaned out one spot that was a potential outbreak, moved once more and built a camp immediately. Drew the last two player cards, no more epidemics thankfully! Drew the infection cards and one of them was the city I had reduced, so no outbreak! We were on our last turn then, if my wife couldn't cure the Yellow Fever before having to draw we would lose ... my wife moved three times to our new campe and found the cure! Hooray!

The moral: Don't bash the Ops Expert, he does heroe's work.
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