Eleven Game Changers: Pandemic

We’re continuing our series on Game Changers, the titles that changed our hobby in one way or another. Here’s a quick recap of the previous games in the series:

Today, we’re going to be talking about a game that provided a jolt to a genre within board games that some people thought would never take off:

image by BGG user Rokkr

Pandemic came out in 2008 from designer Matt Leacock and publisher Z-Man Games. It is widely considered to be the game that launched cooperative games into what there are now – namely, one of the most popular genres in board gaming.

Way back in 2000, Reiner Knizia designed a game called Lord of the Rings. It was based on the Tolkien epic, and had players as hobbits traversing through Middle-earth, taking the One Ring to Mordor. All players had to work together to be successful, which made this game unique in the Eurogame market.

It did not start a wave of co-ops on the market. Five years later, another co-op called Shadows over Camelot was released, this one innovating the idea of a traitor. But it suffered from some of the same problems that LOTR had, namely that it was fairly scripted and pretty dependent on luck to get a win. Many people came to the conclusion that co-ops just wouldn’t work. I remember listening to a podcast sometime after Pandemic’s release (it was an older episode, maybe from the year before) where the host talked about how it would be impossible to design an effective AI for a co-op, and that they just couldn’t be compelling enough to play. I wish I remember what it was so I could go back and link it here.

And then, Pandemic hit. It was a game with a very intriguing theme – disease was breaking out all over the world, and you had to stop it before it got out of control. After every turn, new cities get infected, with an epidemic system refreshing those cities so you can’t get let them get too out of control. The ultimate goal was not to eradicate disease, simply to cure them all.

The system caught the imagination of gamers everywhere. It was a smash hit, and other companies quickly went into production on their own cooperative games. By the end of the market was soon full of high profile cooperative games – Space Alert from Vlaada Chvátil, Ghost Stories from Antoine Bauza, Red November from Bruno Cathala and Jeff Gontier, and Battlestar Galactica from Corey Konieczka. And they keep going – the cooperative genre is as popular as ever.

Pandemic got its first expansion, On the Brink, in 2009. A second expansion, In the Lab, was released in 2013, coinciding with a second edition of the base game with upgraded art. Spin-off games started coming out in 2014, with Pandemic: The Cure (a dice game) and Pandemic: Contagion, the first game in the universe not designed by Matt Leacock (this was by Carey Grayson). 2015 saw the release of the third expansion for the base game (State of emergency, co-designed with Thomas Lehmann), as well as the game that would go on to be #1 at BGG, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 (co-designed with Rob Daviau). Beginning in 2016, new themes started being applied to the universe, with Reign of Cthulu (2016), Pandemic: Iberia (2016), Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017), and Pandemic: Fall of Rome (2017). Pandemic Legacy Season 2 came out in 2017, and Pandemic: Rapid Response (2019, designed by Kane Klenko) was released in 2019.

2013 edition – image by BGG user W Eric Martin

The game is played on a map of the world. At the start of the game, nine cities are infected with 1-3 disease cubes. Players start in Atlanta. On your turn, you can do four actions. This can be any combination of the following:

  • Movement: Move to an adjacent space. If you discard a card matching a city, you can move directly to that city. If you’re in the city that matches the card you discard anywhere. Or, you can move between research stations.
  • Build Research Station: This is done by playing a card that matches the city you’re in. One research station starts the game, in Atlanta. You’ll want to build more.
  • Treat Disease: Remove a cube from the city you’re in. If the color of disease that is present has been cured, remove all cubes of that color. If all cubes of a cured disease have been removed from the board, that disease is eradicated and you never have to worry about it again.
  • Cure Disease: Turn in five cards of a single color at a research station to cure that color disease. If all four diseases are cured, you win.
  • Share Knowledge: If you’re in the same city as another player, you can give them a card matching that city.

There are different roles that allow you to enhance some of these actions, but I won’t go into those right now.

Once you’ve taken your four actions, it’s time to draw new cards. Draw two cards, and take them into your hand (you have a limit of seven cards you can hold). If you draw an Epidemic card, you’ll increase the Infection Rate (thus potentially increasing the number of cities you must infect each turn). You’ll also draw the bottom card of the deck, and put three cubes in that city. You then shuffle all discarded city cards, and place them on top of the deck.

Finally, infect some cities. Draw the top card from the deck and put one cube of the appropriate color in the indicated city. This will be done up to the number of times indicated on the Infection Rate track. If the infected city already has three cubes, an outbreak happens. Put one cube of that color in each connected city. This could potentially cause more outbreaks, so resolve them one at a time. Get too many outbreaks in a game, and you lose.

This continues until the game is won by curing all four diseases. You lose by getting eight outbreaks, running out of the draw deck, or not having enough disease cubes left to fulfill demand.

image by BGG user basilmichael

Pandemic caught people’s imagination not only because of the theme, but because it managed to recreate the tension or a global outbreak mechanically. There’s an inherent amount of randomness there from the card draws, but Leacock managed to keep it from being too lucky simply by having a mechanism in place that put discarded cities back in play. You can’t just ignore a place with three cubes in it because it will be awhile before the next reshuffle. You never know when an Epidemic is going to come back up and put those cities back in the infection deck. Just like you never know when a disease you thought was contained will come roaring back. And because of the randomness still involved, the game never really feels scripted. Certainly, strategies have evolved over the years and you can have a basic plan. But it’s just as important to be able to adapt to the changing environment.

What Pandemic proved conclusively was that cooperative games could be designed so they’d run themselves, and players wouldn’t have to put themselves in the role of a baddie to make it click along. The explosion of co-ops on the market in the wake of Pandemic’s release prove that. So, Pandemic was definitely a Game Changer.

But, despite its lasting impact, it wasn’t the biggest Game Changer of 2008. More on that next month. Thanks for reading!

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