Preventing a Pandemic, or, Why the Dispatcher Really is a Great Role

For many people, the competitive nature of our favorite games can make it difficult to get our families interested. (This is especially the case when we tend to win a lot!) One solution to the problem is cooperative games, in which the players work together to reach a common goal. I cannot think of a better example of such games than Pandemic, in which players cooperate to find cures for four deadly diseases before they can wipe out humanity.

The game rules are simple enough: you have a board representing the major cities of the world, with links between them, and a number of colored cubes representing the diseases. Each player gets a pawn, which begins at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.  On your turn, you get four actions, each of which may be used to move to an adjacent city, play a card to move to the city it shows (or fly anywhere, if you’re already in that city), give a card to (or take one from) another player if you’re together in the matching city, treat (remove) one disease cube from your current city, build a research station, or cure a disease. Curing something simply requires that you be at a research station and discard five cards of the color you want to cure, which can be harder than it sounds given the seven card hand limit.

Of course, at the end of each turn, more cubes hit the board. Early on, they’re not too much trouble, but if too many cubes of one color build up in a city, they outbreak and spread to the surrounding cities. If you have to place more cubes of a color than are available, if you have too many outbreaks, or if you run out of cards…time’s up! You have failed to contain the disease, and the entire population of the Earth is wiped out. Thanks a lot, guys!

Each player also has a special power, given by a randomly-drawn role at the start of the game. The Medic, for example, can wipe out all the cubes of a single color in the city he’s in with one action, while the Dispatcher can move other player’s pawns around, making travel much easier. (Incidentally, while these are only two out of a number of roles, they’re some of the most useful, and the game is much easier if you have at least one of them). Other than the role combinations, players can set the difficulty by choosing how many Epidemics to include in the deck; when one is drawn, three cubes hit the board and the discard pile for new disease cubes is reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck, meaning that cities which already got hit recently are likely to soon be hit again..

The expansion, On the Brink, introduces a few elements that make the game more difficult – the Virulent Strain and the Mutation – as well as new player powers and the ability for one player to take on the role of the bio-terrorist, playing against everyone else with hidden movement. Most players seem to prefer keeping Pandemic a purely cooperative game, though, and find the cards themselves provide enough problems without adding in the terrorist. More roles are introduced as well, helping to keep the game fresh, including the previously released mini-expansion “De Generalist”.

This isn’t a particularly complicated game; it clocks in at under an hour, and is simple enough for non-gamers while still being interesting for gamers. At this is a coop, players need to coordinate their actions to keep things under control; hands are generally kept secret to keep the more experienced players from taking total control of the game. While the subject matter may be dark, the game is simple fun and often gets several players in a row, as a game can easily be finished in half an hour once everyone has played a few times.

The main problem with Pandemic, as stated, is that there’s a definite risk of the more experienced player or players running the entire game, while everyone else watches. There tends to be a lot of discussion as to what the best moves are, and it’s easy for the stronger players to end up making all the decisions. Of course, when you can avoid that situation, the discussion also keeps everyone involved in the game, avoiding downtime. What I like about the game, I think, is the way the pieces fit together: you end up with a different combination of roles each time, and you have to figure out how to make the available powers work together to cure all of the diseases. In that, it’s really as much of a puzzle as it is a game: how can you make the most efficient use of your powers and actions in order to save humanity?

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