Pandemic Board Game Review | All Versions Reviewed

Game: Pandemic
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Game Design: Matt Leacock

Artwork: Chris Quilliams
Board Game Types: Cooperative Board Game, Strategy Game, Hand Management Game, Ticking Clock Game, Action Point Allowance Game
Price: $39.99

Players: 2-4
Duration: 45 Minutes
Age: 8+ 
Time to Learn: 10-15 minutes

 Get used to those cubes. They'll haunt your dreams.

Get used to those cubes. They'll haunt your dreams.

There are few games as important to the modern board game resurgence as 2007's cooperative juggernaut Pandemic. Love it or hate it (and we love it), there is no denying its impact, and its massive success is well-deserved.

With that in mind, there was never any doubt that Nonstop Tabletop would review this game. But in light of the expansions, spin-offs and genre-shaking success of Pandemic Legacy, a mere review seemed inadequate. It's in that spirit that we'll be providing a Pandemic mega-page that we'll keep updated with new content so you can find everything you'd ever need regarding your favorite Extinction-Level-Event board game.

But first, on to the review:

Pandemic Board Game Review

 Can you save humanity?

Can you save humanity?

Game Description

Pandemic is a cooperative game where 2-4 players race against the clock and a four unique diseases, spreading across the globe, threatening to go from epidemic to full-blown pandemic. No less than the fate of the word is at stake as players' team of scientists, medics, dispatchers and various other specialists play a game of virulent whack-a-mole to prevent the fall of humanity. As it is a cooperative game, either everyone wins by curing all the diseases or everyone loses to a global catastrophe. The stakes are kind of high in this one.

Gameplay

Play begins as disease outbreaks infect nine cities across the globe. Players decide how to allocate four actions per turn: moving across the globe by driving or flying, building research stations, treating diseases, sharing knowledge with other players or discovering a cure to a disease. As it is cooperative, this leads to a lot of debate and scenario mapping, leading to a real sense of teamwork and collaboration. 

Get five cards of one color to a research station and one of the four diseases is cured. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. Each player has a maximum of seven cards, leading to a tight hand-management dynamic where trading, discarding and maximizing opportunities is a must.

Every turn, cities are infected. Making matters worse, the rate of infection increases as the game progresses. In addition, epidemic cards randomly appear, causing all of the previously infected cities to be re-infected, leading to fast-spreading chaos that always threatens to spiral out of control. 

There are lots of ways to die in Pandemic: Too many outbreaks? Dead. Ran out of disease cubes of one color? Dead. Ran out of cards to draw? Dead. There is just one way to win: cure all four diseases before time runs out.

Verdict

Pandemic is a modern classic and an absolute essential in every board game collection. Even a decade after its initial release, the cooperative play feels like a revelation. The game is easy to pick up and understand, yet complex enough to allow for deep strategic and tactical options to be endlessly debated. For new players used to the winner-take-all mentality of games like Monopoly and Risk, this game will show a world of possibility in tabletop they likely never considered.

The game manages to merge theme and game mechanics in a way that is so seamless and natural that it shines a light on thematic connections of most other games. The game makes players truly feel like there is something at stake and they are racing against the clock to save all of humanity from impending doom. That's not an easy feat working with only cardboard and plastic.

The game pieces are unique, with brightly colored translucent cubes representing each disease that are distinctive and functional.  The artwork and instructions are also excellent, and draw players right into the game play. 

The game's popularity has spread like a virus and it's now common to see the game in the largest of retailers, taking shelf-space from some of the dubious classics of the last few decades. The success is well-earned. Pandemic is one of the few games that is practically guaranteed to be played en-mass for decades to come.

Gateway Game Score - 10/10
Overall Score - 9.5/10

Pros

  • This is the game that put cooperative games on the map. A decade on, it's still one of the absolute best
  • White-knuckle suspense makes this a much more intense experience than most board games. In a good way
  • Near-perfect integration of theme and gameplay mechanics make for a unique, immersive experience
  • Easy to learn, difficult to master
  • Teamwork and comradery are a guaranteed by-product

Cons

  • Some players do not appreciate the concept of cooperative games. If they can't crush their opponents, there is no point. We disagree, but you might want to try a friend's copy if you are skeptical of the idea
  • The difficulty level is relatively high. Even on the easiest mode, losses will come easy and wins often have to be calculated down to the final card. Luckily, players get to choose their own difficulty based on how many epidemic cards are placed in the deck

 

Editions

The First Edition was released in 2007, with the second following in 2013. The 2013 edition added all new artwork plus the added roles of Quarantine Specialist and Contingency Planner.

Replacement decks have been issued for both the base game and the first expansion, On the Brink. If you have the first edition of either, it's recommended you pick up these replacement decks in order to ensure compatibility with other current and future expansions.

Official Pandemic Expansions

As a result of the explosive popularity of the base game, Pandemic has had three official expansions so far. We plan on adding mini reviews of each of these, so keep checking this page for updates. Here's the list:

Pandemic: On the Brink

Price: Out of Print

 Your jerk friend is here to destroy your research stations, infect the globe and generally mess up your plans.

Your jerk friend is here to destroy your research stations, infect the globe and generally mess up your plans.

On the Brink Mini Review

The first expansion to Pandemic spices things up with new roles, a fifth-player option, and new challenges that add depth and variety to the base gameplay. New challenges include a fifth disease, more deadly variants of current diseases, and our personal favorite: a Bio-Terrorist role that adds a furious competitive element to the game.

Virulent Strain mainly seems like a way to bump up the difficulty, but since this game is already plenty difficult with the ability to add extra epidemic cards, the main draw here is the layer of extra complexity. Mutation! takes things to a whole new level with a deeply enjoyable fifth disease and new mutation events to destroy your disease eradication plans. Far and away, the Scotland Yard inspired Bio-Terrorist Challenge is the best of the lot, adding an antagonist and changing the usually friendly dynamics of the game into an all out brawl for the fate of the world.

Is it Essential?

Yes. Though the fifth player addition was a little unnecessary (in a game this cooperative, sharing a role really isn't that big of a deal to facilitate higher player counts), the new variety, disease and especially competitive option add significant variation and strategy to the game. Regular Pandemic can feel a little vanilla after going through the Legacy games. On the Brink fixes that and keeps the base game fun for experienced players. Add this one to your collection.

Overall Score - 9/10

Pandemic: In the Lab

Price: $39.99

 Curing diseases just got much more complicated.

Curing diseases just got much more complicated.

In the Lab Mini Review

In the Lab, which requires both the base game and On the Brink focuses on the research aspect of the game with a new laboratory game board and four new roles. Gameplay is further diversified with an added single-player mode and the ability to compete in teams of two to be the first researchers to find a cure.

This is the only Pandemic expansion/spin-off so far that really fell short. The single-player mode is wholly unnecessary as the cooperative gameplay makes solo play easy: just assign yourself multiple roles. An overly dominate player can turn this game into a solo game pretty easily, so dedicated solo rules are pretty redundant and complicate things needlessly.

The Lab Challenge gives an actual use for the previously decorative petri dishes. This one is far better with larger player counts, but takes a lot more reading, Googling and understanding to play correctly than any other version of the game encountered thus far. 

The Team Game, on the other hand, is pretty enjoyable and allows for up to six players. The semi-cooperative spin on things is pretty fun and the hidden objectives add a nice element of intrigue and detective work to the proceedings. The easier difficulty makes this more of a race against your friends than a nail-biting, desperate attempt at survival.

Is it Essential?

No. If you need a solo version, just assign yourself mutiple roles. The disease discovery of the Lab Challenge will likely appeal to some, but the execution and especially rules feel a little clunky for lower player counts. The Team Game is pretty awesome, especially for introducing the game to cooperation adverse friends.

Overall, get this one if you're a Pandemic veteran looking for more options for 5-6 players. Otherwise, save this one for last.

Overall Score - 6/10

Pandemic: State of Emergency

Price: $39.99

State of Emergency Mini Review

Thankfully this expansion works with the base game without any other required expansions. This time out, three new challenges are added:

  • Superbug - A new untreatable disease emerges that must be dealt with by developing and administering a vaccine
  • Hinterlands - Diseases are spreading from animals to humans with deadly results
  • Emergency Events - Unexpected and unpredictable events add a chaotic element to the game

In addition, quarantines are added to make the game somewhat easier, especially when fighting the Superbug. Hinterlands, much like The Lab Challenge from In the Lab, doesn't really add much to the difficulty. It just adds a slight layer of complexity to the game to give a fresh twist for well-worn travelers. Superbug and Emergency events ratchet up the intensity, and feel something like a Pandemic: Legacy Season 0, showing off some of the ideas and mechanics that would later be perfected.

Most of all, State of Emergency, combined with the other expansions, finally fulfills the promise of a fully customizable Pandemic sandbox. Mix and match the different scenarios, modules and variations for a truly unique experience. It doesn't quite reach the customization insanity of Dominion, but to all but the most hardcore, it's deeper than you'll ever hope to get.

Is it Essential?

No, but it's awesome. For anyone hoping to have an unlimited amount of complexity and lifespan for the base game, State of Emergency, coupled with the other two expansions gives enough tools to play Pandemic forever without ever running out of fresh twists, options or difficulty levels. Were it not for the tsunami of excellent spin-offs to come, this could have made a nice endpoint for the series. Fortunately, there was a lot more to come.

Overall Score - 8.5/10

Official Pandemic Spin-Offs

Given the massive success of the original, a wave of knock-offs seemed inevitable. Luckily, Z-Man Games was about ten steps ahead of the competition and has stepped in to provide a steady stream of spin-offs and related titles that share the universe and/or mechanics of the original game, all while keeping a standard of quality that is, for the most part, right in line with the original.

These spin-offs vary widely, with some offering minor variations, others presenting brand new complimentary games and one of them surpassing even the base game (and almost all other board games) entirely. There's a satisfyingly deep (diseased?) rabbit-hole to fall into here.

Our goal here is to build out mini-reviews for each game so you can decide which to add to your collection. Keep checking back for updates. Here's the list:

Pandemic: The Cure

Price: $49.99

 Can we cure this? Let's roll the dice and find out!

Can we cure this? Let's roll the dice and find out!

The Cure Mini Review

It's Pandemic, but with dice! If you're looking for a condensed version of the base game that's somehow even better as a Gateway Game, with extremely fast set-up, this is the game for you. The only real con here is that the reliance on dice makes this game a little more luck-based.

If Pandemic is chess, then The Cure is checkers. Faster, lighter, less strategic and more tactical, but sharing many mechanical and visual characteristics, this is definitely the purse (murse?) version of the game.

As a cooperative game, the fast and more luck based nature of The Cure leads to more kinetic frenzy and less detailed multi-move plans to be endlessly debated. There are definitely pros and cons to that, but the important thing here is that the experience is varied enough that it's nice to have a distinct alternate choice for a Pandemic night.

Is it Essential?

Pretty much. Given that it can be set up in about a minute and flies by about twice as fast as the original, this one is essential for Pandemic junkies who travel or are looking for a slightly different take. 

Overall Score - 8.5/10

Pandemic: The Cure | Experimental Meds Mini-Mini Review

Price: $49.99

An expansion to this spin-off (whew) was released, titled Pandemic The Cure: Experimental Meds, which adds a fifth disease, Hot Zones and of course some new roles for good measure. It's not essential, but ups the difficulty and feels like a nice parallel to the expansions to the proper Pandemic. If you love or even prefer The Cure to the original, this will get you some extra mileage, and is probably the end of the line for this side series.

Overall Score - 7/10

Pandemic: Contagion

Price: $29.99

 It's Pandemic, but with competition! And you're the virus!

It's Pandemic, but with competition! And you're the virus!

Contagion Mini Review

Contagion is another disease fighting game, except this time you're the disease, competing to wipe out those pesky humans. That's right, unlike most other versions, this Pandemic is competitive; there's no cooperation here! Plus, it comes with plastic petri dishes, which are a nice touch.

Gameplay is fast and fun and manages to deliver a completely different experience mechanically, while still capturing the Pandemic feel to a T. Reminiscent of the excellent Tiffin, Contagion has players scrambling to allocate the necessary resources to be able to eradicate each city before a superior disease beats them to the punch. It's a bit morbid, but almost plays out like a dark comedy and doesn't get too heavy.

Is It Essential?

It's not quite essential, but definitely a great place to start for fans of the original looking for a light and somewhat warped take on the concept. It's fast, portable and (gasp) competitive. Plus, it gives you a sense of how tough life must be for those poor, misunderstood viruses.

Overall Score - 7.5/10

Pandemic: Legacy Season 1

Price: $69.99

 The Greatest Board Game of All Time? That might not be an exaggeration.

The Greatest Board Game of All Time? That might not be an exaggeration.

Legacy Season 1 Mini Review

Though preceded by the also-excellent Risk Legacy several years prior, Pandemic Legacy took the Legacy Game Concept to soaring new heights. In Pandemic Legacy, your team will play the game repeatedly, over a series of 12-24 games with huge plot twists and the events of one game impacting every game to come. Diseases will mutate, characters will die, you will rip up cards and you will be more invested in a board game than you ever thought possible. 

This game represents the future of board gaming in the best possible way. It's addictive, revolutionary in design and rightfully gets thrown around as one of the few games in contention for the Best Board Game of All Time. It's that good.

Is it Essential?

Yes. Go buy it now. If you have even a passing fondness for Pandemic, you'll love this game. It is truly the ultimate version. If anyone ever writes a book on the history of board games fifty years from now, this game will have a chapter.

Overall Score - 10/10

Pandemic: Legacy Season 2

Price: $79.99

 We're not in Kansas anymore Toto. Time for some post-apocalyptic fun!

We're not in Kansas anymore Toto. Time for some post-apocalyptic fun!

Legacy Season 2 Mini Review

Extremely mild spoilers for Legacy Season 1 follow. You've been warned.

Season 2 of Pandemic Legacy finally arrived in late 2017. Set some 70 years after the fall of civilization, this game starts out playing like Pandemic in reverse, where players work to keep cities supplied to prevent diseases rather than eliminating diseases as they spread. A huge emphasis on exploration was added, with only a portion of the board visible at the beginning of the game. Players will explore off-the-grid cities and add stickers to the board, unveiling new challenges and shocking surprises along the way. 

Does Season 2 live up to the hype and lofty expectations set by the original? It's hard to say without getting into spoiler territory, but the sense of mystery and discovery here is breathtaking. Exploring lost cities, putting stickers on the board when exploring regions that have fallen off of the grid, and find out just what has happened over the last 70 years since the fall of civilization brings a brand new narrative life to board gaming. Somehow even better than the first.

An oh, those spoilers. Jaw-dropping stuff, to say the least. Play it before you accidentally read too much...

Is it Essential?

You'd better believe it. This is the cream of the crop of the golden age of board gaming, and it's unfolding in front of our eyes. Play Season 1 first, but you might as well go ahead and buy them at the same time, because it's inevitable. The only downside is having to endure the long wait until the virus Gods infect us with (fingers crossed) Season 3.

Overall Score - 10/10

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Price: $49.99

 Things get downright ugly as you slog through cultists and Old Ones of unspeakable horror in  Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu .

Things get downright ugly as you slog through cultists and Old Ones of unspeakable horror in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

Reign of Cthulhu Mini Review

Pandemic dives into H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu universe of gothic horror. Portals are opening up that let Old Ones, creatures of unspeakable horror, invade the world. Investigators race to shut down sympathetic cults and close portals before it's too late. 

This one, much like Iberia, keeps the traditional Pandemic gameplay mechanics largely intact, though this one takes much larger liberties with the theme. The artwork is creepy, otherwordly and satisfyingly Lovecraftian.

The integration between theme and mechanics stretches a little harder here than in the other expansions and spin-offs, but this is far more than a simple re-skin. The ever advancing march of the Old Ones, the grotesque and extremely dangerous Shuggoths and the constant threats to your characters' sanity make this enough of a departure that it feels like a different game. Throw in the atmospheric aesthetics and this is not the Pandemic you're used to.

Overall Score - 7.5/10

Is it Essential?

No. If you love the main series and want a different take or are a huge Lovecraft junkie, this is a wonderful game and you should buy it right away. Otherwise, save this one for after you've exhausted Legacy, The Cure and Contagion. That said, if you need a Pandemic or gothic horror fix, this is your game.

Pandemic: Iberia

Price: $49.99

 Researching diseases in the 1800's? Hopefully this doesn't involve leeches...

Researching diseases in the 1800's? Hopefully this doesn't involve leeches...

Iberia Mini Review

Set on the Iberian Peninsula, consisting of Spain and Portugal, in the year 1848, Pandemic Iberia will be extremely familiar for players familiar with the base game.

The biggest changes? Seeing at it is set in 1848, there is no air travel, necessitating travel by ship and railroad. Diseases cannot be cured, only researched or treated. To counterbalance this, purified water can be used to slow the spread of diseases across regions. In addition, two added scenarios help spice things up and further differentiate from the base game.

If this all feels familiar, it's because it is. Moreso than the other stand-alone spin-offs, Iberia shares more similarities than differences with the base game. This game is similar to the original in much the same way that Ticket to Ride Europe is similar to the original Ticket to Ride. Fun little changes and improvements are everywhere, but nothing that fundamentally changes the gameplay.

Is it Essential?

No. It's a lot of fun, but really only for hardcore Pandemic completionists or those who missed out on the original. Perhaps the best market for this game would be people who often play Pandemic with friends, but don't have a copy of their own. This would be a great alternative, as then the group would have both versions to play, while avoiding the redundancy of duplicate copies.

A word of caution, though. This seems to be a one-time printing, at least of the version currently in print, so if you're interested in getting this game, we recommend jumping on it while you can.

Overall Score - 7/10

Pandemic: Rising Tide

Price: $49.99

 Good luck pronouncing these cities. Noordoostpolder, anyone? 

Good luck pronouncing these cities. Noordoostpolder, anyone? 

Rising Tide Mini Review

Pandemic: Rising Tide is a historical game set in the Netherlands during the dawn of modern flood control technology. Instead of battling diseases, players must manage floodwaters as they attempt to get primitive pumps online to stop the relentlessly rising tide. 

Rising Tide is a breath of fresh air, even for a series that seems to get better with each expansion and spin off. Rushing to control floods, pump out water and build permanent structures to deal with the relentless tide feels familiar, yet unique and incredibly intuitive. 

Is it Essential?

Yes. If you've read this far in the article, you should get this game. It likely won't be on shelves for long and it mixes up the standard Pandemic formula enough that it could have been released under another name by another company without triggering a lawsuit. It's inspired and makes a great addition for anyone in love with all things Pandemic.

Overall Score - 9/10

Pandemic Games, Expansions and Spin-Offs Ranked

Here is Nonstop Tabletop's definitive ranking of Pandemic games, expansions and spin-offs. We're weighting by overall influence, necessity to the Pandemic canon and staying power, so the ranking won't quite line up with our scores from the mini-reviews. That said, this list should give you everything you need to start your Pandemic collection:

Pandemic Games Ranked

  1. Pandemic: Legacy Season 2
  2. Pandemic: Legacy Season 1
  3. Pandemic
  4. Pandemic: Rising Tide
  5. Pandemic: On the Brink
  6. Pandemic: State of Emergency
  7. Pandemic: The Cure
  8. Pandemic: Contagion
  9. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu
  10. Pandemic: Iberia
  11. Pandemic: The Cure | Experimental Meds
  12. Pandemic: In the Lab

Stay tuned as we add more Pandemic games to this list as they are announced and released.

Article by The Happy Strategerist, who became a germophobe while writing this article.

What do you think? Does Pandemic fully earn its status as a modern classic? What other game should have broken into the mainstream instead? What's the best expansion or spin-off? Let us know in the comments below and watch out for continuing updates to this article as we aim to make it the ultimate Pandemic resource on the internet.

Also, but sure to check out our blogs on The Types of Games Everyone Should Know About, The Best Board Games to Hook Your Friends and The Ten Types of People Who Ruin Game Night.