Pandemic Board Game Review | The Mega Article

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

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

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

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

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

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 - 10/10

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

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 Bioterrorist card that adds a hidden-identity element to the game.

Pandemic: In the Lab

This expansion, 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. New Virulent Strain Events and a Worldwide Mutation scenario offer extra variety. The 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.

Pandemic: State of Emergency

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

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

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 - 9/10

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. Mini-review coming soon.

Pandemic: Contagion

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 - 8/10

Pandemic: Legacy Season 1

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 - 11/10 (What? We're fans of This Is Spinal Tap, so we reserve the right to give a game this awesome a score of 11/10.)

Pandemic: Legacy Season 2

Shrouded in mystery, Season 2 of Pandemic Legacy is due to hit later in 2017. Set decades after the fall of civilization, this looks to be both a departure from the template of the original and base game and an evolution of the Legacy concept. Can it live up to the hype and lofty expectations? We'll be ordering on day one to find out.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

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 - 8/10

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

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

Announced on 8/29, then temporarily delayed due to the unfortunate timing of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Pandemic: Rising Tide appears to be 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 rising tide.

More details will surely follow soon. Despite the unfortunate timing, we're excited to learn more about this game that promises to be a departure from the Pandemic we've seen before.

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.