Issue 20: A Pandemic deep dive

Hello!

A happy Monday to you all, and I hope you had a weekend full of games and excitement. Or, barring that, I hope you had a nice weekend with something else you enjoy. And if you had a bad weekend, I hope you have a nice week this week and that next weekend is a good one.

Not a lot to report back on my side here. I played Gudetama recently, which was a delightful trick-taking game based on the Cucumber card game, a Swedish trick-taking game. It’s actually the first take on Cucumber I’ve played, and I’m really into this idea that you don’t want to take the last trick, and only the last trick.

No real housekeeping beyond that. If you’d like to share this newsletter with somebody, please forward it on to them. I’m taking on the Pandemic series this time around, which remains one of my favorites. With light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel just starting to peek out, I feel comfortable talking about the games. However, if you don’t, please don’t feel like you need to read my take on the games. It’ll be here when (or if) you’re ready at any point, and I know that we’ve all dealt with this incredibly difficult time differently.

So, without further ado, here’s my look at the Pandemic series.


One of the great modern board games is Pandemic, a game that took cooperative games to a new level, introducing entire audiences to the concept. Its enduring influence has reached beyond that first game, too: The release of Pandemic Legacy Season 1 has reverberated through the industry, with campaign and legacy games seeing a real boost in the last five years.

Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic, has had an outsized influence on board games, putting him among luminaries like Uwe Rosenberg, Reiner Knizia and Alan Moon. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Pandemic series, especially how it’s changed, what it’s done to break out from the original game, and evaluate the various iterations.

Pandemic

This is the game that started the series. It is very good. I think it holds up extremely well.

Which is to say, there are few games that have done quite what Pandemic does. There are games that use cooperative play in more inventive ways, there are games that have escalating concerns, and there are games that communicate information more effectively. But Pandemic does all of those things really well, and it combines those concerns expertly.

Beyond being a very good game, Pandemic is interesting because it has helped define an entire generation of cooperative games. Spirit Island? I don’t think you get the very successful cooperative game without going through Pandemic first.

Pandemic: On the Brink (Expansion #1)

As the first Pandemic expansion, On the Brink is an interesting study in the direction Leacock took the game. Instead of the Ticket to Ride mentality of ‘new maps, plus a little bit of new gameplay’ (which I do like quite a bit, too), this is a ‘variations on the theme’ sort of expansion. There’s a fifth disease you can include, a challenge in which one disease takes on new qualities, and a challenge in which one player is a bioterrorist in a sort of hidden-movement challenge.

More notable are the new roles and new event cards, which I have kept in the base game from the time I got the expansion all those years ago. These have become inseparable from the base game, adding a little more variety in player choice.

This should be the sort of thing to which expansions aspire. They should either provide content that becomes so important that they never leave the base game box, or they should provide play unique enough that they are a real departure from play. On the Brink does both really well.

Pandemic: In the Lab (Expansion #2)

In the Lab is kind of weird. I think the Virulent Strain events are a nice twist on the game, but you know what I don’t really need? A lab where I sequence diseases. It’s just not why I play the game. The map is where the fun is, so keep the core of the game there. Rant over.

Pandemic: State of Emergency (Expansion #3)

So, I haven’t actually played State of Emergency — at least in a long while — but I like the idea in theory. But again, see my above rant. Keep the game on the main board. I don’t need another board. That said, I will take every new role you give me and use them in the base game. Also, maybe things get just a little too real here.

Pandemic: The Cure (2014)

That the first real spin-off of Pandemic was a wholly dice-based game is of particular interest to me. I tend to enjoy Pandemic: The Cure, but it’s not one that makes my table too often. In this iteration, you’re basically rolling dice of different colors, which have different value distributions, which then get placed in different ‘regions’ that are arranged in a circle.

That circle sort of mirrors the map, which works well enough as an analogy, but I think it lacks a little bit of the familiarity and charm of a recognizable map. In fact, that may be my biggest hang-up here. It’s not even necessarily the game itself, so much as the name. Recognizing that, it’s one I need to get to the table just a little more often, especially with an expansion that adds some variety to the game.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015)

There’s a reason this is still one of the highest-rated games on BoardGameGeek, several years after its release. Pandemic Legacy is a tremendously successful game in what it sets out to do, and that’s to give continuous, evolving gameplay to one of the most successful board games of all time.

While I hesitate to spoil anything, what Season 1 provides is a whole slate of mechanics that provide such a surprising iterative experience that you’ll constantly be surprised. Those mechanics? Well, again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but a lot of what made this game sing ended up in other iterations in the series.

As the second Legacy game (after Risk Legacy), it’s again interesting to see just how much Matt Leacock (and, in this case, Rob Daviau) influenced the board game industry. The influx of legacy games — campaign games in which you shift and change the game state permanently over the course of play — may have slowed slightly in the last year, but only after a big boom.

Pandemic: Iberia (2016)

This is probably my favorite Pandemic variant. The absolutely stunning art and theming draws me in, and the gentle variations on the base game keep me locked in. There are two major variations worth calling out: the building of railroads and the ability to purify water. Railroads let you move more freely across the map, and purified water offers some temporary protection from the influx of cubes.

I don’t know how exactly Iberia ended up being my favorite of the main series (I don’t think I can rank the Legacy games against the Survival Series, given how different they are), but it did. It’s probably a combination of the art, the faithfulness of the game to the original, and the slight twists given to make it just pop.

Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017)

This is where things started to get weird, and I like it. Gone are the colored cubes that represent different diseases, and instead you’re facing an influx of water into the Netherlands. You might think it doesn’t work, but I actually love it — it’s about the challenge and the way it’s represented in the way it travels across a map.

One of the major twists here is that there is just one single type of cube with which you must contend: water. You’ll build dikes to keep it from flowing in from the ocean — a task that seems simple, but it will require coordination and extended clean-up. The long-term effects of a single failure can be devastating. It’s a challenge that becomes a nice, compelling one.


Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 (2017)

So, I’ll try to be light in what I discuss here, what with spoilers and all, but I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about this one after playing through it last year — mostly in January, which simultaneously seems so close and so far. At any rate, this is a big departure from the base game and Pandemic Legacy Season 1. You start with just a small area of the map revealed (this is not a spoiler!) and you reveal it (I don’t think this is a spoiler!) over time. The cubes are all the same color, a lot like Rising Tide. The flow of the game feels very different. Story takes the front seat a lot of times, and you sort of have to pay attention to it. It’s a very different sort of game, but it was a really fantastic experience.

Pandemic: Fall of Rome (2018)

Continuing the theme from Rising Tide, Pandemic Fall of Rome is another non-virus take on the series: In this one, you’re facing groups invading historic Rome, and the map is actually a bit more linear than in other Pandemic games. Each turn, cubes will move forward on multiple paths toward Rome, which you’ll try to halt before they sack your capital. It’s the newest of the three in the series, and it’s probably the one I’ve played the least.

Pandemic: Hot Zone — North America (2020)

This is the first Pandemic game that I felt didn’t add anything to the series, and that’s probably not too surprising. It’s basically a smaller version of base Pandemic, with fewer diseases and fewer locations. It’s almost just a demo of the full game, which is actually how it started its life, but it just feels like it’s missing something. If I only had half an hour to play a game, and I wanted to play Pandemic, I’d probably play a different cooperative game instead — Forbidden Island, maybe? That said, I’m curious what Pandemic: Hot Zone — Europe is like, and since I never really learn, I’ll probably play that one and see how I feel.

Also: a colon and an em-dash? Who titled this game — me?

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 (2020)

This is currently sitting on a shelf waiting to be played through with some friends we played Season 2. I won’t report too much back, what with spoilers and all that, but I’m tremendously excited, and I’m completely on board for a prequel, even if it is kind of a weird twist. But on a high level: Spies? Yes. I’m in. Let’s do this.

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What I didn’t include

  • Pandemic: Contagion, the 2014 competitive game in which everyone plays as a virus trying to infect people. A) It’s too soon for that; B) I don’t actually enjoy the game and don’t consider it canonical.

  • Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, a Cthulhu-themed variant of the original. I’m just not particularly into Lovecraftian horror, both because of Lovecraft’s problematic qualities and because it’s just not a theme I ever got into. It’s fine if you are, and I’d love to hear what you think of this variation on the game.

  • Pandemic: Rapid Response — I feel a bit weird including this one here, because while it does have the Pandemic name, it’s the first one that’s not designed by Matt Leacock at all. Still, it’s a canonical part of the Pandemic series, so it bears mentioning. Is it amazing? I don’t think so. It’s a bit of a fun real-time game, but it’s not particularly a Pandemic game. Ah, well.

  • Pandemic: 10th Anniversary Edition, which I think is nice but just isn’t something I’ve thought to buy at this point. I don’t know, maybe I will want to someday. I don’t really need miniatures — those pawns in Pandemic are iconic at this point — and I don’t particularly feel the need to pick it up right now. Still, the art looks a bit nicer and more refined, so I might end up talking myself into it. I better stop now!

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