Classics: Pandemic


Once upon a time, co-ops were virtually unheard of.  No really.  As hard as it is to imagine in our modern world where every other game seems to be a co-op or have a co-op variant, there were remarkably few of them before 2008.

When Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings came out in 2000, it’s big selling point (apart from the fact that it was Lord of the Rings) was that players weren’t competing against each other, they were actually working together to defeat the game!  Mind blown.

You would expect that after its success, we would have seen a plethora of co-ops being released, but no.  I suspect many put the game’s success down to the license, rather than the quirky mechanisms – it’s not an especially well-regarded game by today’s standards, although I enjoyed it at the time.  Knizia’s timing was also positively prophetic as The Fellowship of the Ring came out in cinemas the following year.

It took a full five years before we saw another truly successful co-op in the form of Arkham Horror.  Incidentally, Shadows over Camelot also came out in 2005, birthing the semi-coop genre.  Arkham Horror, although long and unwieldy, captured people’s imaginations in a way no other game had before though.  The sense of teamwork in the face of overwhelming odds was euphoric at times.  Despite its flaws, the theme and epic sense of adventure endeared it to many, including myself – it is still one of my top 10 games of all time!

These seeds worked their way through designers psyches in the next couple of years and then in 2008, the co-op genre really took off and has never looked back.  We saw Ghost Stories from Antoine Bauza, Space Alert from Vlaada Chvátil and Battlestar Galactica (implementing another popular licence with semi-coop mechanisms).  However, all of these were eclipsed by the co-op to define all co-ops thereafter: Pandemic.

The thing that set Pandemic apart was that it was so accessible.

Prior to Pandemic, while all of these co-ops were good, or even great, in their own right, you would struggle to play any of them with your family or non-gamers.  The thing that set Pandemic apart was that it was just so accessible.  You could play it with virtually anyone from gamers to granny, and everyone was engaged.

In the highly unlikely event that you’re not already familiar, let me briefly explain how the game actually plays.  Each player takes on the role of a specialist based at the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) in Atlanta.  The board features a map of the world with all the major cities marked.  At the start of the game there are several diseases (represented by cubes) that are spreading around the world.

Players take it in turns running around the world treating the diseases (removing the cubes), establishing supply centres and attempting to gain enough “knowledge” (cards) to discover a cure for each of the diseases.  You draw cards after each of your turns, which allow you to perform special actions on the board (eg. fly directly to a location), but crucially you’re trying to collect sets of these cards to cure the diseases.

However, in a pattern that has since become a staple of many co-ops (do a few good things, then bad things happen), after your turn, the diseases spread adding more disease cubes to the board.  If too many disease cubes end up in the same city, there is an outbreak and you gets lots of disease cubes spreading to nearby cities.  You really want to avoid those!

There is only one way to win, but there are multiple ways to lose.

You have to cure all the diseases before the world becomes too overrun with disease.  In fact, this is another much-copied feature of more-recent co-ops: there is only one way to win, but there are multiple ways in which you can lose the game (too many outbreaks, too many disease cubes on the board or running out of cards).

How does it manage to be so accessible?  I’m sure that it’s tremendous success (Pandemic has been the People’s Choice number 1 game for several years) is due to the fact that there are several major factors that each make it very accessible.

Firstly, while slaying monsters may appeal to my son far more than stopping the spread of diseases around the world, for an adult who is unfamiliar with modern boardgames, Pandemic’s theme is highly engaging.  No explanation is required.  They get it.

Secondly, it’s co-operative.  My sister used to hate playing games as she really disliked the idea of a competitive game in which one person wins and everyone else loses (and as children, we were pretty bad losers!).  When I explained to her the first time we played Pandemic that we were working together, her eyebrows raised and her initial scepticism melted away.  After we finished that first game, she wanted to play it again immediately.  We ended up playing it three times in a row before I called it – I needed to sleep, but I think she would have carried on!

There’s another key aspect of any co-op that makes it very accessible though: if a new player doesn’t know what to do, you can help them.  There’s an intrinsic conflict of interest helping a new player in a competitive game, but not so in a co-op – you really want to help them!  If it takes them a few rounds to get the hang of it, nobody minds.  In fact, some people love giving advice.

It’s the perfect gateway game.

Finally then, it’s really a very straightforward game.  Experienced players will typically handle the disease bookkeeping (when they spread after each turn), so turns for a new player usually consist of, “Shall I go here and remove these disease cubes?” and everyone goes, “Yeah, that would be great!”  It feels good.  And yet, you can see that there’s more going on.  There’s definitely strategy to it, but the learning curve is so gentle.  It’s the perfect gateway game.

There are several expansions for it that provide more options and variety without becoming overly complex, but if I wanted to introduce a new gamer to the hobby, I would happily play base Pandemic with them despite having played it dozens of times myself over the years.  And once you’ve got the Pandemic bug, there’s always Pandemic Legacy if you really want to sink your teeth into it!

What do you think of it?  Is it a staple of your collection or has it waned for you over the years?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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