Monday, April 25, 2016

Early Signs of Infection - A Pandemic Board Game Review

Pandemic was the first co-op game I enjoyed.


Rather, Pandemic was the first co-op board game I enjoyed. I've played plenty of RPGs and co-op video games that I've liked plenty.

The structure of the game is, boiled down to its essence, a game where you're randomly assigned pawn special rules, randomly assigned cards that give abilities and combos, and the board randomly (but in this case somewhat more predictably) presents challenges, and the players use their actions/bonuses to manage risks and threats, and will need to make some tough decisions regarding probability and which threat is most likely to occur or most threatening if it does.

Disease

I think the disease system is great. You have a Risk-like world map, and a bunch of city cards. Nine of these cities start in three levels of infection, ranging from low to high threats. Then, after each player turn, you draw more cities that each gain one level of infection- diseases randomly crop up all over the world.

When you hit one of the random (but roughly evenly distributed through the deck) Epidemic cards, you draw the bottom card from your deck, adding that city at the highest threat of infection. Then, you shuffle every city card that's been drawn back into the deck, meaning that all those cities are now known threats, and you'll go through every one of those before hitting new threats.

Each time a city at the highest level of threat takes another level of infection, it has an Outbreak, and all adjacent cities instead take one level of infection. This can cause chain reactions, and each time it happens, one of the game's doomsday clocks ticks down.

I think this is a brilliant mechanic. It's intuitive. It represents disease spread (the theme) organically. It creates a known set of escalating problems for you to deal with, while allowing new wrenches to be thrown into your plans. It's fast. It's by far the smartest part of the game, in my opinion.

It also does a good job setting the pace of the action and how risky players' moves are in an oscillating degree of difficulty rather than a more predictable curve over the course of a session.

Players
Each player gets a random role. Along with your regular actions, you each get one special action, some of which are just plain old better than others. You can have protective auras, have enhanced mobility, be more effective at controlling disease, etc.

You also get a set of action cards, the quantity of which is based on the number of players. The majority of these are city cards. These give you a set of special actions, most notably the option to spend one on its corresponding city for a special effect, or the ability to jump to the city (also spending the card to do so).

What you spend a large portion of your game doing, however, is walking to nearby threats and spending actions to lower the disease level there.


The cure (end game)
First, there's only one way for the players to win- they need to cure each of the four diseases. In order to cure a disease, one player making a hand of 5 of the same "suit" in the right location (at a research station- you start with one and can build more).

Finding a single cure makes the corresponding disease easier to combat, and if you're lucky enough, you can turn all of that disease's cards into null (i.e. no disease spread) ones by removing every disease counter from the board before more an appear. While this feels like it should be effective, and is definitely satisfying, it's also typically very inefficient unless you're lucky and one's already mostly dealt with.

The reason there's a problem here is that you're fighting several clocks at once.

-There's a countdown (mentioned above) of outbreaks.

-If you ever run out of a given type of disease tokens (these are discarded back into the pool when you remove disease, so as long as you're not letting a pile run out, you're okay), the game also ends.

These are both controllable countdowns, dealt with by preventing problems from getting too bad. The Epidemics, which cycle disease cards back into your deck, and eventually increase how many disease cards you draw are the opposing force to this control.

-And finally, there's the absolute countdown, of your action deck- every time you have a turn, you draw (and discard if your hand's too large- this draw comes after your turn, so you don't have the opportunity to spend your cards in reaction), you never shuffle, and when you've run out of cards, the game's over. This one also is remarkably well-timed to the number of turns you need to take to win- it's very a difference of one round between a win and a loss.

(Players aren't removed from the game- there are promo rules where players have health, but these are also team losses.)

My group mostly plays on standard difficulty, and I have to hand it to the designers, they made a tight game. My group is pretty well-versed in gaming, though definitely a bit on the casual side (we try to avoid rules lawyering even if we talk about it outside of games), and the game almost always gets within a turn or two of the difference between a win and a loss. Sometimes it swings, but the majority is in a very narrow spectrum.

If the only metric of the game were closeness of games, I'd say this ranks among the best of them. And close games are definitely something I value highly in games- I've kind of made it my gaming motto that I prefer a close loss to a resounding win, the point being, close games are exciting (and probably better balanced, whether that's game mechanics or opposing player skill level).

But, that's not the only criteria I judge games on.


Theme
I'll reiterate that the disease system is fantastic.

But the rest is... not very impressive. Some of the player characters just aren't very good. And I have no idea what your hand or matching random cards to cure things or occasionally getting events you can play at any time represent. In contrast, it's extremely abstracted and only makes any sense in the context of people being used to card games. Are you... getting special data from other places that only you have access to? Getting connections that allow you to take a jet there (but not your compatriots)? Exchanging relevant information?

It's just a matching system to give you choices, and it just plain isn't very coherent.

Aesthetics
It's kinda' clean, and doesn't have many pictures, which are decent digital paintings that look a touch cheap considering the relative weight behind it. It looks nice enough. IDK. It's unobtrusively competent.

I do like the superfluous but interesting information on the cities. It's helped me out with geography, at least marginally.

Also, it's nice that it's very obviously and actively fairly multiracial and evenly divided across genders, so that's a nice, progressive touch that's not all that common.

Difficulty
So... this is where things start to get really hairy. I know it's a thing some people like, but I don't. Harder difficulty just adds more bad things happening. It pushes things from about even odds, to bad odds. You can play as intelligently as you want to, and you can definitely win, but there's just a lot more of an element of needing to fight against the odds.

It feels like it's punishing for the sake of punishing.

The rules don't get more complex or nuanced. There isn't a new mechanic added. It isn't about greater risk-reward gambling (not to be confused with smarter gambling, since there often are two equivalent threats). It isn't about having a perfect sense of the rules or something similar. I haven't felt that the tactics really change, just the odds of success.

I was never that much of a fan of old arcade-style games where replay value is based on difficulty rather than depth, and this is kind of the same, except not even with escalating skill. I felt the actual skill in the game plateaus fairly quickly, and after that it's just whether you're able to beat the odds on hard mode or not.

Beyond this, I don't think the game scales very well- 2 player just has worse odds. Again, it doesn't feel like there's a missing tactic there (you don't get to choose much), you just don't have the resources (hand size, ability to spread out and cover regions) to effectively play. You can change tactics, but it's only part-way there.

Co-op
So, what this all comes down to is, this feels like a cooperative puzzle. You all look at the board, and somewhere down the line, someone comes up with the best option, or best couple of options, and the player whose turn it is executes one.

There's not the dexterity element of co-op video games. There's not the roleplaying aspect of RPGs. There's no timed element to make the cooperation a challenge. There's not the customization and attachment of my current favorite co-op board game (Kingdom Death). This latter bit might have changed in Pandemic's new Legacy variant. I don't know. I haven't played it, and, at the end of the day, I have a hard time justifying buying another edition of a game I already have, with a destructive element and a higher price tag. Either way, this version of the game gets kind of repetitive and isn't very co-op once you've figured it out.

Maybe some circles have glory hogs or other attitudes that make the co-op element more interesting, but it doesn't in our pretty actively cooperative group.



Conclusion
Again, this was the first co-op board game I liked. But, with more experience, I just don't feel it lives up to the hype.

It's a well-made game, and one of the more accessible well-made ones, but the more I've played it, the more I've felt it lacks something. I believe, at the end of the day, that something is replay value.

There's a very heavily random aspect to the setup of the game. I think this masks an ultimately very repetitive game mechanic. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. Sometimes diseases are thoroughly spread out. Sometimes there's a concentration of problems in Europe. It seems to usually be Asia for us. But, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter much. It's whether you're removing red cubes or blue cubes.

If you get a chance to play a few games, I'd highly recommend it because it's a smart game and worth a few plays. But, I wouldn't buy it without playing more than a few, since I feel like it quickly runs out of interest once you understand the mechanics, know what to expect, and the novelty has worn off.

(Note: I believe this is the second edition of the game that I've photographed/reviewed, and the one that, last time I checked, is what's available in game stores.)