Pandemic – Review

I got a chance over the weekend (well, Saturday, as Sunday was taken up by other things) to play a few more games of Pandemic and I think I now have a pretty good idea of how the game works. So below you will find the review I promised last week when I was talking about Co-Op games in general.

Pandemic: Game Overview

Pandemic is, as I have already stated, a co-operative board game for 2 – 4 players where the players work together to try to stop four diseases from getting out of hand and overtaking the world. Each player takes one of five roles and receives a unique power. You will need to use teamwork and these powers to stem the tide of disease and find each of the four cures before time runs out.

The Game Components

  • 5 wooden pawns in five different colors
  • 6 wooden tokens representing Research Stations
  • 1 board which depicts the world, with many major cities marked
  • 6 tokens (4 double-sided cure tokens, 1 outbreak token, 1 infection token)
  • 96 Disease Cubes in four different colors
  • 59 Player Cards
  • 48 Infection Cards
  • 5 Role Cards
  • 4 Reference Cards

The cards are of good quality and the tokens are solid. The wooden pawns are larger than in most games but this does make them easier to find. The board is not of the best quality but it is certainly adequate. In fact the only complaint anyone has had about the product itself was that the sections within the box for the cards allow the cards to slip underneath the divider and thus are not very useful for storage purposes.

The Cards

Pandemic offers two kinds of cards, Infection Cards and Player Cards. In the infection deck there is simply one card for each city on the board. The board, as well as the card, show you which of the four diseases starts in that location, and when an infection card is flipped it means that disease pops up or spreads in that city.

The player cards also have cities on them and colors, but the player deck also includes six special cards and between four and six epidemic cards (depending on the skill level you are playing at). Players begin the game with between two and four cards (depending on the number of players) and draw more cards each turn. These cards are used for traveling around the board, building Research Stations and treating diseases.

The Game Basics

Player turns are divided in three phases:

  1. Take four actions (or less if desired)
  2. Draw two cards to your hand (discarding down to seven if you go over the seven card hand limit)
  3. Take on the role of the infector

Pandemic is a fairly quick game to set up and play. Each player is given a role card (which means that even in a four player game one role will always be missing, leading to different strategies as a result) and between two and four player cards. Then the initial infected areas are determined. Nine Infection Cards are flipped, with the first three areas getting three disease cubes each, the second three areas getting two cubes each and the last three getting one cube each. Then the player who was sick most recently (yes this is in the rules) goes first.

Each player has four actions per turn. Actions include:

  • Moving (to an adjacent city, using a card to move to the card’s city, using a card for your current city to move to any city, or moving from one Research Station to Another)
  • Treating disease (removing one block from the area you are in)
  • Build a research station (using a card for your current city)
  • Pass a card (or take a card) matching your current city to another player in the same city
  • Discard five cards of the same color at a Research Station to discover the cure for that disease

The five roles can each break these rules in different ways. The Dispatcher can move other players, the Operations Expert can build Research Stations without a card, the Scientist only needs four matching cards to discover a cure, the Researcher can pass any card to another player in the same city, and the Medic removes all cubes of one color when treating disease.

I’ve already explained how the first part of each turn works and the second is pretty self evident. The third part is really no more complicated than any other part of the game. The player whose turn it is simply draws cards from the infection deck equal to the current infection level and adds one cube of the appropriate color to the city indicated.

Epidemics and Outbreaks

Within the player deck (distributed evenly during the prep phase so that they are not all clumped together) are Epidemic cards. When an Epidemic card is drawn the game pauses for a moment. The player who drew it takes the bottom card of the infection deck, reveals it, and then places three disease cubes of the appropriate color on that city. Then the infection deck’s discard pile is shuffled and placed on top of the draw pile.

The result of this is very interesting. The cities that have already been stricken with disease are the cities that will again show up. I love this mechanic. It is both simple and brilliant and it puts a lot of pressure on the players, but in a fun way.

Outbreaks occur whenever a cube is about to be added, for any reason, to a location which already has three cubes of that color. Instead of adding the cube, one cube of that color is added to each adjacent city. This can and does cause other outbreaks, but a city can never have more than one outbreak in a turn.

Wining and Losing the Game

To win the game players need to find all four of the cures. They do not need to eliminate all the diseases from the game board, however. On the other hand if a disease is removed from the game board and the cure has been found it can never come back, which offers its own advantages.

While there is only one way to win, there are several ways to lose. If players ever need to add cubes of a color and can’t do it because they are all on the board, they lose. If eight outbreaks ever occur in one game, they lose. Or, if all the player cards are drawn the players lose.

Infections, Epidemics, and Outbreaks Oh My

Pandemic is a fairly simple game with simple rules that are easy to learn. It plays in about thirty to forty-five minutes and stays at a high level of excitement and interest throughout. If you are not a fan of Co-Op games then you may similarly dislike Pandemic, however as far as Co-Op games go this is certainly one of, if not the, best. The rules are very clear and any time we needed to check something it was easy to find. I think the whole group found the game interesting and enjoyable.

While the game does not offer the immense spectrum of events, characters, and situations as a game like Arkham Horror (for which I just got the new expansion and will be talking more about in short order) the conciseness scope of the game is part of what makes it great. There is always the chance that things could end up going very badly but the game is built in such a way that the extremes are avoided, and while randomness exists (I can’t think how you could make a Co-Op board game without randomness) the players are given the tools to deal with, and overcome, the randomness.

Feel free to chime in if you have played the game, I always love hearing your opinions!

    Matt Says:

    So far there are two things that impressed me about the game. The first is the feel of the game. From the first turn till the last it feels like a challenge, but not one that’s overbearing. Each turn presents new problems to solve and as such keep the game moving incredibly well throughout. This seems to happen because of the powers each player is given at the start of the game and having the group find a way to use them to their advantage. Also the board is always changing. New diseases pop up and new areas must be cleared to prevent outbreaks. Even when you get to end game it’s still engaging because it feels like your still in it if you are losing or if you are winning there still is something there that could snatch away victory.

    The other thing that impressed me is the rulebook. While it’s not the game itself, it’s just as important to me as a person who has spent countless moments arguing with other players how to interpret an unclear game rule. Since the internet age rulebooks I believe have suffered. This is because if something becomes unclear you can just post a FAQ on your website. Unfortunately as a player, until that happens you have to make a house ruling. This may change how the game was intended to be played. The rulebook in this game has none of that. Whatever question we’ve had the rulebook has stated clearly the answer. They looked at every angle and there seems to be no question how to play the game. While this seems to be a small thing on the surface, it does a lot to enhance the enjoyment of the game. The group doesn’t have an arguement over a rule and we don’t have to take a lot of time to figure out the answer to a rules questions which detracts from the game itself. I wish more game companies (video game companies too) would take a cue from Z-Man on this one and spend more time on their instructions.


    This one sounds pretty cool. Since I found out that the co-op Army of Darkness board game is significantly hard to find, this might be the next one I look for to introduce to the group.

    Matt, I second your thoughts on the rulebook, poorly written instructions are a pain when trying learn a game and settle [the inevitable] rules disputes.


    I linked to this once under my article about co-op games in general. This is a completely download able version of the Army of Darkness game.


    While I haven’t printed out the Army of Darkness game yet, I did recently get to play Pandemic with my group (thanks Mike!)

    I have to say its simplicity and clean design are its great strengths, leading to a co-op game that’s fast and tense throughout.

    We did get one thing wrong the first night (my fault for failing to read the rules, they were clear despite my eye jumping over some text) and instead of shuffling epidemics into player card piles then stacking them, we had separate piles that we picked from. Which lead to us trying to stave off epidemics by picking from certain piles… we still got demolished the first game, but by the second we managed to minimize the epidemics we encountered, to the point where it was too easy.

    That mistake aside, it’s really a fun game.

    I think we may even be ready to ratchet the difficulty up to Advanced next time we play – getting the hang of the Operations Expert was critical for us, at first we dismissed that character as useless. In fact, the rotating character availability is another facet I enjoy, it helps to make each game different and encourages adapting strategies.

    Overall a great design by Matt Leacock.


    In On the Brink they re did the Op Expert. You can see the changes online. Apparently your (and our) groups were not the ones that felt he was a bit underwhelming.