Monday, 31 March 2008

Pandemic

It has been a slow month in boardgaming, being busy with work. On Sat 29 Mar, Han came for a session. The previous session was 4 weeks ago. Definitely too long ago. This time he brought along his niece Juliet, who is not a newbie, but this was the first time she joined us in one of our sessions, and although I have met her before, I think this was the first time we played a game together. We played Pandemic, In the Year of the Dragon and Felix: the Cat in the Sack.

Han brought Pandemic, a very new arrival (but he had already played it three times before our session yesterday), and also a game I was very much looking forward to try. It has been getting many positive reviews. Pandemic is a cooperative game, where the players are a team of scientists and doctors trying to save the world from four deadly diseases. The only way to win the game is to find the cures to all four diseases before time runs out, but there are multiple ways to lose. You lose if there are too many outbreaks, if any one disease has spread too widely, and, of course, when time runs out.

The game starts with all players having a meeting in Atlanta. Some cities are already infected with deadly viruses, so the smart guys need to have a meeting to decide what to do. Each player is a specialist in a particular field, and has a special ability, usually allowing him/her to ignore a specific rule/restriction. Other than that all players have the same abilities and can do the same things. Once the game begins, the players will be traveling around the globe trying to do two things: to find cures to the diseases, which is the long term goal, and also to control the diseases locally at specific cities, which is a short term goal. There are two decks of cards in the game, which I don't remember the names of and will just call the good cards and the bad cards. Every end of turn the active player draws 2 good cards and 2 (or 3, or 4, depending on the infection rate) bad cards. The good cards mostly show a city and a colour representing one of the four diseases. You need to collect 5 cards of the same colour to cure the disease of that colour. You can also use the cards to do actions specific to the city, e.g. flying to/from the city, building a lab (needed for developing a cure and can also be used as an airport). Each city only appears once so sometimes keeping track of which cities have been used or discarded is important. The good deck also contains some one-time-use special action cards. The bad cards also show cities and colours, but instead of being useful to you, they increase the infection level of the cities shown. The maximum infection level that a city can take is 3 (i.e. 3 cubes placed on it). Once this is exceeded, an outbreak occurs, which means instead of adding one infection cube to that city, you add one infection cube to every neighbouring city. Sometimes this can cause a nasty chain reaction. Thus the importance of keeping the infection level down while at the same time working towards the cures. In the bad card deck the cities also appear only once, and here it is usually quite important to keep track of the cities that have come out.

One key aspect of the game is the Epidemic cards. These cards are shuffled among the good cards. When an epidemic occurs, many bad things happen. The infection rate increases, i.e. you may be drawing more bad cards per turn from now on. You draw the bottom card from the bad deck and add 3 infection cubes to the city depicted on it, i.e. that city will either be on the verge of an outbreak or it will already have one. Then you shuffle the discard deck of the bad deck and put it on top of the deck. This means that the cities which have had infections before will have infections again, just that you won't know in what order. I find this ingenious.

Han and Juliet. We had completely eradicated the red disease (I think of it as SARS) by this time.

The board is nice. The components are nice. The only gripe I have with the components is the board gets a bit crowded. Not enough space for the disease cubes, the player pieces and the labs (the "longhouse").

One solution is to stack the infection cubes like a tower. See the blue tower in the background.

Pandemic is a race against time. You lose if your good deck runs out before you find cures to all four diseases. You lose if the 8th outbreak occurs. You also lose if any one of the diseases become so widespread that you run out of cubes to be placed onto the board. I find Pandemic to have a good balance between tactical and strategic play. It is also easy to teach and quite quick to play. I quite like it, and would have decided to buy it after playing it if Han hasn't already bought it. It is simpler and shorter than Lord of the Rings, another cooperative game that I like a lot.

I find Pandemic to be quite exciting. We played the medium difficulty level, i.e. with 5 epidemic cards mixed into the good card deck. Han was the medic, and was able to remove 3 infection cubes with one action as opposed to the normal 1 cube per action. Juliet was the scientist, who could find a cure to a disease using 4 cards instead of the usual 5. I was the researcher (who was, coincidentally, green - my colour), i.e. I could build a lab without needing the card for the city that I was in. Juliet started with many red cards, so we started off focusing our effort in Asia curing SARS. We not only found a cure, we even eradicated it, which means the virus was completely wiped out and new SARS infections could not occur anymore. So from that point onwards we kept hoping to draw red cards from the bad deck because that would mean no effect.

After that we had some nasty outbreaks of the black disease (rat plague?) in India and the Middle-East. That was where our attention turned to next. We eventually managed to cure that, but not eradicate it. It may not always be worth the effort to eradicate a disease. Yellow fever was the next to strike. We had a few more outbreaks. Then in our last round we realised we had lost. I had enough blue cards and was near enough to a lab to cure the blue disease, but Juliet was just short of one yellow card to cure yellow fever. I had 2 yellow cards at convenient locations which I could have passed to her, but her turn came first so I couldn't get to those cities in time to be able to pass her the cards. Not enough actions left. We were out of time. We only needed one more turn, just one turn and not even one round. In hindsight we probably should have planned our last few rounds more carefully. Also if we had saved our airlift special action card, it would have saved the day.

I really enjoyed the game and hope to play again.

It was my third time playing In the Year of the Dragon, but the first time for Han and Juliet. They did well! Han won with 109 points, Juliet was only one point behind at 108, and I, the supposedly experienced teacher, came last at 105. Maybe I was too good a teacher.

We finished up with Felix: the Cat in the Sack. I have played this before but never with 3 players. Some special rules need to be applied for 3 player games. When I last played this I thought it was just so-so. I still think it is just so-so, and I also think it is probably better with 4 or 5 players, and not as good with 3.

4 comments:

Garry said...

Nice summary of the game. Playing with five epidemic cards is really tense. Not tried six yet, this would be extremely tough to beat but that's a good reason for having variability in the difficulty: once you think you've got one level cracked, the next adds an additional challenge.

Like you, when we last played, we were just one turn away from winning when the cards ran out.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

When we played I didn't even know we were playing the medium difficulty, since it was Han who set up the game, and I just listened to the rule explanation. It was only after the game that I remembered to ask him which difficulty level we were playing at.

wankongyew said...

I'm amused by your scores for In the Year of the Dragon. We just played it for the first time. Shan won the game with 135 points. Sean came in last at 92 points. Apparently this was the first time he had ever played it since he bought it.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I quite enjoy In the Year of the Dragon, but unfortunately rarely have the chance to bring it out. I had an idea for a boardgame, the theme being the various events that happened to the Chinese people around 1900 to 2000. This was the time my own grandfather came to Malaysia. There were many events and changes - end of the Manchu dynasty, Japanese invasion, civil war, etc. The ordinary Chinese people just try to survive, and hope to build a better life for their children. I never actually started designing the game. When I played ITYOTD, it reminded me of this game idea. So maybe I'm biased. :-D