Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Pandemic: On the Brink - virulent strain

So far I have only played one of the three main variants in the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion, the Virulent Strain variant. This is the simplest of the three, and thus easiest to convince Michelle to play. She is allergic to new games and new rules, despite being a fan of Through the Ages.

Let's start from the beginning. Here are what come with this expansion and what I think of them so far. There are more special action cards, and a new rule about how many such cards are to be included in any game. The number should be twice the number of players in the game. In the base game we had a fixed number of 5 special event cards. The new special action cards are interesting, and having this new rule means you'll never know which cards you'll get in a game. A new surprise element. I like this.

There are more new roles now. Some are more interesting than others. There is a new, stronger version of the Operations Expert. This addition gives more replayability. I like this too.

There are component upgrades / changes. The expansion gives you 6 plastic petri dishes for your wooden components. They look good, and they are handy to keep your components sorted. One minor complaint is sometimes it is harder to pick up a disease cube from the petri dish than from your table. The new set of pawns are smaller, which is good. The old ones really are too big. The new cards have a linen finish. It seems many people are asking for this, so Z-man Games decided to do this. I don't really mind linen finish or otherwise. The cards are thinner though, and the colour is slightly lighter. That's a pity, because sometimes when I look at the player card deck I can tell that the top card is a new card (colour is lighter). Z-man offered to give for free a set of replacement cards with linen finish. I have sent out my request. I hope to receive it safely (not necessarily soon), so that all the cards would look and feel the same.

Very good looking new components - plastic petri dishes, with realistic looking labels (which you need to stick on yourself), purple cubes for the Mutation variant and Bio-terrorist variant.

The three main variants in the expansion are the Virulent Strain variant, the Mutation variant and the Bio-terrorist variant. I've only played the first, so I'll just talk about this one. When you play the Virulent Strain variant, you use a different set of epidemic cards. There are 8 epidemic cards for the Virulent Strain variant, each discribing a different additional effect that affects one of the four diseases - the one with the virulent strain. You randomly pick a number of cards from these 8, depending on the difficulty that you are playing on. Michelle and I played on medium difficulty, i.e. 5 epidemic cards.

When the first epidemic card comes up, you'll do the same things as a normal epidemic, but you'll need to then determine which of the four diseases has the virulent strain, before performing the additional activity as directed by the epidemic card. The disease with the most number of cubes on the board is the one with the virulent strain. Every time an epidemic card comes up, something will happen to that virulent strain disease. E.g. you have to remove four cubes from the game (i.e. it becomes easier for you to lose the game by running out of cubes of that colour), or from that time onwards whenever an outbreak occurs for the virulent strain disease, it counts as two outbreaks (i.e. it becomes easier for you to lose by reaching 8 outbreaks).

Michelle and I normally play Pandemic at difficult level. When we played the Virulent Strain variant, we decided to start with medium difficulty. It took us four tries to beat the game. We found that we often had to try to cure the virulent strain disease first, or even completely eradicate it. Otherwise it would cause too much trouble. Sometimes it is hard to eradicate the disease. In such cases, we at least had to try to contain it well, to have a chance at winning. Sometimes we spend so much effort on it, we lost the game because of other normal diseases that we couldn't take care of.

Two of the new pawns. Light pink is the Epidemiologist (one per turn you can use one action to get a non-matching city card from another player located in the same city as you are in). Blue is the Archivist (hand limit is 8 instead of 7; once per turn you can use one action to draw your current city's card from the discard pile.

Left: one of the new epidemic cards from the Virulant Strain variant. Right: the new Epidemiologist role card.

A funny thing happened in one of our games. We had a bad chain of outbreaks, and as we placed red cubes onto the board, we found that the chain of outbreaks had precisely used up our red cubes (which meant we lost)! What a disappointment. We thought we did quite well. Then suddenly we remembered that our 2-year-old daughter was playing with the red cubes just a moment ago. She had gone on to play with the laptop. We both turned to her to check whether she took any red cubes. We opened one hand and then the other, and found one red cube! All was not lost yet! Chen Rui was our saviour for the day. Unfortunately it was a short day. We still lost that game soon afterwards.

I enjoyed the Virulent Strain variant. It throws some nasty surprises at you and gives you more challenges. It does force you to pay more attention to the virulent strain disease, but it can still be tough to decide how much effort you want to spend on it. Just cure it or try to eradicate it too? If it's too hard to eradicate, how far are you willing to go to try to contain it, hoping that doing this will buy you more time to cure the other diseases?

Now I'm looking forward to try the Mutation variant. The Bio-terrorist variant is a very different beast, with similarities to Scotland Yard. I'm not sure it works with 2 players, where the good player controls two characters. So I may not get to try this anytime soon.


Notso said...

I love Pandemic. I get sick of it from time to time, but overall, it is my favorite game.

The Epidemiologist confuses me. According to what I read on bgg.com, the researcher can give or take on his/her turn, regardless of the city you are on. (My brother and I thought this made sense too because we played with the researcher just giving and it was too hard. We never won a game.) So, it seems to me like the Epidemiologist is just a poor man's Researcher. I guess that makes the game harder, but I think the game is hard enough. I would probably never use the Epidemiologist and just stick with the Researcher.
Am I missing something here?

Notso said...

I took a second look. It looks like if players are in the same city and one of them has that card, then they can give or take. However, the Researcher can only give if not on the city of the card. Huh, wierd. I think the game has been challenging enough with the Researcher giving and taking cards on his turn.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I don't have the game in front of me now, but if I remember correctly, the Researcher can only give freely, not take. So the Epidemiologist works the other way round, and is limited to only using her power once per turn.

I think the Researcher can still give a card if she is in the same city as the card. This is the basic ability of all characters, and the Researcher's special ability doesn't take this away.

I think the same applies to the Epidemiologist. She can take a non-matching card. That's her special ability. And she can also taking a matching card, which is a basic ability of all characters.

Terence said...

I've been reading your blog for the past few months, and I find it informative and well written. I think you and I have similar tastes in games. Anyway, you don't die when the disease runs out; you lose when you have to add a cube and don't have one to add.

From the rulebook: "A player needs to add disease cubes to the board and there aren't any left of that color in the supply."

Hope that helps.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks Terence for correcting me. This is a big mistake! I have played so many games of Pandemic wrong! And I definitely have "lost" some games because the cubes ran out precisely.

Terence said...

No problem Hiew. Your post inspired me to bust out Pandemic with my mom. Lost the first and won the second on the hard level with the mutation variation. We won on the last turn (if my mom didn't find the last cure that turn, there would not have been enough cards to draw). Anyway, keep playing and I'll be reading.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

That's cool! My mum is not into boardgames unfortunately.

So far I have only played the Mutation Challenge on medium difficulty level (5 epidemics). Have not dared to try hard difficulty yet. But hopefully soon.

Anonymous said...

Using the virulent cards, when you turn over an epidemic card it says to add three cubes to a city, Not on the city at the bottom of the draw pile. Does this mean any city?
If it does what strategies have people found to reduce the effect of the addition of the 3 cubes?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I think it does mean you should draw a card from the bottom of the Infection Deck and add 3 cubes to that city. They probably shortened the sentence to save space on the card, but I believe the intention is these Virulent Strain Epidemic cards should work like the regular Epidemic cards, only with some additional effects.