Friday, 21 October 2016

Pandemic: On The Brink - Bio-Terrorist Challenge

Pandemic: On The Brink is an expansion set released in 2009. It comes with many modules and components, but the main elements are three new ways to play Pandemic - the Virulent Strain Challenge, the Mutation Challenge, and the Bio-Terrorist Challenge. I played the first two soon after buying this expansion, but never got around to playing the third until recently. Among the three, the Bio-Terrorist Challenge is the most complex and most different. The bio-terrorist is a bad guy (of course) and plays against the rest of the players. This is no longer a cooperative game. Earlier this year I completed Pandemic: Legacy with a group of colleagues. It was great fun and when the campaign ended, we all felt a sense of loss. Later I remembered that I still had not taught them the Pandemic expansion modules. So we arranged to try them out.

23 Sep 2016. Edwin, Benz, Ruby and Xiao Zhu (camera-shy). I started with the Mutation Challenge. In this mode there is a fifth disease - the purple disease.

One thing the expansion does is allow a fifth player. So now Benz didn't have to play cheerleader / coach. He could join us and participate as a player.

Returning to the Pandemic universe was a wonderful feeling. We immediately thought of the characters we had played in Pandemic: Legacy. My friends did initially pick the equivalent characters from Pandemic and Pandemic: On The Brink, but now they were less insistent. They switched around, exploring other roles. Edwin had a new love - the Field Operative. She could collect disease cubes from the board and then use them for discovering cures.

I love these mock petri dishes. I think they add a lot to the atmosphere.

We were all quite comfortable with the Pandemic game mechanisms by now. We could discuss strategy and how to coordinate our actions to create great combo moves. One problem was we all wanted our own characters to be the heroes who saved the day, so we would instruction one another to do this this this and then that, so that our characters could eventually sweep in and pull off one great dramatic sequence of actions. After this happened a few times, we started joking and teasing that we were all like ultra competitive colleagues fighting to show off. I think this is a wonderful thing - a group of friends getting to know a game system well enough to transcend the rules and enter the realm of strategy and living the story.

We played two games of the Mutation Challenge. We were rusty in the first game, since it had been a while since we played our last game of Pandemic: Legacy. We were fire-fighting and didn't focus nor plan well on discovering cures. We lost rather badly. The second game was much better. It was partly because we were lucky with the card draws and the distribution of diseases in the early game. We made good progress towards discovering all cures. However when things started turning bad, they did so with alarming suddenness and speed. This kind of escalation in the Pandemic family of games still amazes me sometimes. At one point we had cured all four normal diseases, and were down to either curing the fifth disease or treating all patients to win the game. We wanted to end the game quickly by treating all patients, but every time we got down to the last few, the disease flared up again. Eventually we switched tact and barely managed to find a cure before time ran out.

This was the point when the four normal diseases had cures, and we were down to having to handle the fifth disease. We had 7 outbreaks (see bottom left), so one more would cause us to lose the game.

30 Sep 2016. This was the Bio-Terrorist Challenge. I was game teacher, so naturally I played the bio-terrorist. For the good guys to win, they need to have cured all four normal diseases, and also either cure the fifth disease (purple), or treat every patient of that disease, i.e. removing all cubes of that disease from the board. For the bio-terrorist to win, firstly, the good guys must lose. Secondly, there must be at least one purple disease cube still on the board. It is possible that nobody wins - the good guys fail due to any one of the lose conditions, and there happens to be no more purple cubes on the board.

The bio-terrorist's pawn is black. He has a different set of actions from the good players. Good and evil take turns. After a good player completes his turn, the bio-terrorist takes a turn. The bio-terrorist is quite the busy person. Every round, he has as many turns as there are good players.

The bio-terrorist pawn is normally not placed on the board. It is placed only when the bio-terrorist is in the same city as another player, i.e. he is sighted by that player. When the bio-terrorist later leaves the city, the pawn is taken off the board. The bio-terrorist records his movements and actions on this piece of paper.

All these purple disease cubes in Asia were spread by me. The orange pawn was the medic, played by Xiao Zhu. The medic is the natural nemesis of the bio-terrorist, because he treats patients very efficiently. As I did my evil work in Asia, I had to be careful not to get caught by Xiao Zhu, who was busy treating patients. A good player may spend an action to capture the bio-terrorist if he finds him. The bio-terrorist discards all his cards. For his next action, he must draw a card, because he needs a card to escape. It is quite easy for the bio-terrorist to escape. The good players cannot keep him locked up for long. However getting caught in itself is costly because the bio-terrorist loses all cards, and it also breaks his tempo.

We can never forget Lagos. This was where Kawasaki died in our game of Pandemic: Legacy.

Playing bio-terrorist is a little unusual. I can't control the four normal diseases much. The most I can do is decide when to draw or play infection cards to meddle with the infection deck. At least for now I don't think this affects the good players all that much. The actions with more direct impact are related to the purple disease. This disease has only 12 cubes, so if I can get them all out onto the board, I would win. Also if I can trigger an outbreak, it counts against the good players' total outbreak count. Overall, I feel the role of the bio-terrorist is to distract. Although he can create direct threats, I think what is most important is slowing down the progress in finding cures for the four normal diseases.

We played two games of the Bio-Terrorist Challenge, and I was the bad guy in both games. So I can only guess at what it feels like playing against the terrorist. My guess is the purple disease will become quite scary, because it has a life of its own now. There is a mastermind behind it. You can't afford to spend too much time and energy on it, lest you neglect the other four diseases, yet you can't ignore it completely. There are a few dilemmas thrown at you. Do you try to eradicate the purple disease early so that you can then work on the normal diseases without any more distractions? Do you choose to find a cure to the purple disease, or do you try to treat all patients?

Edwin, Xiao Zhu and Ruby mulling over the game board.

I came across this photo recently - the box covers of Pandemic: Legacy Season 2! It is expected to be out by mid 2017, and I am very much looking forward to it.

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