Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pandemic: The Cure

Plays: 5Px1, 4Px1.

The Game

Pandemic: The Cure is the dice game version of Pandemic. It is also a cooperative game. The world is being ravaged by four deadly diseases, and your objective is to find cures for all four diseases. You need to do this before three possible (bad) end game conditions occur - when there are too many infected people, when the infection intensity level becomes too high, or when there are too many outbreaks. These all sound exactly like the boardgame version, but in The Cure they are implemented using very different mechanisms.

On your turn, you don't get to decide freely what to do. You need to roll dice, and the die faces will tell you what you can do. You spend your dice to execute actions. You can reroll as many of the unused dice as often as you like, but if you roll a biohazard icon, that die is locked for the rest of your turn, and the infection level will increase. So when you decide to keep rerolling to get a specific action type, you are gambling on whether you'll get what you want first, or a biohazard. The basic actions include treating a disease, flying, sailing and bottling samples. Players each play a different character, and each character has a different set of dice with different die face distributions and sometimes unique die faces. A unique die face gives the character special actions unique for him.

The middle ring has two tracks. The longer green track is the infection track. The intensity level on this track determines how many infection dice needs to be rolled at the end of every turn, i.e. how quickly the diseases are making people sick. The blue track is the outbreak track, which marks how many times you've had outbreaks, i.e. one continent having more than three dice of a disease and thus spreading it to the next continent. If the markers (green syringe) on either track reaches the red area, everyone loses.

The six coasters around the ring are the continents. The dice on them are the sick people. The bigger disc on the left is the CDC (Centre for Disease Control). When you roll the plus sign on an infection die, instead of getting more sick people on a continent, you put the die here as a form of currency. You can spend these to trigger event cards - those on the right. There are always three available. When one is used, a new one is drawn to replace it.

This was the character I played. The character card shows the breakdown of the die faces, and also explains any unique action or ability the character has.

Bottling samples is an interesting action. You need to have treated a disease first, which means moving a die from the continent you're in to the treatment centre (i.e. the centre of the play area). You then place you die with the bottle icon on top of the infection die, and you move the stack to your character card. This represents you carrying a sample with you. Bottling a sample means you now have one less die to roll, because it is temporarily tied up with the infection die. It will only be released when someone finds a cure for that particular disease.

This is how you collect samples, you attach your player dice to the infection dice, and carry them on your character card.

After you are done with your actions, you may pass disease sample bottles to another player at the same location as you. Samples are needed to attempt to discover a cure. The more samples the better the chances of success. On your turn you get one chance to discover the cure for one disease, and you do this by rolling all the samples (i.e. the infection dice). You succeed by rolling 13 or higher.

The last thing you do on your turn is to spread infection. Depending on the current infection intensity level, you draw a number of infection dice from the bag and roll them, and place them on the continents accordingly. Everyone needs to do the infection step, which means every turn there will be people falling sick.

Whenever the marker on the infection track hits specific spots, an epidemic occurs. The active player takes all dice in the treatment centre plus a number of dice depending on the infection intensity level, and roll them all. They are then distributed to the continents accordingly. Epidemics represent a spurt of growth for the diseases. Whenever a continent has more than 3 dice of a specific disease, an outbreak occurs. All dice beyond the third spreads to the next continent. This may trigger a chain reaction if the next continent ends up with more than 3 dice. Outbreaks can be quite dangerous. Also you lose upon the eighth outbreak.

The infection dice are not numbered 1 - 6 like normal dice. There is always a plus sign die face, and the numbered faces have different distributions depending on which disease (colour) it is. For each continent, only certain diseases will appear, and this is indicated by the bars on the continent cards.

The green infection track is divided into sections, and each section shows how many dice need to be rolled when performing the infection action. Whenever you enter a new section (i.e. the explosion) you suffer an epidemic, which is a super infection roll. You not only have to grab some dice from the bag to roll, you also need to roll all the dice at the treatment centre, i.e. inside the ring.

The Play

My first play was a 5-player game, with four other regular gamers. We played the normal difficulty. We won. Dice-rolling was fun. There is always the anxiety of rolling biohazards. Rolling for cures was exciting too. It is no longer a sure-fire thing like in the boardgame where you need to collect 4 cards of the same colour. We had one or two hilarious failed attempts. We never quite approached the verge of losing. Maybe we were lucky. Or maybe we were smart. We did see danger approaching - infection rate increasing, dice in the bag dwindling, outbreaks happening, but we did not come to a point of it's-this-turn-or-never.

Two other players have passed samples to me - the blue player and the orange player. My own dice are grey. .

I bottled a sixth sample before I attempted to find a cure. Thankfully I did so. One die short and I would have failed. I needed 13. The plus sign counts as zero.

Due to the easy win (at least it felt so to me), the game doesn't excite me enough. I soon had an opportunity to teach it to my wife and my daughters (8 and 9). We played the easy difficulty, and we won too. What surprised me was how much all of them enjoyed the game. Shee Yun (9) even went about giving the rest of us high fives after we cured the last disease. Throughout the game she was quite concerned with each biohazard icon that we rolled. She was quite absorbed in the game. There were always threats of outbreaks. We were firefighting all the time, often being forced to pick one to save between two (or even three) equally risky areas. Amidst this constant pressure, each cure found was a call for celebration. I think the children also liked that we were working together. Anyway, she's happy, I'm happy.

Chen Rui was exhausted when we finally cured the last disease.

The Thoughts

Like Pandemic, the boardgame, Pandemic: The Cure is also a race against time to find all cures. The disease situation will keep worsening. You need to balance between the short-term need to treat patients and prevent outbreaks, and the long-term goal of discovering cures. You are constantly threatened by immediate dangers, and quite often you are forced to make tactical decisions. However you must never lose sight of your ultimate objective.

The Cure feels very familiar. The strategic landscape is almost the same as the boardgame version. It is the execution layer that is very different. I am very impressed with how the designer managed to pull this off using such different tools. Feeling similar to the original game can be a good or a bad thing. For a person like me who likes the original but is not a particularly big fan, the familiarity made me feel I don't need to own both games. However for a big fan of the original, there is probably no question about buying the dice version.

It occurred to me that cooperative games probably tend to work well as family games, in particular when there is a skill gap, e.g. parents playing with young children. Some say that a good family game needs a healthy dose of luck so that the parents won't win every time. If you are playing a cooperative game, you don't have this problem of the parents winning every time in the first place. You don't need luck for the purpose of compensating for the skill difference. You'll likely still need some randomness for variability though. One danger with cooperative games is the parents may end up dictating what the children are to do. Try to avoid that and let the children think and decide for themselves. Guide them when they are making obviously bad choices (and explain too). Give suggestions when they ask for help. Just don't play for them. When I played with my family, sometimes I even had to remind Shee Yun (the older child) not to tell Chen Rui (her younger sister) what to do.

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