Pandemic Cooperative Board Game Review & Ultimate Guide (2019)
The first time I played Pandemic we lost.
We didn’t get destroyed or lose by a huge margin either, which is probably one of the most irritating things I remember about it, and why I still remember it so well. All things considered, we were actually doing pretty well. We had cured 3 of the 4 diseases and were keeping the last disease in-check, but… I guess we can call it bad luck, bad card draws, and some bad early-game decisions that had everyone at the table scratching their heads. We had 3 turns before we would be out of cards and one of the cards left was an epidemic.
We knew we couldn’t win. And yet…
It was still one of the most fun games I’ve ever played. It was grueling, but I remember that instantly everyone was working together. Everyone’s special ability from their role was used and each person performed beautifully.
Several virulent diseases have broken out simultaneously all over the world! The apocalypse threatens the safety of the world itself! Cities are quickly consumed by a contagion that disrupts life as we know it. Can you and your team work together to stop the spread before it’s too late?
In Pandemic, your group will form a crisis response team to deal with a simultaneous outbreak of 4 separate diseases. Cooperation is the key! You’ll need to use each player’s role to the utmost, make smart, strategic decisions about movement, and figure out how to stem the tide before events get out of hand. Just like in a real crisis response, how you respond to pressure will determine your success or failure.
Pandemic has quickly become a modern-day classic and is credited as pushing cooperative board games into the modern age.
Pandemic has a lot of amazing versions, expansions, and standalone games in the series. To get the lowdown on each and the best play order, check out our in-depth review of the Best Pandemic Expansions here.
- On the Brink (2009)
- In the Lab (2013)
- The Cure (2014)
- Contagion (2014)
- State of Emergency (2015)
- Legacy: Season 1 (2015)
- Reign of Cthulhu (2016)
- The Cure – Experimental Meds (2016)
- Iberia (2016)
- Legacy: Season 2 (2017)
- Rising Tide (2017)
- Fall of Rome (2018)
Pandemic has a very sleek design to it. The board is very clean without a lot of clutter.
The design for the rest of the game follows the clean design as well. I highly suggest keeping all of the components separated in little baggies or containers. Some travel makeup containers make excellent containers for board game components, especially the disease cubes. If you rip the bag I highly suggest you find a replacement container of some sort. They’re easy to lose, and every one that is lost just makes the game harder.
The base game comes with 7 roles.
- Quarantine Specialist
- Operations Expert
- Contingency Planner
Each turn players will have 4 actions. Every movement, curing action, and special role action burns one of your 4 actions.
For example, if you wanted to pull a disease cube off of a city, that would cost you 1 action. If there were 3 disease cubes on a city and you wanted all of them gone, it would cost you 3 actions.
Outbreaks are one of the many ways in which you can lose the game. An outbreak occurs when you have to put a disease cube on a city and there already 3 disease cubes of the same color on it.
The outbreak then spreads to every city connected to it.
For example, if Atlanta has 3 blue disease cubes, and you need to place a fourth you instead move the outbreak marker down its track and add 1 blue disease cube to every attached city. Washington, Chicago, and Miami would all get 1 blue cube added to their space. Notice that even though Miami is a yellow space you would still add 1 blue cube instead of yellow.
The worst part about outbreaks is that they can trigger chain reactions. If an outbreak in Atlanta forced you to put a cube in Chicago and Chicago already had 3 cubes you would trigger an outbreak in Chicago as well.
There have been many games where everything on the board is looking fine, and then a chain reaction of outbreaks undoes all your hard work.
Curing a Disease vs. Eradicating a Disease
Curing a disease is much easier than completely eradicating it from the game.
To cure a disease you’ll need to have 5 of the same color card and spend an action in a research station to cure a disease. Once a disease is cured players will be able to remove all of the disease cubes of the cured color from a space with only 1 action.
For example, before the red disease is cured it would take 3 actions to remove 3 disease cubes. Once cured it takes 1 action to remove all three disease cubes just like the medic role would be able to. The medic is then able to simply walk through a space and all cured disease cubes are removed. They spend no actions removing a cured disease.
You can eradicate a disease by first curing it and then removing all disease cubes of that color from the board. This makes your game much easier but is a lot harder to do than it sounds. Once a disease has been eradicated you no longer need to worry about it. Every time a color of the eradicated disease comes up in the infection deck, you can completely ignore the card, which gives you some much-needed breathing room. If a disease is cured and has not been eradicated yet, you will still need to add disease cubes to the board.
At the end of every turn, players will draw 2 cards from the player deck. Most of the time it won’t be anything bad, bad there will be Epidemic cards hidden within the deck. The number can vary depending on the setup (4, 5, or 6. The game gets progressively harder with every epidemic card and it’s resolved in several phases.
Increase —-> Infect —-> Intensify
For the Increase phase, you’ll move the epidemic marker once down its track. The number on the track indicates how many cities you’ll infect every turn. At the beginning of the game, it’s only two, but as more epidemics are played 3-4 cities will start to be infected every turn.
The Intensify phase is probably Mat Leacock’s most diabolical creation. In the intensify step you will take every card in the infection discard, shuffle the discard pile, and place it directly on top of the Infection Deck.
This does several terrible things all at once. The city that just had 3 disease cubes placed on it now has the possibility of immediately being drawn again, and if you haven’t been able to stay ahead of the constant spread of disease, you now have to worry about outbreaks.
Winning and Ending the Game
Pandemic is not an easy game. There is only one way to actually win the game, but there are several ways that you can lose. Once any one of the lose conditions are met, the game ends immediately.
#1: If you need to play a disease cube on the board and there are none left in the supply, that signifies that a disease has spread too far and the game ends in a loss.
#2: If there are too many outbreaks and the outbreak marker reaches the end of the track, then the game ends in a loss.
#3: If the Player Deck is empty and a player cannot draw 2 cards at the end of their turn, then the game ends.
There is only one way to win and that’s to successfully find the cure for all 4 diseases.
As a cooperative game, you need to work together if you want to win. Communication with your team and fellow players is absolutely crucial to the game. If everyone’s not on the same page it’s going to be extremely difficult to win.
For the initial setup, all players will start in Atlanta, which is where the actual center for disease control is located in real life. Atlanta starts with a research station already built.
The Disease Spreads
Next is the initial spread of disease. Shuffle the Infection Deck.
Draw 3 cards. Place three disease cubes of the appropriate color on each of those first 3 cities.
Draw 3 more cards and place 2 disease cubes on each of those cities.
Draw the final 3 cards and place 1 disease cube on each of those cities.
Separate all of the Epidemic cards from the player deck, shuffle the deck and deal starting hands to every player. The number of cards depend on the number of players.
2-players: 4 cards
3-players: 3 cards
4-players: 2 cards
Choose Your Difficulty
Now comes a really interesting part: choosing your difficulty. You can actually change the difficulty of the game by choosing how many Epidemic cards you want to play with.
4-epidemics: Beginner (not easy)
Pick Your Role
For the first game of Pandemic, I highly suggest randomly picking roles. Each one is uniquely useful and has the potential to save the game. By picking randomly you’ll force yourself to think outside the norm. Most players will immediately flock to the Medic or Quarantine Specialist, but I highly recommend trying the less obvious choices, like the Operations Expert or the Researcher.
This will force you into a role that makes you look at all of the moving parts instead of just 1. If you pick the Quarantine Specialist or the Medic, you’ll spend the majority of the game wandering around going to the disease hotspots and trying to stem the flow of outbreaks. It’s an important job, but maybe not the most exciting on your first game.
The nuance and strategy in Pandemic can get lost in grunt work if you decide to play as the Medic or Quarantine Specialist. My suggestion is to look through the roles and pick the one you think “sounds” the most useless. You’ll soon find out that each role is very good in their own situations, and it’ll force you to look at the game from a perspective you normally wouldn’t.
I say this a lot in our reviews, but one of my favorite aspects of board games is the shared story that comes with it. Pandemic offers countless opportunities for social interaction and storytelling that happens around the table (and after the game is over).
The roles are all very powerful in their own way. This is definitely a strength of the game, however, it is harder to appreciate in practice. It’s not easy to watch the Medic completely cure two cities in one turn while playing the Operations Expert whose ability is to build research stations more easily.
The game can be challenging, especially if every player decides to do their own thing. Even if your group works together, you might get a series of bad draws and lose the game. The difficulty of the game is not a bad thing. It adds some very tense moments to the game, but it depends if you still have fun even when you lose. I know I do, but I also know a lot of people who would get very frustrated by this. It comes down to preference, but you’ll know what your gaming table likes more than I do.
Don’t burn too many cards early on. It can be very tempting to discard cards early on for movement, but you never know when you’re going to need them. Remember the object is to cure all 4 diseases and you need 5 of each color to do that. If you discard too many of one color it can be difficult for 1 player to collect all 5 for the cure.
Don’t forget research stations!
Several well-placed research stations early on can make things go much smoother. Remember you can travel between research stations with only 1 action, so it’s well worth it to build one in a difficult location or a particular hotspot of disease.
Talk to each other.
Seriously this is the fatal mistake most new players make. When you’re playing a typical strategy game you’ll sometimes notice a completely silent table as every player pours over the possible options they have. Don’t do that. Talk to each other.
Listen to each other.
The other issue that comes with any cooperative game is the tendency for the more experienced player to steamroll everyone else. Listen to each other as well. Explain why you think things are a good idea. Being louder doesn’t always makes a person right, and some of the best moments in the game come from working together and getting that “Ah ha!” moment when everyone is talking and suddenly come up with the winning strategy.
- Pandemic is a cooperative board game where you and your team have to stop the spread of 4 virulent diseases before it’s too late.
- Heavy on strategy, cooperation, and teamwork.
- If you don’t communicate with your fellow players, you’ll lose.
- High replayability, 3 levels of difficulty.
- 7 individual role cards, each with its own unique abilities in different situations.
- Tons of thematic expansions to keep you playing for years to come.
Stats at a glance
There’s a reason that Pandemic has been put at the top of almost every game list. It’s been an innovator and trendsetter ever since it first hit the board game scene.
One of the major innovations that Pandemic is credited is with cooperative board games. Cooperative board games before Pandemic were usually over complicated or rather simple in comparison. The setup took forever and the rules were extensive. Pandemic can be set up and played in about 45 minutes, making it far more accessible to casual gamers and more likely to make it to the gaming table.
We hope this review was able to shine some new light on this compelling game. Have you played Pandemic yet? Have you tried any of the expansions? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think about Pandemic!