As Christmas approaches I guess now is an opportune time to remind people that last year I listed a number of great boardgames that people might seriously be glad to get in their Christmas stockings. Like my friend Lloyd, I never liked boardgames much (though I did briefly play Magic the Gathering in the mid-90’s!) until I discovered Ticket to Ride and was immediately sold on the new wave of Eurogames. I believe the second boardgame I bought back then, and played very heavily for weeks thereafter, many times a day, was Z-Man Games Pandemic.
Now Pandemic is reviewed on this blog, and let me start with what is really the conclusion of this new review – while Pandemic The Cure is a completely separate stand alone game, it is really exactly the same game with different mechanics. if that sounds confusing, well, let me offer some quick advice –
A. This is a collaborative game – the players play together against the game system, and all win or all lose. You are not competing against the other players, just against the game! You play specialist trying to contain disease epidemics and save humanity,
B. This is an excellent game, rated highly by the four of us who have played it so far, and as good as the original Pandemic game.
c. This is a stand alone game, not an expansion — having said that…
D. The mechanics are much more abstract than in Pandemic – so I strongly advise you to buy or at least play that game first. It’s as good as the new one, just different, and you will appreciate Pandemic: The Cure much more if you have played Pandemic first!
E. If you own and enjoy Pandemic, I suspect you will really enjoy Pandemic: The Cure
For the rest of this review, having established the above, I am going to assume some familiarity with Pandemic, even if only from reading the detailed review on this blog here.
So what is it about?
In this game Matt Leacock has simply reinvented Pandemic to use a different set of mechanics, and with custom dice as the core mechanic, rather than the cards cubes and board of the original game. It’s not just thematically similar, it is really the same game – but the difference in mechanics makes it very different in play. As a result you will want both. Ticket to Ride did something similar with a custom dice variant, which we all disliked intensely, and which we have not played since the week we bought it – here we the new game just as much as the old one. It is different enough to appeal, familiar enough to seem good old Pandemic – and to be fair I have not actually played Pandemic much since Z-Man brought out the 2nd edition with different card backs meaning the second expansion was incompatible with my earlier games, and only making the replacement cards to upgrade available from Canada at an extortionate price when you added in postage. That was to me as a 1st edition customer enough to annoy me in to deciding to buy no more of their games — I’m glad I relented, though still deeply annoyed. (I ended up using horrid card covers that slip so don’t play Pandemic any more.)
So what is the difference?
Pandemic: The Cure (PTC henceforth) dispenses with the city cards, the cities on the map board, in fact all cards from Pandemic except for a number of Special Events (versions of those from both Pandemic and the On The Brink expansion).
Instead of a board you begin with six cardboard circles, numbered one to six – and 12 dice in 4 colours, representing the four diseases in Pandemic, are placed randomly on these. Like disease cubes in Pandemic after each player turn you add more dice/cubes, and diseases can outbreak. Every game we played that we lost – 7 out of 9 – ended with us reaching 8 outbreaks, but the game can also end if you run out of dice/cubes to place on the regions, which we played carefully to avoid, or if you reach the end of the contagion track, which despite rolling astonishingly badly in one game never happened.
The regions are the 5 continents of the original Pandemic, with the Indian subcontinent split off. The disease dice in red, yellow, black and blue drawn randomly from the “infection bag” are very attractive, and while six sided are not numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 as you might expect, but are instead numbered to reflect the prevalence of different diseases in a region in the original game – so Europe is particularly susceptible to Blue disease dice.
The “board” takes up about half the space of the original game, perfect if you don’t have a large table – but this game is not suitable for trains or travel. The beautiful custom dice are just that custom – and losing one, and this game is full of plastic dice, well that is it for your game. You need all the dice! Whatever you do, don’t lose them – if one drops on the floor stop and look for it immediately.
This is made more true by the fact that each role – all familiar I think to Pandemic with On the Brink expansion players, though I can’t remember if the Contingency Specialist appears in that game. Each role now comes with a set of custom dice, in the colour of that role, and different from any other role’s dice. The dice give you options – travel by ship, fly, cure, or collect samples, or disastrously a biohazard marker which advances the contagion track and increases the virulence (and number of disease dice placed on the regions at the end of your turn), Most roles also have some special symbols which give them additional options.
On your turn you roll the dice 5 for every role but the Generalist who gets 7 – and then spend them in any order, except the Biohazard dice resolve first. You may keep re-rolling any dice until you use them on your turn, but each role increases the chance the biohazard symbol will come up and increase the infection rate on the contagion track. The custom dice are very pretty, and make for genuine tactical choices.
When you remove disease counters they now pass to the “Treatment Centre” in the middle of the “board” from which samples have to be taken. Some dice will from time to time comes up with a + symbol and placed in a pool in the CDC, and may be used by *any player* at * any time* to buy one of the three Special Event cards always turned up. We really liked this – it is far less luck based and more tactical than the old Pandemic special events.
The role of luck
My initial thought was that this game would be much less strategically challenging and far more luck based than Pandemic. Surely all these dice make for more randomness? Actually I think the balance is nicely met, and PTC is like Pandemic a game that rewards careful planning, but in which, yes, luck does play a significant role. It always did in the original game, and I think that is part of its appeal. Things can turn bad very quickly, and you have to constantly judge whether to re-roll a dice to get an action you want at the real risk of tipping the balance further towards a loss as disease takes over by rolling a biohazard symbol!
Nowhere do you feel the luck of the dice as much as in the “Cure Disease” mechanism. As in the original game you win by curing all 4 diseases (though unlike the original game you can never eradicate a disease totally), and to do this you collect sets of samples taken from the “treatment centre” in the middle. However each sample must be “bottled up” by one of your Role dice, reducing the number of actions you have until you finally cure that disease. It is much easier than in the original game to pass samples from one player to another, but when you get enough – probably 3, though the Scientist could perhaps manage with 2, and 4 is often best – you can try and cure the disease.
Unlike Pandemic where you have to race to a research centre (they don’t feature in PTC) you can try at the end of any turn. Unless you are in the same region as the Scientist (who makes it 2 easier) you gather up the disease dice, and try and roll a total of 13+, with + symbols counting as zero. Now remember the disease dice are not numbered 1 to 6 – at least one face has a + (zero here) and the other vary – I have not checked the maths. Experience suggest 3 dice of samples MIGHT just let you cure the disease, 4 often works and 5 is pretty much guaranteed if you can get that many together. If you fail your role action dice stay bottled up another turn, but at least you can try again then. And as in Pandemic, if you cure a disease, you can remove satisfying numbers of cubes…
In poor taste?
Z-Man have released this game at a time when an Ebola epidemic is afflicting parts of West Africa causing vast misery and suffering. Is this in horrendous taste? This is the kind of thing that makes me queasy – still I do find playing Pandemic actually has made me more aware of the work of the CDC and other organisations that combat epidemics worldwide ( I see no reason why you should have to play CDC and not any other international relief or medical organisation though, but it is an American game) and at least a little good has come from it, with Pandemic parties arranged to raise funds to fight Ebola. You can find details and how to host one here.
Because we were reviewing the game, we did not ponder the morality of it. It seems in no worse taste than Monopoly (a celebration of predatory capitalism) or most wargames – and in fact here celebrates the heroic struggle against disease. I have examined my conscience and decided it is OK to enjoy this game, but it has made me decide to donate more to the struggle. And as Tom noted, not just Ebola – there are diseases we have cures for where funding can definitely prevent deaths today.
Still, I felt it worth noting…
An excellent game, with attractive well made components. Our plastic ring had one hole (the zero on the Outbreaks) imperfectly drilled making it hard to put the green hypo marker in, but other than that minor flaw the components, especially the dice, are attractive and well designed, and the cardboard regions are sturdy and workmanlike if not attractive. The role cards show a mix of genders, if that bothers you, and are well illustrated and fairly clear. The rules need careful reading, but once you spot the differences from Pandemic, and actually play, it all falls in to place. Do check the rules booklet on each new element when you first play, but if you are used to Pandemic, this should be exceptionally easy to learn. The box says age 8+ – I would have thought age 10+ – and it is not a game I would buy someone aged younger than 13. It is really for adults, and intelligent, sober adults – it requires too much concentration to play after more than a couple of beers! Supposedly it lasts 30 minutes, though most of games were nearer 45 minutes, but I have played three times in two days with different players and each time we enjoyed it enough to fit 3 games in. It is fairly addictive.
If you enjoy Pandemic, or used to but have since found it grew stale, buy this game. If you are a Robert Smith fan hoping for the boardgame of Disintegration, best avoided 😉