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BOARDgamer: In the Lab with Pandemic and Expansions

We take a look at Matt Leacock's popular cooperative game Pandemic and its expansions; a game that demands good communication, forward planning and a desire not to see the world destroyed by PAX Pox.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

For those who grew up playing little more than Scrabble and Monopoly on the tabletop, the idea of a cooperative board game -- all players against the game itself -- can be a strange one. And yet for video gamers it should be a familiar concept, since prior to the rise of network and online competitive multiplayer, most games pit one or more players against the stiff challenges built by the game designer.

Pandemic is a good introduction to cooperative gaming in that it's strongly thematic and thus easy to relate to, plus it has simple and straightforward rules that even those relatively unfamiliar with the conventions of heavier board games should be able to pick up fairly easily. It's also expanded with two add-on packs, dubbed In the Lab and On the Brink; of the two, I'd say On the Brink is an absolutely essential purchase, since it makes the base game a better, more flexible experience plus provides a number of alternative challenges. In the Lab, meanwhile, changes the game mechanics significantly and is thus probably best suited to more experienced players. More on both later.

In Pandemic, you and your friends play a team of disease control specialists based in Atlanta. Four diseases are spreading across the world, and it's your job to research and develop cures for all of them. If you successfully do so, you win. If you fail to do so before there are eight outbreaks, one of the stocks of "disease cubes" runs out or a player draws the last card, you lose. One of the latter options is significantly more likely to happen, though the game does feature an elegant means of adjusting its difficulty according to how many "Epidemic" cards you put into the mix during setup.

On a typical turn in Pandemic, you have four actions to spend moving, treating diseases or trading the cards in your hand with other players. Your ultimate aim is to collect a set of five cards of the same color, which in turn allows you to discover the corresponding cure when you're at a lab.

There are some restrictions that make achieving this a bit more challenging, however. You can only trade cards if both you and the person you're trading with are standing in the city depicted on the card. You can only move to adjacent cities on the board unless you discard a city card -- discard a card depicting the city where you would like to end up to take a direct flight there; discard a card depicting the city you're currently in to charter a flight anywhere in the world -- or move between different research stations you've built around the world, which also require discarding city cards to build. And a single city can only hold up to three cubes of a single disease's color before it "outbreaks," spreading the disease to all connected cities around it.

Fortunately, you're not entirely helpless to fight back against these initially restrictive-seeming rules. Each player has a "Role" card which gives them a special ability, usually allowing them to break the rules in some way. The Scientist, for example, only requires four cards to discover a cure instead of five, while the Researcher has fewer restrictions on trading cards, making it easier for her to collect sets. On the Brink adds a number of additional Role cards into the mix, which is what makes it a particularly worthwhile expansion; different combinations of roles can make for a very different game.

The disease spreads at the end of every player's turn by drawing from a separate deck of cards that depict the cities around the world. Drawing a card adds a single cube of the relevant color to that city, unless it causes an outbreak, in which case it makes a real mess. You begin by drawing two of these cards each turn; each time a player draws an Epidemic card from the player draw deck during their turn, however, the infection rate -- the number of cards drawn per turn -- gradually increases, and cities that have already been infected are shuffled back into the top of the deck, making them more likely to come up again.

Pandemic often ends up being a combination of long-term planning and short-term running around screaming. You need to have an overall group strategy for collecting the cards, but you also need to be ready at a moment's notice to respond to an unexpected outbreak or epidemic. It's a challenging game to win, but that gives an enormous sense of achievement when you finally do.

Now, about those expansions. On the Brink, as previously mentioned, brings a number of new Role cards to the table, plus the ability for a fifth player to join the fight. Not only that, though, but it provides a number of alternative ways to play. The Mutation challenge, for example, sees a fifth disease spreading across the board, while the Virulent Strain challenge makes one of the normal four diseases considerably more deadly than others. You can even combine these two challenges if you're feeling particularly masochistic.

For those who enjoy asymmetrical competitive play, there's a Bio-Terrorist option, too. In this mode, one player is attempting to ensure the other players use. They achieve this by moving around in secret similar to how Mr. X is handled in Scotland Yard, and must avoid detection as much as possible. Various rules allow them to be "spotted" at airports when they move around and captured, and thus the cooperating players must balance their time between keeping an eye on the Bio-Terrorist and treating diseases as normal.

In the Lab, meanwhile, is a very different affair that changes up the base game's rules considerably. Now, instead of simply collecting sets of like-colored cards to cure diseases, you have to process them on a separate lab board using a series of simple puzzle game mechanics. You can collect cubes when you treat diseases instead of returning them to the supply, and when you're at a research center you can use your scientific equipment to separate your samples out into individual colors, filter them by color or cause them to grow. In doing so, you're attempting to create various molecular patterns using combinations of colored cubes before testing the medicine on a city's population and eventually deploying it to the world at large. It's a much more complicated process than the base game and is thus much more difficult -- but for experienced players, or for those who want even more theme from the game, it adds a considerable amount of enjoyable depth to the experience as a whole.

Pandemic is a highly enjoyable game that is simple to pick up and understand -- and teach -- but challenging to win. Its variable difficulty level and the added flexibility introduced by the expansions mean it's a game that won't get stale for a long time, and the fact that it plays relatively quickly -- no more than 45-60 minutes per session -- make it ideal for playing on a school or work night. Oh, and for those who have no friends but do have an iPad -- or who just want to play on the toilet -- there's an excellent iOS version available here.

BOARDgamer is USgamer's new fortnightly tabletop gaming column. It's in the experimental stages right now, so let us know what you'd like to hear more about in the comments, and we'll do our best to accommodate you! Check out past installments here.

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