Sunday, July 1, 2012

July Board Game of the Month: Pandmic (On the Brink)

Every month, Ludi Berkeley will post its Board Game of the Month: a new game that we've played recently, an old game we like, or an upcoming game we're excited about. This month's is Pandemic: On the Brink, a new-ish expansion to an older game that we've liked for a while.

Style and Gameplay

Pandemic is a multiplayer strategy game where the players take on the role of experts trying to save the world from pandemic disease. The game takes place on a world map, with major cities across the world serving as the "spaces" on the board. Even though it looks like one at first glance, it's not a territory control game per se--the point of the game is essentially to prevent diseases from "controlling" cities. Cities can be infected with any of a number of diseases; it's the players' job to treat the diseases and eventually develop cures for them. Players' roles are randomly assigned, with each providing a small bonus; for instance, the Medic is especially good at treating disease, while the Scientist is especially efficient at developing cures. When the players develop cures for all the diseases, they win. There are a (frustrating) number of ways to lose Pandemic, some of which I'll talk about later from my close personal experience with each.

The mechanic that distinguishes Pandemic from other strategy board games is that it's cooperative rather than competitive. In other words, the players all win together or lose together. That means players have an unparalleled ability to plan strategy together and look for synergies among their various roles. Other games (Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, etc.) encourage temporary and shifting alliances, but Pandemic may be unique in its unconditional cooperation among players. For that reason, Pandemic is one of the best games out there to heal feelings that Settlers hurt or to make sure everyone at the table is equally engaged.

The expansion, On the Brink, is more of a collection of extra options and scenarios you can add to the base game than one massive chunk of gameplay. It adds extra player roles and event cards (events come up occasionally and randomly, and they allow you to bend the rules in a small, clever way). There are some aesthetic improvements--the expansion provides petri dishes to store your game pieces; these don't affect the mechanics at all but sure do appeal to my inner wannabe microbiologist. There's an extra Epidemic card for increasing the difficulty to "legendary" (Epidemics also come up occasionally and randomly, but they ruin your day; increasing the number of Epidemic cards is the how to increase the game's difficulty).

One addition that's easy to overlook but actually quite important is the extra rules for playing with five people. Four to five players is a jump that a lot of board games seem unwilling to make, but it can be an important one if you're playing with four of your friends.

But the bulk of the content in the expansion is the addition of three extra "scenarios" that add complexity--and a certain degree of difficulty--to the game. "Virulent Strain" gives one of the diseases even more fun and exciting ways to wreck you. "Mutation" adds a fifth disease that plays by its own cheater rules. And "Bio-Terrorist" turns one of the players against the other, taking the side of the diseases.

Analysis and Anecdotes

One of the best things about this expansion is how modular it is. Want to play with the base rules, no extra scenario, but with additional options for player roles? You can do that. Want to go completely over the top and play with five players, two scenarios, and a boatload of possible events? You can do that too.

Most of the additional roles and events have a very "expansion" feel to them, something that's common not just to board games but also to roleplaying supplements and video game expansions. They're more "situational" than the mechanics in the base game, they tend to have lots of words, and they generally require more specific strategy to use them rather than being generally useful. All that said, they represent more options, and in the hands of experienced gamers, those options will be discovered and exploited, contributing to a slight "power creep" for every expansion added. My gaming group isn't nearly experienced enough with On the Brink yet to have optimized the new roles and events, but we've already found a few synergies, and it seems that powergaming could eventually become far more possible in the expansion than in the base game.

Basic Pandemic was pretty well balanced for 2-4 players, and you get the feeling that the balance might be just a little off for 5. In the one game we played with 5 players, it felt like I got one or two turns too few and that too much of the deck was already in play at the beginning (because each player starts with a couple of cards). But it wasn't enough to destroy the game, and I'll gladly take a turn too few for the chance to include another player.

We haven't tried--and probably will not try, at least for a while--the "legendary" difficulty. We won the "hard" (i.e., six Epidemic cards) version exactly one time, and that involved a lot of things going exactly right for a group of experienced players. Another wonderful thing about Pandemic is that it represents a definite challenge when played at its most difficult, even if you've played it a lot before, because you can't predict how any individual game is going to unfold. Has anyone actually tried the "legendary" difficulty, and if so, did you come close to winning?

We have, however, played two of the scenarios, and enjoyed them both even though we ended up losing both times. The first one we played was "Mutation," and a poor early-game draw doomed us almost immediately. I was playing with Zach, who had played before; Alan, who hadn't but plays other games with us pretty often; and Joe, who only plays occasionally. We decided to go with the "easy" difficulty (four Epidemics) but with the extra challenge of the mutation (which adds three Mutation cards). Our first three card draws were Mutation, Mutation, Epidemic--in a deck with dozens of cards, the first three draws were three of the seven that did terrible things. One of those ways I mentioned to lose this game is to have eight "outbreaks" of disease occur; we saw four before everyone had finished their first turn, and it didn't take long to pile on four more.

Our second experience with On the Brink went a little better, but we still lost. This time, we played "Virulent Strain" with five people, four of whom (Zach, Tom, Josh, and I) knew the game pretty well, so we decided on "medium" difficulty. Almost right off the bat, we got hammered with "Government interference," which made it tough to move through the region infected by the virulent strain. We played through most of the game pretty well, but ran out of cards in our draw pile at the end (another of the many ways to lose), so it seemed that the interference slowed us down the half turn that we would have needed to win.

One moral of the On the Brink story is that the extra scenarios represent not just more things going on in the game but also extra difficulty. In basic Pandemic, "easy" mode is straighforward enough that it's not tough to win even in a group of all new players, and "medium" is fairly readily tackled by a group that's played before. Minus the scenarios, I would have expected to win both of those games, but the extra twists kept us from getting there both times. But they were fun, which is what really counts. We'll be playing both of these scenarios again--certainly until we figure out how to win them--and I'm particularly excited to try my hand at a little bio-terror. (Strictly in-game, that is.)

Overall Impressions

It's tough to say whether any of these scenarios will become my preferred method of playing Pandemic, but it's nice to have the option to rotate them in with the "vanilla" game. This is one of the better board-game expansions out there, mostly because of all the options it gives you and all the ways in which it lets you customize your game. For the most part, the new content integrates smoothly into Pandemic, which is something that can't necessarily be said of all game expansions. Even though Pandemic never felt "stale" per se, On the Brink manages to reinvigorate it while still feeling like Pandemic.

For a group of new players, I'd recommend playing basic Pandemic a few times to see if it's your thing and get the hang of it before moving on to the expansion. If you're an experienced player playing with completely new players, it might be best to introduce the group to basic Pandemic before adding in the more complicated scenarios. And established fans of Pandemic won't be disappointed--this expansion keeps everything good about the game and adds ways to make it more interesting.

2-5 players, 45-60 minutes, $35 at your local game shop or $25 on Amazon. Not a stand-alone game--requires Pandemic to play.