Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Global Pandemic!

We’ve all read the headlines in our local newspaper, or caught a glimpse of it on the news. Maybe you saw something mentioned on Facebook, or other social media: Zika, Ebola, H5N1 and other pathogens rearing their ugly heads. These diseases pop up in distant locales, oftentimes with exotic names like Khartoum, Beijing or Mumbai. Usually we’ll hear about one or two of these happening at the same time.

Now, imagine if you will, four previously unknown pathogens emerging at the same time, spread across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. These four unique “bugs” break out in multiple cities, and soon begin spreading throughout their respective region. A team is dispatched from Atlanta to the four initial locations to try to assess and stop these diseases. Unfortunately, two of these new diseases undergo explosive amplification and turn what was a local outbreak into an epidemic through an infectious chain reaction.

Our small team from Atlanta struggles valiantly to keep up with these outbreaks, but with limited resources are soon overwhelmed. Infections spread to North and South America, and more outbreaks appear in Europe. The epidemics have now turned into a global pandemic. The medic on the team is able to treat patients in Kolkata with limited success, but the patients in Mumbai are in grave danger. A quarantine specialist managed to limit the spread of infection in Mexico City. The Researcher on the team is close to developing a cure for the “red disease” in Atlanta. That won’t do much good, though, as the “blue disease” has covered all of Europe and made the jump to both New York City and Montreal. The team knows they are beaten, but refuse to give up until the end.

Was this the movie Outbreak or Contagion? Nope. It wasn’t a Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, either. Thankfully, what I just described to you was a scenario from the board game Pandemic.  I first heard about this game from a friend of mine (thanks, Steve!) and as soon as I read the description, I knew I had to have it. Since I do infectious disease research for a living, I guess it’s no real surprise that I would be drawn to this game. Several of my colleagues at work also enjoy it, so finding extra players is easy. Not only does Cindy enjoy the Pandemic universe, but my sister and her husband got hooked on it as well.

Thankfully, it's just a game.

The Pandemic “universe” consists of the base game, Pandemic, and three optional expansions: On The Brink, In The Lab and State Of Emergency. We have the On The Brink and In The Lab expansions, and State Of Emergency is on my wish list. While Pandemic can be played as a standalone, you still need it to play any of the expansions.

For those like me who grew up playing Monopoly, Life or Risk, the biggest adjustment to playing Pandemic is that it’s a cooperative, and not an individual effort. The base game is for 2 – 4 players, and all the players work together to win or lose. Each game is different due to the random draw of game cards. For example, there are seven role cards: Contingency Planner, Dispatcher, Medic, Operations Expert, Quarantine Specialist, Researcher, and Scientist. Each role has its own unique abilities and actions. Depending on the luck of the draw, your team can be versatile and strong, or limited and weak. Obviously, some mixes are much better than others, but as in real life, we don’t always have the perfect “dream team” to work with. Face it, we all have that “one” co-worker, don't we? Other cards determine where infections will occur and how often an epidemic will break. There are several ways to lose the game but only one way to win. While each player has ultimate control of their own “character,” you are allowed and encouraged to discuss with the other team members what you will do in your move. You win or lose, though, as a team.

We lost!

The goal is to discover cures for four different diseases, represented by cubes in red, blue, yellow and black. That’s the one way to win this game. There are only 24 cubes of each color, and you’ll see why that number is important below. The following comes directly from the enclosed game directions.

Your team loses the game if:

  • ·         Not enough disease cubes are left when needed (a disease spreads too much)
  • ·         Not enough player cards are left when needed (your team runs out of time)
  • ·         8 outbreaks occur (a worldwide pandemic happens)

Now that you have a basic overview of the game, I’ll walk you through setup and play. After shuffling the role cards, each player is dealt one card. This randomizes the team mix and makes each game unique. The “infection deck” contains cards for each city on the game board. This deck gets shuffled and three cards are turned over. Three disease cubes are then placed on each of these cities. Three more cards are turned over and two disease cubes are placed on the indicated cities. A final three cards are turned over and one cube is placed in these cities. That makes 9 cities and 18 cubes in play as the game begins. Depending on the random draw of cards, one disease color may be much more prevalent than another. Sometimes there’s an even distribution of colors, but typically we’ll see more of one color than the others. This is important because having many of the same colored cubes can precipitate an “outbreak.”

Ready to play

Now that the initial disease locations have been set, it’s time to play. Each player can perform 4 “actions,” such as travel to another city, treat disease, build a research station, and so on. At the end of the 4 actions, more cities get infected as determined by drawing the infection cards. You can see how random this game is, just by the nature of shuffling multiple decks of cards. Play continues with the next person.

Depending upon how tough you want your game to be, you can choose to play with 4, 5, or 6 “epidemic” cards that are shuffled into the player deck. These epidemic cards cause more cities to become infected with each turn and increase the likelihood of re-infection of other cities. This really adds excitement to the game, as just when you think you’ve got everything under control, it blows up in your face. Also shuffled throughout the player deck are special “event” cards. These cards are helpful, in that playing one may allow you to skip your infection cycle, or move another player without having to use an “action” to do so. Some event cards are so valuable that you tend to hold on to them until a critical need arises. What one person deems a critical need, though, may not be what the rest of the team considers a critical need. Some of our discussions about using or not using an event card have become very, ummmm, well, let’s just say “focused.”

Play the card!

Even with our sometimes intense discussions, it’s all in the name of fun. It better be in the name of fun, otherwise why are we playing it, right? Yes, this is a fun game to play, even when we are losing. As the game progresses, hopefully we are finding cures for the diseases so we can win. Notice that there’s not an actual time limit to the game, in that no little hourglass is slowly draining, or no time clock is counting down. You do feel a sense of urgency, though, as every time a player finishes his or her turn, they draw two player cards. Remember above, where one way to lose is to run out of player cards? This seems to be the most common way to lose. That big deck of player cards dwindles rapidly, or at least it feels like it does.

Running out of time!

By this time, I hope we are discovering the last cure and calling it a win. Sometimes we do, oftentimes we don’t. There are few games I lose that are still fun. Our average game lengths are usually around an hour. We’ll take our time discussing strategy and optimizing our next few moves. One of us will take a bathroom break while another may refresh our drinks (“Medical Margaritas,” anyone?). We’ll usually play two or three games in an evening, depending on everyone’s energy level.

So that’s the basic game. It’s entertaining, intense at times and always different. The expansion sets don’t so much change the basic game as add to it. I’ll describe some of the highlights of the two expansions I have, which definitely make the game not only more fun but definitely more challenging. One big help is the addition of new role cards. These new role cards get shuffled into the base set to add more roles, and more abilities to the team.

On The Brink:

An additional player can join the game, increasing the total number to 5. The new roles are: Archivist, Containment Specialist, Epidemiologist, Field Operative, Generalist, and Troubleshooter. In addition, there’s an optional scenario that incorporates a Bio-Terrorist into the roles. Other enhancements include the option to add seven (yes, seven!) epidemic cards into the player deck. Besides the Bio-Terrorist challenge, you can opt to play with a special set of epidemic cards that incorporate a virulent strain or mutation challenge. These new cards make it harder to develop a cure and increase the chance of an outbreak. The mutation challenge adds a 5th disease to be cured. These pretty purple cubes add a BIG challenge to the game, as there are only 12 cubes instead of 24 like the other diseases. (Remember that rule about losing the game if you run out of disease cubes?) We haven’t played the Bio-Terrorist challenge yet, so if anyone reading this is up to a night of Pandemic, just let me know. Cindy and I will be ready and willing to host a Pandemic party and let the good times roll. You can bring dessert.

In The Lab:

Once we played through several rounds of the base game, and added some challenges with On The Brink, four of us decided to add In The Lab and see what happened. We lost….multiple times… short order. I guess we are just gluttons for punishment. In The Lab adds an additional game board to the base game, new challenges and five new roles. These new roles are Field Director, Local Liaison, Pilot, and Virologist. An additional role, the CDC, is used for solo play. Wait, whaaat? Solo play? Yes! This expansion allows for solo play, although I don’t see how that would be much fun. To me, this is a “social” game. In fact, this expansion allows 1 – 6 players. Maybe the solo game is for those who are home sick and need something to do while recovering. How ironic would that be?

I mentioned earlier that In The Lab adds an additional game board to the base set. This is the “lab” where the diseases are processed. Diseases must be characterized, sequenced and tested before a cure can be discovered. These steps add a tremendous level of realism to the game, as it reflects what happens in real life. Unlike my real life work in the lab, though, we can have snacks and adult beverages while “working” in the Pandemic world’s lab. Just be careful not to get “Cheeto-dust” all over the game board or cards.

Lab access: Granted

Let’s get started!

One cure found

Another cool addition this expansion brings is a new set of disease cure markers. The base set supplies these little flat markers in the shape of a vial. In The Lab replaces these flat markers with realistic looking plastic vials. These do nothing to change the actual game play, but look freaking awesome! In fact, I will use these new “vials” for any version of the game I play.

Do you want even more challenge? Sure, why not? In The Lab lets you add the Bio-Terrorist to the mix if you want, and add the virulent strain challenge as well. Since we got our butts kicked so thoroughly playing just the basic lab challenge, I think we’ll hold off on adding these other twists until we can win the basic lab game at least once. Another variant we haven’t tried yet is the team challenge. This variation divides the players into teams who still try to control outbreaks and discover cures to gain “prestige.” This adds a competitive element to the game in that the teams compete against each other. As with the other challenges, the mutation and virulent strain challenges can be added. The only variant not allowed during the team game is the addition of the Bio-Terrorist.

I can only imagine what State Of Emergency will add to the game. The product website adds this line: “This expansion is NOT for the faint of heart…” Wow, my kind of game! State Of Emergency adds a few new roles and challenges, including one where diseases spread from animals to humans. Did I mention that this is on my wish list? I’ll be happy to accept this and write a nice, detailed blog on it if someone wants to send it to me. Just sayin’…..

If you are a fan of board games, I highly recommend the Pandemic universe. You’ll never play the same game twice, and can customize the game with the different challenges to suit your excitement level.

Note: This is strictly my own opinion of the Pandemic games. I receive NO compensation from Z-Man Games, who owns and distributes the Pandemic games, in any form whatsoever.

Until next time…..

carpe cerevisi