Design Analysis: Pandemic

Pandemic has proven to be so popular, it gets a spiffy new cover a mere 5 years after its first release!

Pandemic has proven to be so popular, it gets a spiffy new cover a mere 5 years after its first release! Image from the Board Game Geek.

Matt Leacock’s coop masterpiece Pandemic made its debut in 2008 and has quickly become a modern classic, even finding a place on the shelves of huge toy stores like Toys’R’Us. But how did Pandemic achieve this level of success so quickly?

I believe it’s because Pandemic dove head first into the only lightly tested waters of the coop board game space. While it wasn’t the first, it was clearly the best, designed in every way to emphasize its coop nature from the theme to the clever mechanisms that power it.

And lets face it: lots of people like working together more than they like working against each other. While the cut-throat classics such as Risk and Monopoly are still well loved in certain circles, more forgiving and collaborative games, games like Settlers of Catan where you at least partially work with other players, have become more and more popular. Pandemic, as an all out cooperative game, is the natural destination when you begin traveling in this direction. Coop might make many hard core game fans roll their eyes, but for casual gamers and families especially, coop is a huge plus.

Looking the Part

Pandemic is the game of heroic scientists and public servants tasked with containing the outbreak of four separate contagious diseases across the planet. Played on a graph with cities as nodes, players take turns traveling around the world, gathering information about the diseases, curing populations, and building research centers, with the ultimate goal of eradicating all four diseases. And they’ll succeed, as long as the diseases don’t get too out of hand.

Players race around the board, removing disease cubes. Image from the Board Game Geek.

Players race around the board, removing disease cubes. Image from the Board Game Geek.

Right from the beginning, you’ll notice that the theme of the game fits perfectly with the coop nature. I don’t usually comment on themes in these design reviews, but the theme of Pandemic supports its mechanics so well that it’s worth examining why.

First off, the heroes of the game aren’t warriors or wizards, they’re nerds. For a game that’s made for families to enjoy together, what better way to make parents feel good than elevating intelligence and public service as heroic? Maybe the most diehard Ayn Rand fans think Corporate America teaches youngsters better life skills, but those people are few and far between.

Second, in the game, you’re not fighting an army of invaders, you’re fighting diseases. Not only does this separate the players and the game in a nice clean fashion (by more than just species, by entire kingdom), it ensures that players aren’t hurting anything even close to human-like, further enhancing the non-violent, family friendly nature of the game.

Finally, what better way to make players bond than to have them save all of humanity, reminding them of the one thing they all definitely have in common (assuming no AIs are playing)? Sure, the game could be about an alien invasion, but the idea of people from around the world pulling together to save the whole human race is a great way to get players to see their commonalities rather than their differences.

It’s All about the AI

Ok, there’s one more way having the bad guys of Pandemic be diseases is brilliant: diseases are relatively easy to simulate.

Let me take a step back. In Pandemic, as players, you’ll move from one city to another. You’ll remove disease cubes from the board. You’ll collect and trade cards with the other players. Nothing terribly interesting or innovative.

What makes coop games interesting is how they handle the opponent. There’s always a tension when it comes to cooperative board games.

On the one hand, you want an interesting enemy to defeat that will require clever thinking. You don’t want the enemy to be too random, because then it will sometimes do really stupid stuff, and be difficult to outsmart in a satisfying way.

On the other hand, you don’t have a machine to act out the AI for you. Your players are going to have to act it out. So you don’t want it to be boring or so complex they make errors.

It’s a very fine line to balance, and most cooperative games I’ve played err on the side of too simple, to the point where the “AI” is just pure randomness. In my opinion, this is pretty unsatisfying.

Pandemic adopts a very clever strategy when it comes to the AI of the disease, and is the game’s greatest strength.

At a basic level, each turn, the current player flips over a number of cards to infect cities. If one city gets infected too much, it will outbreak, infecting neighboring cities and bringing the game closer to an unsuccessful ending. The number of cities that get infected each turn escalates as the game goes on, creating more danger and excitement.

But occasionally, an Epidemic card will be revealed, and this is when things get interesting. Instead of continuing through the deck as usual, the players now shuffle the cards that have already been revealed and put them on top of the cards that have not yet been seen.

What does this simple trick do? It keeps the action focused, making the disease concentrate its attacks in specific regions the players can easily identify. It also reduces the randomness a little bit, letting players predict what the AI will be doing without knowing exactly what it will be doing. This subtle mechanic adds an incredible amount of depth, adding to the strategy of the game and giving players lots of ah-ha moments when they discover the optimal strategy in a particular situation.

In my view, Pandemic‘s magic lies in this mechanic. Taking almost no thought on the part of the players to implement but giving the AI nuance and, well, intelligence, frequently replaying cards players have already seen gives the game a surprising amount of depth.

All for One and One for All?

So, is Pandemic really the ultimate coop experience? It just might be. But does that mean it’s a great game?

Not necessarily. While Pandemic does an excellent job of solving the biggest problem with cooperative games, namely giving the players an interesting opponent, there are other issues that remain problematic.

Most noticeably, Pandemic is still what many hard core gamers call “multiplayer solitaire”. By that, they mean that even though all of the players are working together, it could just as easily be a single player game where one person controls all of the game characters. In fact, a friend of mine really enjoys playing Pandemic by herself!

This feature leaves many serious gamers and those playing with them frustrated. Serious gamers see every correct move, and more importantly every incorrect action their less serious teammates make. Less serious gamers get fed up with hard core gamers offering more advice than they’d like. A game can end in a more sour mood than games where players are supposed to crush each other!

Leacock wasn’t unaware of this issue and did take measures to address it. The rules suggest that players shouldn’t show each other their hands, to keep some knowledge hidden. Unfortunately, this is presented as more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule, so many players ignore it. To me, it also seems forced and arbitrary, which is really too bad, because much of the rest of the game feels extremely coherent.

I think Leacock was on the right track with his rule. The best way to give players their own identities is to keep information hidden between them. Unfortunately, his implementation just didn’t do the trick.

Other games take more effective approaches. For example, in Hanabi, players know everyone else’s cards, but they don’t know their own, creating hidden information. But the rules are also very clear on what information players are allowed to reveal to each other and how they can share it. In fact, it turns such information into a resource, giving each player real agency.

Alternatively, you could go the partial coop route, like my friends at the Enchanted Beard Press. In their superhero drama With Great Power, players all work together to fight crime, but players are incentivized to remain partially secretive about their own hidden information, because some player might choose to betray the team, and revealing that information could later be detrimental to your own success. By keeping the players guessing who’s on whose team, With Great Power keeps players genuinely separate entities.

Cooperative Masterpiece

While Pandemic isn’t perfect, it’s the best example of an engaging and effective cooperative game I know of. It’s not for everyone, but I think everyone should try it.

Making genuinely cooperative games that are well balanced and take real team work is a very difficult challenge. Pandemic manages to overcome many of the hurdles of cooperative design, in particular by creating an interesting and challenging opponent that is very easy for players to enact.

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