The invitation to play is the board setup. The setup is quite elaborate, with a lot of steps. We were all first-time or inexperienced players, so we had to reference the manual and spend a lot of time rearranging the pieces.
Pandemic is played with 2-4 players. Each of the players have a special role assigned by role cards. The players all work together in cooperative play.
The objective of the game is to develop cures for all four diseases before the maximum level outbreak. Players accomplish this by collecting five city cards of the same color at a research station. This could be categorized as the alignment objective.
To start the game, you draw nine cards to set up the initial infection. The initial state of the game is randomized, which gives the game more variation between each play session.
The game progresses in turns. On your turn, you can take four actions. The possible actions are listed on the reference cards. Special actions are also available to each role, listed on the role cards. After the player takes their actions, they draw two player cards. Finally, a number of infection cards are drawn, according to the current infection rate.
The cards are mostly city cards, but there are some epidemic cards mixed in. The number of epidemic cards in the deck is used to control the difficulty of the game. This gives the game more replayability, even after the players are experienced. These epidemics can trigger outbreaks and move the players closer at risk of losing.
The rules limit the number and types of actions that a player can take on their turn. There are eight possible actions on the reference card, as well as two other actions on the role card. Many of these actions have restrictions, such as requiring players to be on the same tile or to match a card with the player’s current location. The player can only take four actions on their turn, but the infection progresses quickly. The interesting decisions and choices come from players carefully planning out their four available actions for maximum efficiency.
The rules reflect the theme well. Like an actual pandemic, the rate of infection accelerates, and the game becomes more difficult if the infection is not contained quickly. Once infections spread past a certain point, it is difficult to recover. The epidemic cards can suddenly ramp up the difficulty and introduce interesting variability.
The players’ main resources are the city cards, which they can spend to travel across the board, build research stations, or develop cures. These resources are held individually, but they can be traded with an action. Research stations are a shared resource that allow players to teleport to locations and develop cures. There are only six, and they can be constructed on the board by any player.
The conflict is against the pandemic, which is controlled by the infection cards. The spread of infection is randomized, which makes the game replayable. The players all work together to beat the board.
The boundaries of the game are constrained by the player board. The rules don’t operate outside the board. Although the theme of the game is a serious and realistic issue, the rules are abstracted enough that the fiction is distinct from reality.
The possible outcomes of the game is that everyone wins or everyone loses collectively. The players win when cures are developed for all four diseases. The board wins when the outbreak reaches level 8.
The initial setup was pretty complicated, and since all of us were new players, it took a lot of time to set up and learn the rules. I think this game would work well if at least one player was experienced and could explain the rules to the others. Although the actions were somewhat restrictive, lending to more interesting player choices, the character roles gave us very useful special actions. At first, we thought that the game was a little too easy, until we realized that we were misinterpreting the special actions and giving ourselves too much power. I think the most exciting moments were when we drew an epidemic card, and the infection spread rapidly. On each player’s turn, the other players would yell suggestions and point out the areas with high infection that had to be addressed quickly. The game requires awareness of the whole board, because unchecked infections could spread rapidly.