Pandemic Critical Play

Pandemic, A Cooperative Board Game

In Pandemic, players team up to stop the spread of a deadly virus. It is a board game where the board is a world map, and players travel from country to country performing various tasks to combat the spread. The map starts out with some random countries infected, and each player takes turns traveling to countries, curing them of infection, building research stations, and researching a global cure. Further, each player gets a special power (mine was to share information efficiently with other players) that gives them a unique role on the team. Although the game has lots of strategy, there spread of the disease is random and can escalate from relatively benign to catastrophic in the blink of an eye.

I playtested pandemic with some of my 377G classmates. This wasn’t my first time playing pandemic but this was my first time analyzing it. The game started out with us just trying to make sense of the rules and get settled in. Once we started playing, I felt like we had a solid plan and were executing it seamlessly. And yet, horrifyingly quickly, the virus spread out of control. We had outbreak after outbreak and found ourselves in a pretty bad position after only a handful of turns. In the end we couldn’t finish playing but it was still fun. I found the joy of playing the game came more from chatting and sharing the experience with the other players than it did from winning or losing. Winning felt more like a guideline to structure play around, but was superseded by the strong social aspects that come with playing a cooperative game, and that’s what I like about them!

How Cooperative Play Changes the Dynamics

Overall, I enjoy cooperative games and often wish there were more of them. Here are a few differences that I noticed between the gameplay dynamics of these games versus the competitive board games I am more used to.

  1. Open Honest Discussion: In competitive board games, I feel like there’s often a level of secrecy and deception, after all, it’s often advantageous to catch the opponent by surprise. However, in a cooperative game like Pandemic, I find myself sharing my thoughts and trying to collaborate on strategies. I think this is the best part of collaborative games, I really enjoy talking with the other players, it starts out with coming up with a plan but can often lead to more free flowing conversation. It provides an icebreaker in way that more competitive games don’t always.
  2. Less Permission to Play / A Sense of Responsibility: In solo competitive play, if I make a mistake, I only let myself down. In a cooperative game, if I make a mistake, then I let everyone down! I think I found myself trying to play in a much more rigid and “correct” way of playing in order to not surprise my teammates in a bad way. I wouldn’t be surprised if other people also find themselves making more “conventional” decisions for the sake of the group.
  3. Division of Labor: I found that I didn’t really have to engage as carefully with the rules and all of the events happening on the board as I might have in a competitive setting. Pandemic, for instance, presents a list of tasks that no one player can tackle anyway. I found myself mostly focusing on my own slice of the game and letting others handle their parts. In some ways, I ignored the state of the game and the other player positions more than I normally would have.
  4. Quarterbacking: I’m by no means the first person to bring up that cooperative games can be prone to “quarterbacking”, that is, one person taking charge and making the decisions for everyone else. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen but it can change the dynamic of play. On one hand, it can lead to small conflicts, power struggles, or players becoming disengaged. On the other hand, it could help ease some of the performance pressure off of newer or less confident players and might lead to more participation from players who may otherwise be too intimidated by the complexity of the game to play. (No quarterbacking in my playthrough with my classmates, this is mostly speculative but based on experiences with / stories about other games)
  5. Pressure reminiscent of competition: While not competitive in the traditional sense because everyone wins or loses together, there is some sense of pressure to keep up with the pack. If everyone else is working really hard, has their calculators out, and is googling probability spreadsheets for pandemic, now all of a sudden, there is a pressure to match that level of play. It’s true I’m not competing with them but I’m still trying to match them, and in some ways maybe its not so different from competing after all. Also, going the other way, if I wanted to play more intensely I might hold back in order to not impose that on a group that feels more mellow. Ultimately, I think cooperative games lead to players trying to match each other’s intensity in similar ways to competitive games which perhaps isn’t a difference but I thought it was interesting anyway.



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