Tabletop Tuesday – Pandemic: The Cure

Pandemic has always been a staple of cooperative board games in the groups I’ve been a part of: not as grueling or time-intensive as Arkham Horror, not as fiddly as Descent, and not as likely to alienate the one half of the table who hasn’t actually seen an episode of Battlestar Galactica. It’s one of those games that, by and large, people have always seemed happy to play. It has a reputation for being fairly difficult but the cooperative strategy rewards working well together. Since the average playtime is only around 45 minutes, it’s ideal for board gaming sessions where people want to play several different games, or for when people don’t have the four-plus hours required to play most other co-op games.

Now, along comes Pandemic: The Cure, a dice-based reimagining of the original Pandemic that retains most of what made its predecessor so great, while at the same time streamlining the mechanics, punching up the variety of roles, and cutting the total playtime by more than half.

Copyright Z-man Games

Overview

Pandemic: The Cure is a solid and elegant package from a production design standpoint. 48 sturdy, colorful dice (of four different colors) represent the four diseases threatening the world, and are stored (and played out of) an included “infection bag.” A small deck of cards includes Events (familiar to players of the original), a set of player reference cards for the game’s symbols and the turn order, and a card for tracking which diseases have been cured.

The centerpiece of the game, however, is the Treatment Center, a circular ring that allows the game to have a handy fixture without the need of a board. Rather than the original Pandemic‘s detailed world map with individual cities, the world here has been reduced to six abstract regions, each represented by a number. These regions are set in a circle around the Treatment Center, which itself is both the game’s progress tracker as well as the area of holding disease dice that have been treated (more on that later).

Copyright Z-man Games

Last up are the different player roles. Each role has its own bright, easily identifiable color that matches up its pawn, role card, and unique set of dice. Like the original Pandemic, every role has something unique that only it can do, but now, the actions each role can carry out are dictated by that role’s dice (more on this later, as well). The role cards themselves explain whatever special powers that role has, shows the different faces of their dice for easy reference, and comes in the shape of an actual I.D. badge, complete with a hole punched through for a badge clip, which I think is a cute touch.

Gameplay

The general flow of Pandemic: The Cure is very similar to the original: each turn, a handful of dice, representing the diseases, is drawn at random from the bag, and then rolled to determine where in the world they are placed. Although the dice are six-sided, they are not standard d6s; each color has its own distribution of numbers that determines which of the six world regions it can show up in, as well as with what frequency (the black dice, for instance, have three faces for the number 3). Each color also has medical cross symbol that, instead of causing the die to infect a region, sends it to the CDC, where those dice act as a sort of currency to purchase beneficial events. As with the original Pandemic, if something would cause more than three dice of a given color to be placed on a single location, an outbreak occurs, spreading the disease to other regions; also, if the total number of outbreaks reaches 8 over the course of the game (tracked along one side of the Treatment Center), the players lose the game.

Whereas in the original Pandemic, each player had four actions to take on his or her turn, actions here are determined by dice. Dice are rolled, and the symbols showing determine what actions a player can take, such as moving to a different region, treating diseases, and so on. Each role has its own unique set of dice, with their own symbols; they share a number of common options, but the distribution of symbols is different for each one, causing them to play slightly differently in other ways (for example, some roles allow for much faster travel around the world, while others lack the same ease of mobility).

Whenever a rolled die’s action is used, that die is set aside and cannot be used for the rest of the turn. Any unused dice can be rerolled any number of times until the player gets the desired result(s) on them, but there is a risk/reward factor at play here: one of the facings on each action die is a biohazard symbol, which not only locks the die (preventing it from being rolled again), it also increases the infection track, shown along one section of the Treatment Center ring. At certain spaces along the track, an epidemic will occur, reinfecting the world with any dice held in the Treatment Center, along with a fresh batch of new dice from infection bag. As with outbreaks, reaching the very end of this track also results in the players losing the game.

The objective of the game is to cure all four diseases. To do this, dice must be sent from the regions they’re infecting to the Treatment Center (accomplished by the Treat action, one of the die facings). Dice already in the Treatment Center can be collected using the Sample action; dice that have been used to sample disease dice are ‘locked down,’ unable to be rolled again until that disease is cured, which is accomplished by taking the sampled dice and rolling them, hoping to hit a specific target number. Sampled diseases can also be given to other players; the action dice themselves are still locked down, but this form of teamwork can make all the difference in curing diseases quickly and efficiently (with some roles making it easier to trade samples, or assisting the roll made to cure the disease). Upon curing all four diseases, the players win the game (unlike regular Pandemic, there is no eradication of diseases, only curing).

Thoughts

Despite the use of dice instead of cards, Pandemic: The Cure really does feel like the original, and not simply in a gimmicky way. The rules are very simple to pick up; I’ve played with multiple new players, none of whom had trouble grasping the game’s concepts after the first few minutes of hands-on time with the game. The various roles all feel very useful in some way or another, with less of a ‘must-have’ emphasis on certain roles that many people feel the original Pandemic sometimes had.

The method ‘sampling’ diseases with locked-down dice instead of simply collecting like-colored cards also feels more thematically like you’re doing something to actually research a cure. The fact that dice sampling is a player-driven process rather than something based on random card draw helps with that as well.

Perhaps the biggest advantage the game has over the original Pandemic is the speed of play. The game’s box bills itself (in a tongue-in-cheek way) as “Fast-Acting,” and that’s certainly true. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that took appreciably more than 20 minutes or so, and once you’ve played the game even a handful of times, you can get it set up in probably under two minutes, ready to go. As mentioned above, the original game never took an enormous amount of time either, but the setup here is much simpler, less prone to accidental error (shuffling up the different sub-decks before a game has messed up my gaming groups more than once), and frankly quite intuitive.

But just because it plays faster and has been more abstracted doesn’t mean the game has been dumbed down; on the contrary, the strategy is just as important as ever, with the game liable to spiral out of control into player defeat very quickly if folks don’t stay on their toes. It’s also still pretty hard, but feels fairly balanced from the several times I’ve gotten to play it so far. I may go so far as to say that it’s one of the most robust board game experiences I’ve had for titles that readily play in under 30 minutes.

Conclusions

PROS:
– fast and simple to set up, fast and simple to play
– production quality is very nice, and component setup is brilliantly elegant in its simplicity
– rewards strategy and teamwork; game doesn’t feel cheap or unfair
– different roles feel and play sufficiently different
– feels like Pandemic without being a rehash or knockoff

CONS:
– ‘tracking syringes’ feel a bit too big for the holes they stick into
– won’t fill up an entire evening if people don’t want to play more than one game
– as with the original Pandemic, you’re going to lose repeatedly to outbreaks of the black disease. Curse you!

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Kevin Frane

Kevin Frane

Kevin Frane is a freelance Japanese translator, editor, and science-fiction author living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a big fan of tabletop roleplaying, Star Wars, board games, wine, and good food.
Kevin Frane

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