Where’s Dustin Hoffman When You Need Him?!

It’s 1995 and I am sitting in a packed cinema watching the opening scenes of the movie Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman. It’s pretty standard but engaging fair that tracks a team of scientists as they try to combat a deadly virus. There’s a particular scene in the movie where the lethal virus is spread by a man coughing in a packed cinema! The camera follows the cough spray as it goes in the mouths and noses of the unsuspecting patrons. I was eyeing the nearest exit and hatching an escape plan!

The rest of the movie is a dramatic, action packed game of cat and mouse as Dustin and his team of scientists battle to contain the spread of infection and save the world!

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Now fast forward 13 years to 2008 and Matt Leacocks’ quite stunning cooperative board game, Pandemic-basically the movie Outbreak in a box. When the game came out it presented an evolutionary leap in gaming mechanics not to mention sheer fun. With a group of your friends you could desperately try to contain the spread of three infectious diseases as they threatened to make humankind extinct. The game became so popular it gave rise to a second edition and multiple expansions which make the game even more engrossing!

The game allows up to 4 players to take on various roles such as a Scientist or an Operations Expert. Player’s must work as a team to eradicate the viruses before they accumulate in cities and cause outbreaks which then cause an exponential increase in the infected population. Left unchecked an entire city could be lost quite easily. Ok, so it’s a city on a piece of cardboard but after a couple of turns it may as well be your home town you’re saving!

The game is cleverly guided by some interesting and rather simple mechanics including a nifty deck of specialised cards that determines where the viruses will appear and when something like an epidemic will occur which ups the ante substantially.

As it is a cooperative game, Pandemic allows for some interesting dynamics to occur. Quite often the game will be lost as it certainly is a challenge to win but when you include in the mix various personalities, each with different ways of doing things, the challenge increases.

The game presents some excellent opportunities to study human behaviour. Pay attention and you may learn a great deal about the people you’re playing with. Do you have a potential bully or alpha in your midst? Do you have a potential leader who is willing to listen to his or her co-workers to find the best solution to your problems? You will of course have those players who are quite happy to be led by others, quietly contributing here and there, if at all. And then you have what is quite often labelled as the ‘alpha player’. Therein lies our key problem with an otherwise great game.  The game can be overrun by a dominant character or simply by someone who knows the rules the best and winds up spending the entire game ‘guiding’ players towards the ‘optimal’ move.  This has the potential to significantly detract from the fun fact.

Good gaming groups will understand that cooperative games are almost always susceptible to this phenomenon and so they make concessions and listen to one another to reach the ideal outcome.   But then conversely, coop games can become quite bland if everybody inputs equally and, hey! why not have fun exploring the ups and downs of cooperative play for better or worse.  Let’s face it, if you were really in a diverse team of professionals combatting a global plaque it wouldn’t all be Kumbaya, My Lord! Would it?!

At it’s core, Pandemic is a fine and smart cooperative experience and one of the best cooperative board games you can invest in. The latest edition is presented amazingly well and the game comes with a number of expansions and variants that will keep the interest of the players for some time to come.

Conclusion…Just get it already!

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