Cover Your Mouth – Pandemic Retrospective

Eh, could be worse

New overdone artwork shown

This weekend, I watched Steven Soderbergh’s thriller from 2011, Contagion. I’m not entirely sure what I was suspecting, but I liked what I saw. I found it to be a clear-eyed portrayal of what a true global pandemic would look like, without apocolyptic overtones and overwrought doomsaying. It was simply about a very serious global scare and the aftermath, and that straightforward quality suited the subject matter well. In some ways, it felt more realistic and therefore more frightening. But the whole time, I was remembering back to the movie’s release, when my wife pestered me to go and see “that Pandemic movie.”

She was not referring to the abstract concept of a global disease scare, but to the 2008 board game by Matt Leacock and released by Z-Man games, appropriately titled Pandemic. For a good two years, we played Pandemic relentlessly. It wasn’t just a couples game either. We played it with our friends, both gamers and non-gamers. We introduced it to others to great success, and we frequently set up a second game immediately after finishing our first. Not many games burn so bright, and though we eventually did get tired of the game and traded it away, it was only after close to 50 games. We weren’t alone. Pandemic has sneakily become one of the most important games of the last five years.

I feel like I need to qualify that statement, because I’m not sure we’re all aware of the kind of impact Pandemic had. It’s almost always one of the key five or six games mentioned in the standard puff pieces published in newspapers, usually in awe of the fact that it’s a co-operative game. And indeed, Pandemic really felt like the first co-op that found some traction as a crossover hit. It helped to establish one of the most important publishers of hobby games. And perhaps most interestingly, it hit upon a theme-and-mechanics combination that still feels fresh and relevant.

It’s certainly true that Pandemic was not the first co-operative game. I’m not sure what game would get that honor, though I would probably start with Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings in 2000. Others followed of course. The Arkham Horror reprint landed in 2005, as did Shadows Over Camelot, which, despite its traitor element, is far more of a co-op with a possible traitor than a true suspicion game. These games were all highly successful among gamers But none of these games quite had what it took to become something you could share with your in-laws. Lord of the Rings relies a little too much on knowing the game well, and though the theme is familiar the game comes at it kind of sideways. Arkham Horror is a huge undertaking to pick up and play for new players, though it’s been a bigger hit than anyone would expect. And though Shadows Over Camelot was fairly accessible, it’s just a little too complex and abstract to really be a true hit.

But where those games stayed largely within the hobby (or in the case of Arkham Horror, within it’s own vast cult), Pandemic took off. The biggest reason is simply that the game is not very complicated. The consequences of choices are often quickly apparent, and even new players will sense the decisions that need to be made within their first game. And while co-operative games are now pretty common, it’s hard to underestimate how novel the co-op mechanic is to non-gamers. The idea that everyone plays together was still pretty unusual in 2008, but it certainly wasn’t after this. Within a matter of months, co-operative games were springing up everywhere. Whether they were inspired by Pandemic I cannot say, but success makes other publishers take notice, and it’s now a common mechanical genre. In the Euro market at least, co-operative titles were legitimized by Pandemic.

That success helped to put Z-Man games on the map. Obviously before 2008 they had a couple of hits in the hobby. But with the arrival both of Pandemic and the English version of Agricola, Z-Man was suddenly a force to be reckoned with. One needs only to look at their release list to see the demarcation. From the looks of their website, Z-Man went from around 9 games in 2008 and 11 in 2009 to a full 30 releases, both reprints and original products, in 2010. I couldn’t say with anything beyond gut feeling if Pandemic was one of the pivotal titles there, but I know that it was certainly the first time I had regarded them as anything besides an also-ran. They’re now one of the most important hobby publishers, with a great mix of original releases, classic reprints, and strange experiments. I suspect that Pandemic served a little like their Ticket to Ride, making them a true player in the eyes of gamers.

But accessibility and financial success don’t explain how this game, or any game, has remained popular enough to get a new fancy edition with reworked art. If you look closer, Pandemic owes a lot of its success to its fresh theme, and to mechanics that support it fully. In my years in this hobby, I have never seen another theme like Pandemic. It’s not about dragons, aliens, or Italian merchants. It’s about a threat that we feel everyday.

Thematic relevance is all too rare in modern gaming. We like escapism, and to be sure Pandemic is first and foremost an entertaining game. But there’s a part of me that likes the game because it feels like it’s about something that is on my mind. Books like The Stand and movies like Contagion have spoken to our fears of global pandemic, but this is the only time I’ve seen a game handle it. It’s never too dark, and never overwrought, something the new artwork has failed to capture. It feels natural, and it makes you think a little about our world and how fragile civilization actually is. The specifics may not be there, but I find myself applying human emotions to the game, which is a rare thing indeed.

That the game couldn’t keep my interest past 50 plays is unfortunate, but understandable. Not many games can handle that many plays and stay fresh. Freshness was ultimately what did the game in for me. We didn’t beat it constantly, especially at the higher difficulties. But we did eventually find a sense of sameness, like the game stopped surprising us and the decisions stopped being difficult. The very good On The Brink expansion wasn’t enough to salvage the game for us. This can be a problem in the co-operative genre, but I think it was more pronounced in this simpler design. Having said all that, I wouldn’t turn down a game if someone offered it. I also think it would be highly suited to an iOS implementation. But ultimately, Pandemic sacrificed depth for accessibility, and its time has passed for me.

Still, that’s not an unreasonable sacrifice at all. Even if I’ve moved on, I hope that a lot of other people discover Pandemic. It’s one of the rare titles that might have actually grown the hobby for all involved, revealing new possibilities for designers and helping to bridge the gap between hobbyists and those on the outside. It deserves all of the recognition that it’s received.

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