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Science wins again with Pandemic game

by Eva Amsen

I recently spent a week and a half in Toronto, after having been gone for nine months, and the city’s changed already! There’s a stretch of Bloor street that’s notorious for having new shops open every few months, and others disappearing when the rent gets too high. Just west of that a new board game cafe opened while I was gone. For $5 you can sit there as long as you want and play as many boardgames as you like. They have close to two thousand games, all stacked in IKEA Expedit shelving along the long wall of the cafe.

While waiting for Nadia to show up, I spotted a game that I’d read a review of. I had been meaning to play Pandemic, and here it was! Nadia was also up for a game of pandemic eradication, so we got out the multi-page instructions and tried to figure it out.

The girl sitting at the table next to us commented “Wow, your game sounds complicated” when we had to refer to the instructions for the millionth time. “Have you been the infection yet this round?” “You still need to take another card – we only just did the epidemic card.” “Don’t forget to move the outbreak marker.”

The goal of the game was to win, as a team, against the spreading infections. The game itself could win from all the players by making them run out of cards or playing pieces, or after eight epidemic outbreaks. The players could win by finding cures against all diseases. Once you had a cure, you could then also eradicate that disease, making it impossible to get new infections of that type.

To find a cure, you needed 5 similarly-coloured cards, and a research station. Building a research station was, relatively speaking, the easiest move in the game. It only cost as much as a plane ticket, and if you were lucky, you could even use this card, making it entirely free:

Don’t you wish you had that card in real life?

Nadia and I were battling the imaginary diseases as hard as we could, but even though the game had assigned us the awesome roles of scientist and medic, respectively, we couldn’t seem to win. After playing for more than two hours, and cheating a little by not admitting defeat when the pile of playing cards ran out (an instant loss, according to the game), we wondered how anyone was ever able to beat Pandemic. We were collaborating and playing well, and had still only wiped out two of the four diseases from the map. That’s when we read the instructions again…. We were supposed to find cures to all diseases, not entirely eradicate them! We’d been playing with all the cures for over an hour, trying our best to entirely get rid of every single pathogen on the board, but that went way above and beyond the call of duty.

Science had won after all. If only building research stations and finding cures was so easy in real life…



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Frank Norman November 6, 2010 - 1:48 PM

Haha! I will have to get that game for our virologists to play.  I like the "add a research station" card. 

Are there others games like this? I think a "Quinquennial review visit" game or a "REF" game could be cathartic for those undergoing those research review processes.  Maybe a game about grant applications too would be popular.

Eva Amsen November 6, 2010 - 1:59 PM

I’ve actually been thinking of making a science board game that involved grant applications, and I thought it would be fun (like how Monopoly is fun, even though "game about real estate investments" sounds boring). But then they did something like that on Big Bang Theory, and it was clear that everyone thought it was a boring idea…

I was thinking of a strategy game where you have to weigh short term and long term decisions – yeah, it does sound boring… =(

Richard P. Grant November 6, 2010 - 2:53 PM

 Thanks for pointing out that bug in our server move, Eva. Here’s the full review of Pandemic: blog.the-scientist.com/2010/06/04/play-the-game/. 


I wonder what else got broke? *sigh*

Stephen Curry November 6, 2010 - 11:28 PM

Eva – the real-life game of grant applications is too traumatic for it ever to be considered part of something that is supposed to be enjoyable! 

Eva Amsen November 6, 2010 - 11:50 PM

No, it will be fun! You don’t have to actually write a proposal, just play strategically: do you want more reagents or more students to do the work faster? There’s also an element of randomness built in. There’ll be lots of drama in the peer review rounds to keep it interesting, and it’ll be educational and also motivational: one of the ways to win the game is to win a Nobel Prize! How is that not fun?

I’ve worked out lots of the gameplay in my head and in an old notebook somewhere. I’ll make a prototype one day. Maybe I’ll bring my notes/prototype to SciBarCamp Cambridge this Spring and force people to play it AND ENJOY IT.

Stephen Curry November 6, 2010 - 11:58 PM

 It sounds horrendous!  

Shelley Edmunds November 7, 2010 - 1:19 AM

People always think boardgames start with the theme. That’s not how it works. You need a mechanism first, then the theme gets added later (often last). So having a game about grants doesn’t *mean* anything, there’s no mechanism or game play intrinsic to that. Yeah, you can make the mechanism kind of work with a theme in mind but there’s so much to getting the balance of play right and none of it has anything to do with what pictures you put on cards. 

So whenever I see fancy themed games in sitcoms or whatever I just roll my eyes, because what’s on the box cover is the least important or interesting part of any game. Eva, you need to read and learn a *lot* more about gaming mechanics before you can even think about how to overlay the theme or you’ll end up with an unplayable mess. boardgamegeek is, as always, the go to place for stuff about this.

(Yes I live with a gaming geek, but I also play quite a lot of boardgames myself these days and they really do have a point)

Cath Ennis November 7, 2010 - 1:25 AM

Sorry Eva, but I have to agree with Stephen. It sounds educational and useful for people in academic careers, but it doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend the evening after a long day of writing grants!


Pandemic sounds interesting though! I like complicated games sometimes. Some friends and I played one a few months ago called Puerto Rico. We spent almost a full hour reading the rules and setting it up before starting, and still had to keep consulting them throughout. It was fun though – in the early stages you had to co-operate to some extent with your opponents, and there was all kinds of short- and long-term strategy. You have to be in the right mood though!

Cath Ennis November 7, 2010 - 1:27 AM

Oops, submitted too soon. I was going to add that the last board game evening I was invited to appeared to be a ruse to get everyone to Kyrsten‘s apartment to drink wine. I think I played one 20 minute game in the 3 hours I was there.

Jennifer Rohn November 7, 2010 - 10:56 AM

Eva, I think Pandemic is hard to win with only two players. It’s certainly always hard to win, but we had more luck with four. The more players you have, the more expertise you have to fight the diseases – I think it’s a bit of a design flaw. There should be a way for fewer players to bring into play multiple roles.

Nicolau Werneck November 7, 2010 - 1:50 PM

That game looks very cool, Eva! Congratulations for beating the pandemics.

I loved you game idea. I was thinking maybe we could have something in the game that relates to writing articles, and win citations!… 🙂

There is a website that lets you make your own board games, I can look for it if you are interested.

Eva Amsen November 7, 2010 - 1:56 PM

Jenny, I didn’t even see what the other roles were, but with scientist and medic it was possible (We actually won, we just didn’t realize it and kept playing.) The scientist focused on collecting colours and finding cures, and the medic flew around to all the cities with 3 tokens on it to treat lots of people and prevent as many outbreaks as possible. It was a winning attack/defence combo. What do the other roles do?


As to my own game idea – it’s pretty basic "collect, collaborate, thwart" gameplay. I’ll try to make a mock up at some point.

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