Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Make a Saving Roll to Heal

Back in 2008, Pandemic from Z-Man Games was a big hit. The game pitched members of the Center for Disease Control against four global epidemics—red, blue, yellow, and black—in a race to save humanity. The game was one of the first titles to really popularise co-operative games, games in which the players were playing not against each other, but against the board and the game itself. The players raced around the world, travelling from city to city in an effort to treat diseases and find a cure for them whilst staving off the effects of outbreaks that would spread these diseases from one city to every adjacent city. Too many outbreaks and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Fail to find cures to all four diseases and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Like all co-operative games, Pandemic is designed to be difficult to beat and can be made even more challenging through the various expansions.

Of course, Pandemic has been made all the more popular with the release of Pandemic Legacy, a version of the game played as a campaign, with various factors having a permanent effect on the board, the cards, and the game itself. Before that, there was another release for Pandemic. Not another expansion, but a standalone game, one that has the same theme and objectives, yet introduces a physicality to its mechanics. Pandemic: The Cure is a dice game, continuing the trend of taking well-known board games and re-implementing them as dice games, from Catan Dice Game and Carcassonne: the Dice Game to Bang! The Dice Game and the more recent, Roll for the Galaxy. In Pandemic: The Cure the diseases have become dice, rolled randomly to determine where they appear. Similarly in Pandemic: The Cure the players’ actions have become dice, rolled randomly to determine what they can do from one turn to the next.

With the dice as disease, the players now have to undertake two tasks if they are to find a cure for each disease—collect samples and then roll to find a cure. A sample is one disease die that has been treated and collecting a sample means that a player must sacrifice one of his action dice to store that sample until the cure can be rolled for.

This rolling of dice has a number of big effects. For starters, and obviously, it adds a random element to the Pandemic design. The original board game was card driven and as the game progressed it became easier to predict which cities were likely to be infected again and again because they had been infected before. The ability to predict which diseases are going to appear and where has been lessened in Pandemic: The Cure because the dice are pulled blindly from a bag and then rolled to see where they appear. Some prediction is still possible—the players can still track the colour of the dice available on the table—but no more than that. Unable to predict exactly what dice will appear and where, the players are forced to be slightly more proactive than reactive than in the board game. 

Another difference between Pandemic and Pandemic: The Cure is that diseases cannot be eradicated. They still keep coming back out of the bag to infect Region Tiles anew and can still trigger Outbreaks, though like the boardgame, once a cure has been found, they are easier to Treat. This further forces the players to track the number of Infection dice in play.

With each player having their own dice and being able to re-roll undesired results, the number of actions a player may have from one turn to the next can vary wildly. Some turns it might be none, others it might be as many as five. As a game progresses though, a player will find himself giving up dice to take samples, so will find himself with fewer actions.

The game consists of a plastic hoop—the Treatment Centre—with peg holes to track both the Infection Rate and Outbreaks; six numbered disks—the Region Tiles—each one corresponding to a continent, plus another disk representing the CDC headquarters; seven role cards and corresponding pawns and sets of action dice; a Cured Disease card and ten Event cards; a cloth bag; and forty-eight Infection dice in four colours.  At game start, the Region Tiles are laid out in order around the Treatment Centre, everyone receives a Role card and the corresponding dice, both in matching colours. Then twelve Infection dice are rolled, the numbers rolled determining which Region Tile they are placed on.

The Infection dice are where the game begins to get clever. The opposite sides of normal six-sided dice always add up to seven; not so here. Instead, the numbers are weighted so that they will always land on certain Region Tiles. For example, rolls of five only appear on black or yellow dice and when rolled are placed on the Africa Regional Tile, whereas rolls of one appear on blue or red dice and are placed on the North America Region Tile. Then are the player dice. All have the same set of symbols—an aeroplane (Fly to any Region), a Ship (Sail to an adjacent Region), Hypodermic Needle (Treat an Infection die and move it to the Treatment Centre), a Bottle (Treat an Infection die in the Treatment Centre and save it for a Cure attempt), First Aid (used to buy Event cards), and lastly, a Biohazard symbol. When rolled, this moves the syringe along on the Infection Track and increases the chance of an epidemic.

Every set of role dice also has its own symbols, representing special actions. For example, the Medic has multiple Hypodermic Needles on some dice which allow him to Treat multiple Infection dice with one action, whilst the Dispatcher has the Helicopter symbol which can be saved to airlift anyone to any Region Tile before the Dispatcher’s next turn. 

On his turn, a player rolls his dice. He can either use them as necessary or he can re-roll, travelling to the different Regions, Treating Infection dice, collecting Samples, and so on. Biohazard results cannot be re-rolled. Just like the board game, the players need to Treat the Infections and find a Cure, which is done by Treating Infection dice and moving them to the Treatment Centre, and from there collecting Samples which can be rolled to find a Cure.  The latter simply involves rolling the collected Samples and beating the target. At the end of his turn, a player draws more Infection dice from the bag and rolls to see where they appear.

Like Pandemic, there is one way to win—find the four cures, and like Pandemic, there are multiple ways to lose. These are  running out of time (the infection rate syringe reaches the end of the Infection Track), too many Outbreaks (eight or more), and too many people infected (not enough Infection dice to be drawn from the bag).

Of course, Pandemic: The Cure is like Pandemic, a co-operative game. The players need to work together and every player’s turn is about discussing the possible optimal actions as well as carrying them out.

Ultimately, the rolling of dice and and the design of the playing area do undermine the game. The problem is that it abstracts the Pandemic concept and hinders a player’s engagement with the game. No longer is he trying to save Istanbul or Shanghai, but rather the world in general. Yet the dice add variability and frustration to the game in equal measure as well as tension—is your next roll going to save humanity or help destroy them? Rolling dice also add a physicality, making the game more hands-on and engaging.

Streamlined and quicker to play, Pandemic: The Cure is Pandemic’s lighter, simpler, and more family friendly brother. Perhaps a little overpriced, Pandemic: The Cure is the slick addition to the Pandemic family.