Everything wants you dead in the Pandemic World of Warcraft board game. Monsters never stop pursuing you across the wastes. Dark lords with suitably spiky armor make life miserable from afar. Dungeon-crawls are often fatal. Yet that's what makes the journey worth embarking on. This isn't the Pandemic board game we know; it's something new. Something better.
Officially called World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King - A Pandemic System Board Game, it leverages two pop-culture juggernauts for the sort of crossover we're more used to seeing from franchises like Monopoly. And it's easy to assume the worst after hearing an ungainly name like that. But this Pandemic World of Warcraft combo blends the best of both IPs. It doesn't always stick the landing and won't supplant the original on lists of the best board games, but it's an exciting new foundation to build from all the same.
What is it, and how does it work?
Price: $59.99 / £49.99
Developer: Z-Man Games
Game type: Co-op strategy
Players: 1 - 5
Lasts: 60 mins
As its rather clunky title would suggest, this version of Pandemic winds the clock back to 2008's Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack. It's the stuff of classic fantasy; an undead horde threatens to plunge the world into darkness, and your only hope of stopping them is by taking down their leader before it's too late. In practical terms, this means beating the snot out of the Lich King's lieutenants until he's the last man standing - at which point you can take the fight to him.
The nuts and bolts of this will be familiar to anyone that's ever tried Pandemic; players have to clear the board of tokens (a ghoul army, in this case) while trying to conquer its many regions. Unfortunately, time isn't on your side. More ghouls arrive at the end of every turn, and they'll keep on coming until the table is swarming with them. Leave the little blighters unattended for too long and they'll spill onto neighboring regions in a domino effect that can quickly spiral out of control.
So far, so Pandemic.
But don't think it's the same old thing. For starters, ghouls will fight back. Plus, larger abominations appear if too many ghouls congregate in one space. These monsters actively chase you across the board like a miniature - and infinitely more gross - Terminator.
This leads us to the biggest change in Pandemic World of Warcraft: combat. Rather than using an action to automatically get rid of tokens, players have to roll dice that decide whether they hit a foe or defend against a counter-attack.
Questing is another new addition. To reach the Lich King and topple him from his throne, you'll need to clear three dungeons by contributing certain cards. Because each of the nine possible quests also strike back with negative effects that wear you down, they can be a real challenge for anyone that goes in unprepared.
When combined with artwork pulled straight from WoW (to say nothing of detailed models), World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King - A Pandemic System Board Game feels very different to its predecessors.
Is it any good?
Adding combat to Pandemic might feel like small fry in the grand scheme of things, but it's transformative. Rolling against ghouls is a simple yet tactile experience, and it's an extra step that ratchets up your investment. Struggling to land blows on monsters that can hit you back is much more engaging than clearing them with a single action, too. OK, so we're comparing flesh-eating horrors with the original's abstract disease markers. But the point still stands. It's hands-on and more engaging overall, particularly because you've got to keep an eye on your hero's finite health.
The use of ability cards is another string to Wrath of the Lich King's bow. Rather than the color-coded locations you'd get in the likes of Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America, they're special actions that can help you out in a fight. Be it bonus attacks or defensive moves that can keep you alive when things go sideways, they add an extra dimension to gameplay that's now more than a decade old.
You also need these cards for questing, so timing their use - and weighing up the effort it'll take to find a replacement - is another dynamic that freshens the recipe. Although those boosts might come in handy during a scrap, you'll also need them to progress through the quest's various stages. That makes planning ahead a necessity, especially because wasted time is a luxury you can't afford.
It's not all a critical hit, however. The quests themselves have an air of unfulfilled potential about them. Even though unique side-effects differentiate the nine possible missions (one spawns a ghoul on your location after each attempt while another forces you to discard a card, for example), getting to that point isn't as exciting as it could be. While it's not bad by any means, it can feel more like busywork rather than embarking on a grand adventure, and that's taking the rewards you get at the end into account as well.
Fortunately, questing still adds spice despite not living up to its full potential. It's another hurdle to plan for in what is already a fraught battle against the odds, particularly with the unique drawbacks of each one; you'll have to come up with all-new strategies to accommodate those challenges. Should you work together to finish a quest at the expense of crowd-control, or is it better to keep one person on whack-a-ghoul duty to avoid outbreaks? Wrath of the Lich King is very distinct as a result, and it takes the franchise in an interesting direction.
Just don't expect things to be any easier than normal. Pandemic World of Warcraft is still punishingly hard, and you'll get overwhelmed fast if you're not careful. The stakes have never been higher; thanks to quests, ghouls that'll go toe to toe with you in battle, and abominations actively hunting you down, this doesn't feel like classic Pandemic. And ultimately, that's refreshing.
Overall - should you buy Pandemic World of Warcraft?
While the game's questing system could have been pushed further, it's still a novel take on a series that's been around the block so many times. Alongside combat that propels it in cool new directions, this Pandemic World of Warcraft was a detour worth taking - it's comfortably one of the best cooperative board games we've played recently.