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Pandemic board game

Pandemic board game review: "A psychological shot of espresso"

(Image: © Z-Man Games, Target)

Our Verdict

The Pandemic board game is a stone-cold classic that deserves a place on everyone's shelf.

Pros

  • Perfect team strategy
  • Steeped in tension
  • Totally engrossing
  • Very replayable

Cons

  • Can occasionally feel unfair

If you've not tried the Pandemic board game before, you need to remedy that immediately. Although it's taken on a new edge for obvious reasons, it remains one of the best board games ever made. 

The odds are against you from the start. But that's why the Pandemic board game excels: nail-biting tension and last-minute Hail Marys make winning all the more satisfying, and it's never less than memorable as a result. The emphasis on teamwork doesn't hurt, either; it's a welcome change of pace.

This is why Pandemic is often listed as a frontrunner when it comes to board games for adults - it's the perfect storm of ideas that shows off everything tabletop gaming is capable of.

Pandemic (classic)

Pandemic board game

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)
Essential info

Pandemic board game

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

Players: 2 - 4
Ages: 8+
Difficulty: Hard
Game type: Cooperative
Time to set up: 5 minutes
Time to play: 60 minutes
Average price: $40 / £30

Despite the grim subject matter, the Pandemic board game is one of the most satisfying tabletop experiences out there. It's unusual but deeply moreish. Accessible yet tricky to master. Strategic but social. In short? This is a must-have classic.

A co-op race against time for two to four players, Pandemic tasks you with nothing less than saving the world. A clutch of diseases threaten to overwhelm civilization as we know it, so your job is simple - hunt down the cure before it's too late.

United we stand

Although doing so is a matter of gathering the right cards, winning isn't easy. Coughs and sneezes answer to no-one, and infections can tumble into neighbouring cities like dominoes if too many gather in one place. Worse still, yet more pop up at the end of every turn. The result is a sense of urgency that's like a psychological shot of espresso. You'll need to move fast or be overwhelmed.

Pandemic board game

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

This is where most of the game's drama can be found. Should you focus on the cure or work to keep that infection rate down? There's no definitive answer, leaving you with plenty of space to carve out your own strategies.

No matter what you choose to do, teamwork is essential. Everyone's got a skill that may just turn the tide if used correctly (the Medic can remove all infections from a location at once, for instance), so good communication and planning spells the difference between winning and losing. That's what makes Pandemic one of the best cooperative board games around; you succeed or fail together, and it won't be down to luck.

Built to last

Pandemic's got plenty of longevity, too. Besides being playable in a group or as a board game for 2 players, infection locations are randomised at the beginning of each game. That means you never really know what you'll be facing.

In addition, it can be made harder or easier thanks to a clutch of 'Epidemic' cards that are hidden within the main deck. Upon being drawn, these increase the number of infections in play. The more you choose to have, the more difficult things will become.

Pandemic board game

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

Surprisingly, it never feels hopeless even if you ratchet up the challenge. Clever placement, your powers, and special event cards can really turn the tide even when things seem dire. This creates a special kind of bond between players, and it's utterly engrossing.

However, the downside is that it can be a little unfair. Depending on how the cards are shuffled, you could wind up with outbreaks and cascading infections across the globe within a few turns. It's actually possible to lose within a few turns if you get an unlucky setup, and that's obviously frustrating.

Fortunately, it doesn't happen all that often. And even if it does, you'll almost certainly want to try again. It's the sort of game that keeps reeling you in. Plus, getting the better of it is... kinda cathartic right now.

This is why the Pandemic board game deserves to be on everyone's shelf. It's a compelling race against time that'll bring out the best in its players.

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)
Essential info

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

Players: 2 - 4
Ages: 8+
Difficulty: Hard
Game type: Cooperative
Time to set up: 5 minutes
Time to play: 30 minutes
Average price: $20 / £15

OK, so Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America has an unfortunate title if we consider current events. But contrary to what you might think, it's not based on the coronavirus outbreak at all. Instead, it's a more portable version of the standard Pandemic board game that can be completed in 30 minutes or less. 

Basically? Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America is the perfect entry point to this series. If you feel intimidated by the classic game, here's where you should start.

Our own backyard

Contained in a dinky A5 box, Hot Zone focuses on a single part of the world for a more focused experience - as the name would suggest, its eyes are on North America. To compensate for a lack of other continents, the board plays host to more cities than the classic version. That gives plenty of ground to cover despite the smaller footprint. And if we're being honest, there's more than enough to keep you buys anyway: three diseases have popped up throughout the region, and they're spreading fast. Your job is to get the situation under control and stop it from becoming worse, all while collecting cards to find a cure.

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

Luckily, having three diseases to battle instead of four keeps Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America is light and breezy with a half-hour run-time. Getting rid of them is also more straightforward than before. The original Pandemic's research centers have been stripped out, and now you just need to visit Atlanta with four cards of the same color to create a vaccine.

Character special abilities are on hand to help you get by, too. Although there are only four characters to choose from in total (and it would have been nice to see more), this is a good way of easing newcomers in gently. You don't have to learn a swathe of mechanics or figure out how best to combine them; it's a bite-size alternative that beginners can get their heads around quickly.

Turning the tide

You'll still be pushed to your limit trying to fix the mess unfolding before you, though. It's easy to get overrun if you're not careful, and diseases cause a ripple effect of outbreaks if a city's population becomes too infected.

New 'Crisis' cards have been added to the mix as well. These introduce fresh wrinkles to gameplay that keep you on your toes, ranging from a reduction of the cards you can hold to movement restrictions. These usually stay in place until the next Crisis appears, so they're not to be taken lightly.

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

Still, it's not all bad. A handful of Events can help you turn the tide, and we noticed a few we haven't seen before (like 'Remote Treatment', a bonus move that automatically removes two disease cubes from play). These provide a welcome respite that you're able to lean on if things are getting tough, and they give off an air of training wheels.

This exemplifies the streamlined focus of Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America. It's all about removing barriers to entry, and players can focus on teamwork instead. When combined with its tiny cards and shrunken board, it's the perfect portable board game for those that want a quick co-op hit.

The Verdict
5

5 out of 5

Pandemic board game review: "A psychological shot of espresso"

The Pandemic board game is a stone-cold classic that deserves a place on everyone's shelf.

More info

Available platformsTabletop Gaming
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As one of our Hardware Editors, Benjamin looks after many of the tech reviews, board game features, deals, and buying guides you’ll see on GamesRadar+.