Alright, I'll admit that 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 long-running co-op series. If you feel intimidated by the original, here's where you should start. It's a great introduction to what is arguably one of the best board games ever made.
Our own backyard
Contained in a dinky A5 box, Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America focuses on a single part of the world for a more focused experience - as the name would suggest, its eyes are on the United States and its neighbours.
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. Want a board game for 2 players that won't overwhelm you? This is it.
And if I'm being honest, there's more than enough to keep you busy 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. It's a fun but tense endeavour.
Fortunately, having three diseases to battle instead of four keeps Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America light and breezy in spite of its grim subject matter. Indeed, it can be completed in under half-an-hour due to this tighter focus. If you're hunting down short board games for adults (or board games for families), that'll be music to your ears. When combined with its tiny cards and shrunken board, it's perfect for those that want a quick co-op hit.
Getting rid of those diseases 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. The game's more accommodating as a result, allowing players to learn the ropes without being beaten around the head with too many rules.
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. A battleplan is essential because of this, and that's where Hot Zone earns its accolade as one of the best cooperative board games. Teams without a strategy will end up chasing their tails.
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.
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 (including '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 that's in keeping with Hot Zone's accessible nature.
This exemplifies the streamlined focus of Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America. It's all about removing barriers to entry so players can focus on teamwork instead, allowing them to dig into what makes the franchise special in the first place. Because of how complicated modern board games can be, that's no bad thing.