Despite everything Pandemic is still the best gateway game

While Munchkin and Settlers of Catan were my first introductions to modern board gaming. It wasn’t until Pandemic that it became a hobby. I’m going to tell you why it made such a impression on me, and why I still consider it the best gateway game.

Designer: Matt Leacock

Publisher: Z-Man Games

Pandemic is a cooperative game where everyone around the tabletop shares the same goal; to save the world. In just that first sentence you’ve already introduced a mind blowing concept to anyone whose only played Hungry, Hungry, Hippos. Which is exactly what you need in order to change someone’s thinking about board games.

Pandemic game board showing an atlas of the world.
Ignore the sticker – that’s for the expansion!

The first thing you must do when you open the box is generate buy-in. You do this by getting each member to name one of the four diseases. They can be named anything you want, but we named them Meninges, Itchitosis, Dehli Belly, and the worst of all: Scrot Rot.

From there you can explain how to win – by CURING the four diseases; you don’t need to eradicate them. And how to carry out a turn. Take four actions draw two cards, and then draw two location cards placing one disease cube on each of the locations. Lastly, let them know that they don’t ever want a city to have more than 3 disease cubes. You can introduce the loss conditions, and other rules throughout the game.

Since it’s a co-op game, it lends itself towards working together and asking for help. Which they’re going to need, given you’ve just dumped a whole lot of new mechanics and patterns of thinking onto everyone. Even though Pandemic is not that complex, when you’re new to board games it will seem that way.

Once everyone starts to find their groove and grasp the rules, someone draws an Epidemic card.

Up close with the cure tokens, in the background blue and yellow cubes ravage Africa.
Three diseases down, one to go!

This introduces the brilliance of modern board game design. When one of these cards is drawn, it increases the amount of disease cards drawn after every turn. But then you shuffle the already drawn disease cards and place them back on top of the deck. Ensuring that future disease cubes will land on places already infected, organically creating hot spots of disease around the world. Much like how a pandemic spreads in real life.

From that point on, it’s all about risk management and what you’re willing to get away with. Which makes for some fantastic table talk, and working together. And when things go wrong, and they will, you get to introduce the second most brilliant mechanic in Pandemic chain reactions. Where disease cubes spread wildly across the board as though it were a Jackson Pollock painting.

I’m a huge fan of this game, especially when used as a gateway game, or to introduce it to new board gamers. But there are also some reasons why it’s not a good fit. It suffers a lot from quarter backing, where if you have someone with a dominant personality, or a keener mind, they can take over the game. Figuring out everyone’s moves for them – boring!

The medic character card and the rest of their hand. Including five location cards and an event card.
What a hand of cards looks like

Pandemic is also susceptible to unfavourable draws where you lose the game quickly because you’re unlucky. Alternatively, you can win without any tension because you Yugioh’d the deck and drew what you needed when you needed. Both of these scenarios are rare, and most of the time the game comes down to a nail biting last few turns.

Lastly, and this only applies to base Pandemic, but the board game can get stale after about 10 or so plays. Even though there are player roles with unique powers, you still get a handle on how to solve the puzzle on repeated plays. Which is why you’re going to have to wait and read my sister review of the expansion Pandemic: On the Brink to see how they fix this shortcoming and make one of the best cooperative board games ever made.

Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one scientifically tested list. You can see Pandemic’s initial ranking below.

Initial Rank: 10

While I love Pandemic, I do think you’d be out of your mind to introduce this board game at the moment given the current global crisis. It could be terribly insensitive, and the amount of bad tasting Coronavirus jokes you’d get is enough to keep it on the shelf.

So with the name Coronavirus off the table, what would you name the four diseases?

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

4 thoughts on “Despite everything Pandemic is still the best gateway game

  1. I think pandemic is fine to play at the moment, you are at least trying to save the world. Plague Inc on the other hand… (Saying that I’ve just bought Plague Inc for PC but it does feel a bit unsettling to play)

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    1. I think for most people you’re right. But depending where you live, you don’t really know what other people’s experience with the pandemic is, it could be a trigger.

      Also, I spit out my coffee reading about Plague Inc. I couldn’t imagine playing that game right now.

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