4 Lessons from Pandemic for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Can you hear that coughing? It’s time to talk about Pandemic – one of the greatest games ever made. Pandemic is an evergreen game with a multitude of variants and legacy games. It’s also the first cooperative game for a lot of gamers. Despite being more than ten years old now, this new classic can still teach us a lot.

Just for clarity: I’m covering the original Pandemic, not the legacy version.

Pandemic Board Game
Photo taken by Jana Reifegerste and posted on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0 (Source)

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A long time ago on this blog, I wrote Pandemic: Getting People to Work Together. In it, I talk about why I love Pandemic for introducing me to hobby games and why I find its take on cooperative gameplay particularly effective. From that article, allow me to repost a simple explanation of how the game works:

There are four diseases, each represented by a different color cube – red, yellow, blue, and black. The objective is to cure all the diseases by collecting five cards that correspond to each color and discarding the cards at a CDC research station.

Here are the three main obstacles to success:

  1. These diseases slowly add up in different regions. When more than 3 cubes of one color end up on one city, there’s an outbreak, and you have to put a disease cube on each connected city (infecting up to SIX others). If you hit 8 outbreaks, you lose. Outbreaks can cause chain outbreaks, too, so if you get one, you’re likely to get two or three or four at the same time.
  2. If you run out of cards to draw, you lose. This is basically a time limit.
  3. If you run out of disease cubes, you lose because your disease is too far spread (or the makers of the game were cheap, we’ll never know which).
1. Pick a theme that creates natural tension.

For many gamers, myself included, the best themes for board games are ones that create a lot of tension. Naturally, the theme you choose should correspond to the weight of the game and the audience you’re hoping to draw. That is to say, you have to be mindful of product-market fitTwilight Struggle focused on the Cold War. Through the Ages makes you bear the load of an entire civilization.

Pandemic forces you to reckon with an existential threat likely to annihilate humanity in our interconnected era – no big deal. Of all the eschatological events that could destroy humanity, an actual pandemic ranks pretty high, after a nuclear war and climate change. The former is a cliched subject in apocalyptic games, the latter being pretty difficult to make a game about (an inconvenient truth, I know).

The point is: the name of the game, the theme, and the behaviors implied by each action you take in the game ratchet up the tension even without diseases rapidly taking over cities. You’re sweating the moment you get this game out of the box. If you’re a fledgling designer and you want to make your players nervous, this is how you do it.

2. A well-designed co-op game like Pandemic stands out among the crowd.

You know what I’ve noticed? There is a relative dearth of good cooperative games out there in the board gaming world. At the time of writing this article, about 6% of board games listed on board game have cooperative play. From the get-go, that gives Pandemic a unique niche to fit into.

If you’re looking to design a new game and you’d like to make an immediate impression, consider making a cooperative game. In my anecdotal experiences, a new co-op game almost always gets a “ooh, it’s a co-op!” reaction and it’s a lot easier to compete with 6% of games than it is to compete with 94% of games. I credit Pandemic here for bringing cooperative play into vogue.

3. Force players to balance tactics and strategy.

Everything I’ve mentioned before is superficial, but nevertheless very important to the lasting appeal of Pandemic. Getting into the gameplay of Pandemic itself, you notice that the game creates all kinds of interesting decision points at every turn. How you respond to an outbreak in South America or a near shortage of red cubes will determine how the rest of your game will go, and indeed, what you will get punished for.

Oh, and you will get punished. Pandemic forces you to balance tactics and strategy. If you are constantly running around and fighting disease, especially if that entails direct or charter flights, it will be much harder to reach a research station and find a cure to each disease. Yet working to cure diseases means you spend less time preventing outbreaks from overrunning regions and ending your game prematurely. To some extent, you can divvy up responsibility among different players, but you will still ultimately need to stay close enough to pass resources in order to play effectively.

Forcing players to manage short-term crises while working toward long-term goals is a great way to make a game engaging. Pandemic displays this well.

4. Use a manageable element of chance.

Pandemic is, in some ways, a chance-driven game. The cities which are infected at first are chosen randomly, but after a while, you know which cities are likely to come up – you just don’t know when. That means you’ve got to make choices about when to, say, provide aid to a 3-cube near-disaster in Osaka and when to let it slide for just one more turn. A truly proficient player can even calculate the probability of certain outcomes, but they can never know for certain what is going to happen next. Twilight Struggle, one of my eternal favorite games, also has this quality, but Pandemic has it in a way that’s much easier to intuitively understand.

When creating games with chance, you want to be careful in implementing it. When players are completely blindsided by chance, it can make the game disengaging and frustrating. You need to give them interesting choices before the chance event and after the chance event, as well as a sense of the range of potential outcomes.

Pandemic is a complex delight. Its tension and cooperative nature set the stage before you ever start playing. The interesting decision points around balancing short-term and long-term needs and the manageable chance-driven events are worth study by all aspiring game designers. Learn from Pandemic and you’ll make a game people never get sick of 🙂

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