Yahtzee Meets the Hot Zone

The nightmarish Ebola board game that's starting to look all too real.

As the Ebola virus begins to spread out of West Africa, with the first victims appearing in the United States and Europe, the world trembles before the specter of a pandemic — an epidemic of global proportions.

But what if four epidemics erupted around the world at the same time?

This is the theme of Pandemic, a board game about humanity’s last stand against an onslaught of deadly diseases. Despite the ominous title, Pandemic is actually a family game — it’s Monopoly meets The Andromeda Strain. Pandemic puts two to four players into the shoes of a global disease-fighting team. Their enemies are the four pandemics marked on the board by little cubes of black, blue, red, or yellow. Whether they represent Ebola or influenza, zombie plague or Rigelian fever, the game doesn’t specify. Either way, the goal of the players is to stamp out all four diseases before the diseases stamp out humanity.

Pandemic is also unusual in that is a cooperative game where the players don’t compete against each other. Either all the players win by eradicating all four diseases, or they fail and the viruses triumph. There can only be one winner — and neither man nor microbe can expect mercy from the enemy.

Pandemic designer Matt Leacock told Foreign Policy that he designed an epidemic game for a couple of reasons. For one, he was "interested in emergent systems and found the outbreaks and chain reactions fascinating to model." For another, because a killer disease "felt like a terrifying, unfeeling, and worthy opponent for the players of the game to fight against."

And then there was the cooperative aspect. "I liked the idea that the team of players was fighting the disease — rather than embodying it — since fighting disease is something just about anyone can get behind."

Leacock succeeded brilliantly: when Pandemic debuted in 2008, it quickly became an award-winning favorite among board gamers who didn’t care so much about Ebola, but loved the tense gameplay and do-or-die cooperative system.

Pandemic’s bacterial battlefield is a mapboard of the world dotted with 48 cities, each connected to its neighbors by red lines depicting transportation links that allow players to move their respective tokens from city to city — but which also serve as viral conduits.

Every city in the game is represented by a card in an "infection" deck. Each time a player takes a turn, he draws two "infection" cards, and places a single disease cube of the appropriate color in those two named cities. He also draws two cards from a "cure" deck and saves them in his hand. If he can accumulate five cards of the same color, and move his token to a research center like the CDC in Atlanta, then that disease is cured. Cure all four diseases, and the humans win.

Each turn, every player gets to perform four actions. Moving from one city to another (as long as they are connected by a transportation link), consumes an action. So does exchanging cure cards with another player in the same city (which is how a player can accumulate five cards of the same color). Most importantly, a player can spend an action to remove a single disease cube from a city.

The problem is that the players don’t have enough actions to do everything they need to do in a turn, nor can they remove disease cubes faster than new ones appear. Nine cities begin the game afflicted with one to three disease cubes. Every time a player takes a turn, two more cities receive a cube.

And that’s when disaster can strike. A city can only cope with a maximum of three disease cubes. If a fourth cube is placed, an "outbreak" is instantly triggered, which means that every other metropolis connected to that infected city by a transportation link is afflicted with a single disease cube of that color. So an outbreak in Istanbul transmits the disease to Milan, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Baghdad, Cairo, and Algiers. And if this adds a fourth cube to any of those cities, then another outbreak erupts, and so on in a chain reaction.

And this is the easy part of the game. Drawing cure cards is how players eradicate diseases. But mixed in with the cure deck are five "epidemic" cards. When one of those is drawn, a random city on the map is immediately hit by an outbreak, which means it gets four disease cubes, which in turn infects connecting cities, which can trigger further outbreaks, and so on.  

Just to rub salt in the wound, each epidemic card also increases the global infection rate. Instead of each player drawing two infection cards and placing a disease cube on two cities, by the end of the game they are infecting four cities.

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Yet lest anyone think that Team Germ has all the advantages, humanity has a few secret weapons of its own. Each player randomly chooses a role with special abilities. For example, the "dispatcher" can instantly send a player’s token to any city on the globe, no matter how far from their present location. The "scientist" only needs four cure cards instead of five to develop a vaccine.

Cures are the key to victory. Once a cure is developed, a player can use a single action to remove all cubes of that disease from a city with a single action. Once a disease has been cured, and every cube of that color has been removed from the map, it is considered eradicated and no new ones can appear. Now humanity has a chance for survival.

The problem is that, as in any good medical thriller, the clock is ticking. If the number of outbreaks reaches eight, mankind automatically loses. Or, if there are no more disease cubes left to be placed on the board (which will eventually happen if cures aren’t found), the human race is also finished. I’ve actually seen the board when every disease cube is in play. It’s not a pretty picture.

The most remarkable aspect of Pandemic isn’t that someone made a game out of stopping bubonic plague. It’s that someone made a fun game out of it (in fact, gamers are helping scientists develop an Ebola vaccine). Players rush from city to city like a bacteriological fire brigade, stamping out one outbreak only to have another two or three flare up on the other side of the world while the doomsday clock ticks in the background. Every game is a cliffhanger that usually goes down to the wire. Humanity may perish, but not without kicking and screaming to the very end.

To call Pandemic a realistic medical simulation would be silly. It’s meant to be an entertaining board game. Yet simple games or books can sometimes capture the essence of a complex topic better than more sophisticated treatments. Pandemic puts its sterile-gloved fingers on the heart of the problem, which is that the world would be hard-pressed to defeat simultaneous global epidemics. By putting players in the shoes of health care workers, it also captures the essential dilemma of epidemiology; a disease can be in multiple places at the same time, but a doctor can’t.

For all its grim themes, Pandemic does sound a hopeful note. In fact, it seems utopian. The game portrays a world where humans band together to fight disease instead of each other. There are no civil wars to hamper medical relief efforts. No greedy pharmaceutical manufacturers more worried about defending patents than saving lives. No health care workers murdered for distributing vaccines that offend someone’s religious beliefs.

In this game, the viruses may do their worst. But humanity is at its best.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1