Boardhammer: Pandemic and its Expansions

As much as we love pushing our armies around the table sometimes we need a break. Whether its a quick game between rounds or an all day main event, the Goonhammer team can often be found pushing chits, cubes, and cards around a board game. Boardhammer will bring you periodic reviews and articles from the land of hobby board games and wargames not called Warhammer.

Season’s Greetings! And ’tis the season to pandemic!

But not the scary sort of pandemic where you fill your cupboards with toilet paper and start hoarding beans. No, ‘tis the season for Pandemic, the board game from Z-Man Games designed by Matt Leacock, and its various expansions, spin-offs, and reimplementations.

Before we dig into all that stuff, let’s first build a foundation on the original Pandemic. Let’s build that foundation before it’s all torn down by an unrelenting virus sweeping the globe as the Center for Disease Control slowly crumbles to dust among the uncountable infected.

Don’t worry; I’m talking about a board game here.


Pandemic is a cooperative game where you and up to three friends take on the roles of a CDC disease control team tasked with stemming the tide of four separate infections plaguing the world. You take turns traveling around the world, treating the infected, establishing research stations, and working together to discover the cures that will save humanity. Each player has a unique character with an ability that will give you a leg-up towards succeeding at your mission. But don’t get overconfident. Pandemic is known for its massive twists of fate, where an all-but-certain victory is snatched away by outbreak after outbreak.

If you’ve never played a cooperative game, it can be a bit jarring initially. Instead of competing against your friends you’re working together against the board. In this case, an Infection Deck litters the board with colored cubes representing each disease. Each city can only hold 3 cubes of a color. When a 4th is to be added an Outbreak occurs: instead of adding that 4th cube, you add 1 cube of that color to every city connected to the Outbreak city. This can itself cause an Outbreak in a neighboring city causing a chain reaction of disease that would make Nurgle giggle with glee. 

Each game of Pandemic starts with players in Atlanta (home of the CDC headquarters), and nine randomly-chosen cities are then infected by four different regional viruses using the Infection Deck. Each turn, players must travel the globe attempting to treat infected cities while trying to cure all four diseases. Players need to work together every step of the way and make hard decisions about when and how to stem the spread of disease — spend too much time and effort stopping the spread and you’ll run out of time before you can cure the diseases. Focus too much on curing and the viruses will spread out of control and you’ll lose as global panic breaks out. It’s a tense balance and even in its easiest mode, you can expect to lose a few games.


Racing Against the Clock

Victory in Pandemic comes in only one way: curing all 4 diseases. Defeat, however, approaches via numerous vectors. If too many outbreaks occur, players lose as global order collapses. If you run out of infection cubes for any one color, players lose as humanity succumbs to a disease [Ed. – Oh god why are we writing about this]. Finally, when the draw deck runs out of cards, the players lose as your team of scientists exhaust their resources.

Players are forced to draw cards at the end of each turn and it is this draw deck – this bastard deck – that is the source of all brilliant tension. In this deck are the colored City cards that represent your only resource. Each card corresponds to one of the cities featured on the map and is color-coded to each regional virus. 

The primary use of these cards is in curing a disease. Collect 5 of the same color and discard them at a Research Station and you will cure – but not eradicate – a disease. Cured diseases can still appear on the board and can even Outbreak though they are easier to treat. These cards can also be discarded to make travel easier and determining when to hoard them and when to spend is a key part of strategy.

These resource cards are not the only type of card, however. At the beginning of the game this deck is divided into a number equal packets determined by the difficulty level and each is seeded with an Epidemic card. Epidemic cards are bad news and the inevitability of their arrival hangs over every draw like that feeling when you see your open-office mate sneezing all over their keyboard. 

Epidemic cards force you to do 3 things. First, you’ll increase the Infection Indicator track causing you to draw more cards from the Infection Deck each turn. This forces you to put more cubes on the board increasing the risk of outbreak. Then, you Infect a city by drawing a card from the bottom of the Infection Deck. This puts 3 damn cubes in a city that was completely off your radar. Finally, you Intensify. In what is the single most brilliant ludomechanical intersection of game mechanisms and narrative theme in all of board games, this brutal card instructs you to shuffle the Infection Deck discard pile and put it back on top of the Infection deck.

Like a teeming mass of St. Paddy’s day revelers cramming into a South Side bar, it is impossible for me to impress upon you the magnitude of what is happening. You won’t truly appreciate its importance until you experience it, and watching the moment of realization dawn on a new player is one of my favorite things in board gaming. Suddenly, every city that has previously been infected is ripe for re-infection. Regions that you deftly managed to treat effectively are poised to fall ill again. And that city you just pulled from the bottom of the deck and filled with 3 cubes? It may be right on top. And oh god oh god there might be another Epidemic card coming up next. 

Pandemic Board
The board. Credit: Z-Man Games

Why It’s Great

Pandemic is tense. Before you get the hang of strategy it can feel oppressively tense. Cubes come pouring out of the infection deck and that brilliant Epidemic mechanism simulates real life as sick cities get sicker and sicker over and over. All you can do is stem the tide, treating a few people the best you can as you wait desperately for those cures to come. It’ll put you in the difficult position of accepting a few Outbreaks to save time or resources. 

No two games of Pandemic are the same. Because each city is only represented in the Infection Deck by one card, it’s entirely possible you’ll never see disease in certain cities through the course of a game. The cooperative nature can also make it very different from a lot of other games you might have played. Once you have a few games under your belts, you can easily ratchet up the difficulty by increasing the number of Epidemic cards in the game’s events deck, and set-up goes pretty quickly.

Things to Watch Out For

No game is perfect, and there are a few areas you might struggle with Pandemic. The first and foremost is that the cooperative nature of the game is great, but if you have players who are more active or passive can quickly lead to feeling like one player is ordering around the others. It’s important when you play to try and find equal footing where everyone feels like they have agency. You can’t win if players “go rogue,” but you want to make sure everyone has a hand in the team’s success. The other major issue is that the roles in the base game are wildly unbalanced. Some roles – like the Dispatcher – are so insanely good that it feels like playing the game on easy mode when you have one. This role can also be less fun for new players to play, since you will often feel like you are sacrificing your whole turn to move other players around). Fortunately the expansions fix some of these issues.


Expansion 1: On the Brink

The first of Pandemic’s two expansions, On the Brink adds new roles, a new disease (purple), new events, and a few new ways to play. The biggest draw here is the new disease: The Mutagenic strain is a 5th disease (purple in color) added to the game, with slightly different rules for how it spreads and changes. It’s more challenging to play with, but in a similar vein to how the base game allows you to control the difficulty by adjusting the number of Epidemic cards you play with, the expansion allows you to tone up or down the amount of new wrenches you want thrown into your works. The Virulent strain mode changes up the Epidemic cards with more challenging versions that make the disease particularly nasty – for example, one might make this disease cost more action points to treat.

The other major gameplay mode for On the Brink is the Bioterrorist mode. In this mode, one player takes on the role of an antagonistic bioterrorist who moves around the board in secret, making things more difficult for the players. In my experience, this mode is interesting but doesn’t quite deliver on the premise. For one thing, using the paper pad is clunky. For another, it breaks the cooperative element and forces one player to sit mostly in silence while everyone else plays together.

On the Brink adds some interesting new challenges to Pandemic but is in most respects still recognizably the same game. It’s that good kind of expansion which deepens the experience without feeling like the additions are superfluous. While you can use most of the next expansion, In the Lab, without owning On the Brink, Goonhammer recommends picking up On The Brink first. It’s great and comes with little petri dishes to hold your colored cubes. 


Expansion 2: In the Lab

The second big expansion for Pandemic, In the Lab builds on On The Brink with new roles, more event cards for the virulent strain, and new modes for play, including team-vs-team games. The big addition here is the lab sub-game, where alongside the base game, the process of finding cures has been made more complex, with players maneuvering pawns in a laboratory and working on the process of sequencing diseases to find cures. 

This essentially adds a cool mini-game on top of the regular game, where players have to use cards and disease cubes to work out cures for a disease, while adding a new element of choice: Instead of saving up for 5 cards of the same color you can burn individual cards at research stations to begin sequencing a cure. Using cubes to sequence a disease pulls them from the supply, increasing your chances of running out and losing the game but it does give you more operational flexibility. 

In the Lab feels a lot like “More Pandemic, but Different” and improves some of the roles in the original game. If you like the base game, it’s worth checking out. We think that On The Brink is “better” but both are good and work together well. It’s only when you try to cram every module and every expansion bit together that the game feels a little bloated. 

Rob’s Note: Pandemic is one of my favorite games. I love sitting down to puzzle this one out with friends. A word of advice: Don’t worry about eradicating diseases. I think I’ve lost most of the games where we’ve tried to eradicate a disease. It’s just not worth it.

Raf’s Note: The app implementation of Pandemic is fantastic. It’s well worth picking up, especially if you’re social distancing like you fucking better be right now.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Boardhammer when we’ll talk about Pandemic Legacy – which deserves all the acclaim it has received – and the game’s other expansions and spin-offs. And in the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions, or just want to share cool stories about your own Pandemic experiences, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at