clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Pandemic is one of the best board games ever made. It could be fun to play right now!

In the game, you will play CDC employees racing to stop a disease from spreading across the globe.

The board for Pandemic
Pandemic lets you play CDC employees frantically trying to save the world.
Z-Man Games
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Are you the sort of person who enjoys imagining the dark thought of a new, potentially deadly disease spreading across the planet like wildfire, infecting cities, then regions, then continents, then planets? Does this wholly imaginary scenario play into a macabre desire to explore what a worst-case scenario might look like? Do you also like telling people what to do?

Well, the board game Pandemic might be the ideal thing to pull down off your shelf if you suddenly find yourself spending a lot of time indoors for some reason or another.

A classic of 21st century board gaming, Pandemic was likely the most influential game of the 2000s — when its tense, cooperative gameplay, featuring up to four players working together to stop a small epidemic from becoming a disease that swallows the globe — and the 2010s, when spinoff Pandemic Legacy helped popularize a whole new style of board game.

When Pandemic begins, four different diseases — represented by different colored cubes — have sprung up around the globe, and you and your friends play employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Each of you is assigned a different specialty, and you must work together to curtail the spread of the diseases while developing vaccines for them.

If you can develop vaccines for all four, you win. If any number of other scenarios happen, you lose. (Seriously, there are so many ways to lose this game. It’s mean.)

What makes Pandemic so good — and so enervating — is the way it quietly encourages you and your fellow players to do just a touch of roleplaying, as you gather around the table and quietly implore each other to do this thing or that thing, because it’s the only way to save the world. If Sara is the medic, she should immediately travel to Tokyo, where an outbreak is about to happen, because she can curb it most efficiently. But if Brad is the scientist, then Sara should also try to visit them on her way to Tokyo, to make sure they have the tools they need to prepare a vaccine.

It’s a tense game of saving humanity and also possibly destroying your friendships. If you like to lean in to your apocalyptic anxieties like I do, it’s a great way to pass a long stretch of time spent indoors. And if you already know Pandemic backward and forward (or at least know it well enough to have developed a strategy that helps you win most games), Pandemic Legacy might be your jam.

Pandemic Legacy brings serialized storytelling to the world of Pandemic

Pandemic Legacy might be the best board game ever made.
Pandemic Legacy turns the game into a serialized saga.
Z-Man Games

Pandemic Legacy combines the efforts of original Pandemic designer Matt Leacock and board game genius Rob Daviau to create a game where your actions actually change the state of the (in-game) world.

Daviau had already experimented with this form of gameplay in Risk Legacy, which took the popular game of world conquest and added an element of continuation. If, say, your army conquered France in one game, it would still be controlling France as the next game began. (This style of serialized board game is now commonly called a “legacy” game, because of its origin in Risk Legacy.)

Pandemic Legacy ramped up what was good about Risk Legacy and made it genuinely great. If a city fell to a disease, it might stop being a place you could save. Diseases would become resistant to vaccines. The characters you played — who continued from game to game — could die or otherwise be taken out of the game. And those developments could happen just in the first few gameplay sessions.

Each Legacy season — there are two, which are sold separately, like DVD box sets of TV seasons — is also designed to be a finite experience, taking place over at least a dozen sessions. (The game is structured so that each new session corresponds to one month out of the year, but certain mechanics allow for additional sessions beyond the base 12.) It features twists and turns, like a serialized TV show. And the box itself holds secrets, in the form of sealed envelopes and tiny boxes that you only open after drawing cards that instruct you to do so. You quickly learn that any time you open one of these sealed compartments, things are likely to go from bad to worse.

I haven’t gotten as deep into the game’s second season, which radically alters many of the base ideas of Pandemic in ways that haven’t always worked for me. But the season has its fans, and even if you’re not among them, the first season is a tension-filled classic, especially if you have a good group of friends who don’t mind frequently getting up to wash their hands, solely because playing a game about a global pandemic might make you keep thinking about the importance of good hygiene for no particular reason. (A third season, which will conclude the story, is planned but as of yet unreleased.)

Taking away from the fun of Legacy just a bit is that both seasons are quite expensive and sold separately. (Season one costs just under $60 on Amazon and surely more at your local game store.) But basic Pandemic is a heck of a lot of fun and much, much cheaper (under $30 on Amazon, with a digital app version available for as little as 99 cents, depending on whether it’s on sale).

So, should you find yourself with a lot of time on your freshly washed hands in the immediate future, play as much Pandemic as you possibly can while following social distancing guidance. (You could also gather virtually, via a video-conferencing program, were you at all concerned about your health.)

Sure, it might make you think a lot about how life would be affected by a pandemic, and that could be unpleasant. But you’ll also have a lot of fun in the process, and you’ll get to be in a small, enclosed space, sharing snacks and breathing the same air and just generally having a chill time, which is a thing that could never in any way be a bad idea.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.