Games I Will Never Play Again: Pandemic

Games I Will Never Play Again: Pandemic

Pandemic is probably the most popular cooperative board game in the world. It’s certainly the highest ranked. If you’ve only ever played Monopoly, it’s an epiphany. But cooperative games suck, and here’s why I’m never playing Pandemic again.*

Wait, but what…

Two steps back. Cooperative board games, on one level, are genius. For so long, board games have been about trying to destroy each other (Risk, Diplomacy, Axis & Allies, every other wargame under the sun), bankrupt each other (*sigh*, Monopoly), or just beating each other. But with co-op games, you’re playing together, against the game.

On one level, Dungeons and Dragons has been doing something similar for years: everyone gangs up to fight the DM’s monsters and solve the DM’s puzzles. For me, the biggest revelation in the modern board-gaming era was Reiner Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings (2000), which turned the DM into the board. In that game, you played as the hobbit foursome, Sam, Frodo, Pippin, Merry, and the George Best of hobbits, Fatty (because they needed to provide a fifth player). Together, you try to beat the game, before the game (masquerading as Sauron, Lord of Barad-dûr and Dark Lord of Mordor) beats you.

It’s the perfect panacea for that ultra-competitive friend that is unpleasant to game with because they both win too often and sulk bitterly when they lose (note: this isn’t me! Really, it isn’t!). For me, working together was entirely novel.

Almost a decade later, Pandemic came along and sent the world crazy. There have been cooperative games before, and cooperative games since, but somehow Pandemic captured the public imagination and garnered widespread appeal in the gaming world. Replace Sauron with the rider on the white horse (Pestilence), and Middle Earth for Earth-earth, and you have a game. Epidemics spread across the board (because that’s how epidemics work), and you are epidemiologists (such as the CDC or the WHO), trying to vaccinate the world (suck on that, Jenny McCarthy!) before the world dies of infection. Or The Walking Dead take over. Or all you’re left with Yorrick, the Last Man.

Cooperative games. As a genre, they’re here to stay. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to play very many of them.

Wait, but why…

But here’s the fatal flaw with coop games. Quarterbacking.

Gridiron, although often compelling, has a design flaw. Like Quidditch, which is basically designed to make the Seeker (a role designed precisely for one Harry Potter) the standout hero of the game, gridiron is a game all about the quarterback. Only he gets to throw the ball, only he gets to call the plays, and the other players just follow his lead.

Source: Rob Robinson,

In a cooperative game, inevitably one player–the most experienced player, the most analytical player, the alpha player–will tell you why your move is a bad idea. You should really go to London instead of Madrid, and you should really play this card instead of that card.

Now if you’re a new player and you have no idea what’s going on, sometimes this is helpful. But there comes a time when you want to stand on your own two feet, and make your own decisions, and perhaps make your own mistakes. But nay! A good quarterback refuses to lose! So because he’s played this game more, because he’s run the simulations, because he’s crushed the computer on the Insane difficulty setting, because he’s calculated a 23% higher success rate for his play over your play; because he’s the quarterback, he won’t let you.

I just. Want. To move. My piece.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. If so, I’m happy for you. Go give Pandemic a 10/10 on BoardGameGeek. But me, I play with geeks and nerds–because like attracts like–and I tend to play with the sort of nerds who out-math me every day of the week.

Second: it’s just not that interesting. To me. My wife and I were lent Pandemic, and we played several games. We won a few, lost a few, but really weren’t all that compelled. Maybe I didn’t put the effort into immersing myself in the situation, and enjoying the reality of being the CDC. Maybe I just don’t have a strong enough Messiah complex. When the world falls prey to the new strain of Ebola I’ll just shrug impotently, like a good millennial. Either way, my wife and I cheerfully returned the game and never played it again. Did I mention my plan is to never play it again?

With a PvP game, part of the appeal comes as you pit your wits, cunning, and devious strategies against the other players. Even if I’m playing a tedious game, I’m playing it against other people. Maybe I can out-strategise them, or at least thwart them. Maybe I can throw them off with a double-fake, maybe I can disconcert them by trash-talking, or maybe I can just execute a Jedi mind-trick on them. Even a boring game can come with interesting personal interactions.

Okay, so what…

The real reason I’ll never play Pandemic again is because there are better games. More importantly, there are cooperative games that have solved the problem of the alpha quarterback.

Space Alert: Real-time Cooperation

Space Alert Source: BoardGameGeek.

Space Alert is one of my favourite cooperative games. You’re a crew, working together to keep your spaceship alive: keeping the plutonium reactor fuelled, diverting power to the secondary reactors, using power to fire the lasers, and turn on the shields, and instructing the droids to repel invaders.

It won the award 2009 Golden Geek Best Innovative Board Game, and the particular innovation Space Alert brings to the table is a tight real-time mechanism: each game lasts for a tense ten minutes while you frantically plan your moves, and then a resolution phase where you figure out whether you did everything you planned to do, or if your plans descended into chaos.

It neatly removes the aspect of quarterbacking, because each player barely has time enough to manage their own affair, let alone coordinate with everyone else. The game forces you to communicate, to trust each other and properly work together: can you time it properly so another player can fuel the reactors in time for you to engage the shields before the asteroid hits?

Castle Panic: Competitive Cooperation

Castle Panic Source: BoardGameGeek.

Castle Panic is a game I play with my seven-year-old. It’s great. At it’s heart, it’s a semi-cooperative tower-defence game, and hordres of gobins, orcs and trolls are knocking at your door, and knocking down your walls. Your aim is to kill the most monsters, and earn the imaginative title: Master Slayer! The twist with Castle Panic is that if the castle gets destroyed, you all lose. Because it’s semi-competitive, the other players aren’t allowed to know my cards, and I have good reasons for not wanting to tell them. So you’re working together… but not too hard. And there are times where you might risk defeat to gain victory. Or there are times when you must forgo winning to avoid losing.

Battlestar Galactica: The Traitor Mechanic

Battlestar Galactica Source: BoardGameGeek.

Are you familiar with Battlestar Galactica? The players are a small remnant of humanity are fleeing their homelands, trying to find the now-mythical Earth, before they are destroyed forever by the evil robots, the Cylons. However the catch is, some Cylons are so technologically advanced they can masquerade flawlessly as humans, so the threat from within is as great as from without. There is no better board game that so fundamentally captures the essence of the show: trust is necessary to survive, and yet heady dose of paranoia is necessary to avoid betrayal. The players work together to escape all the challenges, but there may well be a traitor, a Cylon amongst them. Even if there’s not, there will be, because there are also sleeper agents, who flip to the dark side mid-way through the game.

This is my favourite game from 2008 and still a personal favourite, even though I rarely have time to play a four-hour game anymore. The traitor mechanic perfectly removes any possibility of quarterbacking and collaboration, because every other player is under suspicion. You can only work with someone else insofar as you trust them, and the X-Files mantra applies here: trust no-one. Except that you need the other humans to survive!

Honourable mention: If you don’t have time to play Battlestar Galactica, the next nearest experience is Resistance, and Resistance: Avalon (which has also been re-released under a different theme, Resistance: Hidden Agenda), which are exceedingly good games in and of themselves. It’s similar to game of Werewolf or Mafia, except nobody dies, and the Spies are working against the Resistance. It’s an excellent implementation of the traitor mechanic, but it is much more a bluffing an deduction game than a co-operative game.

Hanabi: Co-op with Hidden Information

Hanabi Source: BoardGameGeek.

Hanabi (winner of the 2013 Spiel des Jahres) is a cooperative game with hidden information. The aim is pretty simple: together, play cards in five colours, in order from 1-5. The devious twist in an otherwise straightforward card game is this: everyone holds their cards facing away from them. So you know everyone else’s cards except your own. On your turn you can play a card or reveal a small amount of information to another player. So table-talking is strictly prohibited, and the possibility of quarterbacking is strictly prohibited. The game is founded on the ability to trust one another and remember the clues you’ve been given.

Honourable mention: Bomb Squad is a recently Kickstarted cooperative game that merges the hidden-knowledge aspect of Hanabi with the timed aspect of Space Alert.

Pandemic Legacy: A cooperative legacy game

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 Source: BoardGameGeek.

Okay, so I said I’m never playing Pandemic again, and I mean it. But I’m willing to guess that Pandemic Legacy is a different enough beast from it’s parent, in the same way Risk Legacy was a game I enjoyed playing, despite Risk being a synonym for “bad game”. Games don’t become the most highly rated game on BoardGameGeek for nothing. Also, I trust Rob Daviau. As I’ve written before, legacy games are mind-blowingly worthwhile. If nothing else, legacy games generate the story and the interest you might garner from a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Also, part of working on a campaign together, like with D&D, is that you have to learn to trust each other. Your chemistry works itself out, and from what I hear, it has enough twists and turns to keep everyone.

Final Thoughts

For me, Pandemic is a bit like Settlers of Catan, an innovation that’s had its day. It was revolutionary for it’s time, and it’s still an excellently implemented coop game. It deserves it’s space in the board game pantheon. However loads of games since them have sought to address the critical design flaw in cooperative games in an number of ways, and in ways that work well. When it comes down to it, all the games listed here are games I’d prefer to play over Pandemic. So I will say, with a degree of confidence, that Pandemic is a game I will never play again.


  • “Only he gets to throw the ball”

    Actually, any player can throw the ball forward, provided they are behind the line of scrimmage and another player hasn’t already made a forward pass.

    /pedant 😛

    • Yeah, I thought about footnoting the possibility of a Wildcat play, but thought better of it. Also, I’m not actually sure if an offensive linesman is allowed to receive the ball, and thus to throw the ball.

      • I think certain players are ineligible to receive a forward pass, but AFAIK, no one is prevented from receiving a lateral and then making the forward pass.

  • I’m glad you noted the QB problem was playgroup specific, because it’s something I’ve seen and not seen with different groups. I have some friends who are Pandemic crazy- they have all the expansions + have gone through two Legacy campaigns + are now playing a whole heap of Iberia- but playing with them is the most equitable team based experience.

    Probably helps we’re all veterans of the game- we all trust each other to know what the right decisions are.

  • The better ‘Battlestar Galactica without the time sink’ option is Dark Moon, which plays pretty closely to BG but without such extended phases.

    Also, I get your problem with QuarterBacking, and some people might be too strident with it, but I usually find our groups whilst still having a couple of alpha players, will generally work to devise the best strategy together rather than one player playing.

  • Yeah, QuarterBacking is certainly a potential problem (and I’m guilty of being the QB at times) but I think Legacy does address some of those issues by forcing a regular group together. We’re currently doing a Legacy season here in Brisbane and it feels (others correct me if I’m wrong) more like we’re 4~5~6 players all playing all pieces at the same time. We spend more time discussing moves than we do actually making them which may be a problem in itself. May be interesting to see how things play out as the season goes on and if QBing becomes more of a noted issue.

    • I think the move-discussion is pretty much the best part! We come up with alternatives before we commit, and that’s smart, because if we didn’t, we’d have the collapse of the world as we know it. 😉

  • If anyone ends up as the quarterback, it’ll be our resident genius B-ob. 😉

    Seriously though, this article’s introductory argument suffers from a major logic failing. Co-op games suck because they may sometimes have a quarterback in some groups? Ergo, back to… competitive game and the plethora of anti-social unpleasantness that style of gameplay actively encourages?

    That’s like saying there was a pea under your mattress so you’re going to go sleep in a fucking swamp.

    • Well, more: every co-op game I’ve ever played has ended up with a quarterback.

      But quarterback exists because co-op games have a major design flaw.

      You’ll also notice that I’ve suggested a stack of games that are still co-operative games; however they use some other mechanic to offset that flaw.

      • Just to wade in on Quaterbacking (or Alpha Gamer Syndrome) as a design flaw… It’s no more a design flaw than a game having mechanics that reward experience (making games against less experienced players one sided and no fun for anyone) or allow analysis paralysis. The flaw isn’t in the game, it’s the people you play with. All these issues are easily addressed by finding a good group, or if you are “that guy”, having a bit of self discipline and playing for the fun of the group and not just yourself. Sure you can introduce elements to reduce the issues, but that doesn’t mean a game without them has a design flaw, for reasons outlined below.

        The problem with your recommendations (and in labelling the potential for AG syndrome a design flaw) is that mechanics that discourage AG syndrome do so by introducing elements that move the experience away from pure co-op… Such as not being able to “table talk” in games like Hanabi (which is a big part of why some people, myself included, play co-op games), or by introducing a competitive element in games like BG (which again, isn’t a mechanic some people are interested in and moves it away from pure co-op).

        That you personally don’t want to play pandemic again due to your play group being prone to AG is fine, just don’t label it as a “design flaw”.

        • Exactly, QB’ing is no more a flaw than being Ultra-Competitive. The fact that “every game you play ends up with a QB” is a flaw with your playgroup, not the games themselves.

          I’ve played many of these games and have fallen into the QB trap but if it’s a recurring problem you need to discuss it among your group and resolve it. Switching to ‘semi Co-Op’ or other games/mechanics to enforce your dislike of QBing isn’t going to resolve the issue.

          Maybe make it clear to your group that while QBing is okay, remember to respect the other players decisions and the rules. Specifically – each team member makes their own decisions and moves their own piece.

        • Okay, maybe “design flaw” is overstating the case. Maybe I can say that it’s a particular weakness that the cooperative game paradigm is prone to?

          Designing a game is a bunch of trade-offs. Different paradigms have different weaknesses. A game with lots more options might be more interesting, but result in my analysis paralysis. Worker placement games, by nature, normally mean that there is a lot of inherent blocking, which can result in passive-aggressive behaviour, or re-analysis paralysis.

          Not every game is going to appeal to every person, and that’s life, really.

          Also, just by the by, even Richard Garfield agrees with me 🙂

          • LOL.

            Thanks for the reply and link to that podcast – haven’t seen/heard that before. 🙂

            Hope you keep the articles coming, am enjoying having some regular board game coverage here on KOTAKU, especially if it stimulates debate (and kudos to you for participating positively in the discussion even when challenged!)

  • If you do have this Quarterback in your group i recommend trying the new DOOM board game, It is a 1 vs up to 4 players game, so either you can escape the quarterbacks clutches by playing as the invaders and make your own decisions by yourself, or you can put the QB as the invader, and have people on your team of Doom Guys who you know wont be a QB.

    It also helps that the game is fast paced, frantic, rewards recklessness and depending on the game mode you are playing, dying is very forgiving (unless you do it to much and loose the game, but you are expected to die a few times), so there’s less “this needs to be a perfect run with no deaths” and more “yeah i’m gonna die next turn so lets just go in and go nuts, i’ll be back immediately after i die”

    I played it last weekend and had a blast as the invaders, and my friends seemed to enjoy playing as the Doom Guys, and it’s a good mesh between co-op and competitive play, and it felt pretty balanced between the two.

  • Yep, experienced this myself. I think the problem with pandemic is that its tight, yet simple mechanics mean that there’s almost always an unarguably “best play” and depending on the state of the game, not taking that correct play may very likely end in defeat. So it is either frustrating for the person who sees the best play if the others don’t and refuse to let him take the decisions for them or frustrating for the other people if they let that person make those decisions for them. I just stopped playing it.

    More chaotic co-op games (like Arkham Horror) are somewhat better at discouraging “quarterbacking”, but the best co-op game I’ve played is the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, which is basically D&D–er, I mean, Pathfinder with cards representing the DM and the randomisation of encounters and loot. There are several locations open at once, each with different conditions that reward certain skills or traits, encouraging a division of tasks that plays to each character’s strengths. So although there’s a common goal and there must be an amount of concerted effort in order to corral the scenario’s villain, there’s quite a bit of independence for each player to take their turn as they see fit.

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