People love doll houses because they give them a sense of control. There’s joy to be had in rearranging the tiny furniture and establishing a sense of order. Likely for the same reasons, Pandemic became one of 2020’s biggest board games. At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, you could barely find it in shops. Amazon was near-constantly out of stock. This was despite the original game releasing way back in 2008, long before everyone around the world would live through their own global pandemic.
The premise of the game is simple: four separate diseases have broken out across the globe. As one of several medical professionals, it’s your job to discover the origin of the diseases and cure each one before they overrun the globe. You’ll travel through various cities, establish medical research labs, and try to control each deadly outbreak as it spreads. The more outbreaks you cure, the easier it’ll be to defeat the pandemic once and for all.
Way back in March, this seemed like an achievable goal for the real-life coronavirus pandemic. Australia was slowly shutting down its shops, limiting contact between people and containing the overall spread of the virus. Other countries like Italy were undertaking similar lockdowns, and it seemed we were all on track to beat it.
While the story hasn’t continued quite as linearly, particularly in countries like the United States, it was a narrative people wanted to believe in.
It was also a narrative shared by Pandemic. The only way to beat the disease in the board game is by working together to stamp down any rising infections and solve the mystery by gathering virus-related clues. Co-operation is key to surviving, and you’ll need to work in teams to overcome the virus’ spread.
Unsurprisingly, this is also how pandemics work in real life. It’s how Australia and New Zealand wrangled the virus slowly into remission. Wearing masks, washing hands and keeping our distance.
Playing Pandemic in a pandemic might seem like the height of irony, but there was a certain level of comfort to be had in playing the game in 2020. Like the doll house theory states, all anyone wants in times of uncertainty is control. All we want is to feel in charge of our destinies.
What seemed set to be a promising year packed to the brim with exciting events soon devolved into a blob of unending time. Months passed by with little significance until we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel around November. We all lacked the control we desperately desired but Pandemic was great at bringing it back, even if it was in small increments.
Trapped in a house either alone, with friends or with family, board games were a tiny slice of normality. They were an important escape from the slim TV lineup, from cinema shutdowns and closed gyms. They were the perfect excuse to reconnect with friends and keep in touch when lockdowns lifted.
In many ways, playing Pandemic in 2020 felt like a slice of revenge at the end of a terrible year. It reasserted a sense of control.
Sure, you might not be a pandemics specialist in real life (unless you are, in which case we all salute your service) but Pandemic lets you take the reigns anyway, and live out all your deepest coronavirus-killing fantasies. That holiday in New Zealand you had planned for April? Coronavirus is getting a walloping for that. Not being able to see all your family and friends for nearly a whole year? A double walloping.
The best board games keep your mind off reality. They’re about having fun adventures with mates. Sometimes, they’re just about building a superhero army. In a year filled with uncertainty, Pandemic was the board game we all needed. Playing it was pure catharsis.
More than a decade on from release, Pandemic is more relevant and entertaining than ever. The peak popularity it experienced in 2020 was rightfully earned.