Pandemic: the board game

Most board games have a narrative element to them: Monopoly has the struggle for one business to drive all the others to bankruptcy, Cluedo (or Clue if you are American) has the story of a murder mystery, but Pandemic is one of the most narrative-focused board games. The story of the Pandemic board game is that of a group of scientists racing to save the world from a deadly disease outbreak. The actions which the players take form the narrative of saving the human race.

In Pandemic, the players work co-operatively to stop the spread of four diseases from city to city around the world. Each player has a specific character, with a skill set that helps end the pandemic. The diseases spread while the players try to contain it and find the cures. If the players can eradicate all of the diseases then they win, but if the diseases spread too far then humanity is lost.

The narrative of Pandemic is most similar to that of a thriller; it reminds me of the opening third of Steven King’s The Stand or 28 Days Later. There is the race-against-time aspect of the game – an essential component of any thriller – and there are also clearly defined characters with professional relationships to each other. The board game explores these professional relationships through the way in which the characters interact with each other, in much the same way as TV shows like CSI do.

Having several different geographical locations is another key element of the disease thriller, and the dramatic action of Pandemic takes place across several locations around the globe, much like zombie-based virus thriller World War Z. The narrative of Pandemic explores how the infection pans out in different places and the players see the disease affecting different parts of the world through the characters they play.

The characters of the Pandemic board game are all reminiscent of a science fiction story; there are scientists, researchers, medics, operations experts, etc. These characters certainly pay homage to the sci-fi archetypes of works such as I am Legend and The Andromeda Strain. The narrative of a global disease outbreak is also familiar from science fiction stories such as 12 Monkeys and Children of Men. The narrative of a game of Pandemic thus shows all the hallmarks of several well-known science fiction stories.

The level of co-operation between players in Pandemic is unusually high amongst board games. In Pandemic, the players work together against the game itself – it is in essence a very complicated, constantly-changing puzzle. The mechanics of the game create an accurate simulation of the spread of a disease within the limited medium of a board game. It is brilliant how this game efficiently recreates a real-world process through board game mechanics. Other games do this as well (Power Grid is a good example), but the accessible way in which Pandemic models the spread of disease is a thing of beauty.

The game does have some competitive elements to it, mainly through the addition of a bio-terrorist character in the On the Brink expansion pack. This character plays against other players to aid the spread of the disease, and wins if the human race is wiped out. This addition of an antagonist opens up the narrative to layers of interpersonal conflict (human beings against each other), where as before Pandemic only had extra-personal conflict (humans against natural forces, i.e. disease).

The bio-terrorist functions in a similar way to Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) in 12 Monkeys, he puts a human face on the threat of disease and provides a character that the protagonist can have an adversarial relationship with. This makes the narrative more engaging as we can see human conflict play out next to environmental conflict, aka the spread of the deadly diseases. This makes the game of Pandemic more fun and the narrative more engaging.

The mechanics of Pandemic are very well suited to modeling the spread of a disease around an interconnected globe and the international response to this outbreak through the mechanics of co-operative play. As well as the co-operation mechanics, the involvement of narrative in Pandemic’s mechanics is unusually high. There are other games where the actions of players form a complex narrative, such as the galactic power struggle of Twilight Imperium, but it is rare to find narrative given this level of importance within game mechanics. What makes Pandemic so much fun to play is the way in which the players construct a narrative as they play.

The narrative of a game of Pandemic has many similarities to science fiction or thrillers. Many of the recognisable elements of these stories are present in Pandemic; the only difference is that the method of exploring the thriller or science fiction narrative is through the different medium of a board game. The story of a game of Pandemic is just as compelling as 12 Days Later or The Stand, but the means of engaging with the narrative are different.