The plagues that threaten the world, as represented in the board game Pandemic, are not frightening to behold. Corpses and human anguish take the form of innocuous little plastic cubes. However, the die-cast representations of cast dies take on a sinister vibe: Cubes fly from city to city and, with a sudden flip of a card, take over uninfected metropolises. This spread is compelling enough that, eight years after its debut, Pandemic remains one of the most popular co-op board games around — so popular that a sequel felt inevitable. And that sequel, Pandemic: Legacy, has gone the gritty route. Riots roil cities and characters succumb to psychological trauma.
But how well does the new Pandemic mimic the poxes of our planet, the Bird and Swine Flus of the world? Is it down with the sickness? Inverse teamed up with Jasmine Abdelnabi, a biostatistician who professionally traces real-world outbreaks to fight off the cubes. In trying to defend the Earth, we found a new game that is taking its premise to a logical extreme.
Per Abdelnabi’s diagnosis, here’s what the game gets right:
“It shows the necessity of academics and the industry to lean on each other,” Abdelnabi says of the game and the communications it encourages. But, she points out, there are no language barriers or funding issues (not in the vanilla version of the game, anyway) within this cardboard context.
- Under pressure: Pandemic is by no means an easy romp across the world, especially for your first few times playing. Your hand screams for delicate management and swift decisions — do you use a card to move quickly to a city on the brink, or keep that card in your grip as a component of a much-needed cure? Likewise, speedy but smart decisions are the name of the game when curbing outbreaks like Legionnaire’s disease, Abdelnabi says.
But not everything is accurate. What makes the game a game, and not a perfect epidemiological simulation, boils down to:
- Outbreak, redefined: In Pandemic, you’ll want to avoid outbreaks — more than three cubes of a disease in a city — at all costs. And each disease cube, therefore, feels like it represents something much more devastating than a single case. Epidemiologists in real life worry long before it gets that bad. “A single case of polio — because we’re so close to eradicating it — is considered an outbreak.”
- Weak biology: There’s a sort of a singular infectious rate to all of Pandemic’s diseases: three cubes make an outbreak that shoots out to nearby cities. In real life, “the spread of disease is greatly dependent on the vehicle.” Pandemic does have a bacteria and a virus, she says, pointing to images on the board. But if it’s vector-borne or waterborne, that changes the rate of infection.
- Implausible logistics: Some of the biggest flaws in Pandemic’s realism come from the harsh reality of international politics. Given that you start in Atlanta — and, presumably, the Center for Disease Control — the impression is you’re globetrotting, hero Americans. “The porcelain borders that let a health official go across country lines — just not realistic. The CDC is not allowed to interview European nationals without consent of the home state.” That’s not to say collaboration between nations doesn’t happen, as the CDC’s Sierra Leone’s Ebola mission demonstrates. But the bottom line, Abdelnabi says, is that doctors and healthcare workers are guests in foreign nations.
To be clear, Abdelnabi is a huge fan of the theme. “It’s a lot of fucking fun to be an infectious disease epidemiologist — it’s a dream,” she says. “And Pandemic does a really good job of making a complicated procedure fun.”