was about the most entertaining – and shocking – bit of Contagion, the recent Hollywood remake of Outbreak which doesn’t really need to exist. The film as a whole was a pretty boring, cold, unemotional look at how society breaks down in the event of everyone dying of bat-pig flu. People look sternly at each other, Jude Law has a wonky tooth and strange accent and Matt Damon looks a bit chubby. I had to rewind when one character died, not because it was an amazing sequence that warranted rewatching, but because I couldn’t really make out who was in the body bag so wasn’t sure they’d actually kicked the bucket.
This is kind of relevant, because on my body destroying disease barometer of excitement, I have two uniquely and opposed metaphorical points to measure between. There’s the excitement, tension, over acting and pur schlocky joy of Outbreak and the dull, clinical, over filtered misery of Contagion. It is against the passive and predominantly visual consumption of these two movies that I judge Pandemic, an interactive, tactile board game that doesn’t star Dustin Hoffman or the girl who could be from Homeland but I’m not quite sure.
On a scale of Contagion to Outbreak, Pandemic did very well on this, my first session with it. The rules are straightforward (and understandable, THANK YOU), the premise relatable and the sense of panic and concentration as the world descends into chaos palpable. It helped that my wife was responsible for developing the bird fu pandemic readiness plans for her old employer, it kind of felt like a practice exercise but with less sneezing or eradication of winged beasts.
I forget now which kind of super special life savers we took the roles of but, if I recall correctly, my wife was able to clear a city of all disease with only one action point if we had a cure for it while I could give her cards even if we weren’t on the right spot. Or something. They seemed like pretty shitty powers to take on a billion trillion deadly virus cells with if I’m honest. I’d have preferred, I dunno, nuclear bombs and flamethrowers that cleansed entire cities in a heartbeat. This seems counter intuitive to a game where we’re saving lives, though.
Not that the end result would have been any different. We managed to find a couple of cures but totally bodged the clearance of Asia which left us spending far too much time clearing up the mess there and chasing ourselves in circles. One of the more interesting rules is that you don’t just collect cards, build a research station in the appropriate zone and then find a cure. Once you have the cure, you have to apply it, you have to destroy the destroyer. This makes it a massive challenge and, having never played it before, I have no idea of the strategy involved in achieving this goal.
The other bit I missed was that the game essentially has a number of stop, you LOSE, end game points. If you get too many outbreaks (defined as a city that has 3 hot spots appear, which sets off a chain reaction where every connected city then gets another hot spot, which could tip you over the edge again…and again…and again) YOU LOSE. This I’d seen. What I hadn’t seen was that as soon as you run out of player cards to turn over, YOU LOSE AS WELL. It’s a time limit, a turn limit, a finite resource you have to work and weave your strategy around. You can’t just keep going until there have been too many outbreaks, reshuffling the pack and trawling through it once more. There, right in front of you, is the clock ticking down one card at a time.
If only I’d known, we wouldn’t all be dead right now.
And you know what? Irrespective of that calamity of a rule error it was great fun. I knew we’d lost even before I realised because we stopped talking. We weren’t working collaboratively, we weren’t an effective team. You have to talk to each other, you have to plan ahead and figure things out, you have to play to your characters strengths to win. We did none of these things, of course, and lost in a horrible way.
How can a boardgame be this exciting but a multi-million dollar Hollywood movie not be?