Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Table vs. Tablet: Pandemic

Pandemic, a board game where the players work together against time to stop the spread of global disease, is the best example of cooperative gaming I have ever encountered. A brilliant set of game mechanics insures that each game is likely to be a nail-biter, and with each player having special abilities due to the role they play, everyone is going to feel like they were a part of either the hard-fought victory or ignoble and unlucky defeat.


The only shortcomings the board game might have as far as I am concerned is that I can't take it with me and it feels awkward setting up a full board game to play by myself, alternating between two separate pawns. I was very happy to see that Monolith Interactive and Fez Digital Media have released a remarkably faithful adaptation of the game for iOS devices that works brilliantly on the iPad.


My favourite thing about the Pandemic app is that it still feels like you are playing a board game; even though no hand moves the players' pawns from city to city, the cards that determine so much of your fate are shuffled before you before getting tucked away on the side of the display. You can see all the other player's cards, and even play their event cards on your turn.


Still there is a lot to be said for the scale and esthetics of the original boardgame though: the high quality cards, the big colourful board, with it's allocated space for the two decks of cards, and especially the petri dish containers for the cubes used to represent the diseases you get in the expansion pack. There is also something remarkably satisfying and visceral about seeing three grown men flip the bird to an inanimate playing card as we exult in the fact that an epidemic has just been prevented thought the timely eradication of one of the four diseases. As a result, if given the option, I am more likely to play with the original, but there are five areas the Pandemic app excels at that are worth drawing attention to:


  1. Audio/Video. Dramatic music accompanies your turn, but is mostly string-based and not too obtrusive. The music changes dramatically when an Epidemic card is drawn, or when an Outbreak occurs, and is accompanied by flashing lights. Disease cubes orbit the cities they are in, and if there is danger of an Outbreak, they move more quickly and gently pulse with red light, adding to the tension. There are some sound effects too, like the whoosh of a jet when you charter a jet to a distant locale, or jackhammers when you build a research station. Placing the cubes on adjoining cities during an Outbreak is bad enough, but watching an animation depict them racing along the connector lines, punctuated by a soft booming noise when they arrive, it is really disheartening.
  2. Portability. The iPad is one of the best things to have with you while travelling, period. Being able to take a half dozen board games on vacation without any fear of losing any pieces is a big part of this if you are with your family, and Pandemic's faithful adaptation makes it well worth the price ($6.99) and space. Being able to suspend the game and return to it later is handy too.
  3. Set-Up Time. Like most boardgames, Pandemic requires a bit of set-up time, probably 15-20 minutes. If you are in a situation where that time might make it difficult to play, crack open the app and you can be playing in about 60 seconds.
  4. Tutorial. I think I might be done teaching people how to play Pandemic, because the app's tutorial does such a great job. It explains the objectives and interface clearly, instructing the player how and where to move for the first few turns, but eventually folding in decisions as to where the next pawn should go, and what decisions should be made. The game itself posts tips and reminders which will be helpful to new players as well.
  5. Solitaire. As mentioned, there is nothing preventing me from setting up Pandemic in order to play the game by myself, except for my chronic lack of ambition in this regard. There are just too many other options for solo entertainment for Pandemic solitaire to be viable, unless I've left the game set up from a previous night's session. Since getting the app though, I find playing a round or two on the higher difficulty levels or with roles I am unfamiliar with are a great way to test new strategies.

The board game still trumps in terms of a social evening with friends, although if you have Apple TV or another means of streaming to your television, it might be fun to use the app in the living room with a big screen. I am also looking forward to trying some of the alternate modes of tabletop play from On The Brink, like Virulent Strain or Bio-Terrorist, but we all want to get a few more victories under our belts with the regular version before adding further complications.


I think we will get there though, since Pete, Mike and I managed to attain victory on Saturday night with only 2 of a maximum 8 Outbreaks having transpired. It is a credit to the games's remarkably well balanced design that we were still totally nervous until the second last turn, and it was only the timely playing of Event cards from near the beginning of the game that allowed us to do it!


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