Friday 16 August 2019

Switch Review - Pandemic

One of the most critically adored and commercially successful board games of the last 10 years becomes digital on Switch. But, without its cards and counters does the magic get lost?

Devloped by Asmodee Digital
Released in 2019

It’s Friday night in Playopolis, Rochester. The bar is crowded, the air is filled with laughter and the tables are filled with cocktails and board games. Huddled around the tables are former video game geeks, who once would be playing digital games at home but now are enjoying the company of like-minded people. I know this because I’m one of them.  The video game industry is booming; more are playing games than ever before but despite this there has been a board-game renaissance. Perhaps due to the decline of coach co-op games, many have exchanged their controllers for dice in order to play games socially. “For a time, video-gaming offered a level of physical social interaction, at the arcade or through multi-player sofa games that friends or family members could play at the same time, in the same room” notes the Guardian’s Dan Jolin. “Then multi-player video games moved online, and fellow players became physically removed from one another, if not completely anonymous.”

My group are lost in a melee of rhymes playing ‘Obama Lama’. Next to us a couple in their thirties are building railways around India, and at the back of the room two teenage girls are playing ‘Dream Phone’ laughing at the oversized phone that they believe surely must be a ridiculous exaggeration of what people used in the 80’s. Inspired by the popularity in America, Playopolis is one of many Board Game cafes popping up around the UK. Market research group NPD, have noted a 20% rise in Board Game sales since 2016. Many, like me, have come to learn that board games aren’t limited to ‘Monopoly’, ‘Cluedo’ and ‘Warhammer’. Modern games are diverse and varied, adaptable to the occasion and the company. To accompany an evening of drinking there’s ‘Dobble’, ‘Exploding Kittens’ and ‘Cards against Humanity’. When I have more time, I can gather my friends and spend an hour as cowboys exploring a cardboard train, or even spend a couple of hours exploring a dungeon as adorable mice. 

While admittedly still new to the board game brigade I already gave my favourites and amongst them is certainly ‘Pandemic’. Described by Dan Jolin as “a key title in the board-gaming resurgence” it’s a complicated and brutally hard board game where the players must collaborate to fight the outbreak of horrific global diseases. 

Catherine Howell, curator of toys and games at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, described ‘Pandemic’ as “the game of the moment” when she chose it as one of four focuses in her exhibition Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered. It’s the poster child for board games recent popularity, a game that’s appealing to those new to the hobby yet strategic and scalable enough for those who have been playing for years. ‘Pandemic’ was created by Matt Leacock, a celebrity designer amongst the Table-top fraternity. “Games were my favourite birthday gift,” Leacock says, “but I’d get very excited, open up the box, then we’d play and there would just be crushing disappointment. The games never seemed good enough to me.” Even from a young age his genius would show as Leacock would set about improving the disappointing games. Redesigning the boards to make something better using the same components.

He designed ‘Pandemic’ to see if a game could work “where there was a lot of really frightening non-linear growth”. An unpredicted game filled with surprises and twists, where you’re more likely to fail than succeed, especially if you don’t work together. ‘Pandemic‘s success is in part due to its strong narrative and the atmosphere it creates. As such it’s appealing to video game fans, something Leacock was very much aware of. “It’s [designed to be] similar to an electronic game in that you chose your characters, you get new rules and the state of the world changes. Irrevocably, in fact. It is an unveiling story.” 

‘Pandemic’ is a cooperative crisis management board game but rather than competing with each other, players work together. To win the game the players simply have to stop four deadly diseases from spreading across the world map.

Once the game is set up, you’ll start with 9 infected cities dotted around the world. Everyone then draws cards from a deck, and the cities named and colours of these cards dictate what you can do.   Taking it turns, each player can perform up to 4 actions to stop the spread of the virus and hopefully find a cure for them.  Actions include using a card to fly to the named city, discarding cards to build research stations or indeed moving between already built research stations. An action can also be to fight infections at your current location or swap cards with other local players. To cure a disease for good one player has to exchange five cards of the same colour. Do this for all four diseases and everyone wins the game.

To spice things up further, everyone playing picks a different character. This gives them access to a specific special ability that should help your World saving intentions. (If you’re playing alone, you’ll pick two characters and be in control of both.) While all characters can perform the same basic actions a Dispatcher character can move other players on their turn. The Operations Expert can build research stations easier. Scientists can cure a disease quicker and similarity the Medic removes infections from cities more efficiently, while the Researcher can distribute cards easier. 

At the end of each round cards are drawn from a second deck, and the city named on the cards drawn becomes more infected. If an Epidemic Card is drawn then the next named city becomes severely infected and all hell breaks loose as infections rapidly spread to previously clean neighbouring towns with sometimes catastrophic chain-infection-reactions.

It’s the Epidemic Cards that make ‘Pandemic’ so un-predictably exciting and so hard to beat: Run out of infection cubes – game over, have too many outbreaks – game over, exhaust your draw deck of cards – game over. A team of players accustomed to the rules should only expect to win 40% of games. I’ve played through dozens of times and only one once.  You can even fail for multiple reasons in a single game, especially if you’re playing on a harder difficulty that demands more dreaded Epidemic cards in the infection deck. But victory feels so fantastic because the odds are stacked against you. When I did win my first game I was genuinely elated, tweeting pictures of my glory for all to see. When playing as a team you’ll collectively feel like you have genuinely saved the World and this sensation is perhaps why Eurogamer called ‘Pandemic’  “the most successful cooperative board game of the last ten years, possibly of all time”. 

Reading through the game play may have baffled you, Infact the complexity and depth of the ‘Pandemic’ board game does feel overwhelming when you first play. This is why a digital version of the game, such as this Switch release, could actually prove to be a fantastic way to learn the game. As ‘Pandemic’s creator Matt Leacock notes the digital version “includes a complete rulebook but also more importantly a tutorial that guides you through the game. So you can give it to a new player and walk them through the steps for playing the game, it’s a great way to learn.”

The Switch port is an enhanced version of the iPad release. This was created with the full involvement of Leacock and he was impressed with the end result. “The developers spent a tremendous amount of attention to detail, to make sure that they got the rules right” Leacock says. “I'm very, very happy with the quality of the release; I gotta say it does an especially good job of letting you know when things have gone really really badly!”

Obviously the big advantage of playing a board-game digitally is that the AI handles the complicated set up and distributes all of the game pieces. In the box for the ‘Pandemic’ board game you’ll find, a board, 5 player pawns, 6 wooden research stations, 6 infection markers, 96 wooden disease cubes, 48 infection cards, 59 player cards, 4 role cards and 4 quick reference cards. It quite a lot to keep track of, that’s without factoring in the worry that you’ll lose a piece. As Leacock notes “setup is handled all for you. The digital game shuffles the decks, infects your cities and gets you up and running in no time.”  Matt Leacock is also happy to point out another obvious virtue of this digital version of ‘Pandemic’ over the board game. “one of the things i really like about the [digital] game is that normally when you set up ‘pandemic’ you need a table, you need to lay everything out. But this new version can played anywhere. You play it on a plane; you can play on a train you can play it on the couch. “

Character movement around the map has been significantly streamlined in this digital format. You no longer have to move city by city. Instead a green line will show possible destinations, also detailing how many action points it’ll use to get there and if a location card must be discarded to make that trip. So now to move a character, simply cycle through destinations using the D-Pad and decide where it’s best to end up on the World Map. Other non-move actions are handled using a command bar at the bottom of the screen. If it’s possible to treat an infection at a location, build a research centre or even cure disease, the option will be selectable. Also throughout a players turn, you’ll be frequently reminded to use Event Cards if you have them. These cards can be obtained during the draw at the end of each round, and prove to be a huge aide to the player.   If the end result of your turn isn’t quite as productive as you’d hoped you can always undo actions completed. Or you can pass control onto the next character. While there is a local multiplayer mode, this simply means each player can use their own Joycon. What I found to be more reflective of the original Board game was to play it in Solo mode and instead pass the same JoyCon to another player when it was their turn to play. There is no online play available, which is probably down to the fact that communication and co-operation between characters is essential if you’re even going to have a chance of over-coming the odds.

Much of the original appeal of ‘Pandemic’ was the atmosphere it created. Almost ‘Resident Evil’ like terror was created using just coloured cubes, incredible art work and the inherent tension created by playing the game itself. This Switch version using artwork from the 2013 2nd edition of ‘pandemic’, but all the character and card illustrations, have received a noticeable upgrade in resolution compared to the Android and iPad versions of the game. Character portraits now subtly move when it’s their turn, which doesn’t change the gameplay in any way except making the screen feel less static. There’s also various other visual tweaks that just make this latest Switch release more functional, even if it ironically distances it further from its board game origins. Player pieces have gone, replaced on the world map with character icons. The progression of viruses and the number of remaining cards are much clearer at the top of the screen. Additionally the cards characters are carrying have been moved to the left of the screen with a much larger cleaner font. But these aesthetic tweaks will only be noticed by those who have played other digital versions of the game countless times. The prevailing atmosphere remains, and much of that is inspired by the subtle yet incredible cinematic orchestral sound track. As the infection rate increases, the intensity of the music increases, managing to strike that fine balance between game embellishment and not distraction. However, the sound effects are hugely distracting, and at times there really does seem to be too much noise going on. Every movement prompts either a car screech or an airplane whoosh. There’s a weird metallic noise when cards are drawn and also one when they are placed on the discard pile. There seems to be a cacophony of bangs and whoosh and when you’re trying to think you just long for peace and quiet.

Obviously the appeal of a game based on a complicated and brutal board game is admittedly limited. ‘Pandemic’, in whatever form you play it in, is a strategic challenge where thinking and long planning are required. Those in need of instant action or immediate sensory overload won’t be remotely invested. The screen shots dotted around this article look identical, because what you see in the game is all pretty samey. All the dramatic music and beautiful pictures of cards won’t mask that you’re still playing a game that depends on your imagination. For the half an hour you play you’ll just be staring at a World map, as icons appear and vanish. There are no cut-scenes showing civilians escaping epidemic, no dramatic CGI intermissions despite what the launch trailer may have suggested. And after staring at this World map for thirty minutes, you may not even win through no fault of your own.  Like so many table-top games, sometimes a victory simply isn’t possible due to the literal luck-of-the-draw. The wrong cards being dealt at a crucial moment can make or break your game, and if that infuriates you ‘pandemic’ simply isn’t for you.  But those looking for a thoughtful and intense experience may well love this Switch version of ‘Pandemic’ and who knows it may even be a gateway into trying other similar board game adaptations; or the original games themselves.

I appreciate the contradiction; singing the praises of getting together and playing a board game, while endorsing a digital version of a game that can actually be played alone. But for me, digital versions of the board games I Play on a Friday night have been a fantastic addition to my new found hobby. Clearly I enjoy playing board games, but when you’re alone you lack others to play the games with. Having a digital version means AI can fill the spots left by absent friends and a favourite board game can still be enjoyed. Having a digital version of ‘Pandemic’ I could keep dipping into meant I got chance to fully grasp the rules and the game’s nuances. Then when I played the physical board game with others I could bring a new found knowledge to the table, greatly increasing our chance of success.

‘Pandemic’ works as a video game, because the original board game was designed to appeal and convert video game players into board game players. For me the game feels as immersive in both forms and its testament to the design skills of Matt Leacock that the game can transcend mediums so easily. This Switch version of ‘Pandemic’ won’t replace my desire to play the physical board-game on a Friday night at Playopolis Rochester. But what I may well do is play this digital version on the train getting there.

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