Jan 14, 2011, 05:47AM

The Many Highs and Lows of Pandemic

Quick, before Madagascar closes its ports!

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Arguments over what constitutes art are never-ending. The most popular focal point for these arguments currently is video games. Denigrating attacks and defensive maneuvers abound. I’m not interested in wading into that fight, at least not directly, as the question is as slippery and open-ended, and always comes down to intractably divided subjective interpretations as to what constitutes an artistic expression. Instead, I'd like to share a poetic experience with which I'm currently infatuated. It happens to be a board game.

Pandemic is produced by Z-Man Games and designed by Matt Leacock. The premise of the game: four different contagious and ravaging diseases have spread around the globe.  Up to four people play cooperatively to try and cure the diseases before the world is in the throes of a catastrophe.  

I am genuinely moved emotionally and intellectually by Pandemic. For a niche strategy game, its rules are not complicated: there are very direct, simple choices made in constructing the rules for Pandemic that give the game an elegance of efficiency, and also allow for a sort of understated poetry to arise through game play.

Let's start at the beginning. Each player in Pandemic assumes the role of a health worker, and each role brings a unique ability that helps in the struggle against the game. There are five different roles—researcher, dispatcher, medic, scientist, and operation specialist—but Pandemic is only a four-player game. So, by definition, you start every game missing someone whose skill set would be incredibly useful.  

I'm struck by that simple choice every time I play the game. How perfect is that? How true to life, how telling of human nature, that whether through excessive optimism, incompetence, laziness, or simple misconception, we can never be fully prepared for a true emergency. No matter how much we try, there will be something we forgot, or didn't realize was important, until it was too late. But Pandemic also counters that dark truth with a sliver of light: because it is a game, it has victory conditions, and so despite being under-prepared, and with huge odds stacked against you, it is possible to triumph over adversity.

But what adversity! Pandemic is a fiendishly difficult game. The complete rules can be seen in PDF form here, but since I doubt you are like me and read game rules for fun, I'll try to neatly summarize some of the high points. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that even the most minor of rules seems carefully crafted to provide not only balance of game play (a remarkable feat in and of itself) but to cause that game play to more completely evoke a powerful mood of apocalyptic horror.  

There are two decks of cards that drive the action on the board. One is for players to use to move around the board, treat diseased cities, and discover cures. The other is devoted solely to spreading more disease, each card displaying the name of a city and the type of disease that infects it when the card is drawn. Every turn, each player draws from both decks, so that as the game progresses, there is hope (new, helpful cards for the players) and escalating danger (more cities are infected). In a sick twist, however, there are cards seeded throughout the player deck that, when drawn, cause a massive infection of a single city, and then cause all the infection cards drawn so far to be put back on top of the infection deck—ensuring that any city already infected will only get worse. Additionally, each city has a limit to how many times it can be infected before it outbreaks, and infects every surrounding city. It's a diabolical system in which every piece of the game works together to ensure your doom.  

In fact, there are three different ways to lose—run out of cards from the player deck, run out of tokens to represent the spread of disease, or reach eight of the aforementioned outbreaks. By contrast, there is only one way to win: find cures for all four diseases. It's a game that isn't fair to its players, but an unfair world is thematically appropriate to the apocalyptic scenario. You can modify the game to make it easier, but I prefer to play it at full difficulty, even though my friends and I have yet to win even once.  

The tension and trepidation of the full-difficulty game is more harrowing than the most hopeless of survival horror fictions. My girlfriend, who otherwise loves board games, won't play Pandemic because she finds it too stressful. In each game I've played, there has come a point where victory seems within grasp, but a mere turn later the chips are suddenly down, one or more disease is about to overtake us, and every player is looking frantically around the board, discussing any possible move to delay the inevitable.  

The elation of false optimism, the excitement of desperation, the horror of certain doom, the resignation of defeat—the game is carefully designed to stoke these emotions in its players, creating an immersive semi-narrative experience. Unlike a novel or a movie, though, the experience is different each time through, the game taunting the player with an unlikely chance of victory. In every game, we could triumph, and so the tension becomes thicker and thicker, as we think each time this is gonna be the one. So far, it never is, but I don't see myself tiring of trying, or wearying of the cruel but poetic game mechanics.

I believe that one aspect of an artistic masterpiece is that it can exist only in its original medium, as it relies on the unique, inherent qualities of that medium. Adaptation or transition to another medium becomes impossible without making fundamental changes to the character of the work. This is one score on which Pandemic can be counted a winner—certainly more of a winner than its poor, hapless victims, like me.


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