Pandemic Board Game Proves Cooperation Can Save Us From the Disaster of 2020

For most of us in 2020, the word "pandemic" relates to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. For Game Designer Matt Leacock, however, "Pandemic" means something far more personal. Beyond being one of the most used words of the year, Pandemic is also the title of Leacock's most popular board game: a four-player adventure in which epidemiologists attempt to eradicate four simultaneous diseases spreading across the globe.

pandemic box art
Pandemic is a 2008 board game with plenty of relevance to 2020. Teams cooperate to cure four infections before time runs out. Z-MAN Games

Despite the game being on store shelves for the past decade thanks to multiple spinoffs and expansions, current events have caused a surge in interest for the massively popular game. Speaking with Newsweek recently, Leacock admitted that Pandemic has a new level of notoriety that he's somewhat reluctant to accept.

"When I came up with the original game in 2004, SARS had come through, and, in my head, pandemics were something that might happen someday to someone somewhere," he recalled. "I never really thought I would be swept up in one. It's one thing to anticipate it and another thing to experience it."

In the midst of my own quarantine because of COVID, I delved into Leacock's Pandemic. In addition to multiple Zoom interviews with Leacock, the game designer joined me, my brother and a friend for a fully remote, virtual playthrough of the game. (I made sure to enlist my brother because he's an esteemed licensed pharmacist, to put the game's core medical concepts to the test.) There was one set that we were all playing off of, and keeping tabs on through Zoom.

pandemic board game
The Pandemic board game takes players around the globe in search of a cure. Z-MAN Games

One of the defining features of Pandemic as a game is that, unlike most parlor mainstays, this one is entirely cooperative. It's rooted in a concept Leacock devised from a fairly familiar scenario. "I played some pretty competitive games and some negotiation games with my wife and found that, the better I did, often the worse I felt at the end of the game," he said with a laugh. "I found that in cooperative games we really enjoyed our time together regardless of whether or not we won or lost. And so that was part of the inspiration for designing Pandemic. I wanted to create a cooperative game I could play with my wife for the family and really enjoy it."

And with that central conceit in mind, our quartet of epidemiologists was formed after a fifth person, our socially distanced game master, drew four random role cards consisting of a Medic, Scientist, Dispatcher and Quarantine Specialist. These roles are just four of seven possibilities included within the base game, and each one has a super-strong ability paired with it. My role, as the Medic, has a special place in Leacock's heart. It's a cleaner that eradicates large swaths of disease over the course of a single turn.

pandemic role cards
Use your role cards wisely, and you just might squash your pandemic quickly. Z-MAN Games

"I was playing around and just trying different effects when I was developing it, and I remember coming up with the Medic effect and thinking, 'Wow, that's super powerful, this is going to break the game,'" Leacock said. "And so we played and it was just so much fun to do it... I wanted to make the powers so strong that you'd think they would break it, to a certain extent."

As for the rest of our roles, the Scientist, taken on by Leacock himself, has a faster path toward curing diseases, while the Dispatcher can more freely move players to certain locations, to facilitate finding cures or removing disease. The Quarantine Specialist, appropriately doled out to my brother, helped stop disease from spreading to connected countries.

From a top level, it's not difficult to understand how these varied skills might complement one another, and those scenarios played out perfectly in our game. When black-colored disease cubes started taking over the eastern portion of the map, we kept our Quarantine Specialist in place to strangle outbreaks as they happened early. I, on the other hand, was shifted towards North and South America, where yellow disease cubes swiftly took control of Buenos Aires and the Los Angeles area. On the other side of the globe, our Dispatcher and Scientist met at specific locations to share cards that would later help Leacock cure our first disease.

When our skills were working as intended, situations felt manageable, but that sentiment quickly transitioned to chaos as randomly drawn Infection cards wreaked havoc across the board despite our best efforts. Leacock didn't talk much about the machinery behind Pandemic's successful formula, but he admitted that such randomness is key to establishing a tense atmosphere.

While reflecting on some of our most disastrous moments of spread, Leacock advised that "really it comes down to how do you create moments of hope and fear or tension and release. Because if you can really mess with the players' emotions, they get much more engaged." And yet, because the shuffled pile of Infection cards was largely composed of familiar territories, we were able to predict which outbreaks might happen without knowing precisely when they might trigger. "It's like true risk mitigation, right? You don't know what's actually going to happen in a pandemic, but you might have an idea of what's coming down the line."

pandemic infection cards
Epidemic and Infection cards are both predictable yet random during play. Z-MAN Games

This tug of war propelled our problems in the Americas to worsen to the point where the yellow cubes were the final active disease on our board with just five remaining cubes on the sideline, off the board. If those spare cubes made it onto the board, then that would mean our efforts had failed, but, with a little help from an air lift, we were able to instantly move our Quarantine Specialist to the busiest territory to remove enough cubes from the board to stay alive.

The protective maneuver—combined with some enhanced Dispatcher movement to pass the Scientist the final card he'd need for a yellow cure—would be all we'd need to win. There were, however, two cards left in a play pile of about five cards that, if drawn, could have led to our destruction.

In our talks with Leacock, he told us the down-to-the-wire result is generally how rounds play out. But, perhaps more than anything, our victory was indicative of one of Pandemic's key mechanics: consensus through cooperation. A single selfish decision by the wrong party member could have been our doom, but by analyzing our abilities and pairing them with the advantages of others at the right moments, we persevered through our most troubling circumstances.

"It's a great opportunity to practice listening skills and consensus building and that sort of thing. There are schools that have used the game for that purpose. Because it is this great, natural, safe, little petri dish where you can work on interpersonal skills like dominating a conversation or ignoring people," Leacock said.

And that idea of working together is perhaps the most applicable message for those intent on playing Pandemic in these troubled times. While it's based on the very real backdrop of a pandemic with basic spread models and other relevant trappings, that setup provides an outlet to explore something far more important about ourselves. That much was confirmed in a conversation with my brother, Paul, after the game.

"While it is definitely more of a game than anything [medically relevant], I think the most valuable aspect that this game teaches us is that, in order to defeat a global pandemic, it takes effort and collaboration from people working around the world," Paul said. "Each country or state trying to combat a pandemic on their own is useless, and that is why the game is organized as a collaboration of players working on a global scale. This concept of global collaboration is probably lost on most leaders today, but maybe we can sit them down for a game of Pandemic to see if they can grasp this."

Leacock concurred, adding, "Although, I worry that some world leaders might not bother to read the rule book. They might just throw it out and do whatever they want." Had our team taken that route, we surely would have lost.

Having a decade-old board game suddenly become so tied to current events has been a strange adjustment for Leacock, but, as he looks toward creating new products in a post-pandemic world, he has no intent on shying away from pressing subjects.

"I have made no secret that I'm working on a game about climate change, so, another cooperative game. Another existential threat, certainly topical, difficult. And this one I'm actually doing more research and modeling in it. I still want it to be cinematic and have all the emotion to it, but it'll be more grounded in the science," he teased.

For now, Pandemic's creator just hopes those having trouble with quarantine life can find some positivity in the game he's made. "It provides us context for discussion about what's happening. You can kind of play through it in a safe space. And it can be kind of empowering to fight back against a disease even if it's only pretend, right?"

Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy are available now.

Has Pandemic helped you through quarantine? Would you be interested in playing the game? Tell us in the comments section!