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Reviews - Pandemic: On the Brink
 
by Lee Valentine


Pandemic: On the Brink boxPandemic: On the Brink expansion
Published by Z-Man Games
Designed by Matt Leacock and Tom Lehmann
Contents: 35 cards, 12 wooden cubes, 12 pawns, 1 cure marker, 1 purple tile, 6 plastic petri dishes, and sticker sheet (for the petri dishes)
2-5 players
$29.99

This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2009

Pandemic: OTB (OTB) is the new expansion set for Pandemic, the popular cooperative game of disease eradication. This time around, Pandemic designer Matt Leacock teams up with Tom Lehmann for this series of devastating, disease-ridden innovations to gaming. The expansion adds new Roles, new Events, multiple modes of play, and some petri dishes for storing all your game components. This set is not stand-alone, and requires the base game to play.

Overview of Pandemic
For those not already familiar with it, Pandemic is a cooperative game where each player plays a member of the Center for Disease Control out to stop four different diseases (five in OTB) from reaching pandemic proportions and threatening the population of the world. Each player takes on a specific Role such as a Scientist, Researcher, or Operations Expert, and each Role grants its player special abilities to tackle the diseases. In addition to a map of the world, the game comes with a Player Draw Pile and an Infection Draw Pile. Both piles contain the names of cities around the world and the type of disease that is associated with each. Players try to collect sets of City cards from the Player Draw Pile to turn in at Research Stations for the cures to diseases.

At the end of each player's turn, cards from the Infection Draw Pile are revealed to cause diseases to spring forth, intensify, or spread. The four diseases are represented by four distinctly colored groups of 24 wooden cubes each (96 total). Every city on the board can hold up to three cubes of a given color of disease. More than three cubes on a single city will cause an Outbreak, which rapidly spreads the disease in a chain reaction to all neighboring cities.

Sometimes negative cards in the Player Draw Pile called "Epidemics" are drawn, causing a special draw from the Infection Draw Pile to select a City that will be the target of a severe occurrence of a given disease. The game engine causes a small sub-set of the world's cities to flare up over and over again throughout the course of the game. Which cities those are vary depending on the order of the cards in the Infection Draw Pile, making each game a slightly different strategic challenge. The base Pandemic game allows players to vary the difficulty by putting between four and six Epidemic cards in the Player Draw Pile. To help survive Epidemics, the Player Draw Pile also contains Event cards, special one-shot powers that can benefit the heroes whenever they need them most.

The game can end in one of four ways. First, the players can win by finding cures to all four diseases (five in some variations included in OTB). Second, players lose if they run out of cards in the Player Draw Pile when they need to draw them. Third, players lose if the world has had a total of eight Outbreaks of the various diseases. Lastly, if you need to place a disease cube of a given color and you are out of that color then you lose the game immediately. The pressure in Pandemic clearly comes from the fact that there is just one way to win and several ways to lose.

New Roles & Five-Player Play
There are six new heroic Roles introduced in OTB. The Archivist has a larger hand size (eight instead of seven) and the ability to retrieve cards from the Player Discard Pile. The Generalist has 5 actions per turn instead of the normal 4. The Containment Specialist removes a disease cube for free every time he enters a city with multiple cubes of one color. The Epidemiologist can take any one city card per turn from any player in the same city as him (sort of the inverse of the Researcher). The Troubleshooter peeks at the top few cards of the Infection Draw Pile before deciding on actions for the turn; he also has enhanced abilities to make Direct Flights. The Field Operative is a variant of the Scientist from the original set - he spends actions collecting disease cubes, and when he has three of one color then he can turn them in with three city cards of the same color to cure a disease. The Operations Expert from the original game has been re-released with an extra power: he can take a flight to any city from any Research Station by discarding any city card. I really thought the original Operations Expert was invaluable already, but the new Roles added powers which competed directly with the Operation's Expert's niche, so it was deemed by the designers that he needed to be made more powerful to remain a desirable Role.

A few of the new heroic Roles were interesting, but some seemed more generally useful than others. The Archivist was flexible, powerful, and easy to work into any situation. In contrast, the Troubleshooter seemed difficult to really use to his full potential in two-player play, and seems best used to pick up the slack of a larger team, dealing with a single trouble spot per turn. Some of the new Roles are merely minor variations on original Roles. As another person noted on an online forum, in two-player play with the Epidemiologist and Researcher, there is so much overlap in effect that it is like the Epidemiologist does not even have a power. Most of the variations here seem primarily aimed at adding some unfamiliarity to make it more difficult to instantly know how your team should manage the board.

The new heroic Roles give Pandemic a total of eleven to choose from. This was deemed enough for Z-Man games to include an extra player reference card and two sentences of rules to expand Pandemic to be a game for up to five players (which is really the four-player setup with just an extra player added on).

New Events
OTB adds eight new Event cards, bringing the total up to 13. However, Events feature a new rule: instead of using five events per game session (as in the base game), all Events are shuffled prior to play and two are selected per player and shuffled into the Player Draw Pile. So, in a two-player game, there is one less Event than in the original game. In three- to five-player games, however, there are more Events and thus a larger overall deck size. This is a pretty thoughtful addition which helps scale the game to the number of participants nicely.

The new Events were thought provoking. Some directly granted overt power by giving a player an extra couple of actions on his turn. Another event, seemingly mundane at first glance, was actually quite precious in that it fetches a previously discarded city card from the Player Discard Pile. There's even a metagame card that lets one player swap out his current Role for any of the unassigned Roles; I discarded this early on as unnecessary, and it cost me my first game playing OTB.

Three New Modes of Play
Pandemic always had the ability to adjust the difficulty level from Introductory to Normal to Heroic by adding in extra Epidemic cards. Some dedicated players of the game managed to regularly win at the Heroic level of play (with six Epidemic cards), so OTB now includes a seventh Epidemic card for a Legendary level of difficulty. While this ratchets up the difficulty, it doesn't really change the overall strategy. However, Leacock and Lehmann took care of players who wanted to shake up game play by adding three new "Challenges" (i.e., modes of play).

In the Virulent Strain Challenge, Virulent Strain Epidemic cards replace normal Epidemic cards. There are eight to choose from, and you randomly select four to seven of them, based on your chosen difficulty level. When the first one is drawn from the Player Deck, the most prolific virus on the board becomes a "Virulent Strain". Each of these new Epidemic cards includes a new game effect. Some of these are powerful one-shot effects, while others have continuing effect on the game. All of them make the Virulent Strain worse in just about every way imaginable. Sometimes they make Outbreaks of the Virulent Strain worse. One card makes the Virulent Strain harder to cure. Still another can bring the Virulent Strain back onto the board even after it has been completely eradicated. While eradicating a disease in Pandemic is useful, it is normally a luxury, but not any more - the Virulent Strain begs to be eradicated before it costs you the game. Normally in Pandemic, players travel around in a rotating fashion, bouncing from hot spot to hot spot, from disease to disease. Now somebody has to stay on regular patrol around the Virulent Strain to keep it controlled. I have only played this mode at Heroic Difficulty (5 Epidemics), but I could largely control which disease became Virulent. Once that was managed, I ignored the Virulent aspect both games by eradicating the disease early on. Maybe at level 6 or 7 Difficulty the Virulent Strain would matter more. While potentially a more difficult version of the game, this variant added little to the overall themes displayed by Pandemic.

Pandemic: On the Brink cardThe Mutation Challenge introduces a fifth disease (the Mutation) and 12 purple cubes to represent it. There are only half as many purple cubes compared to other diseases, so the threat of losing the game to purple is significant, as players can lose by all the normal means or by running out of purple cubes when they need to add more to the board. New cards in both the Infection Draw Pile and the Player Draw Pile are what trigger the Mutation's appearance. Sometimes it appears by itself, and sometimes it appears along with another disease. Unlike other diseases, the Mutation is not geographically limited, and it can appear anywhere on the map, making it difficult to eradicate. Sometimes much of the game can pass without a single Mutation, and then it can explode rapidly. The Mutation can be cured by discarding any five city cards at a Research Station, at least one of which must be currently infected with the Mutation. In this challenge, players win by curing all five diseases, or by curing the basic four diseases and also having no purple cubes on the board at the same time. Most of the time the Mutation is not a threat in the early game, but when it flares up, it requires immediate attention. This usually comes at the cost of precious city cards to travel to a location with purple cubes on it; often, this devours card resources intended for the cure of another disease. I liked the Mutation Challenge better than the Virulent Strain because the new disease spreads so differently than the other four diseases it created some difference in the feel of the game, beyond simply making it more difficult.

OTB includes another way to use the purple disease other than the Mutation Challenge. It is called "The Bio-Terrorist Challenge" - by far the best new thing about this product. This challenge is fun, engaging, and really increases the difficulty and the choices the heroes have to make. Unlike Pandemic's normal mode of play, which is purely cooperative, here one player is a villainous Bio-Terrorist and moves mostly in secret, similar to Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula. This variant is playable with two or three heroes and one Bio-Terrorist, but is not suitable for a five-player game. The Bio-Terrorist does not draw Player cards, but instead draws from the Infection Draw Pile and uses special rules to sow the purple disease onto the board. He can also sabotage Research Stations, crippling the heroes' ability to move around the board; he can do so as fast as the players can build them unless the Operations Expert Role is being played. The Bio-Terrorist can be temporarily captured by finding him, but this merely delays him until his inevitable escape. Winning, losing, and curing the purple disease are handled as per the Mutation Challenge, with a couple of different twists. The Bio-Terrorist wins if the players lose and there is at least one purple cube on the board, otherwise he loses as well. However, he loses if the purple disease is ever eradicated, presumably with the heroes continuing to battle the remaining diseases (though the rules are not explicit about this). OTB comes with a special pad to notate the secret movements of the Bio-Terrorist, but there is no villain player screen as I've come to expect from other hidden movement games. While there is a very tiny version of the game map on the player notepad, the Bio-Terrorist player is forced to stare at the full board for his play decisions because he will need to know which cities have various types of diseases on them. Unfortunately, there is a design error on the notepad, where the map lists a route between Washington and Madrid which doesn't exist in the original game. Since this is an error that could affect game play, and since this notepad is one of the primary new components in OTB, it affected my ratings of the game. A printable PDF version of the map is available that has this error corrected.

The Mutation Challenge can be combined with the Virulent Strain Epidemic cards to make for an exceptionally hard game, though most of the time the Mutation and the Virulent Strain will not end up being one and the same. I have tried this with just four Virulent Strain Epidemic cards and it was still fairly difficult. The Bio-Terrorist Challenge can be combined with the Virulent Strain Epidemic cards, but cannot be combined with the Mutation Challenge (since Mutation and Bio-Terrorist both use purple cubes differently).

Game Components & Packaging
The final major part of OTB is new component packaging. The set includes six plastic petri dishes and labels for each, to house most of the components (other than the boards and cards) from both the main set and the expansion. The labels look like they came straight out of a messy bio-terror lab somewhere; the graphic designer did a great job here. The petri dishes are made of lightweight plastic, but will do an adequate job of housing most of the game's wooden bits. The petri dishes are not separated in the box, and so when I opened my OTB box, I found some of the petri dishes to be a bit scratched up. Unfortunately, I have also heard reports that if you have the original edition of the Pandemi c game which came with larger Research Station pieces, then you may have trouble squeezing them in to their designated petri dish. The dishes themselves are a clever inclusion which was prompted by online Pandemic fan community members who themselves came up with the idea of using petri dishes. Unfortunately, when I tried to store the dishes in the original game box, the lid no longer closed down evenly; one end wobbled about half an inch from closing properly, and the other end sat a little high too. Since I was afraid that the box might slide open in this condition, I haven't made use of the petri dishes. Some fans will love them in spite of the packaging problems they might raise. As for myself, I use a plastic, Plano 3449 five-compartment locking box that fits pretty conveniently into the components tray of the original game. It takes up little table space, it snaps shut, and my Pandemic box lid closes down better than it does with the petri dishes. Had I not previously bought the Plano box for a few bucks, I think I would be more inclined to switch to the petri dishes. Had Z-Man Games simply made the OTB box a bit larger so that it held all the components of both the original game and this expansion, then I might have switched over to using the Petri dishes.

A few additional minor components are included like a "cured/eradicated" disease token for the purple disease. There are also four blank cards for your own Role and Event creations. The new Events, the Virulent Strain Epidemic cards, and the Mutation Challenge cards require some additional setup before each game. As a result, I felt the need to separate each of these sets of cards into their own plastic gripseal bags. Unfortunately, I had to provide my own, as Z-Man Games did not provide them for me.

All of the cards and other components are of the same high quality as those included in the second printing of the Pandemic game. Players who have the first printing of Pandemic (which had gloss cards without a linen finish) will find that the new cards do not match their original cards, but Z-Man Games has a deck exchange program which is available by contacting them via their website.

Rule Clarity
OTB comes with its own rulebook. I did have a handful of minor disappointments with the components as presented after reading the rulebook. One Event and one Virulent Strain Epidemic had a number of very specific card-to-card interactions that weren't even hinted at on the cards themselves; the rules exceptions have to be brute force memorized from the rulebook. Also, one of the Virulent Strain Epidemic cards ("Chronic Effect") was very poorly worded, and should receive an erratum, because when interpreted very literally it is either ambiguous or does not work as the designer intended. In this latter instance I had to go to an online forum to find out how to interpret "Chronic Effect."

Other than these few issues, the rules in OTB seemed quite clean. The rulebook included sufficient graphics and play examples that I think players will have little problem learning how to play the new Challenges. One area of potential concern is that the Mutation Challenge and the Bio-Terrorist Challenge use slightly different rules for the purple disease cubes. There is some chance that this will cause some players cognitive dissonance the first time or two that this is played out of the box. Even this concern will fade after a couple of plays through each new game variant. Leacock and Lehmann did a nice job on the rulebook overall.

Conclusions
I did have a few complaints about OTB. First, I feel that the expansion should have been about $5.00 cheaper for what came in OTB. That could be just me, because I don't strongly value the petri dishes that make up the vast bulk of the volume of the new stuff in the OTB box, and wished that they fit better in the original game box. Second, I feel that while this set does shake up the strategy a bit, and certainly makes the game harder, OTB only truly breaks new ground with the Bio-Terrorist challenge. A lot of the other new options are really "thinking inside the box" variants of what we've already come to expect from Pandemic. Diseases spread faster or slower, or appear nearer or farther away. There aren't many deeply thematic elements being introduced, like medical equipment, ways to set up a quarantine zone, or significant differences between the diseases that appear in different geographic areas (the "Virulent Strain" aside). Third, there's almost no discussion in the OTB rulebook about how each new type of Challenge impacts the difficulty of the game. Which is harder, playing with seven normal Epidemic cards or six Virulent Strain Epidemic cards? Is playing with five Epidemics and the Mutation Challenge as hard as playing with six normal Epidemics? I don't know, because the rules don't say, and only quite a number of plays through the new options will let me know.

These complaints aside, OTB is overall a very good expansion for a fine game. The Bio-Terrorist Challenge will keep Pandemic fresh for some time to come because it adds player-vs.-player interaction in addition to the chaotic disease-generating engine of the original Pandemic game. The Mutation Challenge and the Virulent Strain can increase the difficulty for those looking for tougher challenges. I feel that most Pandemic players will find that there's a lot of worthwhile gaming in the small OTB box. It's a purchase definitely worth considering. For real fans of Pandemic who have mastered the strategies of the base set, find it too easy, and feel like they have "played it out", Pandemic: On the Brink will breathe new life into your Pandemic games.

For Retailers
OTB has a striking front box cover of a black, red, and tan map of the world and the game's title superimposed over a faint biohazard symbol. It's quite eye-catching. Unfortunately the back of the box is very text heavy and did not really show pictures of any of the new components. Since this is an expansion set, this is not the deal breaker that it might be for retail sales for a stand-alone game. If you read through it all, the text on the back of the box does a decent job of setting player expectations about what they will find inside the product.

Pandemic is a very fun and popular hobby game. It's no surprise then that Pandemic: On the Brink has been getting attention online and is eagerly anticipated by fans. So, in the short run, you can expect to sell quite a few copies of this one. There were some delays with the anticipated release of this product, so you may have to let your local Pandemic players know that the expansion has been released. My advice is to offer one of your alpha gamers some store credit in exchange for him coming in a few times to demo the game, petri dishes and all, in all of the new modes of play. That should help boost sales. If your store is affected by Gen Con sales, keep in mind when placing orders with distributors that OTB was available in limited quantities at Gen Con Indy 2009 about a month before its general release through distribution.

 

Lee's Ratings:
Overall: B+ (great expansion, but with packaging problems and a significant printing error)
Playability: A-
Appearance: B+ (nice overall, with one piece of substandard art)
Rules Clarity: B+ (solid overall, with a few problem cards)
Components: B+ (nice looking components with some problems with the Bio-Terrorist play aids)
Packaging: B+ (petri dishes should fit better in the original box, with instructions on how to pack the game with the new components; the game needed to come with some gripseal bags to separate out the new challenge cards)

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