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Game On: Classic co-op game ‘Pandemic’ is more relevant than ever

By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

With another wave of COVID-19 upon us, my morbid mind realized now was perhaps a better time than ever to try out the video game adaptation of “Pandemic,” a highly successful board game where players assume the role of scientists managing a global virus outbreak.

Life imitates art and all that.

The tabletop game debuted in 2008, and my game-enthusiast family picked up a copy in 2012. With so many hypercompetitive sore losers in my family – myself included – its cooperative nature reinvigorated our interest in board games.

We aren’t alone in this. Matt Leacock, the creator of “Pandemic,” was interviewed by The Spokesman-Review’s Ed Condran for a cover story in April – he cited a sour experience playing a competitive game with his wife as partial inspiration for the game’s inception.

So how does the video game adaptation measure up?

The graphics are crisp. The developer, Asmodee Digital, tried its best to inject life into the game with a live-action intro sequence and by animating the scientists depicted on the role cards. As someone who has played it tabletop dozens of times, I found the interface to be mostly logical.

However, Santiago, Chile, is located so far south that it gets covered by the interface unless you’ve zoomed out all the way. Movement across the map is troublesome and unintuitive. Moving your pawn couldn’t be simpler in real life, but in the video game, that’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing.

If you’re anything like my mother – you’ve dabbled in video games but are by no means an expert – you’ll likely struggle with it. That said, even I had a difficult time with the clumsy analog controls.

On the plus side, there is a very handy “undo” button, which I would argue should be universal in all such games. I’ve found this feature to be surprisingly uncommon in turn-based strategy games, so Asmodee Digital deserves kudos for including it here – even though it’s likely the company’s way of compensating for creating a mediocre control scheme.

One interesting quirk of converting a board game into a video game is how creative strategizing can be lost in the transition. In tabletop “Pandemic,” making your way across the globe often requires clever thinking, weighing the costs of traveling one space at a time versus sacrificing cards to fly across the board.

In the video game, you simply choose “Move” and mindlessly cycle through options. A different interface would have addressed this problem. It’s far from a game-killer but bears mentioning.

Other than that, this adaptation plays largely the same as its tabletop counterpart, which is to its credit. A wider variety of difficulty settings and a practice mode make it easier to initially learn the game, as well.

Asmodee Digital also released downloadable content with added features from the “On the Brink” expansion, including a greater variety of role cards and the optional virulent strain challenge.

It’s a bit disappointing Asmodee Digital did not also implement the mutation or bioterrorist game modes, the latter of which pits one saboteur player against three players with asymmetric gameplay akin to the 1983 board game “Scotland Yard.”

Since “Pandemic” is played cooperatively with an open hand of cards, there’s nothing wrong with passing the controller around to play multiple characters or managing as many as five roles all by yourself.

This hotseat function is a breath of fresh air compared with many other board-to-video-game adaptations – looking at you, “Catan” – that require multiple game consoles to play multiplayer. On the flipside, “Pandemic” has no online multiplayer functionality.

The video game adaptation of “Pandemic” is available for Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, iOS and Android devices and on PC via Steam. Prices vary by platform, with the Xbox and Switch versions at $20 compared with the Steam price of $10 and iOS/Android at $5.

The “On the Brink” add-ons are free on Xbox and Switch. The whole experience can be played for free via Xbox Game Pass. The board game typically retails around $40-$50 depending on the storefront.

“Pandemic” is a truly innovative game, and while I’d argue tabletop is the superior experience, any way you can get your hands on a copy is money well spent.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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