Fiddling While the World Burns: Playing Pandemic

While the world tracks and decides how to deal with Covid-19, a new and growing form of coronavirus, our family is fiddling while the world burns, playing the cooperative game, Pandemic by Z-Man Games (paid link).


The box cover of Pandemic by Z-Man Games (Image:

Just like the opening moments of a disaster movie, a brief news piece a while back noted that a new strain of coronavirus had been diagnosed in China. When it happened, I resolved to ask my family to play my new board game with me, as it felt topical. As the situation changes, we continue to play.

Sometime last year, friends introduced me to the concept of “cooperative games,” which require the players to work together to win. Players share resources, often discuss the best move each player might make each turn, and cooperate with each other to win the game. That could be surviving a sinking submarine until rescue, or curing diseases.

I’m not a particularly competitive person, but I like to play games, so this concept appeals to me greatly. And, we find that it suits our family dynamic particularly well. When my last birthday rolled around, I asked for a set of what some regard as the best cooperative game available: Pandemic, in which players, assigned distinct roles with various “skills,” try to cure four coincident epidemics around the world. Consider it Risk for the collaborative-minded.

After we tried playing it, we realized we liked it—a lot. Rather than cajoling them to play the game with me, Michelle and/or Aly suggest we play more often than not. It has superceded all of our favorite games at the moment.

And, you know what? I’ll just say it: we’re really good at it! In researching the game, I learned that, while there are precious few ways to win the game, there are plenty of ways to lose. Reviews stated flatly: get used to losing, because that’s  the expected outcome.

And yet, we’re winning so much, we’re considering “upping” our play to a more advanced level (for which the game allows). In fact, I’m not so sure the game properly reflects reality as well as it might.

To whit: where are the drawbacks, like market resistance, governments lying about how well they’re handling the crises, anti-vaxxers, or other obstacles, such as the killing of techs trying to vaccinate against polio (which is actually happening)? Apparently, there are many ways to customize the game offered by Z-Man, including scenarios that can be downloaded for free from the company’s website. I’m currently trying to figure out how to incorporate setbacks like these, which at the moment focuses on how to make cards that aren’t immediately recognizable from their backs in the draw pile. If I can figure that out, I have some ideas for “improvements” to the game . . . .


The Pandemic board, some of the cards and playing pieces (Image:

Even so, we’re really enjoying playing it, while remaining cognizant of the irony in the situation. We’re not solving anything by playing, but we are honing our family’s cooperative skills, and drawing in as many friends as we can. In this world, I guess that’s worth something . . . .

Here are some other games we like, and why:

Bananagrams (see Developing Critical Thinking Through Play: Bananagrams)

Nertz (see Family Violence Our Way—A Raucous Card Game)

Five Crowns (see Five Crowns: Another Game That Sharpens Critical Thinking Skills)

Backgammon (see Gift of Time for Christmas: Consenting to Learn Backgammon)

Settlers of Catan (see Learning Through Play: Settlers of Catan)

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4 Responses to Fiddling While the World Burns: Playing Pandemic

  1. Unwise Bard says:

    Another fun cooperative game is Treasure Island. Same kind of deal, each player has a unique ability. You can’t win until the players collect all 4 treasures. Meanwhile, the island is quickly sinking into the ocean. Each play through ends up needing a slightly different strategy. At our best, my wife and I can beat the hardest mode ~50% of the time.

    If you like Settlers of Catan, may I suggest ASOBrain as a greatly improved software version of the game? A bit finicky to set up, but the improved speed for gameplay (~10-15 minutes for a 3 player game on the base board, though you are unlikely to ever do the base board) + additional add-on rules/boards are totally worth it. You can play vs bot and/or other humans in either public or private games. Additional rules beyond the standard Catan expansions: Some territories are hidden #s & types until you reach them with a road. Another territory type is a “choose your resource type when the number gets matched”. You can also design your own map.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Treasure Island? Cooperative play AND pirates? I am SO in on this one! Thanks for the lead, I’ll check it out.

    I’ll also look at ASOBrain, although because it’s software based, I’ll likely not try it. Part of gaming, to me, is the allure of the pieces. That’s why I’m such a fan of backgammon. I like computer games all right, but setting up the Catan board will always be a part of the process for me.

  3. Unwise Bard says:

    If the game pieces/colors/tactile of game pieces is what does it for you, check out Sagrada (build stained glass windows /w multi-color clear dice), Century Road: Golem (collect clear plastic “gems”, trade up to rarer gems & buy a golem for victory points), Azul (buy Moroccan tile at various markets to complete your floor) and Splendor (you are a gem trader, build connections, and gain royal patronage with the right connections). My wife ran a board game group at a local brewery. All 4 of these were very popular. She almost has a hedonistic enjoyment of beautiful/tactile game pieces.

    Treasure island has buried treasure, so pirates are implied, but never explicitly involved.

    Board Game Geek is a good review site if you haven’t been:

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    These sound great, especially Sagrada. I wish our local brewery had a game night! Of course, I’d never get my butt out there to attend, I guess . . . . Thanks for the tips!

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