Four terrible diseases have broken out all over the world, and they're spreading fast. The fate of humanity hangs in the balance. The clock is ticking, and your small team of health professionals has to find a cure to all four diseases before time runs out, or before infection spreads so far that it's just too late to save the human race. There goes Kinshasa! There goes Mumbai! There goes Tokyo! You'd better hurry.
That's the premise of Pandemic, Matt Leacock's exciting and innovative new board game. As befits its theme, Pandemic is a cooperative game: either the players all win, or the game beats them. At the start of the game, the four diseases have broken out in nine of the world's cities. The players, starting from their research station in Atlanta (home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though the game doesn't say as much), fan out to try and treat the diseases and find cures for them all. At the same time, the diseases spread, erupting in two new cities each turn. As time goes on, epidemics suddenly add new cities to the mix, the diseases intensify in the cities they've already hit, and worst of all, the rate of infection grows: when it hits three new cities per turn, the players are in trouble, and when it hits four, the players had better win immediately, because the end of the world is upon them.
All of this drama is achieved through remarkably simple mechanics. It's all just cubes (the diseases), cards (the cities), and pawns (the team). At heart, Pandemic is really a basic set-collection card game, a sort of rummy where everyone's just trying to make four melds. This simple card game sits atop an equally simple positional board game, where the tiny fund of actions (four) that you have each turn must be spent very carefully. Each of these games would be straightforward by themselves; but since you need to spend cards to move more quickly (or to build the extremely important research stations), the two games conflict with each other, and create a lot of hard decisions.
Two elements make the game especially vivid and replayable. The first element is the player roles. At the start of the game, each player draws one of the five roles. (Yes, since the game can only be played with up to four, there's always at least one role not in the game.) In the tradition of Cosmic Encounter, your role lets you break the game's rules in one or two specific ways. Most players can only remove one disease cube from a city at a time, but the Medic removes all of them in a single action. The Dispatcher can move other players' pieces instead of his own. And so on.
The second element is the infection deck. There's one card for each city on the map, and as I've said, nine of them get flipped up at the start of the game to get the diseases going. This can result in terrible concentrations of disease in one continent or another. Or it can result in a terrible even dispersal of diseases, requiring your team to travel all over the world. (Really, it's all just different flavors of terrible.) The game's genuinely brilliant mechanism -- when an Epidemic card is drawn, you reshuffle all the city cards in the discard pile and put them back on top of the deck -- means that this early set of cities is where the diseases will be occurring again and again.
Which is good, because you know which cities are in danger. And it's not so good, because once a city gets three cubes in it, the next cube starts an outbreak. Two bad things about outbreaks: 1) when one happens, you add a cube to each adjacent city, and 2) the eighth outbreak means you lose. If you read this and you think "hey, it sounds like an outbreak in one city can trigger an outbreak in the next city over," you are beginning to understand what losing a game of Pandemic looks like.
There's plenty of ongoing debate among Pandemic players about the roles. Is the Medic overpowered? (I think it might be, but I've had more than one die-off of the human race on the Medic's watch.) Does the Operations Manager really suck as badly as it seems to? (There are two schools of thought.) What are the best combinations? (I vote for Medic + Dispatcher.)
Pandemic strikes out in a new and interesting direction for cooperative games: it's simple and it's fast. In the time it would take you to teach a group of people Reiner Knizia's The Lord of the Rings (itself an excellent cooperative game) and play it once, your group can learn Pandemic and play it three or four times, getting better each time. You may even manage to save us all.