What board games can teach us about a pandemic?

As the corona virus ,COVID-19, crisis has grown, most of the world is not in full prevention mode. Many events have been cancelled as well a...

As the corona virus ,COVID-19, crisis has grown, most of the world is not in full prevention mode. Many events have been cancelled as well as schools and work places take measures such as splitting the workforce in teams who work in alternate days in order to minimize cross contamination.  The words these days are :  Self quarantine and social-distancing. For a lot of geeks this is not always as hard as we are used to spending quality time indoors with family and a stack of movies and games.

although with so much mixed information it can be hard to get a grip in what is going on. People in your household, especially children might be confused why they cannot go to their sports practice or perhaps frightens by the warnings on the news.  This made me wonder if can we use a game to explain what is going on and how hard it is to deal with a pandemic and get an understanding on how diseases mutate and spread across the world. All this  in a safe and fun way. Please not that by no means I am claiming that these games are scientific resources,  but they can offer a glance and in the spread and evolution of diseases.  We are also not going very deep into the rule book but just addressing the key parts of each game. there are some great how to play video's out out on you tube if you like to know more.

Lets look at two board games that thematically approach the topic each from a different side of the coin. Pandemic, a cooperative board game where you work together as a team of experts to stop and eradicate 4 major diseases before it is too late. The other game Plague-inc the board game, based on the mobile app where players play to become the deadliest disease on the board. 

Pandemic by Z-Man games, is a well established classic that has been around for over a decade now. In the game up to four players will work together as a team to stop four major outbreaks. Each player takes on a specific (and random) role. Each role has a specific set of actions unique to them that can help the team in reaching their goal. You can choose to play with the role card face up for everyone to see, or face down in which the player has to communicate to the team what they can do for them.

Each turn consists out of 3 steps:

Step 1: Take up to four actions in any order. These actions as also repeatable. You can take move actions: Drive or ferry, Direct flight, Charter flight,Shuttle flight
You can also take other actions such as: Building a research station, Treat disease by removing cubes of the board,Share Knowledge by passing cards to other players, and finally Discover a cure.  For each these actions there are requirements that will have to be met. For instance to travel you would have to discard a card of the destination you are in or want to go to (depending on the type of travel) and if you want to discover a cure you will need to discard five city cards of the color of that disease, while at a research station.  There is a hand limit of seven cards which makes managing of inventory a challenge because you want to collect the cards as well has some on hand to take actions with.

Step 2: Take new two new cards from the player deck. Often this means you get new cards to use during your turn, but in the deck are also multiple epidemic cards. These get resolved immediately and result in an increase of the infection rate across the board as well as disease outbreaks across the map. It can happen that epidemic cards can be drawn in one turn and both will have to be resolved. Any infections are indicated by placing colored cubes on the cities that were indicated cards pulled from the bottom of the infection deck. The cards then get shuffled and put back on top of the deck. Yes , epidemics are very bad news indeed. If the player deck is empty at this phase , the players lose.

Step 3: Infection
Pull a city card from the top of the deck and place cubes on them, indicating the infection of that color. A city can not have more then 3 cubes on it, if a new cube get place it will then move to all connected cities, If those cities already had 3 cubes on it of that color then a new outbreak occurs, and so on. Each time an outbreak occurs the outbreak marker moves and when you reach the end , the players lose. As  you can see things can get out of hand very fast and you learn as a team quickly to take mitigation factors to not be overwhelmed by the disease. If you run out of disease cubes to place, then the players lose.

Events:  Players can play these at any time even out of turn, but not while in the middle of resolving a pulled card. These even cards such as a free airlift, resilient population which removes infection cards, or a quiet night where no infection phase happens, can help the players in a bind. 

What you can learn from the game. 
As you can see there are many ways to lose control in Pandemic and lose the game. A few things become clear very fast. The infection rate can increase any moment and get out of control fast . It is important to communicate and listen to the experts as well as cooperate to get to a positive outcome. Even then it is challenge and sometimes random factors, in this case the cards you pull, can still overwhelm you. So it is important to clear diseases as a prevention as fast as you can to slowdown the spread. This is what you might have heard about as "flattening the curve" . You cannot stop it , but you can slow it down so things stay manageable. Resource management and limitations (hand limit) are a burden that has to be dealt with. The role that each player has and the abilities that come with it will have to be relied on to overcome such challenges. You also learn that finding a cure takes time and some will be found quicker then others but research, especially during an ongoing crisis is going to require time to bring the desired results. 

Plague-Inc by Ndemic creations, is the darker side of the medallion and approaches the theme from the point of view of the disease it self. As a strategic game of infection, evolution and extinction based on the hit video game Plague Inc. Each player plays as a deadly disease. The players goal is to evolve unique symptoms and customize their pathogen as they compete against each other to infect cities across the globe and be the first to wipe out humanity! 

Just as in Pandemic this game has has country cards and event cards and a world map and token to mark infected cities. But that is mostly where the comparison ends. Each player chooses a color and corresponding player mat which can be switched to bacteria or virus ( all players agree on which side they will play). The player mat comes with a set of standard actions. Every player receives a starting country and city.
On the outside of the board is a DNA tracker, a colored marker for each player tracks their DNA point.  These points are used  pay the cost in order to evolve/mutate your disease. Lastly each player will receive five trait cards.

Each turn has five phases, which are conveniently marked on every player mat for quick access.

Phase 1: Score phase. Score DNA point based on your evolution slide. The base DNA score is 1+ for every country you control, some situation can change this. A country you control is the one you have the most tokens in.

Phase 2: Country phase. Pick a country form top of the deck or pick one of face up ones and then place it on the world map. You may also discard this country card and draw a new hand of trait cards 

Phase 3: Evolution. Use DNA to get new traits cost is marked on top left of card. only one trait per turn. A trait can make your disease more resistant, more lethal or travel easier across the globe. Often there is a trade-off as well, especially with the cheaper costing cards but as you collect more DNA points you will get access to higher costing cards with multiple benefits making your disease one to be reckoned with. Mutating your disease is an important part of ensuring a win in the game. Any DNA point spend will be returned to you at the end of the game as any card on the player mat will add to the total score. Do keep in mind however if you overwrite a card with a new one than the score on the old card no longer counts.

Phase 4. Infection. Based on your evolution slide place number of tokens in a city.You cannot just infect anywhere on the board. Just like real diseases you cannot just survive anywhere. Within a country you can occupy any city but if you want to move out into the world you need at some point become airborne or waterborne. The game takes this very literal and these traits will then allow you to travel by air or water depending on your ability.  It is also important to look at the climate of another country. There are neutral, cold and hot climates. Neutral is accessible for everyone but the more extreme climates need you to have an ability to withstand its temperatures. This is also done by placing trait cards on your evolution slider.  One exception is, if you have the Outbreak ability in which case you can choose to skip the infection phase and move one of your tokens to another city on the board ignoring all restrictions.

Phase 5. Death. Role death die to kill of population in cities you control. (card is filled and you have most tokens on it) If more then one country then you must announce the country before the roll. hat  you can roll is based on lethality on the evolution slider. at the start you will have to roll a one but if you have for instance three lethality then you must roll a three, a two, or a one. Once the country is destroyed that player gets the country cards and all players get their tokens back and score on the DNA marker the number of token they had on that card. Whoever killed most countries on a continent at the end of the game gets a bonus score, so plan accordingly. All players that had tokens on this country also draw an even card, unless they already have 3 in their hand.

Events:Each player also has event cards (up to three at a time). These cards let players perform specific actions though you are not allowed to use them during the turn you received it. Each card will describe what it does and when you can play it. For instance one of them "lethal relapse" will let you re-roll the death die and ad +1 to your lethality for that roll only upping your chances to take it off the board.

Endgame: Once the final country place or discarded, the game enters sudden death more. During sudden death mode the country phase is skipped but the remaining phases continue as normal. When any player has no more tokens left on world map, then the board game ends at end of their turn. When any player cannot place a token or roll the death die because they do not control any more countries then the game ends immediately.

After the game ends scoring begins and the DNA tracker plus scores of the mutations on the player mat and countries a player killed add up to a final tally, the most points wins,
You can hold up to 3 event cards at a time, and play as many at a time but not in the same turn you drew it.

What you can learn from the game.
Though extremely gameified to allow for smooth gameplay, Plague-inc gives the players a good idea of the growth of a disease and how it can spread. If not airborne or waterborne you get quickly contained within a country or continent with not much room to really cause pain in the world. By that same token it shows that more diseases can thrive in moderate climates and that other colder or warmer climates but be safe from those, they can have their own mutations to deal with.  These mutations is what makes it so hard to keep diseases isolated and there are always way to move on across the globe, especially when moved across land or sea.
The game also demonstrates that even though a virus or bacteria might thrive in certain environments and travel easily, it does not mean it is very deadly. After all the common cold travels fast but most of us will be fine after a few days, the seasonal flu or in this case a mutation of the corona virus make things more dangerous. This is why not all diseases can be treated in the same way unilateral, although they do share some commonalities that can be used to fight infections to spread too fast and too far.

In the end both these board games are very fun to play and take your mind of serious matters in the world for  45 minutes to an hour a play through. Each has a different approach to the theme of diseases as well as gameplay. Do you want to work together on a problem or would you rather play a competitive game. They also offer an easy way to explain how these things work in an easy context without getting to technical. However real life is not game, please do not confuse these games, or this article with real advice  from real experts on how to keep yourself safe. Please use common sense, wash your hands frequently (we all should anyway) and stay away from large crowds for the time being. Spend quality time with your family, play games and discuss what is going on and together look up answers to questions that might arise. 
And if you have any other board games or video games that play to this theme , share them in the comments below. 
Be safe out there and enjoy your game time together.

For more information on COVID-19 : 
Center for Disease control : https://www.cdc.gov/
World Health Organisation : WHO


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