This essay analyzes the 2007 board game Pandemic in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The essay explores the connections between the reality of Pandemic and the play of COVID-19. To do this, it uses Ian Bogost’s interpretation of systems (both real and imagined) to invite a dialectic of reality and game simulation. The interaction of such systems, in a game whose theme became real, highlights a major tenet of game studies—the borders between reality and games are thin, blurred, and mobile, if they exist at all. Games, in their simulation of the real, are mimetic, and, in turn, reality has become gamified. The essay examines the board game and highlights its mechanics, which include cooperation and mitigation of risk. It also explores how the game and reality blur their borders in this instance of play, inviting further study into the ramifications of simulated games and the fantasy of the real.
Games are expressions and metaphoric simulations, and the 2007 board game Pandemic expresses the absurdity of a game come to life during an actual global pandemic.1 It offers benefits while innately requiring an aspect of life that its own theme has now denied, the ability to gather and play. Ian Bogost writes that “[games] represent how real and imagined systems work. They invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them.”2 The interaction of such systems, in a game whose theme became real, highlights a major tenet of game studies—the borders between reality and games are thin, blurred, and mobile, if they exist at all. Games, in their simulation of the real, are mimetic; in turn, reality has become gamified. I see this concept most evident in the board game Pandemic, whose production preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by over a decade. Both the game and COVID-19 reflect (on) each other, allowing us to read either through the lens of the other—a metaphoric connection. Simultaneously, as the pandemic proved (a perhaps latent) mimesis within Pandemic’s simulation, the pandemic recolored initial readings of the game as we were confronted by a sudden, violent relatedness.3
Now the game’s stakes mimic that of the world. And this assertion condenses the metonymic gap between real and simulation within the sphere of these pandemics. Pandemic’s 2013 rule book begins: “Do you have what it takes to save humanity? . . . You must work together, using individual strengths, to succeed. The clock is ticking as outbreaks and epidemics fuel the spreading plagues. Can you find all four cures in time? The fate of humanity is in your hands!”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a player read these lines as fanciful and dramatic prose meant to heighten the intensity of the game’s stakes. Now phrases like “Do you have what it takes to save humanity?” and “The fate of humanity is in your hands!” have become hauntingly poignant.
The gameplay of Pandemic found itself predicting reality, and the global pandemic seemed like an ironic—and frankly absurd—homage not just to the mechanics of the game but also to the strategies players then adopted to combat the punishing difficulty of its rules. The drive to play it during the pandemic also waned. However, perhaps enough critical distance between now and those early, sublime feelings of uncanniness exists to properly analyze the junction of reality and game expressed in Pandemic. This article will not dive deeply into Bogost’s theories of rhetoric or ontology in games, or into Pandemic’s aesthetic design. Instead, I will introduce factors like these in service to an exploration of the dialectic realms of play, reality, game, and the fantastic. Here the content and context of the game and its mechanics will help us engage with the mimesis of the game and the play/strategies of the real pandemic.
The greatest formal distinction between games and other expressive art forms is interactivity—interaction with the system mechanics of the game, the other players, and the story created through gameplay.4 In this formal element, games hold a “procedural rhetoric, the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, or moving images.”5 Here play in the “rule-based” system becomes the figuration of life, more so than the imagery or the language of the rule book. In this space, the arguments are made. The interactions of players and systems allow the individual to experience risk and moral choices in a simulated environment free of external consequences while heightening a sense of accomplishment by reinforcing and punishing behaviors. While quarantines turned “mandatory vacations” into a “new normal” and the few things we could do (wear masks and stay home) became politicized, a growing sense of helplessness enveloped us during the pandemic. In Pandemic, however, the interaction in its system allows agency in a diseased world. The procedural rhetoric of cooperation brings the value of individual skills in a greater public sphere to the fore. In Pandemic I work with others to accomplish strategies that mitigate the spread of disease and allow resources to accumulate to the point that work on cures and other logistical solutions may begin. I have power over disease in this game. Even if I lose, the difference I made in the game through its prescribed mechanics is undeniable. Pandemic seemed to have foreseen a need to re-instill agency and cooperation into a time when both concepts seem unreal. Yet, when its content became reality and the game was put away, it enriched our lives only in potentiality.
Reading Game Content
Pandemic has become modern board-gaming canon. A year after its debut in 2007, the game won the Origins Award for Best Boardgame, the GAMES award for Best New Family Game, and the Golden Geek Award for Best Expansion (titled “On the Brink”). The gameplay revolves around the efforts to combat disease before four localized pandemics reach an uncontrollable, global scale. The players simulate members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, based in Atlanta). Four diseases concurrently rise and spread across the world, and players need to quickly use their resources to prevent the spread while working on cures. The players are given different roles to play in the fight. Someone may be a researcher, a medic, a quarantine specialist, or an operations expert. Each role has a special ability that affects the mechanics of the game and helps the team toward its goals. The winning condition of the game is to cure the four pandemics.6
Pandemic is not alone in its use of the disease theme. The threat of sickness, the spread of illness, and the attempts to find a cure all make for exciting interactions and are increasingly popular in both board and video games. Other board games, like Quacksalbe (1977), Snit’s Revenge! (1977), Intern (1979), Black Death (1993), Plague and Pestilence (1993), Virus & Co. (2002), Fuedo (2004), Parasites Unleashed! (2007), Infection Express (2009), and Rattus (2010), thematically deal with disease in one form or another. Video games have also used this theme, including the Resident Evil series (1996–2017), the Last of Us series (2013, 2020), Bloodborne (2015), Tom Clancy’s Division series (2016, 2019), and Vampyr (2018).7 Each of these games positions disease as either a setting or a direct antagonist. Few games, like Black Death (1993) and Plague Inc. (2012), portray disease as the protagonist, the avatar of the player.
In addition to the design choices of disease within games, some games bridge the gap between the thematic and the real by unintentionally modeling how diseases spread. World of Warcraft, for example, accidentally released a disease into its world, a stark reminder of the volatility of a contagion even if virtual. In 2005 an event called the “Corrupted Blood Incident” began with the introduction of a new area boss named Hakkar the Soulflayer. In this fight Hakkar casts a spell that affects not only a character but also those around them in a contagion meant to drain the life from them. While this was an interesting mechanic, a “bug” in the game allowed the effects of the spell to leave the area by means of mounts and pets of the characters. This caused the disease to kill many lower-level characters simply because of their proximity to these unintended sources of the disease in the greater world outside the combats. The inadvertent disease spread throughout the community and even resisted the efforts of developer-led “quarantines” of characters. Soon after, the virtual disease was noticed by the New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR) as well as by the epidemiologists Eric T. Lofgren and Nina H. Fefferman and by Ran Balicer.8 The lines between game mechanics, content, and reality again blur, surrounding the theme of disease. While another article could just as easily take Plague Inc. or World of Warcraft as the target of its analysis, Pandemic and its clarity of theme offer us a more common point of departure from which I explore a reading of these games and their simulated worlds.
Pandemic uses the gameplay of logistics. Though chance is a large factor in the game, the real immersion of the game occurs in the planning, ultimately mitigating chance and randomness. Without this addition to its simulation, the players lose the game—if the game even remains. While abstract in its representation of disease control, it does not shy away from the mundanity of resource management to highlight operations—or rather, this is the game. Players do not simply eradicate disease; they also build research stations across the globe and use resources to travel to the most afflicted areas. Players have roles like “operations expert” and “dispatcher,” not just “medic” and “scientist.” While it takes impressive imagination to believe that a player is a medic, entering hot spots and treating diseases, the dispatcher’s role in reality is akin to moving pieces around on a board.
We should also understand what remains lacking in a simulation of the pandemic reality. Though a role called the “quarantine specialist” may be used in the game, the idea of lockdown or quarantine is generally absent but for the temporary mechanic of one player. Vaccines are barely mentioned and are applied only to fight disease within the use of a single card. The game also focuses on the CDC as the only global actor in disease management. This overlooks the stunning global efforts of scientists and researchers for a Western-centric implication that “America saves the day.” The game also resolves “actions” only around major international cities. We have come to realize that the rural and poorer communities of the world cannot be ignored. As one would expect, the game does not deal with racial issues. The varied quality of health care that disproportionally leads to an increase of deaths along racial lines is not represented in the rule set—no struggles to communicate dangers and efficacy across racial boundaries. While it would be unprecedented to have such issues addressed in a game so widely distributed, the lack of this content is sadly not indicative of reality.9
Two gameplay factors initially drew board game hobbyists to Pandemic. The first is its rule set that requires cooperative play against the game’s artificial intelligence (AI). Fully cooperative board games were relatively new to the hobby; most exceptions were “nearly” co-op games that had a “game master” or a “team/asymmetric mechanism.”10 Games prior to Pandemic, like Time Tripper (1980), had preprogrammed rules against which all players interacted, though such instances were rare. However, since Pandemic this fully co-op mechanic has become exceedingly popular.11 While an expanded version of the game exists that introduces a “traitor” mechanic, this game is entirely one in which all players have the common goal of curing diseases. I find this one of the most hopeful lessons we may take from the game: that through full cooperation we may work toward saving the world.
The co-op mechanics in the game may offer a sense of renewed agency and camaraderie at the very time that COVID-19 has impacted the lives of everyone on the planet. Yet I qualify this point with may because while I see great value in what this game offers through the mechanic of cooperation, the actual play of the game seemed to dwindle during the pandemic (at least among my friends and game groups that adhered to the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions). Through the exploration of mechanics, the players have agency in the system—the agency of struggle. Yet the thematic elements that offer such coordinated agency through in-person playthroughs also represent the inability of such mechanics to be brought forth through play. The pandemic kept us from playing Pandemic.
Because the live play of a board game (unlike a video game) was hindered during the lockdown, as players could not physically mingle in the shared space required for the board, its “ontological position”—that of the liminal space between “player subjectivity” and “rule-based representation”—lacked existence, or rather existed only in potentiality.12 The game’s theme-made-real diminished its ontology into something of a hauntology—a specter of play. While some sales of disease games rose prior to quarantine, board games in general became useless on a shelf as the gathering of people during “game nights” became restricted. In this way, the benefit of its thematic mechanics is deferred—an ironic hope that cannot be experienced because the diseases leaped from the board into the real. Thus I may speak only of what the gameplay offers, not of what it contributed.
Pandemic’s cooperative play was studied in a paper by Konstantinos Sfikas and Antonios Liapis, who applied a “rolling horizon evolutionary algorithm (RHEA)” to the stochasticity of the cooperative gameplay. Ultimately, the experiments found that “a rolling horizon evolutionary algorithm can enhance the performance of the well-designed baseline agent for playing Pandemic, winning four times as often in the controlled testbeds prepared for this paper.”13 However, additional elements that were unaccounted for in the experiment yet present in the game, including “player knowledge of other’s cards and actions” and “the highest difficulty,” saw a steep drop in success of the algorithm, leading the researchers to believe that “RHEA would need far more computational resources to perform well if the number of options is not carefully controlled.”14 All this is to say that while there are more efficient moves on a given player’s turn than others, the computations could not predict the ideal use of actions on a turn during cooperation—actions whose efficiency will be judged by the luck of the draws and the dynamic board state that follow a player’s turn. Even under optimal circumstances and efficient uses of actions, the game’s pandemics may still cause chaos. What may appear to be the best action may eventually be shown to be the wrong one. The stochasticity of a pandemic, in this way, becomes the most accurately mimetic aspect of the game during intentional cooperation.
The argument of procedure in Pandemic becomes uniquely relevant to a global catastrophe that sees humans as both the problem and its resolution. In the game’s rules each player’s turn consists of playing actions, drawing cards (that may not be beneficial), and then “infecting” by drawing city cards and adding a cube of that disease’s color to the city. Here the game requires the consistent worsening of conditions on each player’s turn for the mechanics of full co-op to exist at all. The AI rule set explains how many cards are drawn and how many times the same cities will spread disease, but it is the player who brings the possibility of disease into the certainty of play. In this way, the cooperative element of the game incorporates players into the antagonism of contagion. While working together toward the goal, the players each also participate in its complication.
The Mechanical Difficulty
The second factor adding to the immense popularity of the game is its difficulty. It is common to lose at Pandemic. The rules maintain that there are three ways to lose and only one way to win. This is not a game in which the players chip away at a system, creating a more manageable puzzle as the game progresses. It is quite the opposite. The diseases in Pandemic spread after each player’s turn, usually a spread of two or three cubes throughout the world. This means that if you are not, on average, removing two or three cubes (using two or three of your four actions to do so) each turn, you are losing ground on the diseases. This does not consider the five “epidemic” cards that represent an acceleration in the diseases. These cards will raise the number of cities you infect every turn but also put three cubes on an entirely new city. This makes the losing condition of exhausting all cubes of a single color more and more likely. So the mitigation of cubes and their spread is imperative. Not only should the number of cubes be watched, however, but the number of “outbreaks” (which occur when you attempt to place a cube on a city that already has three cubes of that color) will also lose you the game. This means that managing outbreaks is imperative. The goal of the game is to use your resources (player cards) to match five same-colored cards of the four colors and use an action in a research station to cure the disease matching the colored cards you play. So collecting or acquiring cards is imperative. These player cards will run out, as there are only fifty-eight cards in a game of medium difficulty. This allows about eight turns per person in a three-player game (six to seven in a four-person game) to collect cards, cure diseases, and mitigate the spread of the illness. At this point you are justified in feeling a great deal of stress.
The punishing mechanics of the game share a few mimetic elements from what later became a real-life global pandemic. The first is the ticking clock. Pandemic sets a time constraint by limiting the number of turns the players have before resources are exhausted and the diseases become uncontrollable. Similarly, COVID-19 required immediate quarantines, lockdowns, and vaccine production/dissemination to help mitigate the spread, lessen the mutation of strains, and “flatten the curve” of hospitalizations, all in a timely manner. The second element is the choice of brutal efficiency and mitigation. A winning strategy in Pandemic relies on the mitigation of disease, not its eradication. If a city is in danger of an outbreak, it is best to travel to the city and remove a single cube. While the temptation to try to remove all the disease cubes from a city is a natural one, it is more beneficial to spend your valuable action economy elsewhere. Luckily, the game has abstracted the cold, hard calculations of disease control to nondescript cubes. Otherwise, the brutal efficiency that the game’s difficulty requires would be nothing short of morally traumatic. The abstraction allows for an economical view of disease management, mimicking the current strategy for combating an ongoing pandemic. The third element is that the stress this game elicits,while it does not compare to the stress of frontline workers and those attempting to curb the spread of disease throughout the world, is real and exceptional for a board game. Again, prior to the pandemic, such an experience made for an incredible game. Since then one must be in a particular mood to invite such feelings during a leisure activity.
As it relates to games, “play,” according to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, “is the free space of movement within a more rigid system.”15 Reading a game like Pandemic requires us to read play. The mechanics of a game, or rule sets of the game, create this “rigid system” and the space for play. Pandemic creates a system that semi-predictably mimics the spread of diseases while offering potentials for its mitigation. While I wish to steer clear of the frivolous connotations that play may exhibit and its inferred connection to the realm of children, I wish to apply the seriousness of play within systems of meaning and causally linked events that instead elevate a playlike word, strategy.
Play and strategy intertwine with these pandemics. The current response to COVID-19, according to Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, not only exhibits movement within systems of tools and rules but also eerily reifies strategies employed in Pandemic. “Obviously, we want to keep infections down,” Jha told Daniel Estrin on NPR’s All Things Considered, “but eliminating all infections is not the goal. The goal has got to be keep infections down and protect people from serious illness.” Jha’s comments speak to the strategy of mitigating cases without eradicating them. The resources are moved to combat the most dangerous aspects of the disease. Vaccines, lockdowns, and prevention, Jha continues, have “got to be the strategy—not so much predicting exactly what’s going to happen when but preparing for any eventuality that Mother Nature throws at us.”16 This approach mimics the findings of Sfikas and Liapis and their RHEA: while more and less efficient moves exist, the perfectly correct move remains incalculable until the future reveals how efficient that move was. It also further dissolves the borders between Pandemic and the pandemic—the game and reality. When this conflation of spaces—the real and the simulated—stems from the fantasies of a game, it must make us ponder the latent mimeses buried in the yet-to-be-proved actualities by the frenetic pace of a changing world. Will my copy of Twilight Imperium or Zombicide become real? The absurdity of this question once applied to Pandemic. Perhaps a study of both real and imagined/virtual play will illuminate the truth in the other—the lifelike quality of games and the game-like qualities of life.
Pandemic was designed by Matt Leacock and published in 2007 by Z-MAN Games.
Bogost, Persuasive Games, vii. Bogost uses video games as his primary example of procedural rhetoric, though he admits in a 2011 lecture for Microsoft Research that board games also follow the spirit of persuasive games (Bogost, “Persuasive Games,” 1:01:00–1:02:00). Admittedly, video games are perhaps more efficient and a bit more obvious in their procedures, but here I will use procedural rhetoric to highlight the board game’s mimetic qualities. It should also be noted that artificial intelligence within board games, especially fully cooperative ones, was not made popular until a few years after Bogost’s book. This may explain why he had not written extensively about them.
The word simulation here is tricky, since what it ended up simulating was years ahead of its production. One could certainly argue, however, that the game’s inspiration came from the 2002–4 outbreak of SARS-CoV-1, which might have escalated to global pandemic status.
Bogost highlights Chris Crawford’s definition of interactivity in his book The Art of Interactive Design: A Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software: “I choose to define [interactivity] in terms of a conversation: a cyclical process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak” (quoted in Bogost, Persuasive Games, 44). This definition fits nicely into the emerging narrative of Pandemic.
Bogost, Persuasive Games, ix. Emphasis mine.
For a more thorough explanation of the rules and the actions that players may take in the game, see Smith, “Pandemic—How to Play.”
Most “zombie games” are adjacent to this theme.
While I do not expect a game like this to address the racial disparities in the American health-care system or the sociohistorical inequalities of government involvement in disease control and management concerning people of color, I will mention that one of the expansions to Pandemic, “State of Emergency,” did in fact introduce mechanics for quarantining cities, disseminating vaccines, and dealing with rural communities called “hinterlands.” I find it a fitting addition that adds still more realism to the game.
Games like Dungeons and Dragons, HeroQuest, Scotland Yard, and Fury of Dracula still required at least one individual to work against (or as a supplement to) the cooperative play of the others.
See The 7th Continent, Mice and Mystics, Dead of Winter, Elder Sign, Gloomhaven, and Robinson Crusoe, as well as Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island (the latter two designed by Leacock).