Pandemic quick design notes

The end of the human race is often seen as a threat, not a motivator. This game flips the table with spectacular results. Let’s have a look at how that happened.

Front stage: (1) Infection rate, (2) Infection cards, (3) Outbreaks, (4) Cities, (5) Character tokens, (6) Character cards and powers (7) Player cards (8) Cure discovery. There are a lot of elements here but the thematic link with the elements and the cards make it easier (not intuitively easier, however) to make stereotypes or associations that infer the card effects.

Back stage: (1) Chain reaction, (2) outbreaks, (3) character special powers, (4) event cards. Here, the main back stage element leans toward exponential growth of the threat. The team has to decide how to allocate their player actions as curing doesn’t get any exponential growth from the game mechanics. The complexity of learning with this game is understanding (a) how the chain reaction works and (b) which actions and powers work well together — this is something that experience players might fill the gap with otherwise, the player would have to play multiple rounds to understand their relationships.

Learnings:

  • Premise is integrated with game mechanics and design leading to great storytelling potential. Pandemic revolves around how an actual pandemic plays out. There are elements in the premise that is baked within the game mechanics that make the game more interesting from a storytelling perspective. Because there is great storytelling potential, the game is much more interesting.
  • Increasing tension introduces more trade-offs and tougher decisions over time which makes the game more interesting. Over time, the diseases spread in exponential fashion because of (a) spreading between cities (b) spreading through collision with other viruses. This produces a positive feedback loop for diseases. In contrast, (a) the player options do not get exponentially favourable because effects do not play on top of one another over time and (b) advantages like discovering cures or treating diseases incur turn costs (either playing cards or helping players) or collection of a large number of cards. This means trade-offs at the start has low opportunity cost but it ramps up quickly over time. Harder trade-offs lead to more (a) interesting choices and (b) tougher trade-off discussions with the team, drawing in more investment from the players and makes the game more interesting.
  • Cooperative games provide broader appeal. Since all players are playing as a team, this presents an even playing field for all players. Having a collaborative approach to gaming also tends to bring broader appeal for both enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts because the odds are not stacked on a new player coming to the game or unfamiliar with board games. Collaborative games also make it easy for players who are not used to complex games (like Pandemic) to access and enjoy the game.
  • Self-inflicted challenge keeps players coming back. The game is designed so that the odds is stacked against the team. Once the team overcomes the tough challenge, it feels very rewarding thus making it more attractive to keep playing until the team reaches a winning condition. The game also comes with an adjustable intensity, so players can ramp difficulty as they become familiar, proficient and experts with the strategies available in the game. This game difficulty adjustment allows players to challenge themselves even at high expert levels of play.
  • Core loop is built on two dimensions with a positive feedback loop. This is the engine for increasing challenge. The two dimensions are: (a) infection through space movement and (b) infection gravity in space. The positive feedback loops, through infection levels and outbreaks is magnifying (a) and (b) through the interaction of (a) and (b). By reaching the infection limit of 3 diseases in the city, (a) happens, which can cause (b) later on. Instead of complicated effects or strenuous maths calculations found in tabletop RPGs or other engine building games, the designers came up with a simpler system to introduce complexity and tension. You just perform simple movement of the elements and increase the elements then the “system” itself does the complicated maths through simple rules to escalate the tension in the background. Another benefit is reduced decision making. Players don’t need to calculate future numerical effects. As a mental shortcut, they just need to know that they have to have (1) space and (2) magnitude control of the diseases so that they don’t get worse over time. The decisions can now revolve around what strategy they will be using to reduce these two elements rather than the exact magnitude of reduction. Lastly, instead of using different classes of counters, there is only one counter — the disease cubes with different colours. In contrast to other games where you have to manage different types of counters (eg. money, reputation, building types etc), this reduces additional decision overhead for the players keeping the decisions focused on building strategies for (1) and (2). The designers used a combination of simple mechanics, interactions between mechanics and one class of tokens to reduce cognitive overhead of complex calculations and simplify decision making.
  • Core loop for increasing tension go exponential over time, whereas core loop for reducing tension is more linear. From the previous point, the design of the core loop makes players focus on (1) space and (2) magnitude control of the diseases. Instead of making these actions really easy to do for the player, these are made more difficult to do and with lower feedback loops compared to the core loop. This is what makes the game interesting for the player because they have to engage in discussions and together, make tough decisions to orchestrate activities countering the strong core infection loop with a harder-to-build cure loop.
  • Short-term and long-term trade-offs are sprinkled within the game. Pandemic allows players to play actions or event cards that would perform once-off effects during a turn. At the same time, Pandemic also allows long-term perpetual effects through building research stations or discovering a cure. Players having to make short- and long- term decisions make the game more interesting.
  • Choices are abundant for each player, increasing the degree of co-ordination. Increased co-ordination leads to higher intensity of collaboration and discussion. The design of the game aren’t macro actions, but micro actions — users have a lot of possible in a single turn. When this is the case, since the degrees of freedom are greater, there is a higher chance of the player or other players discussing and coordinating possible moves.