Rethinking games

Pandemic, a collaborative board game, casts a different light on competition and gaming.

At a recent board games night hosted by Greg Brown (@practicingruby), we played a game called “Pandemic” that made me rethink the meaning of games. I won’t bother you with a detailed description; it’s enough to say that there are four or five players who take turns, and the goal is to defeat outbreaks of disease.

What makes this game unique is that you’re not playing against the other players, you’re playing against the game itself. It’s almost impossible to win, particularly at higher levels of difficulty (which Greg encourages, even for newbies). But you quickly realize that you don’t have a chance of winning if you don’t cooperate with the other players. The game is all about cooperation and collaboration. The players don’t all have equal abilities; one can move other players’ pieces around on the board, another can create research centers, another can cure larger swaths of disease. On your turn, you could just move and do whatever you think is best; but once you get the hang of it, you spend a good bit of time before each move discussing with the other players what the best strategy is, whether there are other effective ways to accomplish the same goal, and so on. You’re always discussing whether it would be better to solve a problem yourself, or move someone else so they can solve the problem more effectively on their turn.

In some ways, it’s not all that different from a role-playing game, but there is never any advantage to stabbing another player in the back or striking out on your own. But at the same time, even though it’s radically collaborative, it’s challenging. As I said, it’s almost impossible to win, and the game is structured to become more difficult the longer it goes on.

It’s a great example of rethinking gaming and rethinking competition, all in a little game that comes in a box and is played with pawns on a board.

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  • Pandemic is one of many cooperative board games. It is probably the most popular, and the one non-gamers are most likely to have heard of. But it’s far from unique in the sense that there are many other cooperative games.

    Some other cooperative games are Forbidden Island (by the same designer), Shadows over Camelot (one person may be a traitor), Battlestar Galactica (a few people are cylons, but you don’t know who), Escape: The Curse of the Temple (you race against the clock to escape the temple, with everyone rolling dice simultaneously), and Ghost Stories.

    We are in a golden age of board games. The variety and quality is impressive. So much better than the games I grew up with (clue, monopoloy, sorry, uno, chess, etc.). We play a lot of games in our house, including Pandemic, and many more.

  • Peter Kelley

    +Karl Fast has managed to hit the highlights although I would add Flashpoint Fire rescue which is about saving people from a burning house. For a comprehensive list of co-operative games see

    • Flashpoint Fire Rescue is a great one that I overlook. Another recent entry–just published last month–is Police Precinct.

      Then there is Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on a Cursed Island, which will be published later this spring. Apparently it’s a great coop game, but extremely difficult.

      Later this year we’ll have Forbidden Desert, also by the designer of Pandemic.

      Also Space Alert, which, like Escape: Curse of the Temple, is a real-time cooperative game.

      If I was recommending something, to someone relatively new to cooperative boardgames, I’d probably suggest Pandemic, Flashpoint Fire Rescue, Shadows over Camelot (for the traitor concept), and Escape: Curse of the Temple (because it’s quick).

  • Christopher Harris

    What is really amazing is when you can introduce these powerful concepts of cooperation, teamwork, strategy, and even selflessness to students through games like Pandemic. The School Library System I lead has a library of over 200 of these modern style board games aligned with classroom curriculum standards in information skills, math, science, language arts, history, and more.

    Starting with the youngest students, we can offer a game like Max. Max is a cooperative game where players are working together to try and get three woodland creatures safely home to the tree before Max the tomcat catches (and eats) them. There are tough decisions to make, especially considering that often a four-year old has to volunteer to skip rolling the dice (and at four, this is a major thing) to call Max back to the porch with a treat to give the woodland creatures breathing room.

    Other games like 1960: The Making of the President presents an amazingly detailed view of the Kennedy/Nixon election. We modify the rules to have teams of students working for each campaign to encourage collaboration (and conflict) in a team where different students have competing objectives for the allocation of resources. The person in charge of media wants to spend limited resources there, while another person in charge of debate prep wants to save the most powerful cards to sweep the debate. If interested, you can see more of the games we have selected for our library at

    Oh, and the trick to Pandemic? Someone has to be as selfless of a team member as the four-year old who skips the dice roll in Max. The dispatcher role is an incredibly powerful amplifier of other team members. Never the obvious hero like the medic who sweeps in to save a whole city at once, but the dispatcher can get the medic to the city earlier to save lives. That is a critical frame of mind to impart to students (and adults) who struggle to see the importance of everyone involved in a successful project.

    • We figured out the importance of the dispatcher fairly early–but couldn’t figure out how to use her well enough :-(. Seriously fun game. I like the idea behind the Kennedy/Nixon game.

  • Kathy Sierra

    I LOVE this game. We play it more than any other game at our house and it is my personal favorite. I have a husband and daughter who pretty much kick my ass at any games we play as a family, and I was never that enthusiastic to play most other games with them. But Pandemic changed the dynamic, while also being a tremendously satisfying experience. It is challenging, can be thrilling, and manages to create a flow state. As a computer game developer for many years, I certainly appreciate how difficult that is to achieve especially in a group setting.

  • Mark T.

    Begs a question: isn’t this just board games catching up to something that’s we’ve been learning (and doing) in team sports for centuries?

  • msilver

    “In some ways, it’s not all that different from a role-playing game, but there is never any advantage to stabbing another player in the back or striking out on your own. ” You made my nerd hackles raise up. In my experience, any player whose character willfully backstabs the other player’s characters in the party… meets a quick end, unless the game is specifically designed around that.

    • It depends on how well you stab people in the back. Seriously, there are games (many modern ones, but certainly including the classic Diplomacy) where backstabbing is an integral part. Do it too much, and of course you’re dead. But don’t do it at all, and you’re dead, too, just in a different way. It’s not good to be entirely predictable.

      • msilver

        Well sure. Most roleplaying games though are the “a bunch of vagabond adventurers killing monsters” or “a bunch of vagabond spaceship crewmembers killing aliens” or “a bunch of anti-hero near-future-cyborg-criminals fighting the man” that are formed up as a party with mostly unified goals. If we’re playing Diplomacy.. yeah I’m gonna backstab the heck out of my opponents.