Dale Yu: Review of Pandemic: Contagion


Pandemic: Contagion

  • Designer: Carey Grayson
  • Publisher: Z-Man Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: ~30 minutes
  • Times played: 6, with review copy provided by Z-Man Games

pandemic contagion box

Pandemic: Contagion (P:C) is one of two new games in the Pandemic universe to be released at Essen 2014.  Unlike the rest of its cousins, P:C has a few big things that help it stand out from the family.  First of all, it’s not a cooperative game!  This is the first Pandemic game to be fully competitive.  Secondly, the storyline is a bit different – instead of trying to save the world from disease, players in P:C instead are the viruses which are attempting to exterminate humankind.

In the game, each player gets an individual board which shows the three main characteristics of his virus: Incubation, Infection and Resistance.  These all start out at level 1 (on a scale of 0 to 4).  There is a space for a petri dish filled with the player’s cubes.  The “world” is a number of city cards dealt to the table. Each of these cards has a base color, a population number and a special ability at the bottom of the card.

The yellow player board

The yellow player board

There is a deck of Contagion cards which is filled with cards that match the five colors for the cities.  Each player starts with a hand of 4 Contagion cards.  Finally, a timing deck is constructed – made up of two types of cards: Event Cards (which can be good or bad) and WHO cards (which are pretty much always bad).

Finally, before the game starts, a starting player is chosen.  Then, in reverse turn order, each player gets to freely infect one of the cities on the table.

Two of the city cards in the game

Two of the city cards in the game

There are 12 rounds in the game, and the timing deck helps you keep track of this number; there are 12 cards in this deck, and one is flipped over at the start of each round.  It is read aloud, and the effects of this card are dealt with on each player’s turn.  Sometimes the event happens at the start of each player’s turn, sometimes it is a benefit which can be done at any point on a player’s turn.  The event card may cause you to have an interim scoring or to place a new city card on the board.  Once the event is known, then players take their turn in clockwise order.

Some of the event cards

Some of the event cards

On a turn, a player has two actions.  He may choose from three different actions: Draw, Infect, Mutate (or in rare cases, he may pass).  He may do the same action twice.

  1. Draw: You can draw Contagion cards from the deck.  The number of cards you draw is equal to your current Incubation rate on your player board.
  2. Infect: You can place your colored infection cubes in one of the cities on the board. The number of cubes you can place is equal to your current Infection level on your player board.  However, in order to place cubes, you must also play cards from your hand.  If you are placing cubes in a city where you have already infected, you must play a single card matching the color of that city.  If you are placing cubes for the first time in a city, you must play two cards matching the color of that city.  In either case, you can always play ANY two cards to take the place of one card of any color.  When you place cubes on the card, you take the top-most available row.  On each city card, there are 5 rows available (one for each potential player).  It’s good to get into a city earlier, as this places you closer to the top – and this is a tiebreaker for scoring.  As I mentioned earlier, each city card has a population number in the upper right corner; if the number of cubes of all colors meets this population number, then the city is overwhelmed with disease and it is “eradicated” – which is a morbid way of saying that it is scored.  More on scoring later.  For now, just know that you can’t put more cubes on a card than the population number says it can hold.
  3. Mutate – you can make your virus stronger by discarding Contagion cards.  The number of cards you need to play is seen in the little yellow numbers that are underneath/between the spaces on the track.  Note that the costs vary per track!  Each time you take this action, you may move one of your tracks up ONE spot.
  4. Pass – in the unlikely event that you cannot take an action – i.e. your Incubation level is at 0 and you have no cards in your hand to Infect or Mutate with, you can simply pass and draw a card.

Other than your two actions, the only other thing to do during your turn is take care of the event for the round. If the event is negative, you can choose to take your lumps or you can use your Resistance (the third viral attribute) to avoid the negative effects.  When you use your Resistance, you can nullify X number of bad things (X = your current Resistance level), but each time you use your Resistance, you must reduce your current level by one step.  You could use your Resistance multiple times to mitigate the negative effects multiple times, though each successive step will be less powerful.

Examples of the WHO cards that usually do bad things to your viral self

Examples of the WHO cards that usually do bad things to your viral self

The game continues until either the event deck is empty and players have had twelve turns OR when at the end of any round where there are two or fewer cities left on the table.  At that time, there is a final scoring and then the player with the most points wins.

Scoring – as far as scoring goes, there are three different types of scoring

  • Interim scoring – this is triggered by the Event Deck.  Some of the cards have a skull and crossbones on them.  Starting with the second skull and crossbones (and every second one after that), there is an interim scoring.  Each city is evaluated, and the player with the most cubes in that city scores points equal to the lowest number on the card.  Ties are broken by the player closest to the top of the card.  Only the leader in each city scores points.
  • City Eradication Scoring – this is triggered when a city is overwhelmed by disease and the number of cubes on the card equals the population number.  Up to three players will score points – the player with the most cubes gets the top number, second place gets the middle, and third place gets the bottom number.  Again, ties are broken by higher physical position on the card.  Additionally, there is a special action at the bottom of each card.  The player who triggered the city eradication (i.e played the final cube to the card) gets to take this action.  Most of these actions are immediate – things like drawing cards, placing cubes, moving cubes, etc.  There are a few that are deferred – and the player can keep the city card until he uses the action.
  • Final Scoring – at the end of the final round (Regardless of which end-game trigger), there is a final scoring.  Each city is scored as in the Interim scoring noted above.  Then, each player scores points equal to the level of each of his three viral tracks.   The player with the highest total at this point wins.  Ties go to the player with the highest cumulative mutation total.

My Thoughts on the Game

Well, I’ll start by saying that this is my favorite game in the Pandemic family, though not by much.  The main reason for this is because P:C is a competitive game and NOT a cooperative game.  But, even if I were to view this game outside the Pandemic family, I’d have to say that I still like it on its own merit.

The game moves quite fast, and when you break it down, you only get 24 actions at most to do things (plus dealing with the one event card per round).  Some turns can be as short as 5 seconds – for instance, if you draw twice.  Admittedly, in a game that probably takes 20-30 minutes, there isn’t a lot of room for deep strategy – but I have found there is more than enough to keep me interested.

You spend most of the early game trying to balance the need to make your virus stronger (for the long term) with taking advantage of tactical plays to the board.  If you spend your early actions mutating your virus, your actions later in the game will be better (more cards drawn, more cubes played, etc) – but you end up giving up valuable tie-breaker force if you end up playing later into each city.  Additionally, due to some of the WHO cards which specifically lower your viral characteristics, you could spend all of your early energy mutating to be back where you started!

And, again, with only 24 actions in the game at most, you have to decide whether you’re going to spend a lot of your early actions trying to buff yourself up (and not play anything to the board) or whether you’re just going to make the most of some weaker actions, but get to play to the board more often.

Even if you have a good plan, the board situation can often derail you.  You may have a great plan to continue mutating your virus. However, the event card may offer you a free cube placement, and this could end up enticing you to play cards to put cubes in a city because now you can close something out.  However, now your mutation plan is off by a few actions because you may need to draw cards now in order to have enough to do the mutation.  And, to top it off, you now have that many fewer actions to take advantage of that mutation – which may change its relative value.

If I had a wish for the game, it would be to have a couple of more Event and WHO cards.  As it stands now, you use 9 of 12 Event cards per game and 3 of 6 WHO cards per game.  There is enough to make sure that each game is different, but not quite enough to really shake it up.

As far as components go, I’m overall neutral. I love the smaller box that the games come in, and the cards/player boards are sturdy and well done.  The artwork is unobtrusive, and frankly, you mostly just need the colors to know what you’re doing.  Though many people find the petri dishes awesome, and admittedly they further the theme – I don’t find them necessary.  But, folks like games for different reasons, and if the inclusion of petri dishes turns some gamers on, why not include them?


Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers


Joe Huber (1 play): Area majority games don’t tend to be favorites of mine; I don’t mind the mechanism, but it often seems to be implemented in a way that I find frustrates, and this is not an exception.  And here, the theme – trying to kill everyone in various major cities around the world – is inherently offputting.  Add it all up, and while it’s certainly not a horrible game, it’s definitely not for me.


Mark Jackson (1 play): It’s a decent enough area control game – but I don’t find it particularly compelling. The test for whether you’ll be comfortable with the theme or not is probably your comfort with the card games Nuclear War and/or Plague & Pestilence.


Eric Martin (2 plays: 1 prototype, 1 review copy): Pandemic: Contagion works fine and captures something of the spirit of Pandemic with you having only two actions each turn and always wanting more, with you feeling like you’re up against it as time speeds along without you. For extra fun, be sure to read the rules with an ominous tone, interspersing demonic laughter with all the mentions of “death scoring”.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Eric M, John P, Fraser, Melissa R
  • Neutral. Jennifer G, Mark J
  • Not for me… Joe H

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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