Dale Yu: First Impressions of Pandemic Hot Zone North America

Pandemic Hot Zone North America

  • Designer: Matt Leacock
  • Publisher: ZMan Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Age: 8+
  • Played with review copy provided by ZMan Games

Of all years, this year is the year to play Pandemic – in whatever form that you want… This fall, there are two new entries for the franchise.  Pandemic Legacy: Season 0, and Pandemic Hot Zone North America (PHZNA).   Of the two, I’m currently most interested in PHZNA – in part because it was the first one to arrive and in part because I’m still engaged in another legacy campaign (My City, played remotely) – and my brain just can’t handle being in multiple legacy campaigns at once…


The elevator pitch for PHZNA is right up my alley – take the familiar gameplay of the original Pandemic, but slim down the complexity a bit to fit in a 30 minute time frame and in a smaller more portable box. From my perspective, that was enough to get me interested, and for some of you, that might be the end of the review that you need to read.  Here is a link to order it… https://amzn.to/31fApd5  (this is an affiliate link and we may earn some money to help pay our bandwidth bills with this).


But for those of you who want to know more about it… (or in case you’ve never played a Pandemic game before…)  In this game, your disease fighting team is only interested in North America.  I mean, it’s not like North America is similar to New Zealand in being able to seal off all outsiders, but for this game, you’re only worried about controlling the disease on this single continent…  The team plays cooperatively – you will all win or lose together.  Each player is given a character card, and each player will have a unique ability that only their character can do.  In this game, there are 3 diseases affecting the continent, and the goal is to cure all three diseases before they overwhelm North America.  While each player gets to play their individual turn, discussion and cooperation is encouraged between the team to come up with the best plan possible.

The game board has 24 cities on it, separated into three different colored groupings.  There is a card that corresponds to each city.   These are shuffled with the four event cards to make a deck, and each player gets a face up hand of 2 cards dealt from it.   Hands in this game are always face up on the table so that everyone can see them and help develop a joint strategy.  There is a hard limit of 6 cards that can be face up in front of any player.  The rest of the deck is split into thirds, an epidemic card is shuffled into each and the three parts are re-stacked to form the Player deck.  If you are looking for a more difficult game, you can shuffle one or two Crisis cards into each deck portion as well.  These cards give the team additional obstacles to overcome in their race to cure the continent of cooties.  The Infection deck is then shuffled, and the top 2 cards get 3 cubes on their city, the next 2 cards get 2 cubes on their city, and the next 2 cards get 1 cube on their city.  The board has tracks for both Outbreak and Infection Rate, and a marker is placed on the starting space of each.

Each player turn takes the same three steps:


1] Do 4 Actions – you choose 4 actions from the list below, you can repeat any action multiple times. 


  •       Car/Ferry – move your pawn along a printed line on the board
  •       Direct flight – discard the city card of your destination to move to that city
  •       Charter flight – discard the city card of your CURRENT location to move to any other city
  •       Treat Disease – remove one disease cube from the city you are currently in (if the disease has been “cured”, then remove all the disease cubes from that city)
  •       Share Knowledge – if you are in the same space as a teammate, you can either take or give the card of that same city you are both in
  •       Discover a Cure – When standing in Atlanta (because this is where the CDC is IRL), discard four cards of the same color to cure the continent of the matching colored disease.  Mark this in the lower right of the board.


Additionally, during a turn, ANY player can play an Event card – it does not count towards the limit of four actions a turn.  The only exception is that they cannot be played while you are already resolving a card.


2] Draw 2 Player cards – draw the top 2 cards from the Player Deck.  If the deck is exhausted when you need to draw, the game ends and the team loses.  If you draw an Epidemic card, you increase the Infection Rate by 1, draw the bottom card from the Infection deck and place 3 cubes on that city, and the shuffle the discard pile and place them on top of the infection deck.


3] Draw Infection cards – one at a time, draw cards from the Infection deck until you reach the number of the current Infection Rate.  Infect each drawn city by placing a cube of matching color into that city.  If there are no cubes available to be placed, the team loses.  If you would be placing the fourth cube onto a city – you do not place it, and instead you have an Outbreak.  Move the Outbreak marker down by one, and then place an infection cube in each city which is directly connected to the Outbreak. This can sometimes lead to chain reactions; each is resolved separately.

As long as the game hasn’t ended – the next player takes their turn.


The game is won immediately when cures for all 3 diseases have been discovered.

The game is lost immediately when you cannot draw from the Player Deck, when you cannot place a cube of a certain color or when the Outbreak marker reaches the last space on the track.



My thoughts on the game


Overall, I think this is fine new edition of Pandemic; and one that fits both my gaming lifestyle as well as gaming storage just fine.  I prefer the shorter game length here – there is still plenty of game to be had, but this is now in the superfiller category, and that means it will hit the table a lot more often around here.


For those of you familiar with the original game, here are the differences:

  •       3 diseases in the game (not 4)
  •       4 cards needed to cure (not 5)
  •       You cannot eradicate a disease, just cure it
  •       Atlanta is the only research station (you cannot build another)
  •       Character actions are slightly different – Researcher and Dispatcher
  •       3 Epidemic cards total, and they are always used
  •       Crisis cards allow the game difficulty to be scaled somewhat

In my plays so far, this game seems a bit easier than the original Pandemic – but I think you would expect this given the smaller board and the lower number of things you have to deal with.  For me, the biggest change was the way that all of the locations seemed accessible.  Nothing really ever felt more than a turn away, and that did take away from some of the tension of the original.  Of course, if this was your introduction to the series, this might prevent some frustrating game sessions where your newbie ability wasn’t quite up to speed with the difficulty of the game.  The game can still be made more difficult in setup – namely with the inclusion of more Crisis cards.  But, given the more mass market target for this game, having it be a bit easier at baseline is probably a good decision.  Anyways, if you’re looking for more adventure, there’s always one of the Pandemic Legacies waiting for you…


Though this is conjecture on my part as I’m not privy to any of the discussions at Asmodee/Days of Wonder/Z-Man, but I feel like this is just another move to get “These Games of Ours” into the mainstream.  In the same way that the recent Ticket to Ride NYC is a stripped down version of a classic game, but targeted as younger or less sophisticated gamers – Pandemic Hot Zone North America does the same thing here.  It’s definitely not a roll-and-move, but nearly everyone should be able to enjoy this and get a feel for what else might be out there.


For gamers, I might suggest passing on it if you already have the base Pandemic.  For me, I might actually end up keeping this version of the game, because if I’m showing the game to newbies, this is actually a better choice IMHO, and it’s smaller!  If I’m looking to play Pandemic with gamers, right now it’s likely going to be one of the Pandemic Legacies, in order to have some fresh challenges.  I can definitely see this as a good gift for this holiday season – it’s a good price for a lighter, more portable version of the game. 


In case you are looking to shop now, here is an affiliate link: https://amzn.to/34KJk8q

(any commissions from this link will help keep the OG online!)

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Matt C. Dale hit the nail on the head when he compared it (favorably) to Ticket to Ride: New York.  I had the same reaction.  Both titles take a popular game and make it just a little bit shorter and lighter.  This is a good thing.  Making it more accessible and quicker means it can be brought out more often.  I also have to give it a nod for being in a smaller box.  While it isn’t a big hit to my storage shelves it does make it much easier to take along.  My only gamer concern would also be the short time frame.  With a smaller deck and everything that brings with it, players really have to move out to accomplish their goals.  At the lowest setting this isn’t too big of a deal – there is room for suboptimal play, but higher difficulty levels become very tight and there just isn’t time to recover from a mistake.  The good news is that it’s all over in 30 minutes and you can try again.  While I like a deep game as much as anyone, Pandemic: Hot Zone will probably get more use than the base game, simply because it is a better match for most of my (rather casual) gaming tables – and if it goes over well it’s only a small step up to giving the full game a try.



Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, John P, Matt C, James Nathan
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…









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.
This entry was posted in Essen 2020, First Impressions, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply