Sobering lessons from the game “Pandemic”

Published 4:23 pm Friday, March 20, 2020

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A friend asked me if I wanted to play the board game “Pandemic” as we visited his church. I shook my head … the coronavirus crisis already seemed too much to take. “But it’s a game about working together to stop a pandemic,” he added. So, our families played. And we learned a lot that might apply in these trying times.

Here’s more about the game, created by Matt Leacock and distributed by Z-Man Games more than a decade ago. From BoardGameGeek, “In Pandemic, several virulent diseases have broken out simultaneously all over the world! The players are disease-fighting specialists whose mission is to treat disease hotspots while researching cures for each of four plagues before they get out of hand. The game board depicts several major population centers on Earth. On each turn, a player can use up to four actions to travel between cities, treat infected populaces, discover a cure, or build a research station. A deck of cards provides the players with these abilities, but sprinkled throughout this deck are Epidemic! cards that accelerate and intensify the diseases’ activity. A second, separate deck of cards controls the ‘normal’ spread of the infections.”

Here are a few things that we learned, as a group.

  • Viruses spread faster than you think.

Just as in real life, these viruses kept popping up around the globe, and moved very quickly. One emerged in Toronto one day, then in Tokyo the next, and next thing you knew, it was in Turkey. One day it’s in the capital city. The next day, it’s in the suburbs, then the exurbs, then in the county next to you, then in your town. Not taking this seriously produces a lot of hubris.

  • You have to work together.

You will not win this game unless you have a lot of teamwork. I played a medic, doing the most to eradicate the diseases. But I couldn’t do it all alone. Without scientists working on cures, dispatchers to send me to hot spots, etc., the disease would just bounce right back. We had to spend time planning what we’d do before each turn and roll of the dice.

  • Just when you think you have everything under control, you don’t.

As we beat back each plague, we thought we were winning, eradicating half of these viruses. But without a long-term strategy, these bugs will bust up the best quick plan you can throw together. This may happen even as some countries claim to have turned the corner, and are back to normal. We need to know what happens next, so it doesn’t mutate and come back stronger.

  • You need expertise just as much if not more than the rulebook.

This is why listening to the experts matters. We thought we knew what the rules were, until the thing jumped the “firewall” and outmaneuvered us. We had to rely on an experienced player for a better strategy, because otherwise, we were just guessing at what to do.

  • You really need more players.

With four players, we defeated half the diseases, but were overwhelmed by the other two. I kept lobbying for my son to be the fifth player, which would have made the difference. Rather than trying to do everything on a limited team and budget, we need to bring in some more players to help stop this thing, which is what local communities have been doing.

The game didn’t give us nightmares, but injected a healthy dose of realism, and a simulation of what was and will be yet to come. It also gave us some appreciation for what the CDC, first responders, and community leaders have to go through when making tough decisions. They can’t be thanked enough for their service and sacrifice.