Unfortunately, pandemics remain topical. This is a look at the first of three “Survival” Pandemic games, which dramatically revamped the setting and gameplay of the classic.
Pandemic: Iberia by Jesús Torres Castro & Matt Leacock
Publisher: Z-Man Games (2016)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Set Collection
The players are still trying to fight disease, but this time they’re in 19th century Iberia. Period restrictions on movement can be overcome by building railroads, and even though the diseases can’t be entirely cured, research can help to limit their spread, particularly when the players purify the water supply.
Pandemic: Iberia essentially uses the core Pandemic (2008) system, but with tweaks here and there to adapt the game system for 19th century play. There are two major new mechanics, purifying water and building railroads — and the former has a notable effect on the challenge system.
Purifying water is simple: a player expends an appropriately colored card, then gets to place two purification tokens in a region between cities. When any of those cities would accrue a disease cube, a token is instead removed. By introducing a new way to use the game’s central resource of cards, Pandemic: Iberia creates a new difficult choice. This mechanic also makes interesting changes to the disease simulation: now players can choose to protect several cities simultaneously, but they do so at the loss of some control, as they don’t get to decide which of those cities eat up the purification tokens.
Overall, the purification tokens show how to make an organic expansion to an existing challenge system by reusing most of the elements of the challenge system with just one notable change.
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; multiplying Task Threats.
The cooperative system in Pandemic: Iberia is also very similar to the one in Pandemic, but here the small changes between the two games make even larger differences in play.
This is in part because Pandemic: Iberia is a much more geographic game than its predecessor. Certainly, Pandemic has always focused on the puzzle of how to get from one problematic location to another. However, both of the major new systems in Pandemic: Iberia increase this geographic basis. The water purification tokens lie between cities, which creates geographic clustering and adjacencies that weren’t relevant in the original Pandemic. Similarly, the new railroads create geographic connections: any player can lay track, and then any length of connected track can be used to zoom around the map in a single action.
Because these two systems affect much more than a single trouble spot, they become cooperative resource pools that all of the players can collectively contribute to and collectively draw upon. This is a big change from the purely strategic play of the original Pandemic, where the players were more likely to head off in different directions, to each deal with a different problem.
Hand in hand with this, Pandemic: Iberia totally innovates the special abilities of its characters, in large part to link with these two new major systems. Because Pandemic has always had a strong system of specialization which dramatically impacts what players do on their turn, this implicitly causes a large-scale change in how the game plays, directing player attention toward the new game systems. Even when the new character abilities don’t explicitly connect to the new system, they often focus on very cooperative effects, such as moving another character.
However, there’s more to Pandemic: Iberia than just these large-scale systems. Even small changes in game mechanics can impact cooperative play. For example, Pandemic: Iberia also introduces a new restriction on earning victory points: hospitals, where diseases can be “researched”, are color-coded, and a disease can only be resolved at the appropriately colored hospital. This often forces players to strategically work together, with one player building an appropriately colored hospital just in time for someone else to bring his set of cards there.
The major new systems, of water purification and railroad building, are both closely linked to the time period, showing how to evoke a setting through mechanics.
Expansions & Variants
Pandemic: Iberia is the first of the “Pandemic Survival” games: limited-edition games set in specific times and places that vary the core Pandemic rules. It’s the closest to the original with its successors, Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017) and Pandemic: Fall of Rome (2018), focusing on invading waters and invading warriors, rather than invading diseases.
Pandemic: Iberia offers an excellent lesson in minimalist game revision. Superficially, it seems very similar to the original Pandemic. However major new systems of water purification and railroad lines vary the challenge and cooperative systems by creating a new geographic basis for the game. Revised special abilities also do a lot to change how the game plays.
“I hope to continue developing Pandemic products as long as people are interested in them. I’ve especially enjoyed creating the limited-edition, region-specific versions of the game (Pandemic Iberia being the first) that are set in the host countries for the Pandemic Survival tournament.”
—Matt Leacock, September 2017, “Interview with Matt Leacock: Designer of Pandemic”, Geeks Under Grace, http://www.geeksundergrace.com/tabletop/interviews-tabletop/interview-with-matt-leacock-designer-of-pandemic/