Back in earliest months of the U.S. COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, you may have missed the flurry of board game articles all recommending the same game: Pandemic, the 2008 cooperative game where players race around a world map to cure four simultaneous infectious epidemics before the world is lost. Great minds think alike; The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Mashable, NPR, and more outlets raced to publish articles on the resonance of playing Pandemic in an actual pandemic. Most of these articles date to the summer of 2020 and taper off as if searching for the next great plaything during the pandemic.
In 2022, everyday COVID-19 realities continue. As the research historian for The Strong, I continue to observe play happenings alongside these issues in real time. Personally, however, I am reflecting more on how my play and gameplay continues to shift over time from the start of COVID-19 spread to the present day. In a March 2020 interview with Minnesota’s KARE 11, Pandemic designer Matt Leacock observed that people either avoided playing the game in favor of lighter fare or embraced it to help process COVID-19 and all its unknowns. What then can be said of replaying Pandemic two years into the very real, still existing pandemic—with all that we now know regarding transmission and mortality statistics—as it continues to impact the world?
It is important to note that Leacock created the original game with the 2003 SARS outbreak in mind. The game aims to illustrate how public health crises cannot be adequately addressed alone or in a vacuum. Supporting two to four players, the game brings together different roles with different skillsets, such as a scientist, medic, or quarantine specialist, to work together to cure and eliminate diseases before game over: too many outbreaks, a high infection rate overtakes the world; you run out of time, symbolized as an empty Epidemic card pile. The world map game board displays international networks of cities that are spotted with infections (colored cubes), which the shuffled Infection cards randomly determine. All players begin at single research center placed in Atlanta, home of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), before setting off across the world.
Before the pandemic, the hit game was considered one of the most popular modern cooperative board games. Shortly after release, it earned the 2009 Best Family Game from Games Magazine and the BoardGameGeek site and sparked a competitive tournament circuit with local and international championships. In a 2020 Chicago Tribune interview, Leacock revealed that the CDC had previously sold the game in their gift shop. The success of the initial game helped grow the product line to 18 games including expansion packs, portable and standalone spinoffs, and digital versions. Educators embraced it as a playful teaching tool for learning epidemiology in public high schools and medical schools.
I received the original Pandemic as a Secret Santa gift more than six Christmases ago, and it is difficult to not compare gameplay memories pre-COVID-19 and now. In full disclosure, I started replaying the game in 2021, sometimes with a partner, sometimes virtually with family members, and sometimes playing solo as several characters at once against the board. Solo play runs counter to the rules and the cooperative “no single player can solve this problem” game messaging, but limited resources call for creative solutions. As a long-time fan of the entire Pandemic franchise, including the grueling Pandemic Legacy, I focus on the original version, not to ignore the spin-offs, but to focus on replay and shifts in meaning over time.
It is easy to understand how Pandemic can function as coping through play for many and offer a sense of control during current crises. Unlike in the pre-pandemic play days, our play conversations don’t exclusively focus on turn strategizing; we find ourselves talking through news updates and contemporary examples that fit or don’t fit with the board game’s spread. During play, we have seen how chains of outbreaks that can spread across the board parallel the waves of COVID-19 variants that continue to emerge and spread across continents—what happens elsewhere reverberates through our interconnected world. For my curious nieces, the game provides a deeper understanding of the non-discriminating nature of infection better than any polished YouTube or TikTok could explain.
And yet playing Pandemic in 2022 feels like an exercise in the imaginary, something that may have been true for any player who previously survived a world outbreak. The cooperative play stresses the importance of solving world problems together, which is certainly true in any public health event. However, the game can only represent this figuratively. A successful game finds four single individuals saving the world with no funding constraints or supply issues, no bureaucratic red tape, no overloaded emergency rooms or anti-science protests, and no inequitable global distribution of cures. Pandemic Legacy, meant to be played across 12-24 play sessions, attempts to account for some messy variables such as rioting cities, travel difficulties, and the impacts of ongoing outbreaks on characters, but it too has its limitations. What is hard to overlook in these races for a cure is the largely absent humanity—what would it truly feel like to race against an ever-growing scale of those lost, those infected, those “cured” but disabled by one infection not four?
Now I replay Pandemic out of curiosity: what could Pandemic (and its franchise) look like if Leacock had been inspired not by the 2003 SARS outbreak, but the current COVID-19 pandemic? Here, I am reminded of the work of game designer Brenda Romero’s Mechanic is the Message, her series of analog games intended to use the medium to explore and work through difficult experiences and feelings related to real-life events and mass atrocities. Romero often works backwards from how she wants the player to feel about historical systems through the medium of board games. For instance, her game One Falls for Each of Us will attempt to capture the scale of the forced displacement and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Americans on the Trail of Tears with 50,000 hand-painted game pieces. While the game is still in development, any Indigenous person playing the game will be able to choose to take the place of a game piece so that non-Indigenous players will necessarily confront the realities of this history in the present.
In many ways, play can make it possible to imagine the impossible and continue to help close the gap between what is knowable and what we still need to learn. Replaying Pandemic during a pandemic can encourage us to think more deeply about what we know, and what we could be learning about the systems that impact our world and our relationship to one another. To any educators, parents, and caregivers who gave Pandemic a try in 2020, consider replaying it again with your students or children. Talk about where there are similarities and where there may be disconnections with their experiences of the pandemic. Better yet, invite those minds to creatively brainstorm board game designs told from their perspectives of the pandemic to bring even more opportunities to explore and learn from these tough realities through play.
By Racquel Gonzales, Racquel Gonzales, Research Historian and Assistant Editor, American Journal of Play