Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review: a short cooperative board game with big ambitions

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This version of Pandemic is small enough to fit in a petri dish, but still has the toughness of the full game

Pandemic Hot Zone North America review, game laid out with box nearby
(Image credit: Asmodee USA)
T3 Verdict

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America is a great game for those who want a small and short cooperative experience that doesn't feel lightweight. However, more limited variety makes it less endlessly replayable than the original.

Reasons to buy
  • +

    Small box size

  • +

    Done in 30 minutes

  • +

    Still packed with strategy

Reasons to avoid
  • -

    Small components can be fiddly

  • -

    Shorter game length means less variety

This Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review aims to replicate the game itself by compressing big ideas into a small package. This is one of the best cheap board games out there right now, because it takes the cooperative, disease-busting concept of the Pandemic franchise – which has been such a huge hit, and deservedly so – and manages to make it shorter, simpler and smaller, but without losing the tough decisions that make the game one of the best board games overall in its own right.

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America's trick is to provide a smaller board than the regular Pandemic game, with fewer locations to move around in, but also giving you less time to complete the mission at the heart of it. These decisions balance themselves out brilliantly – having fewer locations might've made the game too easy, but making it shorter brings it right back into being a tense game that regularly kicks you to the curb just when you think you've won.

The change in format does mean that it loses some of the replayability that has helped the full-size version of Pandemic to its high spot on our list of the best board games, but that might be okay, especially for the price. We'll explain the concept of the game, what this version gets right and where it has some issues.

Don't forget we also have our guide to help you choose which version of Pandemic you should get.

Pandemic Hot Zone North America components jumped up on the table

(Image credit: Asmodee USA)

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review: Who it's for

This is a cooperative game that's officially for 2-4 players, though there's no reason why you couldn't play it solo if you maybe controlled two different 'players' yourself. I think it plays best with two or three, but there's nothing wrong with it at four at all – it's just that with two or three, you really get to make it fast-paced, since it's designed for games to last around 30 minutes.

It's officially listed for ages 8+, and that seems fine, but mostly if adults are involved too. There are a couple of different decks of cards that need setting up in particular ways at the start, and turns have certain phases and 'housekeeping' to do that require a bit of learning – if an adult is taking charge of that (at least initially), it should be fine for that age as well as older.

The fact that it's a cooperative game helps here – on your turn, you're the one who makes decisions about what you'll do, but the way to win the game is to work on strategies along with the other players, so if kids feel lost as to what to do next, it's really part of the game for adults to guide them.

This all means it's a great family game, but it's also great for groups of adults. Anyone who likes the cooperative game aspects of triumphing together, or commiserating together if you lose, in a tight half hour (max) of play.

That said, it does potentially suffer from the same issue as many cooperative games, which is that one person who thinks they know best might try to boss everyone else around as to what to do. Obviously, making suggestions to other people is a big part of this game, but if you have someone who likes to take control and will be frustrated if others don't listen to them, this may not be the ideal game. However, it's actually better for it than regular Pandemic, because the games are shorter.

Pandemic Hot Zone North America board set up ready to start playing

(Image credit: Asmodee USA)

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review: How it plays

If you've played a Pandemic game before, you know the drill – but here's an overview. Disease cubes appear on the board in cities, which are connected by lines. Too many disease cubes on one city causes an outbreak into connected cities, spreading even more cubes.

On your turn, you'll be table to take four actions. You can do things like move from city to city, and 'treat' the disease to reduce the number of cubes on a city. And then after your turn, you'll draw 'Infection' cards, which will add more cubes to the board.

Yes, more cubes are added after every individual player's turns. Pandemic is a game of swimming against a tide, and the tide is full of bacteria.

To win, you need to 'cure' the three colours of disease cube. The resource for discovering cures are City cards, and you'll start with some of these in your hand, and you'll draw two more after each of your turns. You need four of the same colour to find a cure, and City cards come in three different colours.

One key trick to Pandemic is that these cards aren't only good for finding cures, though. You can also use them to instantly zip across the board in a single action – otherwise, you need to plod along one city at a time, eating up your turn before you do anything useful. So you need to save them for cures… but you also need to use them for travelling, because how else will you reach that city before it outbreaks? Can you risk waiting one more turn?

And, of course, you won't draw the exact cards you need. You'll need to work out ways to exchange cards between players, by meeting in the right places. But if you're doing that, you're not curing disease are you? Can you afford that?

There are several ways to lose the game. If too many outbreaks happen, you lose instantly. If you ever need to add a disease cube and there are none left in that colour, you lose instantly. If you run out of cards in the City deck, you lose instantly.

Still, at least drawing new City cards into your hand at the end of your turn is a reliably nice and safe thing to do, right? Hahaha, no. That deck has three 'Epidemic' cards in, which cause all the cities that already have disease cubes on to go back in the queue so they'll receive more disease cubes in the extremely near future.

To aid in your quest, each player has a different beneficial power, and there are 'Event' cards among the City cards that give you extra bonuses.

All of this is extremely similar to how Pandemic works, and as a result, so is the game. The puzzle isn't quite as overwhelmingly broad because the board is smaller – during my first few plays, I wasn't too worried about losing to outbreaks or running out of disease cubes (though I've played a metric ton of Pandemic over the years, so this may not be that surprising). For me, the real challenge was the City card deck, which is small enough to leave zero room for complacency, unless you get lucky and just draw matching cards. It's what makes it a short game to play.

Still, playing just like this isn't too hard, even for newcomers. This is a great game for beginners to strategic board games for that reason – it doesn't feel like you need to think all that far ahead, and it's not too hard to pull out a victory. 

The challenge is really added by the 'Crisis' cards, which are hidden in the City card deck (along with the Epidemic cards), and cause some kind of wrinkle in the game. They might prevent you from taking certain movement actions, or they might add more disease cubes to the board suddenly.

These are designed to add variety, because you only add a limited number of them to the deck from the selection, ideally without looking at them beforehand. I'm actually not a huge fan of them, though. They're mostly things that frustrate you – limiting your toolset, or reversing your progress – rather than adding an interesting new challenge. Variation and difficulty is best when it's added by expanding the puzzle, not by limiting the players. The first full-size Pandemic expansion, On The Brink, did this perfectly with its Virulent Strain variations.

It's by no means a dealbreaker – I think the game is great fun anyway, as I've said, and these Crisis cards are optional – but this is what stops it being a true classic for me. There's no other way to add variation or extra difficulty to the game, so the fact they're not so great is ultimately limiting as to how replayable it is overall.

You also get less variation than the full-size game because the board itself is smaller – there are simply fewer ways the game can play out. Again, that's not really a problem, because it makes it simpler and faster. But it's a factor what may affect its longevity for you.

Pandemic Hot Zone North America game partway through playing, focusing on one player's cards

(Image credit: Asmodee USA)

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review: Verdict

As I've mentioned, I think Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America is as smart as it is overly punctuated. There's a whole thinky game in here that feels epic, yet isn't too hard to beat for newcomers, and is over in the time it takes you to finish your coffee.

Its small size makes it pretty travel friendly, and for the price, it's a bit of a no-brainer for your collection (or to start your collection) if you don't have regular Pandemic already.

But I do think it's best as something you mix up with other activities or games – a couple of games in a row is great, since you may well lose your first and want revenge, but whereas the big Pandemic can be played week in and week out as a fun activity together, this has less staying power.

Here's the great news, though: you can actually try this for free! There's a print & play version on the maker's website.

Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America review: Also consider

Well, the main alternative to think about here is the full-size version of Pandemic. Honestly, if you're just curious about this game in general and aren't worried about getting the cheap version of it, just get regular Pandemic. And after you play it to death over a couple of weeks (and you will), get the Pandemic: On The Brink expansion. Those two in combination are just A+ top stuff that have loads of different ways to mix up the challenge. You can find the prices for these in our guide to all the Pandemic types.

If you want a game that's this small, this cheap, plays in the same amount of time, is also based on a bigger classic game… but is competitive rather than cooperative, then you want Ticket to Ride: New York.

Matthew Bolton
Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's master of all things audiovisual, running our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also handles smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's the only one on the team who can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable.

Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair.