Pandemic board game: Which version should you get?

The Pandemic board game has mutated into a host of different strains, so we explain all the versions to help you work out which you should get

Pandemic board game: which version to get
(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

The whole setting of Pandemic might hit a little close to home these days, but the certified classic board game has been around a lot longer than our current situation, and it'll last long past it, too. It's one of those perennials; if you're stuck for what to play on a board game night, nobody is going to complain when you eventually settle on Pandemic. 

If you're unfamiliar with the premise, you and up to three (or sometimes four) of your chums settle into one of a selection of anti-viral jobs, and then – through a process of wrangling cleverly stacked card decks and lots of cubes – attempt to find and administer the cure for four diseases while those diseases taunt you by multiplying and spreading more rapidly than you can handle. Or at least that's what usually happens. It's brilliant.

One of the best features of Pandemic is the fact that you can play it at different difficulty levels, meaning it's a suitable board board game for kids, it works fine as a two-player board game, and the newly-released Pandemic Hot Zone: North America is one of the best cheap board games – there's even a print-and-play version. 

As such, like many games which have seen lasting success such as Ticket to Ride, Pandemic has spawned a list of spin-offs and expansions as long as your arm. Some are very different from the original, and some even sidestep disease altogether. We've broken this guide up into several sections: the core Pandemic game and its expansions, the Pandemic Legacy series, games which use the Pandemic system in other ways, and the game's other related spin-offs.

It's worth noting that the second edition of Pandemic, released in 2013, brought some fairly chunky updates with it, switching up the artwork and adding the Contingency Planner and Quarantine Specialist roles. There was, at one time, an upgrade kit available to boost the older game to the new version, but that's no longer on sale. If you're an old-school Pandemic purchaser now looking to buy one of the below expansions, you'll either have to find a first edition of On The Brink, or buy a whole new base set to ensure compatibility with the other two.

How Pandemic works

Pandemic is all about cooperatively trying to stop diseases taking over the planet. On your turn, you need to use actions to move around, treat diseases, build research stations, and find the cures that will win you the game. But with only four actions per turn, you won’t be able to do very much of it on your own. After each player's turn more disease appears on the board; if there's too much in one place, it outbreaks to everywhere nearby, potentially causing a chain reaction in the next city over. The world can only take so many outbreaks before you lose the game.

There's a lot of careful management to be done if you're going to succeed, and working together is the key. Everyone needs to plan ahead while also triaging the current danger, work out who can fix those future problems the fastest, and use the unique skills given to them by their role cards to get it done. 

The card system at the heart of the game makes it one of the most tense there is. To cure diseases for good, you need to collect sets of matching-colour cards – but these are also the fastest way to move around the board, and if you use them to travel, you can't then use them to cure. And then come Epidemic cards: sprinkled throughout the deck you draw from, these instantly step up the danger, not only spreading disease to a new location, but also guaranteeing that every location that currently has disease will get more of it. Cleverly, you can make the game harder or easier by adjusting how many Epidemic cards you include.

Classic game and its expansions

Pandemic

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

1. Pandemic

The original germ-fighter, and pretty much the best

You can't beat the core Pandemic game for a solid half-hour of panicked fighting against the tide – although the Legacy series (see further down) might get you more long-term invested in your disease-fighting role. The classic game of Pandemic introduces core roles like the Medic, who can remove all cubes of a single colour from a city and administer cures for free, and the Scientist, who can discover cures using fewer cards.

It's very balanced, offers a number of different difficulty levels, and doesn't heap on too much complexity, though you may need to calm down that one player at the table who tries to railroad everyone else's decisions, and definitely don't give them the Dispatcher role which would allow them to move other people's pawns. It's a great cooperative game that demands coordination – just make sure it stays fun for everyone!

Pandemic: On the Brink

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

2. Pandemic: On the Brink

It's all getting worse. Much, much worse

Oh man, the diseases are getting stronger. With the On The Brink expansion, the base game of Pandemic grows to include virulent strains which are harder to treat, a possible (and difficult to snag) fifth disease, and the Bio-Terrorist role, which sees a fifth player joining the fun to secretly trip around the globe spreading infections working against the other players.

There are also seven new roles included, which vastly increases the replayability of the main game, as well as new events. Some, like Borrowed Time, are actually pretty handy to have around, but the seventh Epidemic card (which opens up the game's brutal Legendary difficulty) might be a bit much if you ask us. The best part is that you can include these new modes individually or together, so there's loads of new variety here.

Pandemic: In the Lab

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

3. Pandemic: In the Lab

An expansion with more ways to make things better

This expansion adds a new sub-board which lets you apply all kinds of science shenanigans to the viruses after collecting samples from around the main board, making the process of divining the cure much more of an involved challenge. 

You can play with six players total split into teams in this expansion, fighting primarily for the prestige of being the medical company to get the various viruses best under control, or you can use the new cards to play a solo game (making it a good lockdown buy – though you can play the original solo too, if you just control more than one pawn yourself).

Whereas On the Brink added variation, this is a larger overhaul of the game, and you can play with the two expansions together – particularly interesting if you're using the three new role cards here – though we'd suggest opting for On the Brink first if you're not going to buy the whole load at once.

Pandemic: State of Emergency

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

4. Pandemic: State of Emergency

New ways to play, compatible with everything that went before

This Pandemic expansion offers up three unique challenges. The Hinterlands challenge sees the disease jumping from animals to humans; Emergency Events throws up a number of tricky effects that might, say, make outbreaks more damaging, put ongoing restrictions on your actions or, in the case of Patient Zero, even bring back previously eradicated diseases; the Superbug challenge follows On the Brink and In the Lab in adding a fifth disease, but this time there's no cure, forcing you to vaccinate the affected cities in order to get rid of it.

More Pandemic is never a bad thing, and State of Emergency primarily offers variety – particularly cool if you've already played all the other expansions (with which it is compatible) to death.

Pandemic Legacy series

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

1. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1

A board game that mutates over time

Pandemic Legacy takes the core principles of Pandemic and wraps them up in a 'living' board game – one which changes every time you play, with your actions in one session permanently affecting cards, cities and even diseases on your way into the next. It's not the only 'Legacy'-style game out there, but Pandemic Legacy's first season blew a lot of people away.

We can't really say too much (the point is to discover the surprises as you go) but every playthrough of Season 1 is unique and final. Your investment gets you pretty translucent cubes, but it also gets you a time limit: this is a game you can play with up to three other people for between 12 and 24 sessions, depending on how you do. That said, you can play standard Pandemic on the board before the events of the game start messing it up, and savvy gamers have developed homebrew 'Aftermath' rules to allow you to continue to play even after you've plunged the world into virus-coated ruin.

The game is an incredible experience that we can't recommend enough, even if you haven't played Pandemic before – as we say, you can play 'normal' Pandemic using the board before you start the 'Legacy' aspect.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 2

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 2

It's all gone very wrong. Time to make it right again

In the second Pandemic Legacy game, everything has gone particularly badly: it's set seventy-odd years after from society's crumble at the hands of a brutal plague, and you and your chums fall into the roles of a rag-tag bunch of survivors working to work out what happened, find out how things are going, and (ideally) rebuild society. 

Season 2 is a more open game than the first, and offers some very different mechanics while still having Pandemic's DNA at its core. It's hard to judge which of the first two Legacy games is best, since everyone's experience is going to be different, but we'd recommend going for Season 1 as a priority and moving on to Season 2 if your group is eager for more. It's a more complex game overall (it starts simple, but by the end has a lot going on), but nothing people who already know Pandemic well can't handle.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

3. Pandemic Legacy: Season 0

Can you cure the scourge of Cold War spies?

Pandemic is about pandemics, except when it's not. Here, it's about Cold War-era spy machinations – while there is definitely a bioweapon involved, and you're certainly going to have to do your best to determine the fate of the world, this latest in the Pandemic Legacy series takes an interesting CIA vs Soviets sidestep that might even make it more appealing in the (ahem) current climate. 

It offers the same 12-24 sessions and two to four players format as Seasons 1 and 2, and again has Pandemic's core but with a new twist. You don't need to have played the others to enjoy this, but we'd still recommend you hit Season 1 first, for more of a feeling that you're viewing parts of a whole story. Whether you play this or Season 2 after Season 1 makes no difference.

Pandemic special edition games

Pandemic: Iberia

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

1. Pandemic: Iberia

What if there wasn't a cure at all?

Fancy a bit of historical drama in your Pandemic? Pandemic: Iberia has you covered by throwing the game back to mid-19th Century Spain and Portugal, and infecting the peninsula's poor citizens not with a nasty case of 'generic red disease', but with malaria, typhus, cholera and yellow fever. It's a standalone game, not an expansion.

Medicine isn't so advanced, so you're searching more for preventative measures like purifying the water supply, traveling between places is handled very differently, and the roles have predictably been switched out for jobs like Sailor and Rural Doctor.

This is one of the most-loved alternate versions of Pandemic, and adds to real variation, such as being able to build railroads to make it easy to travel between places – but only if they're on your networks of tracks, of course. It means you're changing the landscape a little as you play your game – a small dose of the legacy games, in a way.

Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

2. Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America

A cheaper, smaller Pandemic that's easy to carry around

So cute: it's like normal Pandemic, only dinkier, cheaper and faster. Hot Zone - North America confines the disease battling to (yes) a condensed North American map, with only three diseases to fight against and a trimmed down selection of roles. If you're new to Pandemic and just want to try it out, Z-Man even offers a print and play version of Hot Zone. You'll have to bring your own cubes, though.

It's so cheap on its own, though, that you might as well get the real thing. You really do feel like you're getting the crucial parts of the Pandemic experience (the feeling of a ticking clock, and only just being in control of the spread), but in 20 minutes instead of 40-60.

Pandemic: Rising Tide

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

3. Pandemic: Rising Tide

Wet and wild in the lowlands of the Netherlands

More Pandemic-without-a-pandemic here, as Rising Tide gives the game's structure a full re-implementation which sees you and up to four others attempting to stop the Netherlands from flooding, reclaim land, and set up the four hydraulic structures required to stabilise the country's wet and dry bits. Again, it's a totally new standalone game.

That said, it's not a totally new game. If you're already familiar with Pandemic you'll be able to get to grips with Rising Tide immediately, particularly the flooding mechanics, though you'll probably curse its fiddly setup while you're painstakingly placing the 50 individual wooden dikes across the map before you can even play. For this reason, we'd maybe say it's more suited for people looking some variation from Pandemic than it is for beginners.

Pandemic: Fall of Rome

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

4. Pandemic: Fall of Rome

Roman around all over the 5th Century

The 'disease' in this 5th-century fight comes in the decidedly macroscopic form of Goths, Vandals and Huns, and while new roles like the Magister Militum and Regina Foederata might be commanding legions rather than dishing up medicine, they are analogous enough so as not to make this standalone game alienating to existing Pandemic fans. 

There are two variants included: while you can play the base game with up to five players, there's also a solo challenge in here, and a mode where the law of Capat Mundi comes into play and prevents you moving your troops into Rome.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

5. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality

Everything you need to know is right there in the name, really: this drops a hefty dollop of Lovecraftian horror onto the already tense game of Pandemic, casting you and up to three friends as investigators attempting to stop the Old Ones without going insane. 

It's slightly more streamlined in rules than the original, cutting out things like chain reactions and making trading cards between players easier, and the roles and events are suitably thematic. 

Pandemic spin-off games

Pandemic: The Cure

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

1. Pandemic: The Cure

Pick up a prescription for dice, dice, and more dice

It is the eventual fate of every popular board game to receive its own dice-based spin-off, and The Cure is just that: picking different roles nets you different rolls, with – for example – the Medic's unique dice heavy on cures. Things are bit more simple than regular Pandemic, in that you're concentrating on continental disease spread rather than micro-managing cities, and it's far quicker to get set up. 

The Cure does lack the creeping dread which comes from the way base Pandemic stacks its decks, but locking dice and nudging them with event cards does help negate the randomness of rolling bones.

If you like The Cure, there's also an expansion available: Experimental Meds adds eight new roles, 11 new events, a fifth disease, and the challenges of mutations and hot zones. (Yes, it's an expansion for a spin-off. Life is complicated.)

Pandemic: Contagion

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

2. Pandemic: Contagion

Now you're the disease. Isn't that nice?

Pandemic is one of the most popular co-op games out there. Pandemic: Contagion, on the other hand, is a thematically flipped game which turns everything on its head: this time you're a disease, and you're fighting the other diseases around the table to see who can infect humanity most effectively. 

The event deck this time offers situations like mass flooding and bird migrations which can help your disease grow; negatives include handwashing awareness campaigns and that pesky World Health Organisation getting involved. Neat stuff, and the physical petri dishes for your disease cubes are cute too.

Pandemic: Rapid Response

(Image credit: Z-Man Games)

3. Pandemic: Rapid Response

Just when you thought things couldn't get any more stressful

Just what Pandemic needed: even more crushing tension. This time you're literally racing against the clock, coordinating a pandemic response while a two-minute turn timer trickles down. The dice-based gameplay feels very different from any other version of Pandemic, with the board representing a plane flying around the world and delivering medicine to affected areas. 

Different roles are tasked with generating different resources by rolling dice, but the wrong dice end up adding to a waste pile which means one of the two to four players may need to spend time clearing it instead of doing actually useful things, just adding to the stress. 

Alex Cox
Alex Cox

T3 magazine's own Gadget Guru is a 25-year veteran of the tech writing wars, and has the scars to prove it.