The Science Behind Games – Part 1; Pandemic

An image of Pandemic the board game
.A game of Pandemic, image by Padaguan, 2015, available at:

If someone said “board game” to you, what instantly comes to mind? If you think Monopoly, Cluedo or Scrabble, then no doubt you also have memories of frustrating and forced family fun on those cold winter evenings. Alternatively, if you think Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne or Ticket To Ride, then you might be verging on hobby board gaming. This latter type has seen an increase in interest in the last 20 years or so, with the release of the popular and now widely known Settlers of Catan in the mid-1990s.
These new “Eurogames” offer a new type of gameplay, with pretty boards, tactile pieces and limited playing times. Goodbye to snide remarks when arrogantly gaining an opponent’s property, to sneakily copying other people’s notepad for clues, or to tediously looking up words in the dictionary, and hello to cooperative group games like Pandemic, where you work together to cure the world, to Forbidden Island, traversing a desert together to find parts to a ship, or to Flashpoint, where you douse a house fire to save a family. There are now 100s if not 1000s of these types of games, all with varying mechanics (this is way the game is played, like rolling dice or collecting cards) and themes (the design and feel of a game). One theme that lends itself well to board games is science.

How is Science Portrayed in boardgames?
I’m going to keep this short and ramble (excuse the oxymoron) only about the science in the board game Pandemic. There is already a publication in Nature Communications reviewing the theme of evolution in board games, which I highly urge anyone interested to read (West, 2015).
In Pandemic, all players work together against the game to find the cures to four diseases before 10 outbreaks occur or a deck of cards runs out. The board is a map of the world (ish) with key cities where player pawns can move between. Cures are found by collecting five cards of the same colour and then discarding them when the player pawn is at a research station. Every player turn countries are infected, represented by placing coloured plastic cubes on the map (one of four colours for each disease), where three cubes causes an outbreak. Players have individual roles, such as medic, researcher, scientist, dispatcher and so on, each with their own special ability.

Does Pandemic offer any educational value?

    1.) In terms of teaching the science of disease spread, no. The cubes are meaningless; they don’t represent a number of people infected or any unit of infection at all, just a symbol that a city is infected in some way, each city needing the same number of cubes to call an outbreak. Given that for a real outbreak to be declared, there has to be evidence of two linked cases of infection, and the game does not portray this.
    2.) The artwork for the diseases doesn’t represent anything in particular. As a microbiologist, I find this irritating – I see that one resembles a virus like particle, one could be a yeast, another is some kind of cell, and the last a blob. Firstly, yeasts don’t tend to cause outbreak-worthy deadly disease in healthy humans, secondly, I can’t help but feel like they missed out on an opportunity to educate people on common causes of outbreaks, even if it is just some flavour text in the manual and some more accurate albeit simplified artwork. They could have Influenza, E. coli, M. tuberculosis and Ebola or *insert other deadly disease here*.
    3.) The roles on the special cards are reasonable and translate well into the game. For example, the medic can treat people quickly, so removes extra infection cubes, a scientist can create a cure quicker, so needs one less card, the researcher gains knowledge about diseases, so can share cards with people to get to a cure quicker.

In conclusion, I think that Pandemic is a well thought through and enticing game that integrates the theme well, creating an entertaining and inclusive board game, however it lacks on the educational front, and has missed some opportunities to offer further information or educational lore to the game. I wouldn’t say the science is wrong, it just could be done in such a way as to teach people about infection, diseases and outbreaks a bit more along the way, without subtracting from the game itself.

I have just considered Pandemic the base game, there are many other iterations or versions now released, some expansions and some standalone. Pandemic: Legacy, now in its second season, is the same basic game of Pandemic but enhanced by a group playing multiple games, each time unlocking part of an evolving and unwinding story depending on choices players make in that game. Without revealing spoilers, this game is intriguing, not just because it has secrets and boxes to be opened like an advent calendar, but because a narrative unfolds and develops, submersing players into that world and lore. The science in this is definitely… interesting, but it made logical sense and as scientists, my husband and I didn’t object too much to the storyline.

Here are some links to some of the hobby games I have mentioned
Pandemic –
Pandemic Legacy –
Settlers of Catan –
Carcassonne –
Forbidden Island –
Flashpoint –

Post by Jess Friedersdorff