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This Holiday Season, Give The Gift Of World Disease

Pandemic Legacy board game

I'd just wiped out a virus known only as COdA-403a in Miami and Atlanta, boasting, "I just saved North America, okay?" But it resurfaced and caused an epidemic in Paris. The likelihood of the outbreak worsening was high, and I wasn't going to make it to France in time to prevent it.

But Parisians shouldn't get out their face masks. I'm not a real disease fighter, I was just playing one in the board game Pandemic: Legacy, the latest version in the Pandemic series. Like its predecessors, Pandemic: Legacy is a mixture of luck and strategy. And to see just how accurate it was, I played with four real-life scientists who study infectious disease modeling at a Georgetown University epidemiology lab.

In the Pandemic games, players move figurines across a world map crisscrossed by a network of major cities. The goal is to stop killer diseases from ravaging the planet using various game actions to control the epidemic. Every round, players draw from a deck of cards that instruct you to infect a city with a disease — represented by a cube in the game. Then up to four players work together and scurry around trying to find a cure and treat cities before they get too laden with sickness and suffer an outbreak.

The twist in Pandemic: Legacy is the timeline. The game's story unfolds over 12 games, one for each month of the year, and you win each round of play when you complete the month's objective. That could be something mundane like "eradicate a disease" or it could be "find and apprehend a rogue, paranoid soldier."

The game is fairly easy in the beginning. "We're going to win," one of our epidemiologists remarked. But things get harder and harder with each subsequent session.

Halfway through the January session, we flip over the next card in the story deck and it says that the virus COdA-403a has become treatment-resistant. At the start of the next game, February, COdA-403a becomes intractable and incurable. Over the next 12 games, there are deaths and betrayals from different in-game characters and the steady unraveling of a global conspiracy.

And the actions you take in earlier games cascade into later games. After a city suffers an outbreak, you place a "permanent panic sticker" on the board. Panic can lead to riots that destroy useful research facilities that you need to cure diseases. There are special cards like the experimental vaccine card, which averts an epidemic, but increases panic. Our epidemiologists showed their science stripes when we played the card in our game.

"Why does science cause panic?" said Ian Carrol, a post-doc who studies animal diseases.

"Why does it say destroy this card after use?" said Pratha Sah, an epidemiology graduate student.

"Oh, it doesn't say discard. It says destroy," Carrol said.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" Sah said.

"Well, we are playing the game," I said and shredded the card between my fingers. Sah gasped.

"Jeez," Carrol said. "I'm kind of sweating. This is a game of real consequence."

There are aspects of Pandemic that mimic real epidemics, but the game doesn't take appear to take the science too seriously. Disease modelers like Ewan Coleman from Georgetown think carefully about how disease can spread and move around the world through road networks or air traffic. "[The game] designed that network, why one city should be connected to another, but I feel they designed it to be entertaining rather than realistic," Coleman says.

For instance, one might expect a mega-metropolis like Beijing to be highly connected, but the Pandemic board only connects it to Seoul and Shanghai. The game doesn't take air traffic into account when diseases spread from city to city.

And the game doesn't have a strong rooting in real biology. There are four different diseases in Pandemic. They all behave more or less the same with the exception of the superbug COdA. Real viral, fungal, or bacterial diseases are extremely variable. Measles, for example, doesn't spread the same way that Ebola does. There's also no pattern to how cities get infected. "Mostly it was just random, and diseases were popping out of nowhere," Coleman says.

Overall, the game is complicated. Coleman turned to the group and asked if they thought they could write an algorithm to optimize a game strategy. The consensus was maybe, but you'd need a supercomputer.

It's nice that the game is co-operative. Where family-fun but competitive activities like Monopoly and Spades are relationship-destroying; working together to eradicate disease could be a way to bond. But, Carrol pointed out, disagreement over strategies can bring conflict, too.

In any case, if you're looking for a high-stakes game that can get your friends and family thinking about disease modeling (and really, who isn't these days), Pandemic is it.

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