If you’re familiar with the mobile game of the same name, this board game variant will need little introduction. For those that haven’t heard of it, in this game you are a pathogen, a germ, a dirty, dirty disease with only one goal; the complete and utter annihilation of human kind. Thematically, this is opposite to the well known and loved Pandemic series of games, but that is where the similarities end. Plague Inc., will take you on a very different, very competitive journey in your attempt to wipe man from the face of the planet and be claimed the best (or worst, depends on which way you look at it) disease of all time.
Now, for some people, the theme may be off-putting, I get that. I could tell you that this is a good game, which is full of interesting choices, a little bit of luck and some great player interaction. But, if you really don’t like the idea of playing a game based on a Doomsday Event, you’re going to find a barrier that I can’t really help you get over.
You should try though.
Each player begins with a fairly innocuous pathogen, represented by a player mat with some basic stats, limited abilities and space for new Traits to be evolved and added later. Playing as either a Bacteria or Virus (the Virus offering a slightly more complex game, but you can play a balanced game with a mix of both on the board) each turn you’ll follow a strict order of play that will enable you to affect more countries, evolve your disease, infect and ultimately kill remove countries from the board.
The complexities, wonders and beauty of the world are reduced to a red-hued world map showing six continents (Antarctica is excluded), each to be made up of Country cards as the game progresses. These cards display a number of black hexagons which represent the major cities and these are what you will attempt to infect and kill.
In a player’s turn, they will collect DNA points (which act as both victory points and currency) for each County they Control – have equal or majority infection tokens on. Following this, players will get to choose to add a new, healthy country to the board, or remove a country from the deck in order to [I’m going to call it] mutate and refresh their limited and dwindling hand of Trait cards. It is at this stage that the interesting choices start to show.
Your disease can’t just pop-up and start infecting willy-nilly. Far from it, any new Country card added needs to be first connected to a country you currently infect – either on the same continent or via boat or plane. Next, this new country has to be climate suitable. Extremely hot and/or cold countries are difficult places for an un-evolved disease to thrive. You can use these extreme temperature countries to box opponents in or reduce the amount of connectivity they have by discarding country cards that bear the boat or plane icon. Ensuring that you maintain plenty of climate suitable connectivity. Of course, your opponents are trying to do the same to you. However, discarding a country card comes with a ‘cost’, the discarding of your current hand of Trait cards.
Trait cards represent the symptoms (by and large) of your disease, each card enabling your disease to do some else, or something extra. Each delightfully named and thankfully bearing no picture other than an abstracted symbol. These benefits range from making your disease more infectious, make it tolerant to extreme temperatures, more stable when travelling and, probably most importantly, making it more lethal. Only one Trait can be evolved –added – to your disease each turn, so the manner in which you evolve your pathogen will impact your game. The cost of each evolution is naturally sliding, the more it does, and the better it does it the more expensive. This is where the game gets a little swingy, as the more victory points the Trait costs you, the longer you spend recovering from your purchase. At the end, you’ll get the points back for all active – topmost – traits, but that only helps in game, and does nothing to help you evolve and upgrade whilst playing.
It is with this mechanic that most new-to-the-game players struggle, as they place additional value to the higher costing, more powerful cards. Spending 20 DNA points in the first part of the game is eye-watering high, so newer-gamers hold on to these cards, clogging up their hand which slows their progress.
Finally, you’ll be looking to wipe countries out. Once all the city spots are full, any player who controls that country rolls the Death Die, rolling equal to, or lower than your Lethality score – so if you are prone to roll 1s a lot of the time, you will do very, very well playing Plague Inc.. Remember I promised you player interaction, it is here that it really comes in. Event cards give you all sorts of abilities, some will let you move your disease around a little more freely as a one shot, others will allow you to make a nuclear strike against that country that is soon to score and you’re not in. You can quarantine other players, stop them, slow them and generally get on their nerves, all in these great little pockets of playing “the good guys”.
These event cards are a welcome and occasionally brutal surprise when playing a game, and any player that occupies a county when it is killed gets one, so even just dipping your toe in and spreading your little, non-lethal disease around will net you a good bunch of these cards. The Event cards also inject a little more colour into the game, with more illustrative card art, however, these cards don’t fit perfectly from a thematic stand point, where you will be wiping out parts of North America out one minute, and then setting up a travel ban for all of Asia the next. This flip-flopping between humankind and disease does snatch some of the immersion away – of which, as an abstract game there isn’t an abundance.
Plague Inc. is an example of a game that tells a story, even though it is probably one you don’t want to hear. There is a healthy dose of replayability as some countries are removed each game, and with two different styles of play and a large Trait deck, you are unlikely to see much repetition. You’ll play you second different to your first, and different again in your third and so on, learning and improving your understanding of the game each time. It may be a little morbid, and monochromatic on the table, but the player interaction and competition will keep Plague Inc. as a welcome game on my table or shelf.
Plague Inc. also boasts a solo player mode, where you’ll play against the Plague Bot. This presents an interesting challenge, and a fun little puzzle but it can, if you’re unlucky either kick your ass or just end up limited to the African continent making people sneeze and very little else.
This is a middle weight, competitive area control, hand management game, which is easy to pick up but offers plenty of choices and changes between games. You’ll have great satisfaction dropping CDC quarantine down on your opponents, and the rare occasion where rolling a 1 is always a good thing. In this game, you don’t want to succeed too much, as you can risk taking yourself out of the game, so striking that perfect balance where you are slightly ahead but never in risk is an interesting challenge. As a fan of the mobile game, I’m really excited to see where the board game goes and how it develops with expansions, not that they are needed but they are ripe for design. As much as this game is a little morbid, it is sometimes a lot of fun being the “bad guy”
Turns a very familiar theme on its head
A really good, simple area control game
Great player interaction
Plenty of scope for expansions
Player interaction is very Take-That heavy, which some may not like
The theme could be quite off-putting/upsetting
It looks a little bland in red hues and stark simplicity