Matt: Yes, I said ‘Strip’! Look, let’s not make this any more awkward than it has to be. You’ve been outside. You need to go through the decontamination chamber and we need to incinerate your clothes. It’s the only way to be sure.
Robin: Jeez Matt, I’m just here to play Plague Inc. Isn’t this a bit over the top?
Matt: This is a level 4 quarantine facility! I’m sorry Robin, but there are procedures to follow!
Friends, viruses, bacterium, lend me your receptor-kinase complexes! We come to bury humanity, not to mourn him. While they have proved to be most acceptable hosts, it is time at last to rise up and wipe them out! But before we get to that, let’s practice a bit with Plague Inc, hey? And not the app either! Here we have Plague Inc, The Board Game!
I hear there’s a bug going round?
Plague Inc begins innocuously enough. Little outbreaks of minor diseases in far flung corners of the world. Slowly spreading. You’d barely even notice them if their presence wasn’t earning you points. But then they’ll evolve! Spread faster, infect water supplies and airplanes, develop resistance to the coldest, and hottest, climates. Before you know it they’ll be everywhere! Causing countries to collapse and even provoke the odd response from humanity, though it’ll be far too late by then. No, within little more than an hour the world will be crushed and the best disease will have won. All the trained Pandemic players in the world can’t stop you!
Like flu through a convention of board gamers, Plague Inc’s turns whip round with barely a pause, once players know what they’re doing. Happily, everything you need to know is conveniently displayed on the side of your player board:
That saves me a bit of explanation! Wait… You still want me to talk through this? Fine, let me just take a sip of this freshly sterilised water…
Each player’s personal plague will be infecting countries across the main board and by doing so earning themselves DNA points, just like bacteria do in nature. At the start of each of your turns you earn a point for each country where you have infected the most, or joint most, cities. These points are obviously good for winning the game, but they are also your primary resource for mutations!
Achoo! Oh, must’ve caught a cold
You see, the average bacterium is pretty tame, which is why we are all still here, but let them loose with some trait cards and things won’t nearly be so pleasant. One from your hand of traits can be bought each turn for its displayed cost, and added to one of the spaces on your player board. While some get very expensive, you will get these points back at the end of the game. Only those powers you discard to make space for new ones are lost to you.
Maybe you’ll start off as a rash, gently increasing your infectivity. Then perhaps your victims will start sneezing! Ach! You’re airborne! Now you can spread between airport locations, really letting you spread your wings, as it were. Things only get more visceral and disgusting from there, culminating in the unsurprisingly brutal total organ failure card. And when the bluebonic plague evolves diahorrhae and vomiting at the same time… Well… Maybe it’s for the best that there isn’t too much artwork in this game.
With traits evolved, now you spread. The number of hazardous yellow infectivity bars you have on your player sheet determines how many of your little infection markers you can place on to the board. Each black spot on a country card is a space you can occupy, but you can only infect countries in the same continent as places you have already infected, until you evolve either airborne or waterborne. These skills connect countries with airports or waterports giving you access to the other continents.
This means how countries are added to the board has a big effect on the game. Each player must take a country from the display each turn and either add it to the board in the appropriate continent (geography practice!) or trash it to draw a fresh hand of trait cards. Under ideal conditions you want countries that only you can access, or to trash cards that would be great for your opponents. You can use the fact that hot and cold countries are inaccessible until a player evolves the corresponding resistance. And in case of doubt, do everything you can to keep the leader contained!
Except, maybe you don’t want to have complete control of the countries you are invested in? It’s important to have majority control of some for those lovely start of round points, but being in someone else’s country is pretty good too because of the final step of a turn: death. So much death. Once a country is fully infected the controlling player gets to roll the blood flecked die to see if that country collapses into disease-ridden anarchy. If they roll below their lethality, the number of grey bars on their player board, then the country is removed, everyone scores points for the amount of disease they had in there, and perhaps most importantly, draws an event card.
A surprising bowel event?
Events unleash player triggered chaos on to the board, from humanity fighting back to spontaneous changes to your disease and its spread. They can be both helpful, unlocking surprise moves you can pull off, or infuriatingly detrimental to your opponents’ plans. Often both at once! It’s the kind of thing that will annoy some players no end, but keeps the game light, unpredictable and for others, a lot more entertaining! There’s nothing quite like hearing your friends shout in incoherent frustration as you lay down a card. So long as it’s not just stomach cramps.
The event cards might have been a mechanic that really caused me some irritation, but it didn’t here. The game remains sufficiently strategic and interesting as you plan out your spread and what ‘take that’ the events introduce is fairly limited. Usually they force you to adapt your plan on the fly, like the CDC suddenly quarantining a country you’d hoped to fill with lovely pestilent sores.
The core balancing act you are dealing with is that between controlling and destroying countries. You want to invest enough so that you earn points from control, but likewise you don’t want to destroy countries too quickly and wipe yourself out. It’s an interesting and unique dynamic. Sadly, as in the original app, the supposed choice between infectivity and lethality presented to players from the start really isn’t one. You need to be infectious to begin with, then drive up your lethality in the late game. But how to time that transition, and to what degree you pick up traits like airborne or heat resistance, is where the real decisions lie. Most importantly they are decisions driven by the board and the actions of your opponents and that is really great!
What’s not so great is the relative importance of infectivity in the early game. In my experience, you just won’t win if you don’t get decent infectivity in the first couple of turns. It’s just too easy to rack up points from early control when you place more disease than anyone else. Similarly, you need those lethality cards in the late rounds. If you don’t get the right cards out of the trait deck at the right times you’re put at a disadvantage. While you can always trash a country to draw a new hand, the difference between doing that once and doing that three times feels pretty huge. For this reason, I recommend at least playing with the variant that lets you redraw your starting hand before the game.
This somewhat unfortunate imbalance and the chaotic nature of the event cards probably puts Plague Inc outside the ideal strategic experience for many ardent Euro gamers. But bacteria and viruses don’t care about these relatively tedious considerations! They care about fun! And Plague Inc is, definitely, fun! I really enjoy spreading across the whole world, others love rolling the death die/dice/spotted cube/whatever to kill countries, others still enjoy dropping event cards to disrupt other people’s plans. It creates those emotional highs and lows that make a game properly entertaining. It’s great for people new to games, especially those being brought in by the Plague Inc app.
Speaking of the app, Plague Inc does an excellent job of transforming its electronic gameplay into cardboard form, while changing it into a competitive experience to give fans of the app a reason to buy. The right things have been simplified and streamlined while clever choices have been made to make it different. The app’s flaws, as I see them, of the prescribed balance of infectivity vs lethality, and a somewhat drawn out end of game, are also present. But fundamentally it captures the spirit of the original while creating something fresh and new: a genuinely impressive achievement!
Plague Inc is well worth looking into for a more strategic game you can play with pretty much anyone. There’s certainly an influence of luck that will bother some, but that genetic core is an interesting puzzle with some entertaining interaction. Plus, who doesn’t like wiping out humanity?
Robin: Matt, that’s all well and good, but what are in all these pressurised containers…
Matt: what? Nothing! NO DON’T OPEN THEM!!