24 February 2018

Board Game Review: Plague Inc.

If you're looking for a fun game that's fairly simple to learn but pretty deep in terms of strategy, then Plague Inc. certainly delivers. As I've been able to play it twice now, I will review it for you that you may decide if you want to play it yourself.

One quick note before we get started: I have created a YouTube channel. There's only one video there right now: a How To Play video for the Red Dragon Inn. It's a little rough; I learned a lot in creating it which will allow my later videos to be even better. I plan to create and upload more videos in the future; I'm already working on a How To Play video for the new Dark Crystal board game. So if you're interested, hop on over and subscribe so you don't miss anything!

Now that that's out of the way, let's start with the numbers:
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1 hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Plague Inc.

A view of the game board during a game in progress. The board consists of a scoring track around the edge, stylised to resemble a looped strand of DNA, with each 'space' made up of a section of the DNA between twists. The rest of the board is covered with twenty five spaces on which cards can be placed, overlaid on an image of the world map in red, grouped by continent: three spaces for North America, four spaces for South America, five spaces each for Europe, Asia, and Africa, and three spaces for Oceania. There are several Country cards on the board (only seven spaces are empty in total). These cards are marked with clusters of varying numbers (from three to seven) of hexagonal icons, with the icons on some of them marked with a sun symbol or a snowflake symbol. Most of the hexagonal icons are occupied by a plastic token, also hexagonal, in one of five colours: blue, green, red, yellow, or purple. Above the game board can be seen part of a play mat which contains several types of cards: a stack of yellow Event cards, a stack of red Trait cards, a stack of blue Country cards, and three additional country cards face up waiting to be chosen. Around the board can be seen some additional components (claimed or discarded Country cards, more plastic tokens, the Death Die—a standard six-sided die, white with red flecks—and portions of players' Evolution Slide play mats).

This game is, in a sense, the inverse of Pandemic. Instead of playing doctors trying to cure diseases, in Plague Inc., you take on the role of a disease trying to wipe out the world. Each player starts with a basic disease, which they can upgrade with new genetic traits, and spreads from country to country, gaining points for controlling countries and for wiping out the population of a country. After the deck of Country cards has been exhausted, play continues for a few rounds and then the player with the most points is declared the winner.

Like I said, a fairly simple game. But it can be pretty challenging despite that simplicity!


The yellow player's Evolution Slide. An image of a magnified bacterium on the top, with the 'core traits' (two listings of 'Infectivity +1' and one listing of 'Lethality +1') in the top left corner, five spaces to place Trait Cards (two of which, currently unoccupied, grant abilities so long as they remain unoccupied), three of which contain Trait Cards, and a Turn Summary listing along the right edge of the mat. The trait cards have a cost/point value in the upper left corner, next to which is the card's name (these three are Confusion, Mass Hysteria, and Blindness), and one or more abilities listed on the bottom (Confusion has 'Airborne' and 'Cold Resistance,' Mass Hysteria has 'Infectivity +1,' and Blindness has 'Lethality +1'). Some Event cards, unused Trait Cards, and a claimed Country Card, as well as some of the hexagonal yellow tokens, can be seen on the table nearby.

Each player has a play mat called an Evolution Slide, which can be seen in the photo above. This play mat is basically just a space to keep your disease's new traits. As you purchase Trait Cards, they are placed in one of the available spaces on your Evolution Slide. There is also a turn summary along the edge of the play mat to make it easier to remember all the steps. Of course, as we played, we kept forgetting steps anyway...

A Turn in Plague Inc.

Phase 1: DNA

The first thing you do is to score DNA points. You gain one point for each country you control (you control a country if you have the most tokens in that country; it still counts if you are tied for most), plus one bonus point if you have not yet placed a trait card in the Bonus DNA space on your Evolution Slide.

Phase 2: Country

There are three Country cards available on each turn. You may either choose one of these cards or draw, unseen, the top card of the Country card deck. Whichever you do, you may either place that card on the board in the appropriate region, making that country available to infect, OR you may discard that card in order to discard all the Trait cards currently in your hand and draw five new ones.

Phase 3: Evolution

You may purchase one Trait card by spending DNA points equal to the value of the card and placing it in an available spot on your Evolution Slide (you may discard Traits from your Evolution Slide to make room if necessary). Trait cards have one or more of six possible abilities listed:
  • Waterborne (you may count countries with the Port icon as adjacent during the Infection phase)
  • Airborne (you may count countries with the Airport icon as adjacent during the Infection phase)
  • Cold Resistance (you may infect countries with the snowflake icon)
  • Heat Resistance (you may infect countries with the sun icon)
  • Infectivity +1 (you get to place an additional token during the Infection phase)
  • Lethality +1 (you increase the odds of killing off the entire population of a country during the Death phase)

Phase 4: Infection

You may place a number of tokens equal to your current Infectivity rating on the board. This rating starts at 2 as a result of your core traits, plus whatever bonus you get from Trait cards you have purchased. You must be connected to a nation into which you are placing tokens. You are connected if the nation is the same continent as a country that you already infect (that is, in which you already have at least one token). You are also considered connected to a country that has the Airport icon if you infect another country with the Airport icon and you have the Airborne trait. Likewise, all countries with the Port icon are considered connected for a player that has the Waterborne trait.

Additionally, you must be able to survive in the climate. Most countries are neutral; the cities (the black hexagon icons on the Country cards) have no icons on them. Anyone may move into these spaces. Some Country cards, however, have either a sun icon or a snowflake icon on all the cities in their card. You may not place a token on one of these cards unless you have the Heat Resistance trait (for the sun icons) or the Cold Resistance trait (for the snowflake icons).

Phase 5: Death

At this point, you look at the board to see which countries you control (have the most tokens in) that are completely infected (there are no empty cities on that card). You roll the Death Die (a beautiful six-sided die that is flecked with red speckles), and if the result is less than or equal to your current Lethality rating, that country is eliminated. The player who eliminated the country takes the card; all players gain one DNA point per token they had in that country and gain an Event card. Your Lethality rating starts at 1 due to your core traits, but Trait cards can have the Lethality +1 ability, which raises your rating.

Event Cards

As a result of eliminated countries, you can gain Event cards, which have a number of interesting effects. Each card tells you what it does, and when it can be played. Most are played either at the beginning or end of your turn, but some can be played during a specific phase, and others are triggered in certain circumstances (for example, there's a card that can be played when you roll to eliminate a country but fail to do so).

End Game

Once there are no more Country cards, play continues until a player has no tokens remaining on the board, or is unable to add tokens during the Infection phase. The point value of each trait on your Evolution Slide is added to your DNA score. Then you gain points for having the most tokens remaining on the board, for having the most Country cards in each region, and for having the country with the most cities. The highest score wins.

Final Thoughts on Plague Inc.

It really seems like a very simply game, and the rules themselves and the actions taken on your turn are. Randomness does play a pretty big part in the game, through the Country cards, Trait cards, and Event cards that you draw, as well as rolling the Death Die to see if you eliminate a country. But there are ways to minimize this randomness (purchasing Traits that increase your Lethality, for example), and there are always significant strategic decisions to make (do you place a single token into this country that has one city icon remaining in the hopes of getting one DNA point and an Event card when the country is eliminated, or do you place it in that country that has five available spaces, but will ensure that you have control of that country?). It is this depth that makes the game fun to play. 

But what about the other characteristics of a good game? Let's take a look:
  • It's quite simple
  • It ends decisively.
  • It relies on player agency.
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It does not have player elimination.
  •  It's not always fun to lose.
I say that last one because, especially in the game we played recently, one player got a pretty distinct advantage in the cards that she drew early on, and was somewhat ruthless in her aggression towards other players, ensuring that she had a strong lead which could never quite be overcome. This may be an isolated case, as the laws of probability indicate that such events are likely to occur from time to time. But given that I, as a player, tend to prefer games in which my actions have the ultimate determining factor in the outcome, it felt very much like the good cards that she drew at the beginning prevented anyone else from really having a chance to win. And that made the results of that game feel a good deal more enraging than anything else.

That said, I don't think it's a bad game. As mentioned, laws of probability suggest that such outcomes should be the exception rather than the norm. But it is still a possibility, so I'm not sure I can grant that one to this game. Still, a pleasant overall game that I wouldn't say you shouldn't buy.

So, I hope you enjoyed this review. Have fun out there playing games, as long as you always remember to

Game on!

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