Late to the Game: Pandemic–iPad vs. Board

Pandemic © Z-Man Games
Pandemic © Z-Man Games

As more and more board games make the leap into digital, we are now often faced with a choice of whether to buy the traditional tabletop game or the digital version. Pandemic is the latest game to offer a digital experience (so far only on iPad). I’ve taken a look at both the 2013 tabletop update and the recently released iPad game and compared the two to see which is the right one for you.

Pandemic App © Z-Man Games
Pandemic App © Z-Man Games

iPad Pro:

  • The app’s tutorial is wonderful for newbies. There is also a help mode which can be switched on and dispenses advice throughout the game. This is useful for players who remember the basics but haven’t played in a while.

  • The app sets up a new game in a matter of seconds, avoiding the tedious shuffling and distribution of disease cubes

  • The app keeps track of actions, hand limits, and card draws. This is especially useful when epidemics lead to multiple outbreaks which can easily cause you to lose your place.

  • When you choose to move your pawn as an action, the app highlights all available cities you can choose from, especially handy for new players and when playing the dispatcher.

  • The spinning disease cubes on cities rotate at different rates depending on the severity of that city’s problems, and cities with three cubes also pulse red. This gives an instant visual indicator of which areas need most attention.

  • The app is designed as a single player game so you can save humanity even when you’re alone.

  • Despite being for a single player, you can choose to play with between one and four different characters, controlling each one in turn and allowing you to experiment with different combinations.

  • Different difficulty levels can be used ranging from beginner to expert.

  • It’s cheap! The iPad game costs just $6.99/£4.99.

iPad Con:

  • One of the great things about cooperative games is the player interaction. This is lost entirely in the Pandemic app which is currently limited to single player.

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  • The pawns are rendered in fairly dull colors making them hard to spot on the board. They also stack when sharing a city, so pawns lower down the pile are nearly impossible to see.

  • The remaining numbers of cubes and cards are shown as very small numbers at the top of the screen, so it is harder to get a feel for the quantities than when you have piles of in front of you.

  • In order to see which cards each character is holding, a pop out menu has to be loaded which covers up part of the board.

Pandemic Board Game © Sophie Brown
Pandemic Board Game © Sophie Brown

Board Pro:

  • Player interaction is the biggest draw to the board version. You develop a sense of community sitting around a table discussing tactics, and this is missing from the tablet. A lot of the enjoyability of co-op games comes from working together to defeat the game, something you only experience in the tabletop version.

  • Two expansions are available for the tabletop game (In the Lab and On the Brink) which offer increased an variety of gameplay. Whether they will be developed for the tablet version remains to be seen.

  • The difficulty of the game can be varied by placing a different number of epidemic cards in the player deck.

  • There is a fun tactile element to the game when placing cubes and research stations (the 2013 version comes with transparent plastic cubes instead of wooden ones); it’s a small thing but physically adding the disease to the board makes the threat feel much more real.

  • It is much easier to keep track of pawns on the board and get a sense of everyone’s location.

Board Con:

  • If you stick to the rules you are limited to the same number of characters as you have players.

  • There can be a lot of actions to work through when an epidemic card is drawn, especially if it results in an outbreak (or worse, a chain-reaction outbreak), and you can easily lose track of where you are and what needs doing.

  • It’s quite expensive (although still at the cheaper end of the board game scale) at around $28/£27.

It is hard to say which is a “better” version of Pandemic; both are well made, well designed, and fun to play. For me the defining quality of Pandemic is that it is a cooperative game and so the tabletop version would have to win out for this reason. As Wil Wheaton says on the Pandemic episode of Tabletop, “I’ve had more fun losing this game than I have had winning a lot of others,” and I’d wager that the reason for this is because of the interaction between players. The enjoyment of victory (or sorrow of defeat) is that much more intense when it’s an experience shared.

However (and this is a big however), our gaming buddies all live far away or are hugely busy, meaning our gaming nights are sadly few and far between. My husband and I don’t exactly want to spend every night playing the same games together, nor could we thanks to our schedules, but that can make it difficult to actually find time to play a tabletop game. For this reason the iPad game actually wins out for me personally as it allows me to enjoy a quick game whenever I feel like it, without needing to wait for another person to want to join me.