There’s a board gaming classic called Pandemic that you might know about. You play as doctors working together to fight off virulent diseases and save the world from utter collapse. This isn’t that. Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations is, perhaps, the exact opposite of that. Based on the wildly successful video game of the same name, Plague Inc. casts you and up to three other players as the disease, competing against each other in order to be the worst plague humanity has ever seen. Society will collapse, that’s a foregone conclusion. Your goal is to strike the final blow.
Each player starts off as a mostly harmless bacterium or virus, each with slightly different abilities, that’s taken hold of one city in a random starting country. From there you’ll need to play evolutionary trait cards to get more contagious, more adaptable, and eventually more lethal as your disease (let’s call it Jelly Finger Syndrome, because why not?) begins to destroy entire countries. At the end, whichever player has the most DNA points, and thus the most horrible disease, wins the game.
On your turn, you’ll go through five phases. First, you gain DNA points for each country you infect more than anyone else. Then you draw a new country to either place on the map or discard to draw a new hand of trait cards. And here’s where it gets interesting.
You start the game with a hand of five trait cards, each with the ability to improve Jelly Fingers in some way. They might increase its infectivity or lethality, they can allow for transmission by air or water, or they can give it resistance to countries with extreme temperatures. During the evolution phase, you’ll pay for these traits and place them on one of the slots on your player mat, or evolution slide. Now, the trick is that those DNA points you need to win the game are the same points you use to pay for your new traits. You’ll get the DNA you spend back at the end of the game, but only for the cards that are still on your slide, so if you replace a trait you evolved earlier with something better, those points are gone forever.
After you evolve you’ll use your traits to infect new cities and countries by placing your disease’s plague tokens on them. And finally, if every city in a country is infected, and at least half of the tokens on the card are yours, roll the “death die” to see if the country falls to jelly covered ruin. If it does, then every player scores a point for each token they had on the country. They also earn an event card that gives special one-time bonuses, they get all of their tokens back, and whoever killed the country keeps the card as a trophy.
This is the big balancing act of Plague Inc. You start the game infecting as much as you can, spreading to new continents, controlling countries, and earning DNA so you can evolve better traits. So you want to be as contagious as possible. Except you don’t because you have a limited number of tokens to work with, and if you run out you’ll find yourself with nowhere to go. You get tokens back by killing countries, so you’ll want to be as lethal as possible. Except you don’t because if you kill too many countries you won’t get enough DNA at the beginning of your next turn.
There’s also the question of which cities to infect. You can spread out to ensure that you’ll have a foothold in other continents, but if another player infects the same countries with their disease, you might lose control. You can bolster the countries you already infect but that might leave you isolated. Plus, if you fill a country up, you might accidentally kill it before you wanted to, so maybe you leave one city uninfected. Of course, then another player might decide to infect that city, placing a single token in your country in the hopes that you end up killing it, damaging your economy and getting them an event card in the process. This game is filled with little decisions like this that keep each turn engaging but don’t bog it down by being overly complex.
Eventually, you run out of countries to infect and the world starts to collapse, the last of humanity’s jellied fingers chronicling the Earth’s undignified end. This is your final chance to infect those last open countries or kill off France like you’ve been trying to do all damn game, but once any player removes their last disease token from the board or can’t make any moves on their turn, the game is over. You each count up your DNA and find out whether JFS was really the world-ending plague you hoped it was.
If it isn’t clear already, I absolutely recommend this game. My only criticism is that if you get really unlucky with your card draw, you’re simply not going to win. Other than that, I’d say there’s just enough randomness to make each game you play differently from the last. The strategy is deep, but not confusing. And to top it all off, the game just looks great. From your player mat being a microscope slide image of your disease, to the blood splattered Death Die, the visual design is perfectly executed.
As a closing note, having played the mobile version of Plague Inc., the board game doesn’t perfectly translate that experience. However, there are more than enough nods to the source material that fans are likely to be satisfied. There’s even a single-player variant if you’re into that, and it’s not bad. Insanely difficult, but not bad. What makes me really excited is this game’s potential for expansions. The mobile version allowed you to play as several types of diseases and I’d love to see that incorporated here. Imagine playing a parasite, fungus, or bio-weapon, the Jelly Fingered possibilities are endless!
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Image Credits: Shea Parker