You are the disease that will end humanity and there is no cure. Can your disease net the largest kill count?
We’ll get to Pandemic: Contagion’s infectious fun but let’s wash our hands with some game details first.
The Fiddly Bits
Designer: Carey Grayson
Publisher: Asmodee and Z-Man Games
Date Released: 2014
Number of Players: 2-5 (best with 5)
Age Range: 13 and up
Setup Time: minimal
Play Time: about 30 minutes
Area Control/Area Influence
Each player has their own Petri dish, player board, score marker, and disease cubes in their color.
The player boards have rankings for three things: Incubation, Infection, and Resistance. These rankings are your mutation levels. Place one of your disease cubes on the Level 1 position of each mutation on your board. The rest of the cubes go in your Petri dish for safe keeping.
Hand of Contagion cards and Player Board
Shuffle and deal 4 Contagion cards to each player and set the remaining cards aside as a draw pile. There are only six types of Contagion cards, representing the regions you can infect.
Then you shuffle and, according to how many players are in the game, deal a number of City cards faceup in the middle of the table. Set the remaining City cards aside—they won’t be needed.
Starting with the last player (players determine play order in some fashion) and moving counter-clockwise, each player places 1 of their disease cubes in a city of their choice.
Then you shuffle the Event and WHO (World Health Organization) cards separately and, without looking, remove 3 of each type from the game. With the remaining cards, build the Event deck (from the bottom up): 1 WHO card, 3 Event cards, 1 WHO card, 3 Event cards, 1 WHO card, and 3 Event cards, for a total of 12 cards. This is the graphic Contagion gives in its rulebook.
At the start of each round, reveal the top card from the Event deck (Event cards usually have positive effects, while WHO cards are trying to stop you, the disease) and read the text aloud for everyone. Sometimes you’ll resolve the event at the beginning of the round (the card will tell you how) but most of the time, you’ll resolve the event during each player’s turn. Starting with the first player, resolve the event and take two actions. When that player’s finished, play continues clockwise.
You have 3 available actions on your turn and you can take them in any order: draw cards, infect a city, and mutate your disease. You can draw as many cards from the Contagion draw pile as your Incubation mutation allows, so long as you don’t exceed the maximum hand size of 9. Infecting a city allows you to place a number of cubes on a city, up to your Infection level, by discarding Contagion cards of the same region as the city you wish to infect. You can also discard Contagion cards to mutate your disease, making your disease stronger.
Each city card has a population number (in millions of people) in the top right-hand corner; every disease cube counts as one million infected souls. Once there are disease cubes equal to a city’s population, stop playing disease cubes (there’s no one left to infect). Discard the city—everyone living there is dead—and tally up the points of that city. The disease with the most cubes scores the top number, the one with the second most gets the second number on the city, and third place gets the bottom number.
Close Up of New York
When the last WHO card is revealed or when there are only two cities left on the table, complete the round and end the game. The player with the highest kill count wins.
Contagion is the only Pandemic spinoff or expansion not designed by Matt Leacock, and it shows. It’s the only game in the series that’s competitive—and that’s okay—but it isn’t as fine-tuned as the other games and the puzzle the game presents can be a little easy to solve.
There are few cards that will hurt your disease and if you play your cards right, they’ll have little to no effect. The WHO cards can slow you down but there are only three of them in the Event deck, and you have three rounds with which to prepare for them.
Each WHO card does one of three things: you discard Contagion cards, you remove Infection blocks from a city, or you weaken your disease. Players who manage their hands won’t have to worry about discarding Contagion cards; they’ll either have few or no Contagion cards when a WHO card comes around. If you manage to kill off the cities with a lot of your infection blocks, you won’t lose too many of those either. All the while, you can lower your Resistance level and ignore the effects of one card, and you start off with one level of Resistance.
Close Up of a WHO Card
Still, the WHO cards’ lack of venom is a nice departure from the usual Pandemic fare. Pandemic games stack the deck against its players. Contagion’s strategy elements lie in the interaction between players. You have a little bit of luck, drawing into the right Contagion cards, but once you build up your engine, Contagion gets easy.
Don’t get me wrong, Contagion is a load of fun. It’s also a great change of pace for the Pandemic brand: it’s competitive and you play as the disease. But once you figure out how to properly manage your hand and resources, Contagion proves to be a light-weight in the Pandemic family. I’m not saying I win all the time but I don’t tend to finish in last place either.
Pandemic: Contagion isn’t as heady as the other members of the Pandemic family but it’s a nice addition. If you love Pandemic or the idea of being a disease trying to wipe out humanity, you should give Contagion a try.