Pandemic: In the Lab is another expansion by Z-Man Games. It takes the standard Pandemic game, together with the On the Brink expansion, and moves this popular co-operative game in different, challenging directions. Whilst co-operation is very in vogue at the moment, if you are a gamer who also likes a sense of “one-upmanship” then In the Lab has that too.
The In the Lab expansion is for Pandemic fans. It requires the base game and the On the Brink expansion. This expansion includes a number of formats that keep this popular game fresh and extremely challenging. It adds four new player roles, additional events and three new ways to play. In the Lab offers extra challenges, a solo variant, a team play option and a second playing board. This review will cover all of these lovely extras.
The same basic gameplay of Pandemic still holds true. The main “competition” is against the game with players working together, fighting outbreaks, eradicating diseases and moving around the world to save humanity. As a standard co-operative game In the Lab adds three new challenges; virulent strain, mutation and lab.
The virulent strain challenge is identical to that introduced by On the Brink, with the addition of two more epidemic cards. When these two cards are drawn the disease is much more aggressive and resistant to treatment. This means that player’s efforts must be re-doubled to affect a cure. Outbreaks and chain reactions are more likely because the “treat disease” action is less effective.
Similarly, when an outbreak occurs, two cubes are added to connected cities rather than one. These nasty effects continue for the whole game. If you thought Pandemic: On the Brink was hard then the virulent strain challenge can take Pandemic to a different level. It is not for novices.
With the mutation challenge the Pandemic game gets a fully functioning fifth disease, represented by 24 purple cubes. During game set-up while nine cities are being infected (in the standard way) one purple cube is added to the first city drawn. Two purples are added to the fourth city. Three purple cubes are added to the seventh city. These cubes are in addition to that city’s coloured disease cubes.
Two additional mutation cards are added to the infection discard pile ensuring plenty of challenge. The fifth disease is more aggressive and two purple cubes are placed (instead of one) when mutation cards are drawn. To discover a cure for the purple disease now requires discarding five city cards, but at least two (not one) being cities infected with purple cubes.
The virulent strain and mutation challenge can be played together. These take the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion and turn the dial up to eleven!
In The Lab
Pandemic: In the Lab is titled because of the lab challenge it presents. This provides an extra playing board that sits adjacent to the main board. Here cures must be developed in the lab before they can be discovered and have any effect. The In the Lab challenge can be played alongside the virulent strain and mutation challenges, and even with the bio-terrorist on the loose. This variant provides five circular petri dishes, each representing stages of vaccine development. Additional cards, called sequence cards, show which diseases might be cured, along with the basic “ingredients” needed for vaccine development. At the start, the sequence cards are shuffled and top card drawn and placed face-up in the sequence space. This card indicates the disease that must be cured at that stage of the game.
As players move around the main board, disease cubes are removed from play. Instead of returning these to the central store, some might be needed for vaccine development. Individual cubes or groups of cubes of one colour are added to petri dishes. This is akin to bringing blood samples from an epidemic to a laboratory for analysis. Working together, players need to “process” these viruses, growing them and culturing them. However, this vaccine development can only occur by players using up some of their actions in the research lab and not moving around the world. Similarly, the lab actions can only occur if the player is actually in a city with a research station.
Once sufficient virus particles have been grown in the lab, actions need to be taken to characterise this disease. The top sequence card is selected and all necessary disease cubes are added to it. A vial of the appropriate colour is placed onto that card but the disease is not yet cured or eradicated. During play any number of players may add and move cubes onto the sequence card. All are working together to find the cure of this disease.
In true medical fashion, the vaccine needs testing before a cure is declared. Whilst at a research station a player must discard a city card of that colour. That city must contain at least one disease cube of that colour. During this action one disease cube is removed showing the vaccine to be working. To complete the research line and cure one colour, three more city cards matching that disease need to be discarded (whilst at a research station). This means that five city cards are need; one for characterisation, one for testing and three more to cure. All of these actions can only occur in the lab at a research station. All players may contribute to this process in stages.
The laboratory can develop cures for two diseases at a time. Each requires its own cubes, disease samples and unique sequence cards.
The solo variation puts you in the game with some extra help from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) who acts as a dummy player. Some roles (such as the researcher or epidemiologist) are not permitted. Four additional role cards are available to be assigned by the CDC during the game. Play continues in the normal way and is suitable for all other challenges (except for bio-terrorist).
After each turn the CDC may perform just one action. These include moving your pawn to an adjacent city or re-assigning your speciality role. One city card may be drawn by the CDC or one card may be swapped with one from your hand. This action is only permissible if the card swapped matches the city colour you are in and you must be at a research station. The CDC could even discover a cure by discarding five cards. The game is won when all of the diseases are cured.
The team challenge is for four or six players. Teams comprise two players who need to work together to gain prestige and awards by curing or eradicating diseases. However, teams also need to co-operate otherwise humanity will be lost. This mode can be played alongside the virulent strain and mutation variations (but not lab challenge or bio-terrorist). All of the player roles are available.
Instead of each player having four actions, a team has a total of six actions that must be split 4-2, 3-3 or 2-4. Each team builds research stations of their own colour. To discover a cure or use a shuttle flight only that team’s research station may be used. City cards can be swapped between players (subject to the standard rules). Card swapping by sharing knowledge can even occur between teams but this requires two actions rather than one.
Each team is given its own specific goal. This awards prestige points according to the number of diseases cured, eradicated or research stations built. Each goal is different and hidden.
The game ends when the teams lose as in the standard rules. Teams may win if cures are discovered for all of the diseases (five including purple) or if four diseases are cured and eradicated. At this point teams calculate their prestige points from their goal cards. The most prestigious team wins.
Pandemic: In the Lab adds a huge amount to Pandemic and On the Brink. As a first-timer it should only be attempted with the guidance of one or two more seasoned Pandemic campaigners. Knowledge and insight of how to “beat” Pandemic is essential. There is the danger that new gamers could become over-focused on the laboratory challenge and forget what is happening elsewhere.
The quality of the components is as we have come to expect from Z-Man Games. They are excellent. The In the Lab expansion has a new insert that is able to accept all of the pieces from Pandemic and On the Brink. There is just enough room for all of the cards, pawns and extra research stations. The use of the petri dishes is a lovely touch and very much in keeping with the In the Lab feel. Moving the disease cubes through the stages of vaccine development does demonstrate that curing viruses doesn’t come easily.
Each cure now is represented by a wonderful coloured vial. These five little bottles have a look and feel of medicines used for inoculation. This adds to the authentic feel and story of the whole game.
This game is suitable for all ages from older children and upwards. The gameplay is relatively straightforward with just four actions in each turn. The concepts and even the laboratory challenge are easy to understand. The rules build on standard Pandemic ideas. These are clear to read and understand, with examples to clarify certain points. When playing the Pandemic: In the Lab expansion for the first few games, I would certainly recommend referring to the rules quite frequently.
For those who find standard Pandemic a little simple (even on higher levels), then In the Lab will remove all complacency. Every game is much tighter, especially when the mutation and virulent strain challenges are added together. The beauty of the Pandemic game mechanics is the ability to select, in advance, the number of epidemic cards that come into play. This does allow players to break themselves in gently with just four epidemic cards in the infection deck.
Seasoned “professionals” have plenty of scope to increase the frequency and intensity by adding more cards. This is one reason why Pandemic: In the Lab maintains its replay-ability.
Playing the team challenge can really change the dynamic of Pandemic. With players divided into teams of two any alpha player dominance is diluted. Initially, the game develops quite slowly. This is compounded by the fact that each player only draws one player card on their turn. There is plenty of interaction and discussion about strategy during the game but players can feel a little impotent to stop the spreading diseases. The rules of the Team challenge limit some of the available actions making it more difficult to travel.
The team challenge is very interesting though. There is a paradox here because you do need to work with players from the other team, yet also compete against them. A team might choose to focus on their hidden goals, but these might be at the expense of curing diseases. This can mean, ultimately, that the overall game might be lost. Teams do still need to work together with cross-team support. Without that co-operation, outbreaks will develop too quickly. Indeed some hidden goals do reward a team if very few outbreaks have occurred.
As the game continues in Team challenge, Pandemic comes more alive. With sufficient cards in the hand, players have a greater range of options. One nice touch is the bonus cards that are added in this variation. These can make it slightly easier remove disease cubes or cure diseases. Without them, beating the game in Team Challenge would be very difficult.
In the team challenge mode the key is patience. Use the seemingly slow initial phase to move your piece into a region where there are plenty of disease cubes. Without many cards in one’s hand the best action is to keep the diseases under control. Then, after about half a dozen turns, it is time to start using the cards in the hand wisely.
The solo game allows an individual free reign around the world. The CDC action with re-deployment of the player role can allow a player to have better skills later in the game. For example, as a medic it is easier to eradicate a disease and recoup all of the disease cubes. This is more important in the later stages of the game.
Pandemic: In the Lab has so many great points. It has allowed Pandemic to develop into a game for almost any situation. Whilst Pandemic as a standalone game is considered a classic and almost mainstream, the In the Lab expansion allows players to channel their inner Pandemic geek. It offers strategy and planning, with plenty of discussion and player interaction. The randomness of the infection cards and epidemic cards ensures that there is some unpredictability. It is not possible to predict the outcome of any game, but with experience and skill, I have found that the game is beaten more often than not.
Final Thoughts on In The Lab
When any new expansion is released gamers need to decide whether the money spent on an expansion could actually be better spent on a totally new game. With Pandemic: In the Lab, this expansion can change the game considerably. The ability to play solo or in a team does bring this “veteran” co-operative game back to life again. The sub-plot of the laboratory actions is a useful distraction too.
Pandemic: In the Lab is not for the faint hearted. It takes the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion and adds much more challenge. After a year or so of playing Pandemic (base game) and then another year with On the Brink, this expansion brings a freshness and new zest to this game. This expansion of Pandemic will continue to bring fun and challenge to the gaming table without necessarily committing to Pandemic Legacy (Season One or Two).