World domination, area control, dice driven skirmishes - these could easily describe Risk, that old chestnut of a game that we have banned in our household due to the arguments that have taken place! However, these attributes will also apply to Plague Inc, a four-player antidote to Pandemic – but without the Risk-associated family fallouts! This is a much more balanced affair where each player takes the role of a bacteria or viral disease whose task is to infect and impact as many countries as possible. Ndemic Games first released this as a concept online and as a computer game and converted it to a board game in 2016.
Life back then seemed a little more straightforward. The base game was released before Brexit cast the United Kingdom as the pariah of Europe, the USA had yet to endure four years of Trump’s “America First policy” and China and India had grown sufficiently to flex their economic muscles- and that is before even mentioning the C word! The standard game encourages players to generate DNA points [victory points] through spreading diseases across the globe. These can be “spent” to allow your organism to mutate and develop new traits in the hope of becoming more infective or lethal. For gamers with a “black humour” this is an excellent area control game that has a solo challenge too.
Fast forward to the start of 2019. The Armageddon Expansion is launched to bring Plague Inc even more up to date. It was released just before the COVID-19 pandemic but the themes and challenges of spreading a pandemic are just as real, if not more so.
What Does It Add?
In the Plague Inc base game just four players select whether to play as a bacterial or viral disease. As a slightly larger family we are always on the hunt for games that play for higher counts. With an extra set of disease tokens and a fifth player board, the expansion gives us all the chance to select a crazy name for our disease and to try to wipe out humanity. Humans have been plagued by other forms of disease for millennia.
Armageddon adds fungal and human-produced bioterrorist infections into the armoury. These new vectors can acquire extra traits, making them more effective or lethal. Most of all, this adds to the replayability. In the standard game the best approach is to establish a strong base within one continent and then spread out. These pathogens enable spread and infectivity earlier with extra transmission. This will affect how players approach the game.
World events have been considered and extra country cards have been added to the deck. Global warming has taken hold and Greenland is now affected by heat resistant organisms! Brexit has left the UK splendidly isolated. It is a stand alone little island, disconnected from its European neighbours. Similarly, the USA has built its wall and is refusing to allow transport links in or out directly. The rise of India as a global power is recognised with a much larger population to be infected. These little additions all make the situation in Plague Inc: Armageddon so much more real.
The basic premise of the game has not changed. However, Armageddon brings extra end game bonus opportunities, helping reward more players with large player counts. Where it does improve gameplay is in the addition of new gene effects. Once, during the game, players can upgrade their pathogen by acquiring a new permanent ability. These gene effects may be minor [recessive genes] or significant [dominant genes].
The game adds up to six extra genes that can be claimed. The first player to infect and claim a country triggers this effect. The player with the highest DNA points [at that stage of the game] gets to choose their gene effect, the second highest selects the next gene and so on until everyone has upgraded their disease. Some of these gene effects will affect end game scoring [for example, score an additional 10 DNA points at the end of the game] whereas others will affect gameplay throughout [if you tie control of a country then only you have control].
The number of trait cards remains as five per player [initially]. This too can be changed by the gene effects, sometimes allowing players to gain extra trait cards when a country succumbs to their disease. The extra trait cards do duplicate those within the base game to allow a fifth player to play. However, most of the new traits are particularly unpleasant and add extra lethality or infectivity! The more powerful cards still cost considerably more DNA points to be played.
Armageddon adds extra event cards to the deck. As before, these may be played before, during or after a player’s turn to improve their chances to score. The event cards have been updated. There is even an anti-vax card where every disease can add a pathogen to a specific country to affect disease load. Although released pre COVID, these cards are almost prophetic as the same sentiments are still being voiced around the world.
Thoughts About Plague Inc: Armageddon
The components of the expansion consist of additional cubes, with enough disease cards and extra pathogen cards to play for five. Together with the additional countries, event and trait cards, these all can be added to the base game box. At least this expansion does not occupy unnecessary shelving space.
We acquired this expansion to enable us to play Plague Inc with five. With 30 country cards [as suggested in the rules] this does mean that just seven turns in total may be played before sudden death and end-game scoring occurs. When playing with four, the nine rounds seem to allow more time for you to develop your pathogen more successfully. My concern was that playing with five means there can be a “downtime” between turns.
Sometimes it is not possible to plan moves in advance as the world map changes after each player’s turn. Inevitably this will lengthen the time taken for each round and does lengthen the game. We do not mind this although for others, playing with five may be a little unusual.
Plague Inc with the Armageddon expansion is perfect with three or four. This sweet spot gives enough time for players to develop their traits on the pathogens and acquire enough DNA points to purchase the more extreme disease upgrades. For us, playing with five, we choose to use all of the country cards. Although this may make for a longer game, there is much more interaction and sufficient time to develop genetic traits for our diseases to make the game much more enjoyable. For us, a five- player game will take about 90 minutes.
The expansion cards fit seamlessly into the base game. This does not feel “tacked on” at all. The little elements of humour regarding the country and event cards give the game a more contemporary feel. The issues about quarantine and protecting health services seem particularly poignant at the moment.
The key addition is the genetic ability trades. These can have a significant bearing on the outcome of the game. The clever mechanic is to decide when to trigger this event. The maximum benefit is had by the player with the highest DNA score at that time. This may not be the player who has just triggered the event by capturing the first country. Indeed, in getting to that point, most players will have been spending DNA points to boost their pathogen’s abilities. This opens the way for players who are not as strong to get the pick of the genes. We prefer playing with the dominant genes as these can be more aggressive as opposed to the subtle, recessive genes.
People might ask if the Armageddon expansion is worth it. This does depend on what players want from Plague Inc. It certainly allows a five- player game of fun, but perhaps at the expense of slower gameplay. The added traits, countries and events whilst a little more up to date, are virtually indistinguishable from the original cards. The only element is the permanent genetic variability and new pathogen types.
The two extra diseases, fungi and bioterrorism do add an interesting spin. Whilst they might be more deadly, this can actually hamper a disease’s ability to spread. The lethality removes a country completely so there is less opportunity to remain a problem. In medical terms we would say that diseases that are more infective but with no symptoms are often the more difficult ones to curtail.
I was quite concerned about the balance of the game with four different competing pathogens in play. Ndemic have certainly done their homework. Having played a few five player games, and ones with all four diseases at work, there is certainly no advantage given to players with the fungus or bioterrorism pathogens. These asymmetric powers certainly increase replayability and keep Plague Inc fresh.
So aside from the relatively minor additions, Armageddon offers little more than a few extra pathogens. Some might say that the original base game is good enough to suffice. Anything more is just “gilding the lily”. Any gamer who has just the base game will probably be more than happy with what they have. The Armageddon expansion does add a few new suggestions and rule tweaks that are optional.
One variant we like is to introduce an auction at the stage of gene token distribution [after the first country has been overrun]. Rather than using DNA points to determine player selection, players can bid and pay for a single gene. This still gives the player with the most DNA points an advantage, but allows everyone to at least have a chance of winning the “stronger” genes.
The companion app provided by Ndemic is very helpful. It is useful for endgame scoring with bonuses. It also keeps a record of previous high scores, with statistics about countries and trait cards. There are a useful set of frequently asked questions and answers with downloadable copies of the rules to smooth gameplay.
Players new to Plague Inc would be best off trying to acquire the base game and Armageddon expansion as a combined bundle. At the time of writing there are some ridiculous deals which mean Armageddon [despite only a few tweaks to the base game] is a worthwhile addition. As a family we have amalgamated both into one and play only using the expansion. This adds to the enjoyment, the new traits are fun and we have the opportunity for all to play together.
Final Thoughts On Plague Inc: Armageddon
Expansions, for what is already a good game is a tricky one to call. Players who love Plague Inc would certainly enjoy the extra twists and mechanics. Similarly, if a five- player variant is essential then this is one to consider. For those curious about Plague Inc and have stumbled upon this review, my advice would be to buy both Plague Inc and the Armageddon expansion as a bundled package. This not only makes economic sense but then you can really enjoy all that the game has to offer.