When this subject began I was daunted at the concept of creating a board game. It was only a little while later that I walked in on my brother playing Pandemic on his own. He had figured out a way to play Pandemic differently. It reminded me that together we had done just that several years ago. Bored on a cruise, my brother and I changed the rules of Pandemic. We were inspired by the iOS game Plague Inc. One of us played as the virus and the other, as the cooperative team. We made it both competitive and cooperative. Remembering this experience led me to do it again (and write it down this time)
Before I actually began I researched to discover whether this project was justifiable.
There are a lot of expansion packs for this game. As a result, there are a lot of different ways to play Pandemic for those who want to change their board game experience. There is even an expansion that allows you to play as a disease (like my mod does). I believe that my mod is still justifiable despite this pre-existing content for two reasons.
- It’s free. From my understanding of the industry, I know that people don’t usually hesitate to throw money at board games. That’s why expansions are possible. There is a demand and people are willing to pay. Part of the appeal of my mod is that people can play without spending money going and getting the expansion. It also lets people change up the playing style in the middle of a games night (for example). They won’t need to jump online and buy another box or head to the shops. They can just open their phones and load the pdf. My modification is an easy, free way to meet the demand of the expansion packs.
- It’s different. The expansion linked above, Pandemic: On the Brink, allows players to play as a virus. The difference is that this expansion simply adds a second virus and with it, a new character. My mod actually adjusts the rules of the game. These changes allow for someone to play as the Pandemic without any extra pieces, players or roles.There are also games similar to my mod. Pandemic: Contagion is a different game created by the Pandemic team. This game has players play as the pandemic. The difference here is that only get to play as the pandemic. This game is similar to Plague Inc’s board game (set to release July 2020). My mod is different from them both. My mod builds on Pandemic. It gives players the cooperative experience they love but with a competitive twist.
My rules have undergone three different prototypes.
- The rough draft. During my first playtests, my brother and I worked to figure out the rules. During these playthroughs, I took notes on rule changes and different elements/mechanics that needed work. It was simply a few pieces of paper that I used for all of my initial games with my brother.
- The word document. To create my rule book I copied all of the instructions from the Pandemic rulebook and collated them in a word document. From there I added my notes from the rough draft in the appropriate places. I also took out the appropriate points. I didn’t print this out as I brought it to the rest of my playtests. I was able to articulate the rules clearly to all playing (even to those who hadn’t ever played Pandemic before). I was also able to edit the document as issues or flaws were found and resolved.
- The final book. I then copied my completed game into an Adobe Illustrator file which I then designed as a complete book. I chose to colour all Pandemic Player text in red so that people familiar with Pandemic but looking for the new rules would find it easier. I chose this colour because, according to design principals, red is “attention-getting”, “energizing” and “stimulating” (Fogelström, 2013). This final prototype has yet to be printed and brought out at a play-test. The intention is that these rules would be available as a PDF online. They could also be turned into a small Ebook that could be accessed on smartphones and tablets.
I’ve had four main play-testing experiences.
- My first play-test as seen in my Beta was how my brother and I came up with the rules. My brother is far better at the game than I and so I relied heavily on his understanding to ensure that we were playing the original rules properly. We sat down around the pandemic board and played 6 games until we had a set of rules that resembled a fair, workable game. In these 6 games (each one taking varying amounts of time) I created my first prototype.
- Following the beta pitch, I created my second prototype. With this set of rules, I brought the game to a (COVID safe) gathering with some friends. My brother was with me. Together we taught the group to play our version of the game. This group had a combination of people who had played the original Pandemic and those who had not. This was a great test to see if my rules made sense to someone who had never played the game before. They did but the group had many questions. Questions aren’t inherently bad but they made me realise that I needed to tighten up the rules I had added. I needed them to make more sense. One of the people in this group is quite an experienced board game player (with an extensive collection). He read my rules and helped me make some adjustments. One of the issues from this playlets was a call for a better balance between the Pandemic player and the Team Players. It was after this playtest that I extended the outbreak marker trail. Originally the rules state that once the Outbreak Marker reaches the 8th position that the game is over. Following feedback from this playtest, I changed extended this time limit mechanic by another 8 positions.
- The following week I brought the game to a new group. I performed this test without my brother. It was mostly successful. The extended time limit was helpful and made the game last longer. The Team Players felt like they had a chance but they still lost. Truthfully, we were playing an adaptation of the hardest difficulty of the game. I had taken out the lower difficulties in the creation of the rules for playability. This group had all played the original game before and so it was easier for them to learn the new rules. Despite this, the Team Players did not win. At this point, the Pandemic player had never lost. I was really struggling with balance with my new rules. I found that AI has been developed and is in widespread use in video game software to balance the games being created. Hom and Marks from Harvard University changed the rules to already balanced games such as checkers and chess in 2007. They then used one of these balancing AIs to adjust the rules. In Automatic Design of Balanced Board Games Hom and Marks found “how novel games can be tested through self-play with a general game-playing engine using a very simple notion of challenge and interest: how much advantage moving first of second confers, and how likely the game is to be drawn.” (Hom and Marks, 2007) I bring this up because I realise I would have seriously benefited from their technology. Instead, I altered another rule. To balance the game further I added a 5th possible action to the Team Players characters. I did not get an opportunity to test this until my next Play-test.
- Finally, my friends had a poker night and I was able to play my game first. None of them had played the original before yet my rules had been refined enough to be understandable. I attempted to not input too much to see if the rules were understandable. Because they were so similar to the original they’d managed to maintain their clarity. I made a few adjustments in the Pandemic Action section afterwards but other than that it was clear for them. The added action improved the Team player’s odds exponentially and they actually almost won. I believe that if they were more experienced players they would have done just that.
I do not believe that Pandemic: Inc is finished. I’m not sure what the final balancing rules need to be but I haven’t published my rules online as a final pdf because I am yet to have a game in which the Pandemic loses. The only way to achieve this is to have more consistent playtesting. Just as the AI plays the game over and over, testing for balance so I need to do the same. I have learnt that I needed to get one group to do what my brother and I did in that first play-test. Play the game 6 times with these amended rules. Despite this result, I have found that my game is playable and actually fun. Each group member has given positive feedback alongside the constructive feedback which was extremely helpful.