Matt Leacock’s Pandemic board game keeps spreading and mutating across the tabletop world, so that it’s now a brand of its own. The base game, still the granddaddy of all cooperative games, has several expansions; has spawned the most successful legacy games to date, now entering Season 2; and has led to spinoff games where players might play as the diseases rather than trying to cure them, or where players roll dice to try to fight the diseases, or fight H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu while staving off insanity.
Z-Man Games’s latest brand extension to Leacock’s hit, Pandemic: Rising Tide, takes the game’s core mechanic and brings it to an entirely new theme. In Rising Tide, there are no diseases to fight—the enemy is water, and the board has a map of the Netherlands, covered with dikes and water cubes. Most of the game’s mechanics will be familiar to players of the original Pandemic game, but there are a couple of novel twists that make this enough of a new experience to make it worth adding to your collection.
Here’s what’s familiar: Players take on different roles, collect cards representing the map’s regions in four different colors, and try to remove cubes from the board while also gathering five cards per color to complete each of the four main tasks. Movement is almost identical to the base game—you can move to an adjacent region for one action, or discard a region card to go there, or discard the card of the region where you’re standing to move anywhere on the board. There are Storm cards, like Epidemic cards, where you draw a card from the bottom of the region deck, remove dikes and/or add water cubes (for a total of three), and perhaps deal with floods, where water cubes spill over to adjacent regions. Many roles are similar to those in the original Pandemic, although movement has been made a bit easier, as the map has a few areas that players can cross but that can’t take water because they’re “high elevation.”
After the player uses all four actions, s/he draws two Player cards, which may trigger a Storm, and then the player draws cards from the Dike Failure deck, which includes two cards for every region on the board (as opposed to just one per city in Pandemic). Players remove one dike from each region drawn from this deck; if the region shown has no dikes remaining, players add a water cube to it, which of course may lead to flooding. (That’s bad.)
The biggest difference between Rising Tide and the original Pandemic (or related titles Forbidden Desert and Forbidden Island) is the “water flows” step, which makes controlling the spread of water more difficult than controlling the spread of the diseases in the parent game. At the end of every turn, players must look for any region with two or more water cubes on it. If a region has two water cubes, then every adjacent region that isn’t protected by a dike must have at least one cube; if one of them has zero, the players add a cube to it. If a region has three water cubes, then every adjacent region must have at least two cubes. Because the board also has two sea regions which players can’t enter or clear—although you can convert the smaller sea into a low-elevation region by completing the Purple building—that means that at the end of each turn, every coastal region that doesn’t have a dike protecting its border with the sea will have at least one cube on it when the sea level is at two, two cubes when the sea level rises to three, and three cubes when the sea level rises to four. If you need to place a water cube and there are none left in the supply, which starts at 36, then you lose the game.
Pandemic had outbreaks, so Rising Tide has floods: If a region has three water cubes and you need to add another cube to it, the water spills over into every adjacent, low-elevation region that isn’t protected by dikes. The loss condition of eight outbreaks from Pandemic has no analogue here, although if you get eight floods you’re probably finished anyway. Although you set the game up with all 50 dikes on the board, by the time the first player takes his/her turn, you’ll have removed some number of them, as many as 27, which makes flooding possible more or less from the get-go. (You also get to place dikes in new locations that weren’t filled at the beginning, depending on where disaster is most impending, so losing some at the start isn’t entirely bad.)
On each player’s turn, s/he gets four actions to use on any of the possible moves, including moving to an adjacent region, building a dike, pumping out water (removing a cube), building a Pumping Station that will remove a cube every turn (by moving to a region and playing that region’s card from your hand), exchanging a card with another player if you’re both in the same region shown on the card, and so on. There are no research stations; you can build ports on regions and move from anywhere to a port, even if the region where your pawn is doesn’t have a port. To build any of the four structures required to win the game, you must move to those four specific regions and discard five cards of the correct color. Each of those buildings then gives you a one-time bonus, like adding several dikes to the yellow region, removing a number of water cubes from the green region, or closing off the Zuiderzee sea to make it a low-elevation region.
The players win by building all four structures, but they lose if they run out of water cubes or if the deck of Player cards is exhausted. As you might expect, the latter is a bit easier to achieve than the former; the water cubes multiply like Tribbles if you don’t focus on pumping them and putting dikes and pumping stations in the affected areas. Pandemic: Rising Tide does offer a short learning curve for anyone who’s played the original game, because so much of the mechanics are the same, but there are more than enough tweaks and additions to consider this a separate game in its own right, not just a retheming (or a money grab, not that that would ever happen in the gaming world). Games take about an hour and, as with Pandemic itself, you can definitely play this with kids as young as eight. It’s perfect if you want a cooperative game that’s as good as Pandemic but offers something novel too.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.