Just about every cooperative board game out there fits one of two categories: either you’re all working together to solve a crime or mystery, or you’re playing some variation of Pandemic. Since Matt Leacock brought that game to the world in 2008, the basic framework he built for a cooperative game has shown up in his own spinoffs and rethemed Pandemic variants, and in other games that put new themes and occasionally new mechanics around it, like Flash Point: Fire Rescue.
If Pandemic were about Deepwater Horizon and attempts to contain its oil spill and limit the damage, you’d get The Spill, which had a successful Kickstarter in 2021 and went out to backers earlier this year. The Spill adds several new elements to Pandemic’s bones to create a clever and difficult challenge where players have to clean up oil in the form of dice that spread randomly around the board while trying to save marine animals before too many are injured by the spreading goop.
The Spill follows the basic template of this type of cooperative game well enough that if you’ve played any variety of Pandemic, you’ll get the rhythm immediately. A plastic tower sits in the middle of the board, representing the leaking oil rig, and at the beginning of every player’s turn, you’ll drop three to five dice into the top and let them fall into the four pens around the base of the tower. The board around the tower has four quadrants and 24 total sectors, so you take each die and place it in the quadrant where it fell on the sector matching the number rolled on the die. Each sector can hold up to three dice before you get a “spill out”—which is the equivalent of an outbreak—and any subsequent dice that would need to go into that section spill into the next one clockwise. Every player gets a role card with some specific added power, with some more clearly useful (the Risk Manager) than others (the Meteorologist).
Each player then has four action points (AP) to do things—again, just like in Pandemic. Moving one or two sectors costs you one AP, as does moving a healthy animal from your sector to the players’ board. You can “push” an oil die back into the bag for one AP, or remove it permanently for three AP, placing it on the players’ board as well; every three dice you remove this way gain you a bonus. If an oil die goes on a space with an animal in it, that animal becomes “contaminated” and you flip the token to the dirty side. You have one turn to rescue it for two AP, or you must move it to the Sick Bay on the main board. Any player may also choose to gain one or two AP on their turn for a penalty—the next player must add one or two dice to the tower to start their turn.
You lose The Spill if you get six spill outs, or if you get a set of all six animals in the sick bay, or if you get three of the same animal in the sick bay. You win if you match all of the conditions on your victory card, or if you manage to empty the bag of dice without losing. You choose a victory condition card at the start of the game from the difficulty level of your choosing, with most involving rescuing some number of contaminated animals, rescuing several complete sets of six different marine animals, and removing some number of oil dice from the game permanently.
Every three oil dice you remove gets you a bonus cube to place on the four Resource cards you gained at the start of the game. These require anywhere from one to three cubes to be activated, after which any player can use the card at any time for free (it doesn’t require an AP). You then discard and replace it with a new card from the top of the deck. Those cubes are hard to acquire, so you may only get to use one or two Resource cards even in a full game, but because removing oil dice is both critical to surviving the game and tied to most winning conditions, this serves as an extra incentive to use your action points for this purpose.
The winning conditions are a bit fiddly, and the one part of The Spill that takes me out of the game experience. Pandemic—and it’s really impossible to avoid the comparisons here—has a very clear win condition, curing all four diseases. Forbidden Island and Desert require you to collect stuff and escape. The Spill’s feature of variable win conditions is a net positive, because it makes the challenge slightly different each time and lets you tailor the game to your desired difficulty level. The nature of those conditions, however, is less than intuitive.
Whether you like The Spill will likely boil down to your interest in further Pandemic-like games—this is Pandemic with a new theme and a few very modest rule twists. The way the dice spread is very clever, and the combination of that feature and the shape of the board means that you’re going to lose some marine animals to contamination without having any chance to stop it, a faster sense of things spiraling out of control than I associate with any other games of this ilk. It’s also reasonably difficult even on the simplest settings, with the one-star victory conditions cards and the number of oil dice you drop in the tower on each turn starting at three. It’s very Pandemic-like, but to me that’s a huge plus, especially with a couple of positive tweaks and a theme that really works.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.