I have been an enthusiastic fan of the board game Pandemic since I first played it in 2008. I like it because it involves cooperation and careful planning, which makes it a good way to talk to people through a game. For several years, I’ve been playing a lunchtime game once a week with friends. In 2013, Z-Man Games came out with a version of Pandemic for the iPad. It doesn’t have networked multiplayer capabilities, but it works very well as a solitaire game in which one person controls all the players in the game. I’ve played the iPad version extensively, and I started recording my games as a little science project to see if I could use experiments to support our debates about which Roles were strongest. (In many years I judge science fair projects for the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science for the school where Lori taught; I think that investigating a game like would be a totally legitimate and interesting science fair project.)
From the first 2000 games I’ve recorded, I have discovered that the Roles in Pandemic and its expansion On the Brink are balanced better than I had expected.
(I wrote this in Pages, and then pasted it to LiveJournal - but LJ ate my tables. If you want to see the original version, ask me and I'll send you a PDF.)
Conclusions and Further Work
With over 500 games each of 3P5E, 4P5E, and 5P5E, I have found no evidence that any Role outperforms any other. This is a great surprise to me, because I felt certain that some Roles were excellent and some were weak. I salute the designers for balancing the Roles so well.
For future work, I’d like to measure the effects of playing with a Role that was obviously weaker. Consider a “Civilian” Role with no special abilities. This Role would obviously be inferior to any Role that did have special abilities; how many games would it take to prove statistically that it was inferior? I have considered trying to simulate this by marking one player as a Civilian and never using any special powers. But the Medic, Containment Specialist, and Quarantine Specialist have powers enforced by the game, so it would be hard to play one of those as a Civilian.
But in the immediate future, I’m more likely to investigate another path: The creators have just added the Virulent Strain Challenge to the game. I assume that I’m less likely to win with the Virulent Strain Challenge than without – but how much more difficult is it? In particular, how does the difficulty of a five-Epidemic game with Virulent Strain compare to the difficulty of a six-Epidemic game?
One final conclusion: I am still really enjoying playing Pandemic. And I have some numbers that shed a light on why. It comes down to the difference between victorious games and easy games. Even with my years of experience, over half of my games (with 5P5E) land in the zone where I win, but I feel I win only with cleverness and a bit of luck. That is my sweet spot for cooperative games, and Pandemic hits that sweet spot again and again.