Boy, talk about bad (or very good) timing.
Pandemic: Hot Zone - North America is the newest game in the long-running Pandemic series, a range of best-selling classics that have been entertaining people around the world for years.
This latest entry was shown at Toy Fair in February, obviously commenced development a long time before that (in March 2019), and has thus been planned for release for over a year.
Then, you know, in between the game being designed and hitting shelves, all this happened.
In all my time on this job, I’ve never received an email from PR quite like the one I got from publishers Z-Man games about Hot Zone, asking me if I was comfortable covering the game, and acknowledging that, uh, holy shit, the game’s subject matter was suddenly and genuinely sensitive.
Knowing the game’s development pipeline and history I of course agreed to take a look, mostly because Pandemic is great, but partly because I’m just in absolute awe at the timing involved and wanted to see how close this game was cutting to Covid 19's bone.
The original Pandemic was inspired by the 2003 SARS outbreak, and based itself—like so much popular culture has over the last 30 years—on the idea that when faced with dangerous, invisible enemies the nations of the world would work together to help eradicate viruses and find a cure.
And so it’s almost tragic playing a game based on that same broad concept in 2020, now that we have an actual pandemic to compare it to, when nations we would expect to be showing global leadership—particularly the United States—have so badly bungled their response in almost every way.
Aaaaaaaaanyway, that’s enough about Hotzone’s unfortunate timing and subject matter, let’s move onto the game itself. The whole point of Hotzone is that it’s a shorter, smaller version of Pandemic, one that can be played in only 20-30 minutes and, crucially given my current lockdown situation, with young kids aged 8+. If you’ve played Ticket to Ride New York or London, you’ll be familiar with the brief: this is exactly the same game as its bigger sibling, there’s just less of it.
Which has both its benefits and its issues.
The benefits are pretty up-front. Pandemic is one of the best board games of the last 15 years, and while this is smaller and faster, it’s still at its heart the same game. Hotzone has been shrunk not by taking whole parts out of the game, or streamlining complicated rules, but simply by trimming numbers. There are less characters to choose from and less diseases to cure, but everything about them works exactly the same.
Well, almost. There are a few changes made to accommodate this slimmer design. You can now no longer completely eradicate a disease; even if you cure it and wipe it off the map it can still come back, because you only need to find three cures to win the game this time and that would make it too easy. Buildable research centres are also gone, as you can now only cure a disease at the CDC in Atlanta.
This means that playing Hotzone is pretty much identical to playing bigger Pandemic games, as you travel around North America eliminating outbreaks, researching cures, trading location cards with colleagues and trying to cure diseases before they get out of hand (and you lose the game).
And so the experience and emotions are the same too. Hotzone is tense, and cruel, and you’ll often lose in heart-breaking fashion, but those victories you do manage feel amazing. Pandemic’s core moment-to-moment feeling, that you’re rushing around the map in a co-operative race against time, is still very much present.
That’s an amazing achievement, but it also pigeonholes the game. If it’s the same experience as bigger versions, only it takes less time and is easier to explain, why not...just play the bigger versions? Sure this is a smaller, quicker Pandemic, but it’s still something you need to sit down with and get all the bits out for, so in some ways I actually think Hotzone’s brevity actually undermines it a little.
It felt less like a standalone game and more like a demo. Which, for publishers Z-Man, is likely the whole point of this. The full version of Pandemic is a proper, modern board game, and I guess for some people that can be intimidating, and trying to convince non-gaming friends and family to spend over an hour with something like that could be hard. With Hotzone, though, everything is smaller and quicker, so there’s less obstacles to getting them playing, and once they’ve played Hotzone, maybe they’ll want to move onto bigger Pandemic games.
Which if that’s your specific scenario—and I’ll be honest, it’s almost exactly mine, since I’d never have got my seven-year-old or my wife to play Pandemic otherwise—then this is perfect. For most other scenarios where you’d want to play a Pandemic game, though, maybe look at the full versions instead.