Plague Inc – Review, Is it Infectious Enough?

Designer; James Vaughan          Pubished by; Ndemic Creations              Art by; Collette Tarbuck

If you own a smartphone, at some point you would have probably downloaded and played a small strategy game called Plague Inc, unless your are my wife and only use her super-powerful handheld PC to look up medical conditions or houses on the market we can’t afford to buy!
Plague Inc is an iOS game I still play now, and used to be a web browser game before that. You play a bacteria or virus with only one objective… to kill off the human population, and by goodness it’s addictive. With the element of one more go, I was so close that time, if only I had done this, I can do it next time and end the reign of the bipedal homo-sapiens.
Not being content with owning and destroying planet Earth in digital form, the developer of the app decided to turn their creation into an analogue version and launched it on Kickstarter (we did talk about it on the podcast last year,) and it was successfully funded and delivered to backers early this year. Our man Sam, owns a KS copy, My copy I’m using here is from Meeples’ Corner.
Plague Inc the board game, is much the same as the app, you are still “bacterial” trying to rid the world of the dirty humans, but you are competing against other infectious diseases played by your soon to be contaminated friends. But they won’t be your friends for long, after a few rounds of this “in your face”, take that game. There is a lot of back stabbery in this small box. However compared to the app this is a very slimmed down version with basic gameplay. 

What do I mean by this? 

In the app you have many choices in how you develop your virus. You have no control how it moves. You have to add traits to make it strong enough to survive hot and cold climates and be carried by the elements to be passed on to other humans. There is a whole tech tree from which to choose your biological arsenal. You can build these further to be able to survive harsher temperatures and travel faster and further. In the board game, there is no tech tree, there are only cards that allow you do stuff (I will explain this later). However both games use DNA in a similar way, you collect DNA for doing stuff or doing well and you can spend DNA to upgrade yourself to be better. In the cardboard form, the DNA is also your victory score as well, so be wise how you spend it, I do like games that use’s this system, like Medici where your currency is also your victory points.
So how do you play Cardboard Plague Inc? 
After the game is setup, see the picture, Players will run through a number of phases. First, collecting DNA points for countries they control and other bonuses. You then pick a county card which you can place on the board in the right continent area or discard it to draw a new hand of traits cards. Once this is done you can play a trait card from your hand and pay the cost in DNA, afterwards, you will infect countries you are connected to or can link to via ports. Finally you will roll a D6 die against any countries that are full of infection cubes and you have majority control over to see if their government collapses in a boil ridden coughing fit. Then play goes to the next player. This will continue until all counties cards have been played out which is a set amount at the beginning of the game, and after some end game scoring the winner is the person with the most DNA points.
(In this review I mainy talk about playing as the Bateria if you want to know about the virus side then you read about this at the end of the review.)

In the beginning there a sneeze
Starting with collecting DNA points, like any other currency collection aspect in a game, it can sometimes seem to advantage dominate players. Phase 2 Picking a country card; is an interesting part of the game, it is the timer for the game end, but it also gives you a choice you have to make. You could place a country on the board but you might not befit from it and inadvertently boost your opponents, or you can choose to discard it. “Do that!” I hear you say? well if you choose to discard a card you also have discard your whole hand of trait cards and redraw to a hand of 5 cards again. “Whats wrong with that?” I hear you say again! Well put it like this; what if you liked your hand of cards? You risk getting rid of cards you do want and drawing cards you don’t like and becoming unstuck, and you have to discard all your trait cards, you can’t hold any back! You could then get into a vicious cycle of discarding more cards on your next turn in the hope of drawing the card/s you need. Not only that, when you do play a trait card down (in the next phase of your turn) you don’t draw up any new cards to replace it. You have to discard a country card to replenish your hand. This I love! Knowing at some point you will need to replenish your hand of trait cards, but the country cards that are out are all in your favour.
Can I get an upgrade?
This is a simple process, if you have an enough DNA points you can play any card down onto your player board in one of the slots. Eachplayer has a player board with 5 slots on them. Two of these slots already have abilities on them. One gives the player an extra DNA point at the collecting points phase and the other is to help with infection, I’ll come back to this. So you can place an upgrade in any spot you want but if you cover up any ability or another triat card you lose it. The nice bit about this all, the DNA you spent upgrading yourself on these traits will be added back on to your finial score at the end of the game. “Great, I can spend and upgrade on what ever I want!” Yes and No. You only have 5 slots available and if you fill them all and want to play a better upgrade well you have to devolve one card, and that is as simple as discarding a card from your board, but you don’t get the points back for it. so you do have to be wise how you spend DNA. 
Another point, the designer could have opted for a complex player board with a tech tree, like I have seen in some civilisation games, but plague inc designers are not daft, they want families, friends and their app users to feel comfortable playing this game, so they kept it simple. Going back to the beginning of the review when I said they used cards in a basic fashion, these cards only have a few things on them. A name for a start but this is only fluff in a sense, the cost in DNA points of course and the important bits the abilities or upgrades and these are basic, slimmed down attributes and there are only 6 to worry about. Sea and Airports allow you link to different continents. Hot and cold allow you to infect countries with harsh climates, + infection and + fatality. Each card could have 1 to 3 traits on them and they could be same and different. So you might have the dilemma later on in the game when a card you played earlier can be replaced with a better card but you will lose the points by discarding the old trait. Decisions, Decisions.
How infectious are you?
Well, that is determined on your board. You all start the game a number of coloured cubes and starting county with one of your cubes on it. Also you have a +2 infection at the beginning; meaning you get to place 2 of your cubes out on the board into cities in counties you are connected to, via same continent or link through ports. Each country has a different number of spaces (cities) on them, this is where the infection cubes go, one per city. Now there can be times you can’t place out cubes and become stuck, this is where the other ability preprinted on your board come into action; it allows you to move one of your cubes on the world map to anywhere in another country even if its restricted. this is so handy if you do get boxed into a corner.
Roll the die of death, Literally.
If a country is full (all cities have cubes in them) and if you have majority control of that country (you have the most cubes in the country) you roll the D6 and see if you destroy that country. Like with infection, you start with +1 fatality meaning if you roll a 1, that country is destroyed. which even in the early game is easy to do on a D6. however, saying that, Micheal at gaming night, couldn’t roll a number low enough to this and this lost him the game by a long way. You can upgrade your fatality rating with trait cards increasing the odds. This was a route Claire (my wife) took, by having the “total organ failure” card and increasing roll to 5+ fatality. She then went on to wipe the world board clean. 
On destroying, a country you collect the card to keep and every player in the country gets a point for each of their cubes in it and also gets an event card, which are diabolically good, and you can play these at any convenient moment; but you can also discard them for a DNA point.
If there was one thing I didn’t like about this game it was this die roll. As I said it’s easy to roll a 1 at the beginning of the game, and this could have been sharpened up to be more reliant on abilities rather than pure luck. E.g. each country has a fatality braking point and you build up your strength to kill off countries with trait cards and then also roll a die to modify your fatality rating. The die can lead to a number frustrating leads, but be able to roll the right number for you to kill off the country just so you gain some cubes back just you can spread out more next turn. But this isn’t to say I dislike the game because of this, I forgive this mechanic because the rest of the game is so fun. 
Plague Inc. The Board Game is really an easy game to play, I put it up there with pandemic and ticket to ride, it could even be a gate-way game for area control games, that is its essence, area control with take that! But it is simple and fun, plus it’s very quick to play as well, there can be a bit of down time between turns but that can be mitigated by having a vaccine needle handy, a quick prick with it will ensure the speedy recovery from AP. I’m kidding, but having the bed manners of a doctor close to retirement helps too.  I have found in a few games that seem to be a continuous cycle of discarding a country card to be able to refresh your hand of trait cards, and it becoming frustrating to not get a flight or water trait to allow you to move to a different continents. But that is what that ability on your player mat is for as well. It’s sometimes a good tactic to move a cube of yours to a country that has a hot or cold climate early game, guaranteed bonus DNA points for you. 
The lone Bacteria
Yes, this game comes with a solo mode, for you losers, kidding I do sometimes solo it. I do find in some games that has a solo mode, you are following a programme set rules of how the AI bot works and it never changes. (The best solo mechanic I played is in Scythe) In Plague Inc. it is still a programmed Plague Bot but there is a real random method too. You setup the game the same way and your turn will play out the same as well, the PB has a sliding board in which each turn a random trait is placed in a left-hand slot and pushes the rest of cards to right and the 5th far right is push off the board and is discarded. Then you go through each card left to right do each trait in turn, top to bottom, and this basically tells you to add a cube, almost anywhere you can. Oh, and the PB get all the other unused player’s cubes, is means once it builds up a nice set of cards it dominates the world and with fatality trait, it kills off the country with the most cities and then scores 2 points for every one of its cubes involve. It is bone hard to beat this AI method is a good challenge. 
In all, the development team stuck true to the roots of the digital version and made a board game that is close to it, that feels clean and simple. They kept in mind that they wanted everyone and anyone to play this, and not go with a complicated design. Using the unique design choice of the country cards as a great way of creating the map and not having a fixed world map is clever. This adds a real random element the to game because some countries won’t come out and you don’t know in what order they will come out. So you can only plan when you see them, and it is possible that a continent never has a country turn up. 
I also haven’t mentioned that the components are top quality, it is possibly aided by the fact it was a Kickstarter and so there were many upgrades due to stretch goals. Compared to the Kickstarter version the retail version, this is not missing out on much, a couple of extra cards which is no biggy and a 5th player expansion, but I don’t know if I want to play with 5 players, Sam told me there was a lot of downtime.
If you want a fun, nice looking, area control game with a high element of take that! then pick up a copy and add it to your collection. However, is it an infectious boil of gaming puss increasing in size and about to exploded and infect the rest of society, with fun and enthusiasm? (will this be around and hold a place like the classics) We will see. I like it alot, for what it is: fast, fun and simple, but I can also see it getting a bit stale and samey with the same trait and event cards always being played. But if you have friend or family that has played the game on their phones then this is a good gate way game to get them to try the hobby.
 Bacteria Vs Virus
I recently was able to play as the Virus which is on the reverse side of your player board and found its abilities more rewarding and enjoyable. You still have the ability to move one of your cubes anywhere on the map instead of infecting normally. But you get 2 others; the first allows you to instead of playing a trait from your hand to your board, you can draw the top one from the trait deck and if it has cost of 3 DNA points or lower you get to play it. The second allows to swap out trait cards on your board and only pay the difference. The first is so-so, the second is wonderful it gives so much flexibility, if you have a good hand you can just swap around cards to suit your needs and you don’t lose points in the process, well you might if you swap out a high-value card for a low one, but you can also swap back towards the end of the game. 
I wouldn’t play this as a mixed game, all players should play as bacteria or the Virus because the Virus seems to have an advantage over the bacteria, even though the Bateria player gains extra DNA, I don’t think it adds up to even out over the game. I might be corrected by a mathematician who could show me the working out. But in the future I would also opt to play as the Virus as there was more to it, however, you could use the Bacteria as a handy cap for more experienced players.

Written By Joel Wright

Edited by Dr Lewis Jones
Photo by Joel Wright