Plague Inc: The Board Game Review

For today’s board game review, we will look at yet another Kickstarter success story which, not only funded, but did so by over 1,000%, convincing upwards of 6,500 backers to part with their cash. Unlike most games, however, players are not battling to save the world against an evil overlord or working together to cure a deadly disease that’s turned the human race into cannibalistic zombies, nothing as heroic as that on this occasion. Today, you will be learning how to wipe out humanity by evolving your deadly virus & bacteria and spread them across the globe to unsuspecting victims. This is Plague Inc. by Ndemic Creations, so let’s find out if it will invade and infect the wider gaming world or be cured and banished from existence.

Plague Inc. began life in 2012 as a real-time strategy game that literally caused a pandemic among iOS & Android users, with over 85 million players downloading the game and has proved a massive success for UK-based Ndemic Creations. However, transferring computer game mechanics onto the tabletop whilst designing Plague Inc. to play as a 1-4 multiplayer game rather than solitaire against the AI could prove tricky. We’ll revisit the game mechanics shortly, but first, let’s look at the components.

The box is very well designed and is pretty much the perfect size for the components that it’s required to hold, which are nicely separated by the cardboard inlay. The red and pink colours used are vibrant and eye catching with the ‘Plague’ symbol pushing out in the forefront. The box bottom shows the game fully set up, as well as giving a short intro and all the usual information that you’d expect.

The rule book is A4 size and kept to just 8 pages. It fully explains game setup with the use of a coloured & numbered diagram, as well as explaining the five phases of a player’s turn. Again, all this is achieved with very clear and concise dialogue whilst using easy to understand diagrams. The book also explains the end-game, the scoring system, optional rules and answers some commonly asked questions.

All in all, the rule book is extremely well designed and put together, which is always appreciated by players and reviewers alike. The evolution slides and player mats are of very much the same quality as the rulebook. Everything is laid out in a sensible and easy to understand way whilst giving the player all the information that they will need during their turn. The slide gives the bacteria’s core traits, its bonus ability and its evolution spaces which players will cover with trait cards as the game progresses. At the far end of the slide, it also has a turn summary which walks you through the five phases of play. Again, a well-designed component that makes players’ lives easier during game play. Ndemic are doing well so far.

The game board is massively simple and emphasises more than any other component just how abstract Plague Inc. is. It simply consists of a red/pink map of Earth which has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on how the game is played or understood. The actual usable spaces of the board are the six overlaid continent spaces, such as Europe, South America and Africa. These spaces or boxes are used to hold the country cards that will be drawn during gameplay.  Purely from a game mechanics point of view, they are a very clever and simple idea which helps keep the board neat & orderly. Bordering the game board is the scoring tracker, which is where players will add & remove DNA points throughout the game. That’s it, game board explained.

The game is card driven and uses three different types of cards, which are country cards, trait cards and event cards. The country cards will show one country, such as China, the number of cities within China and its transport links to other countries, either an airport or seaport. These cards are placed in the relevant continent spaces on the board. The trait cards are used to evolve your bacteria or virus and placed on the evolution slides to increase its infectivity or lethality, allowing it to be airborne or waterborne, making it heat or cold resistant and so on. Each trait card has its own title which tells the player how the virus has evolved, such as sneezing, blindness, psychosis and many more delightful symptoms.

The event cards are used at varying points of a player’s turn and will immediately trigger an event or action. For example, DNA Flow will give the player x4 extra DNA points at the start of their turn, whilst Neutralise allows a player to prevent an action on an event card that an opponent is trying to play. Whilst all three types of cards are well designed and easy to understand, they are all devoid of any ‘real’ artwork, not so much on the event cards but certainly on the country and trait cards.

Another component included are the plague tokens, which players will use to take control of cities and show how their virus is spreading. My favourite component is the death dice, which is a standard white D6 decorated with splatters of blood, a rare bit of aesthetics to lighten the mood.

Game set-up is relatively quick, each player will take an evolution slide and matching coloured plague tokens along with five random trait cards and one random starting country card. The remaining country deck is placed face down with the top three turned over beside it. The event and trait decks are placed face down. The starting country cards are placed on the board with one plague token from the player’s stock to simulate the origin of your bacteria.

The objective of the game is to place plague tokens in counties, once all the cities in that country have been filled, then the country is killed off and DNA points are awarded. The player with the most DNA points at the end wins.

As previously stated, there are five phases of play to a player’s turn; all these phases are played through consecutively before the next player starts their turn. For the benefit of this playthrough explanation, we’ll play as bacteria, although I will explain the difference between it and the virus variant later.

In phase one, you will count up the countries in which you have control, this means that you occupy the most cities with your plague tokens within that country. You will score one point for each country that you have control over, plus an extra point for bacteria’s special ability, which is Bonus DNA. These points are added to the DNA points track.

In phase two, the player will choose one of the three face up country cards and place it on the game board or discard it to draw a new hand of trait cards. Both actions can be important during gameplay, as choosing to play the country card opens up more opportunities for your bacteria to spread and earn more DNA points. However, if your hand of trait cards is pretty rubbish and of no use, then it gives the player a chance to refresh their hand and hope for something that will help. For example, Ukraine and Russia are on the board and open for infection, but you don’t have a resistant to cold trait card, such as Pneumonia.  This is where you might consider drawing five new trait cards instead of playing the country card.

Phase three allows you to evolve your bacteria by purchasing one trait card from your hand. Each trait card has a cost in the top left hand corner of the card ranging from two for Coughing right through to twenty-one for Total Organ Failure. To purchase a Trait card, the player must spend their DNA points on the DNA track then place the card on their evolution slide.

Apart from the aforementioned heat and cold resistance cards, evolving your bacteria is important so as to increase your Infectivity and Lethality. Infectivity is the number of cities that you can infect per turn using your plague tokens, whilst you’re Lethality becomes important in phase five.

Phase four is the Infection phase and is where you will place the number of plague tokens equal to your infectivity on cities that you are able to infect. A player is able to infect another city if it is connected either through airborne or waterborne or adjacent (same continent) to a city that already has one of that player’s tokens on it.

Phase five is the aptly named Death phase and is the time when players can try to kill off the countries in which they have control (determined in the same way as in phase one). This is where your Lethality comes into play, as well as the death dice. To kill off a country, you must roll the death dice; if you roll equal or lower of your Lethality, then the country is killed off. If the roll is greater than your Lethality, then the country survives, at least for one more round.

When a country is killed off, all players who have plague tokens in it receive DNA points equal to the number of tokens they have on it. Those tokens are returned to their respective players, and each of these players may draw an event card. The country card is removed from the board and kept by the player who successfully killed it.

The game comes with an End Game Bonus card that will give out extra points if a player meets certain criteria. This should always be looked at prior to starting the game, as it can massively influence strategy.

These five phases are repeated by each player until the country cards are exhausted and players are unable to take their turn. At this stage, final DNA points will be calculated and a winner named.

A few things to discuss before we go into our summary: Firstly, the event cards really do make for a varied game and add an extra level of competitiveness to a game that is pretty much player against board throughout; a few rule tweaks and Plague Inc. could easily be fully cooperative. Being able to prevent other players from preforming actions or events really helps spice things up.

Secondly, the alternative way to play instead of with the standard bacteria is the virus. The game is played in exactly the same manner, but instead of purchasing trait cards from your hand and evolving your bacteria the way you wish, the virus forces players to draw random trait cards which the player must purchase if able.

It also allows players to simply switch trait cards from the evolution slide to their hand and vice versa. This variant adds a lot of replayability by randomising a player’s strategy, although I think it highlights one of the game’s negative points. I would have liked to have seen a couple more variants to bacteria and a virus, each with their own personality and special abilities which I feel would have added that little bit extra to an already solid game.

Plague Inc. comes with single-player rules known affectionately as Plaguebot.  The game plays as it would with two or more players, but Ndemic have provided a handy Plaguebot mat which takes trait cards and auto evolves them over a number of rounds before discarding them. It is basically a conveyer belt of horrible symptoms but an extremely good idea by Ndemic to provide us with a solitaire mode.

A final thought, Plague Inc. does play really well, it has obviously been play tested rigorously to iron out any bugs (see what I did there) and allows the use of several strategies, whether you play as a virus or bacteria. Do I like the game? Yeah, it’s a good game with well-designed components, and I can totally understand why other reviewers would score it higher than I have, as mechanically it’s almost faultless, but the theme is so savage and so divisive it will just come down to personal taste.

Purchase your own copy of Plague Inc. by finding your local game store HERE or visit the Esdevium Games website HERE

Publisher –Ndemic Creations

Designer – James Vaughan

Artist – Collette Tarbuck

Release Date – November 2016

Plague Inc is a very light game when it comes to its mechanics, which work very well during game play. However, despite being ridiculously abstract in nature, the theme of the game will divide opinion amongst the masses. After all, you are playing as a deadly virus trying to wipe out humanity using traits such as Haemorrhagic Shock, Respiratory Failure and even Cannibalism. For me, if I had an hour to kill I think I would default to train routes & claiming routes with meeple’s etc ( I think you all know what I mean) rather than Plague Inc.