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Using Board Games for L&D: Pandemic

pandemic board game

Have you ever executed a solid plan with a team, only to watch it fall apart? Have you experienced wave after wave of bad luck? Have you celebrated the joy of triumph despite setback? You can experience all that with the board game: Pandemic.

About

First published in 2008, Pandemic is a board game about disease control. It requires players to contain and cure diseases and save the world from extinction.

The most striking feature of the game is that it is not competitive. Players do not play against each other, but cooperate against the board. Designer Matt Leacock started making the game in 2004, when he and his wife were tired of competing with each other. He’s also designed other cooperative games such as Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert.

How does the game work?

The game is usually played between 2-4 players, who play a role each. In the base game, there are 7 roles available, each with their own set of special abilities. The roles are – Medic, Researcher, Scientist, Dispatcher, Operations Expert, Contingency Planner, and Quarantine Specialist.

Breaking down each role is beyond the scope of this article. However, some roles are more powerful than others, so you can scale the difficulty of the game.

The story is simple. Four diseases have simultaneously broken out in different regions of the world. The players are an elite team attempting to stop these diseases and find their cures. They must work together to eradicate all four diseases to succeed.

The game uses several types of tokens, including:

  • a map of 48 cities,
  • 4 colours of disease cubes, and a corresponding cure token each,
  • role reference cards for each player, and
  • cards representing each of the 48 cities,
  • cards representing events, and
  • cards representing epidemics.

Each turn, a player gets four actions. They can travel, treat diseases, build research stations, share knowledge with the team, and research a cure. At the end of their turn, players receive city or event cards, or cause an outbreak (epidemic card). The end of the turn also causes more infections in random parts of the world, so every turn counts! Each role has powers that strengthen their different actions, so strategy is important.

Players lose the game if infections get out of hand (shown on an outbreak counter), or if they run out of player cards. The outbreak counter can spiral out of control if diseases are not treated in cities. Infectious chain reactions can quickly get out of hand.

The game allows continuous conversation. Players are encouraged to discuss their actions throughout the game.

You can see the full ruleset of the game here: Link.

How can you use this game in L&D Programs?

Because of its cooperative nature, its difficulty, and the need for teamwork and strategy, this game teaches several skills.

Planning and Strategic Thinking

Players are drawn to plan their actions as a team and as individuals. They are also expected to adjust their actions on the fly based on the random infections occurring every turn. Therefore, the game allows you to have discussions around the following prompts in your training sessions:

  • Clarity of purpose: what is the mission of your team? What do you want to achieve over the next 90 days? How will you know if you have succeeded?
  • Dealing with unexpected events: did you anticipate the challenges expected in the game? Did you plan for them?
  • Identifying individual contribution: How do you contribute to the organization’s success? What are you individually accountable for?

Teamwork, Decision-Making and Communication

Pandemic generally plays out with plenty of animated discussion between the players. You’ll see a lot of back and forth on the correct course of action. This allows you as a trainer to have discussions around communication and coordination.

  • Setting expectations: What do you expect of one another?
  • Decision making: What and how will you prioritize to achieve your mission? How will you make decisions? How will you decide your best course of action even when there isn’t enough information?
  • Communication: How do you express dissent in your team? How do you deal with your ideas being rejected?

Dealing with Consequences and Taking Ownership

Pandemic is a difficult game. Things will invariably break down in some phases of the game. These situations present an excellent opportunity for your learners to understand stakes. You can have discussions around identifying and accepting the consequences of their decisions, actions, and mistakes.

  • Identifying stress: How did you deal with time pressure and the stress of the game?
  • Accountability: Are you responsible for anything you don’t control? Was there more you could do in your role?
  • Soft ownership: If you aren’t responsible, who should you approach? How should you improve outcomes? How do you deal with consequences in the game?

Experimentation and Overcoming Mistakes at Work

Because of the fluid nature of gameplay, players will often have to trust their gut. They’ll gain from experimenting with different strategies and styles of play. You can have discussions with learners about experimentation and learning to overcome mistakes at work.

  • Experimentation: What is your approach to new ideas at work? How do you brainstorm and try different ideas?
  • Learning from mistakes: How often do you conduct retrospectives to reflect on your actions and your team’s actions? How effectively do you conduct them?

Applications

We’ve used Pandemic in our own training programs to great success. Typically, in a 3 hour program, the game runs for 75 minutes, and the next 90 minutes are spent debriefing. We discuss what the players did, what their thought processes were, and what they’d do next time.

We also ask them to explore what they’d take from this to apply in their work, and we help with our own suggestions. We discuss the challenges in transitioning these concepts from the game world to the real world. We end with each player committing to a set of actions based on these ideas.

As an exercise in cooperation under pressure, Pandemic is an excellent training resource. You could apply the lessons learned from this game in programs related to team building and decision making. It also works well in communication programs, especially communicating across groups and roles.

Pandemic also has several expansion packs that add more complexity and options. Should you use pandemic for experienced learners, the expansion packs increase the scope of your game. Consider your own variations and house rules with restrictions on decision-making or communication. For example, each player gets one veto, or players must play two turns without any discussion.

The possibilities are endless and the experiential learning potential is deep. Your learners are sure to walk away with a strong memory of a session well spent, along with plenty of ideas to reflect on and apply in their work.