Learn How to Play Pandemic in 4 Minutes

Alison Czinkota / The Spruce, 2018

Pandemic is a cooperative crisis management board game similar to Settlers of Catan. Rather than competing with each other, players work together as a team of Centers for Disease Control members who prevent a widespread pandemic. The goal is for players to win the game by stopping four diseases from spreading across the world map. While this strategy game can be challenging for many, understanding the rules will help the team win.

Set up the Board Game

Players want to ensure that they have all the board game pieces needed to play the game:

  • 1 board depicting a map of the world with connections between cities
  • 5 player pawns
  • 6 wooden research stations
  • 6 markers (4 cure, 1 outbreak, 1 infection)
  • 96 wooden disease cubes
  • 115 Cards (48 infection cards, 59 player cards, 4 role cards, 4 quick reference cards)

Each player takes a random role card, a reference sheet, and a starting hand of cards. These cards help with traveling, developing infrastructure, or curing a disease:

  • 2 players: four cards each
  • 3 players: three cards each
  • 4 players: two cards each

Prepare the Player Deck

Players start the game at a research center in Atlanta where they each place the pawn that matches their role card. Infection and outbreak markers are placed at the first space on their respective tracks.

  1. Players shuffle the infection deck.
  2. Three cards and three cubes of the appropriate color are drawn. Each is placed according to the city.
  3. Three more cards are drawn and two cubes are placed in each city.
  4. Three final cards are drawn with one cube placed in each city. All cards, once drawn, are placed in the infection discard pile.
  5. The player deck needs to be divided into four equal piles, and one Epidemic card should be shuffled into each pile. Place the four piles on top of each other to form the player deck.
    Optional: Players can create an even more difficult game by using five or six piles on top of the epidemic cards.
  6. Once the player deck is ready, the player who has most recently been sick takes the first turn. 

Choose a Character

There are several character cards players can choose from that all have different skills. It's a good idea to choose which character to play after each game's first infection—and after each player has their cards. For instance, someone who just received several yellow cards (each color represents a specific disease) may want to consider selecting the Scientist role.

  • Dispatcher: This character can move other players' pawns as if they were their own (with permission) as an action. They may also move any pawn to any other pawn without playing a card (also as an action).
  • Operations Expert: The role of the Expert is to build a research station without playing a card. However, it counts as an action.
  • Scientist: The Scientist is the one who cures a disease with four matching cards. Of course, this must cost an action and a research station.
  • Medic: The Medic can remove all cubes of a single color when treating a disease. Every cube of a cured disease in the same city of the Medic can be taken away immediately (including newly placed cubes). This will happen for each player throughout the game, not just on the Medic's turn. Plus, it doesn't count as an action.
  • Researcher: The role of the Researcher is to give any card to other players in the same city (on this player's turn). For one action, the Researcher can also do so on another player's turn.

Take up to Four Actions on a Turn

Players can take up to four actions on their turn. Action items may include things like moving to an adjacent city or discarding a card to move to a named city. There are several more actions players can choose from:

  • Discard a card matching your current city to move to any city.
  • Move from your current city with a research station to any other city with a research station.
  • Discard a card matching your current city to build a research station there.
  • Cure and remove one disease cube from your current city.
  • Pass a card matching your current city to another player in the same city.
  • Discard five cards of the same color at a research station to cure that color's disease.

After selecting four actions, players will draw two cards from the player deck. Most of them are city cards, but some are Special Event cards which may be played at any time. The hand limit of seven cards is strictly enforced at all times, so after increasing a hand beyond seven, players must play or discard cards until their hand size is back down to seven.

Drawing an Epidemic Card

If players draw an Epidemic card, they must immediately discard the card, advance the infection rate marker, draw the bottom card of the infection deck, and place three cubes in that city. Then, they'll want to shuffle the infection discard pile and place those cards on top of the infection deck.

After drawing the player cards and resolving any epidemics, players must draw a number of infection cards equal to the current infection rate, adding one cube to each city revealed. If a fourth disease cube would ever be added to a city, that city suffers an outbreak, spreading cubes to all adjacent cities.

Winning the Game

The players all lose the game if the player draw deck runs out, the eighth outbreak happens, or if the cubes of any color run out. However, if the players manage to cure all four diseases before this happens, they win the game.