Hey folks! I wrote up a little review for one of my favorite games Ninjato a couple of weeks ago and completely forgot to introduce myself! My name is Ryan, a board game enthusiast who hails from Arizona, but is trapped in Utah (send help!) You’ll find that I like games of any weight, length or type, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m easy to please.

Today, I’m looking at Plague Inc.: The Boardgame, a creation from the mind of James Vaughan, designer of the original Plague Inc. computer game. To my knowledge this is a feat that hasn’t been accomplished before, a video game developer creating a board game based on their own smash hit. I was more than a bit wary, but you know what?

It’s actually pretty darned good.

Gameplay:

The object of Plague Inc. is to be the deadliest super bug (or rather, be the player that scores the most DNA/Victory points). You get there by evolving deadly traits, spreading across the world and killing off the population of entire countries.

Everybody first selects the type of bug they want to play, either a virus or bacteria (with new players selecting the bacteria board.) After selecting a color, each player draws a starting country,  places it on the appropriate continent area of the game board and puts one of their colored pips in that country. Each player also draws an opening hand of 5 trait cards and places their DNA marker on the DNA track.

Starting with whichever player was most recently ill, players take turns around the table, with each turn split into five phases.

1. DNA – At the beginning of their turn, the player scores points based on the number of countries they control (countries in which they have more pips than any other player).

red and yellow
Red controlled P. New Guinea until Yellow jumped over and took control by placing 2 pips there.

2. Country – In the next phase of their turn, the player selects a country from those that are face up in the country area (or draws one face down from the deck) and places the country on an empty slot in the appropriate continent. The player can also elect to discard the country instead in order to discard any remaining trait cards in their hand and draw back up to five.

3. Evolution –  In the evolution step, a player can purchase a card from their hand by paying the amount of DNA points listed on the card and placing the trait card onto their player board.

trait cards
Lower cost traits tend to only have one effect, such as “Cysts”, which increases your infectivity by one.  But as the game progresses you’ll quickly gain access to very powerful trait cards such as “Total Organ Failure”, which gives 3 lethality!

4. Infection – After evolving a trait (or not, if they so choose) the active player then spreads their disease by placing pips equal to their level of infectivity on empty spaces found on country cards on the board. Unless they’ve evolved traits that allow them to travel by water or air, players are restricted to countries in their current continent. Likewise, if they haven’t evolved traits that allow them to infect cold or hot climates, they are restricted to neutral climate countries only.

playerboard
Yellow currently has 3 infectivity, which means they can place 3 pips on any countries found in their continent. They don’t have waterborne or airborne though, so they can’t spread to other continents yet.

5. Death – At the end of their turn, the active player may try to kill any country they control that has all of its slots filled. The attempt is made with the dreaded death dice.

death dice
Icky.

A roll of equal to or less than the player’s lethality kills the country. The player then scores DNA points equal to the number of their color pips on the country (and other players also score points for their pips on the card, even if they do not control it) and the active player draws a powerful Event card!

Event Cards
Event cards provide a variety of different effects.

Play progresses until all of the country cards have been played, at which point sudden death gets triggered. While in sudden death the games ends as soon as any player can’t do anything and end game points are scored.

Pros:

I’m only familiar with the Plague Inc. computer game in passing, but my immediate concern was how well a board game could incorporate the video game’s elements. I suppose I still don’t really know, but I’m really not that concerned about it anymore. There is a very nice, little game here.

Aside from being very quick to teach and play (averages about 60 minutes) the game boasts little downtime—provided your group is paying attention. Each turn has five phases, but realistically they don’t last more than a minute altogether, which is great.

The game scales really well among player counts. I’ve played multiple games with 3-5 players and haven’t noticed any issues with higher player counts. Strategy is a bit tighter with five players, as the board fills up very quickly, but it keeps a similar tempo and I appreciated that. There are solo rules available as well, which I haven’t attempted yet, since I don’t often play single player modes. The only time I’ve seen the shadow of downtime issues has been with 5 players, but again, as long as people are paying attention the game plays quickly.

Thematically the game is a bit of a conundrum. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay, it feels more like solving a puzzle than actually playing as a disease–though I don’t count that as a bad thing.

I’ve heard others complain about the luck aspect of rolling the death dice, but I’ve found Plague Inc.’s method of mitigating that luck (through increasing your lethality) rather elegant. If anything, the worst luck aspect of the game comes from drawing a poor starting hand of trait cards, but the rulebook offers a variant that allows players to discard cards from their initial hand and draw that number from the deck–which I think everybody should always play with.

Cons:

Easily the biggest drawback of the game is the component quality. The player boards are almost paper thin, as is the country board. We laminated ours right away as you can see in the pictures, otherwise they get scuffed and torn up after just a few plays, even if you’re being careful. The cards are a weird size too. To my knowledge there aren’t any sleeves available that fit them perfectly and I ended up having to trim the ones we used.

The board looks great, but the card art generally is rather drab. The trait cards are very functional (and I love the flavor text) but they aren’t anything special to look at. And while the Event cards are more varied, they don’t really stand out either. Considering the subject matter, it seems like a massive missed opportunity to have some real fun with the art and it would have gone a long way toward helping draw me in thematically.

Another (relatively minor) gripe, is that the game isn’t all that colorblind friendly. Most people don’t have to deal with this, but for those of us that do, it’s always a pain!

Colorblind
Does Green control Ethiopia? Or does Purple? I’ll never know!

My Ratings

Components: 3/5

Totally functional—which is good, but not great. Thicker boards would have been nice, and better card art for the trait cards would have helped thematically.

Replayability: 5/5

Because setup is so randomized, Plague Inc. has a good amount of replayability. It’s got enough depth that if you were to play with the same group many times, you’ll start picking up on good ways to counter your opponents, but also simple enough that a new player can stand a chance.

Mechanisms: 5/5

Flavorful, sharp and quick, the game’s mechanics flow nicely.

Strategy: 3/5

Because a number of things are determined randomly (your trait cards, killing countries, which countries are available to play), Plague Inc. loses a couple of notches here. But bear in mind, this isn’t the type of game where you’re meant to pick a specific strategy at the start of the game and focus on it throughout the game. It’s more about rolling with the blows and adjusting your stratagem on the fly—there’s certainly room for a game like that in my collection, but I can see why it wouldn’t be for everybody.

Final Thoughts 16/20

Overall, Plague Inc. is a solid game, I’m surprised how much I’ve enjoyed this one and my wife loves it. It’s relatively light and can definitely serve as an introductory game, but has enough depth to keep more experienced gamers entertained. While the components aren’t fantastic, I find it hard to fault it too hard for that due to its low price point ($27.99 on Miniature Market). I absolutely recommend it.

Full Game

-Ryan