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We saved the world from a pandemic — in a board game

How game night stopped me from panicking over the coronavirus

By Glenn McDonald

Like approximately everybody else on the planet, I’m dealing with the coronavirus crisis by freaking out. Sometimes quietly, sometimes not. Sometimes rationally, sometimes…Well, I’ve drawn two magic marker Xs on the backs of my hands to stop touching my face. It’s not really working, and it frightens children. But it’s something.

Our collective anxiety around the crisis is fueled by persistent uncertainty — no one really knows what’s going to happen as COVID-19 spreads. And if there’s one thing we humans are good at, it’s sublimating our anxieties with quixotic gestures of assertion. To wit, I recently gathered a group of family and friends to play the popular indie board game Pandemic.

Pandemic is what’s known as a cooperative game. Rather than compete against one another, the players work together to defeat the game system itself. We played the original tabletop edition, in which players try to stop a worldwide viral outbreak by assuming the roles of various public health officials: medic, contingency planner, quarantine specialist, scientist.

By way of randomized cards and some elegant mathematical design, Pandemic operates as a kind of analog AI — as well as an eerie doppelganger of the current crisis. Each turn, the game spreads the outbreaks around a world map with 48 cities connected by travel routes. Players can take various actions in response: fly between cities, treat a local outbreak, build a research station, or research a cure. The design is frankly brilliant, and Pandemic deserves every award that’s been chucked in its direction.

Our gaming group represented a small cross-section of citizens: me; a fellow middle-aged dad; my 84-year-old retiree neighbor; my wife (a first responder, as it happens); and our 11-year-old daughter. Keeping with the spirit of the game, I issued everyone bottled water, individually sealed snacks, and hand sanitizer. I also made my wife dress up in her firefighter gear, but I often do that, largely for erotic reasons we don’t need to get into right now.

There was some nervous laughter as we set up the board, putting randomized viral outbreak indicators in Madrid, Delhi, Khartoum, and Miami. The adults seemed mildly overwhelmed — this is a complicated game — but our daughter surprised us all with her unfazed decisiveness and cool head. It occurred to me that her generation has already learned to remain calm in the face of existential threats. She’s appalled to learn about the way we humans have treated our planet and fellow species. She’s mad at us, basically, in a sixth-grade kind of way. Her first question when I told her about the game was: “Can I be the pandemic?”

As the game progressed, our discussions became less jokey and more urgent. Pandemic is designed to evoke the relentless and exponential nature of infectious disease. After we successfully contained an outbreak in central Asia, an epidemic erupted in the Pacific Rim. A chain-reaction outbreak in North America spread like wildfire from New York to Montreal to Chicago to San Francisco. I’m here to tell you, it focuses the attention nicely.

My daughter’s first question when I told her about the game was: “Can I be the pandemic?”

But we also found the game cathartic, in a weird and meta way. After so many days of coronavirus worry, it felt good to airlift a specialist to Tokyo, or eradicate an outbreak in Europe, or take a charter flight to CDC headquarters in Atlanta. We swapped stories: My retired friend remembered riding out the Hong Kong flu in New York City circa 1968. My wife had encouraging reports about the intrinsic awesomeness of the people who work in the first responder community.

What I’m trying to say is, if you’re feeling the ambient dread of COVID-19, consider an impromptu game night. We humans do a lot of funny things to deal with our anxieties. We channel them into habits, good or bad. We retreat into our electronic devices. Denial is always popular. But there is, it turns out, something quietly defiant about playing a game called Pandemic in the middle of an actual pandemic. I like to think it speaks to the chutzpah of the human race — our stubborn resilience, our essential cheekiness. Winston Churchill would have loved this game. It’s whistling in the dark.

And it felt hopeful, in the end. For a few glorious hours, my team of four was fighting back, shuttling between cities, heroically saving entire populations and eradicating disease around the world. I’m happy to report that in our notional recreation of a worldwide pandemic, we did indeed save the world. On our third try.

But the important thing is that we did it together, with selfless teamwork and flinty-eyed resolve. And hand sanitizer. But still.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Illustration by Gwendal Le Bec


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