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Pandemic In The Lab Expansion Review
Can You Succeed In The Lab Challenge?
Pandemic In The Lab is the second expansion pack for Pandemic, one of my favourite board games ever.
Well ok, let me come clean here: Pandemic is my favourite board game at the moment and I make my family play it as often as I can get away with it.
If you're not of the geek persuasion, then you'll probably think I am really sad that when I first heard of In The Lab (ITL), I nearly had kittens.
It promises to add more of what made Pandemic great, and take a refreshing look at the core mechanics in such a way as to seriously up the ante in the theme stakes.
Now that I have played it, I can say without a doubt, that it succeeds.
Pandemic: An Original Game
If you've never played Pandemic before, then you can probably guess that I recommend it highly.
It's a highly original, cooperative game, where you all play together to beat it, and the idea is to race against time to cure 4 diseases that are sweeping across the globe.
This is tougher than it sounds and most people lose their first few games, but then instantly want to play more.
Each player takes on the role of a specialist from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) based in Atlanta.
One may be a scientist, another may be a researcher, and still another, a medic, each one lending their own particular skills that will help the team reach their goal.
As you try to assemble the cures, you will face outbreaks in disease hotspots, epidemics which escalate the situation, and the constant sense of time running out!
If you're not sure what I'm on about, you can read my review of the original game.
For the rest of this review, I will assume that you have played, or at least know something about the base game (even if you've only read my original review, lol).
Virulent Upgrades In The Expansions
The original game had simple mechanics and an "easy to play, hard to master" mentality, which made it highly addictive.
It had a short play time too, 45 minutes - 1 hour, so it was easy to get into and play multiple sessions in an evening, should you so desire.
It had the additional bonus of being able to alter the difficulty level, just by changing the number of Epidemic cards in the infection deck.
However, once you got used to the gameplay and the strategies necessary to win, there wasn't a huge amount to change it up, except trying different combinations of Roles within the start-up conditions of the board.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty here to keep you going for a good long time.
While my family usually wins on "normal" difficulty, we still only manage it just in the nick of time (often with only 1 or 2 cards left in the player deck) and we haven't dared attempt it on "hard".
Nevertheless, we don't want to go off the boil, do we? ;)
The creators of the game therefore brought out two expansion packs to, funnily enough, expand the experience.
The first was titled On The Brink and is widely regarded as one of the finest add-ons for a board game.
It brought new challenges, such as a Virulent Strain (one disease is more lethal than the others) and a mutation scenario (a fifth nasty, to pile on the pain).
There were new roles added, plus some cool looking petri dishes to store the pieces in.
In doing this, the designers were able to bring more variety to the table, without breaking the core mechanics.
In The Lab is the second expansion pack and is designed to build on top of the first.
Choose Your Poison In The Lab
Sequence Of Expansions
Now I have another confession to make: I don't have On The Brink (OTB, for short).
To be sure, I am almost certain to get it on another occasion because there are certain aspects of ITL that are designed to be used with On The Brink.
If you check the Pandemic website, you will see the company line is that you should buy them in order.
There are good reasons for this, particularly in terms of getting maximum value out of the package.
The thing is, both expansions add multiple ways of playing the game, which you can mix and match as the mood takes you.
For instance, you can play the basic game with the new roles from one or both expansions, but with none of the extras like the mutation scenario.
You could decide to play the lab challenge, on "heroic/legendary" difficulty, with the mutation scenario and a virulent strain combined (are you insane???)
It's this modularity that will keep you coming back for more and also allows you to adjust things to the situation.
- Got a few beginner players? - Stick to the basic game.
- Up for a challenge? - Add in some new roles and pick a scenario.
- Want a hardcore solo game? - Set it up with as many options as you dare.
Without On The Brink
You CAN play the Lab Challenge without the first expansion On The Brink.
However, you cannot use/play with the following (non-exhaustive list):
- Play the lab challenge with more than 4 players
- Play the mutation or virulent strain variations
- The extra Roles and Event cards from OTB*
- The petri dishes
*except the epidemiologist, who now has an alternative card for the lab challenge.
You can of course, use the lab challenge with up to 4 players, as well as the official Solo variant, with or without the lab.
What's In The Lab Box?
- The Lab Challenge itself, including a new board and deck of sequence cards
- Lab actions reference cards
- New Roles, with matching pawns
- Updated roles for Researcher and Virologist (for use with Lab Challenge)
- New event cards
- Card and rules for official Solo game
- Extra Epidemic card (for legendary difficulty)
- Extra virulent strain cards
- Extra pieces for an updated mutation scenario
- Rules and pieces for a "Team" game (where 2 or 3 teams compete with each other to find the cure)
- Some cool looking "cure vials" to replace the card/plastic markers from the base game
Without OTB there are certain combinations that you can't do (see side panel), but you can play the main item of interest here, the Lab Challenge, with the base game.
The only thing you will be missing there is the extra roles from OTB.
You'll be pleased to know (really?) that the multiple ways you can lose the game stay the same as ever.
What the Lab Challenge adds though, is a completely new way to win!
The problem with the basic game, if you can call it that, was that curing a disease was just about collecting 5 cards of the same colour and handing them in at a research station.
While this was fun and in keeping with the game's simplicity, it wasn't exactly thematic.
The other issue with it, was that the more players you had in the game, the more difficult it was to cure a disease, as a hand limit of 7 forced you to meet each other in specific cities, just to exchange cards.
Now, in the Lab, you get to research and develop the cure together.
It will add complexity, but in my opinion, it is so much better for it.
Have You Played Pandemic
Have you played Pandemic or any of its expansions?
Under The Microscope
The lab consists of a separate board, which sits alongside the main Pandemic board (see photo below).
There are spaces to put the Petri dishes from OTB, but the board is clearly marked, so I didn't miss them too much.
There are also spaces for sequence and city cards to be played.
The idea is, that in order to find a cure, you must first characterise the disease, then process samples, and test it.
These actions have to be done while a player's pawn is at a research station, but can be at any part of their turn, so you can treat disease on the main board, move to a research station and then process some samples, as long as you have enough moves.
You still play city cards in order to do all this, so the total number of cards to cure a disease is still 5:
1 to characterise the disease, 1 to test a cure, 3 to discover a cure (or 2 if you're the scientist).
This makes things easier because anyone can play the cards and there is less need to exchange them.
It also makes things harder because you will be using more of your actions each turn to do stuff in the lab, rather than out and about, dealing with trouble spots.
It's All In The Lab Sequencing
However, the main meat of the lab board is in the sequencing.
You start the game with one research line "open" (a sequence card in play) and get to add another line when you build your next research station.
Each sequence card is an abstraction of a disease molecule and some are more complex than others.
They have a series of coloured spots (between 4 and 8), making up the molecule and the object is to fill them up with the correct coloured disease cubes from the main board.
Each time you treat disease on the main board, you can place 1 cube into one of the petri dishes to the left hand side of the lab board.
From here, you can process the cubes by moving them to another petri dish, each with a different effect, the trick being that you have to move all cubes from one dish to another, at the same time.
Moving cubes to the centrifuge dish will keep all the cubes of one colour, discarding the rest, while sending them to the separator will keep just one cube of each colour from the first dish.
Finally, the growth chamber will double all incoming cubes, but watch out, if the supply runs out you will lose, just as you would in the basic game!
This then forms a delicious puzzle, as you try to work out how to manoeuvre the pieces around to fill out the sequence, all while keeping an eye on the main board.
Lab Gameplay Example
The example photo below shows part of a research line, with a centrifuge chamber (left), a sequence card (middle) and a played black city card (right).
The city card has been played to characterise the disease as "Black" and a black vial placed on the sequence card as a reminder.
Some of the spots on the sequence card have already been filled by previous process a sample actions.
Black cubes have been placed on the black spots and a yellow cube on the yellow spot.
Note that some spots on the card are grey - these must must be filled with black cubes, because it has been characterised as the black disease.
The 2 cubes in the centrifuge chamber can be processed and added to the sequence card to complete the sequence, using another lab action.
All the cards in the In The Lab expansion pack have a little "test tube" symbol in the bottom right hand corner.
That way, you can easily tell which cards are which and separate them out, should you wish to play the base game again.
This is a nice touch and an indicator of the quality that ZMan have put into this game series.
Eradication Means Entertainment
It's much simpler than it sounds, so you may lose your first attempt, but will soon be figuring out strategies once more.
We managed to win on our first try, with the difficulty dialled back to easy.
We were up to 6 outbreaks at the end though, so it was a close run thing, but veterans wouldn't expect anything less.
The Lab Challenge does add more complexity and it will make you think very differently to the base game, so it's not one for introducing to beginners.
So far though, I think it balances up the previous issues with player numbers nicely.
- Four players shouldn't find it so difficult collecting cards before time runs out, while two players will have to think on their feet a bit more, and will no longer be able to wait for the right cards to just fall into their laps.
Another aspect I like is that is feels more flexible for the players.
In the base game, you were very much constrained by your role, so if you got the Medic, then you knew that you would spend the majority of your time treating disease, contributing very little to the actual cures.
That's great for beginners, but the change of style brought in by ITL means that even a Medic can help get that win.
Overall, Pandemic In The Lab adds so much; new options, new possibilities, new ways to play and as for fitting into the theme, it feels just right.
The only thing I need to do now is save up for On The Brink, so I can introduce even more players to Pandemic!
© 2014 Tim Bader