Review – Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America

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Release Date

 

Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Z-Man Games (Asmodee North America)
Category: Cooperative
Player Count: 2-4
Price: $19.99 MSRP

I don’t think a stranger timing for a game release is possible. While Pandemic first released in 2009, this new, simplified versoin which focuses on North America was released in 2020, and certainly designed and planned out well in advance of the COVID19 pandemic. But hey, if you’re quarantining to try and survive a pandemic, you might as well play a game about surviving a pandemic while you do, right?  

 

Review

 

There are a lot of things that come to mind when looking at this game, but two come straight to the forefront. (We’ll get to the second later.) The first is simply:

TWENTY. DOLLARS.

I am amazed that Z-Man Games and Matt Leacock were able to get 75% of Pandemic into a box 30% as big at 40% of the price. Leacock has been designing for two decades now; after making an entire trilogy of games that shrunk Pandemic into suitable games for kids, he knows what’s important and what isn’t. Some rules are gone and they aren’t missed, but most of the changes are on the board. By removing a color and shrinking the map, the game has gone from 60-90 minutes to 20-30. I always felt that Pandemic was too long for what it was, so this is a welcome change, and I would always prefer to play Hot Zone – North America.

If I’m playing this, though, it is primarily to introduce new people to the hobby and to the Pandemic universe. My main problem with the original Pandemic was that the optimal moves for the group were often apparent on the board to an analytical mind, which led to frequent quarterbacking (telling everyone what to do). This problem is even worse in Hot Zone – North America, due to the simpler game states and open hands. Veterans will really have to keep their mouths shut to make the experience an enjoyable one for new players. However, the payoff is worth it, not because of that small, possibly unnecessary step to Pandemic, but for the chance to introduce more players to the Pandemic Legacy trilogy, which is some of the best board gaming I’ve ever experienced.

So in a way, this is a game designed to be “outgrown,” but it’s so inexpensive and clean and elegant and portable (it’s the same box size as Codenames and Just One), that it’s absolutely worth the investment if you’re trying to rope new players in. 

 

I do have two complaints, the second more grievous than the first. The first is simply that the title is way too long and makes it sound like an expansion, or something complicated. And since it’s restricted to one region, why not just narrow it down even more and call it Epidemic? 

Regarding the region chosen, you’ll notice that 25% (6 out of 24) of the locations on the map are in Mexico or Central America. So, the other thing I noticed right away was: why do the cover and the character cards show three white people and maybe one ambiguously Asian person?  The lack of a black character is unfortunate; the lack of a Hispanic character is just nonsensical. I am thankful to at least see black male and black female characters in regular Pandemic and one of them on that cover, but there’s no Hispanic representation there, either. (Also, it looks like they reused character art from regular Pandemic; why not reuse one of the black characters? They could have reused the Quarantine Specialist.) I assume the art was finished before summer 2020 made diversity a priority for most companies, but I hope we’ll see a more diverse cast in the inevitable next iteration of Pandemic. 

I always try to be mindful of price in a board game, even if it’s a review copy. If this game was the same price as Pandemic, I would be fairly dismissive. But having such a simple, affordable, portable package elevates this game quite a bit. It’s a great way to introduce new people to this corner of the hobby. 

Thank you to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America.

The Bottom Line

 

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Author: Derek Thompson


I’ve been a board game reviewer on Geeks Under Grace since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.