Avoiding the one-player-runs-everything problem in Pandemic

I posted some thoughts about playing Pandemic in a Facebook comment thread a year ago; when I came across that just now, I figured it was worth pulling those thoughts out into a post of their own.

It’s possible for Pandemic to become essentially a solo game, with one experienced and/or pushy player telling everyone else what to do, but I’ve only seen that happen about three times in all the time I’ve been playing the game. Almost all the times I’ve played Pandemic have involved a lot of cooperation, and have involved good ideas from all the players, even the novices.

But I know that the one-player-runs-everything problem does happen. So here are some thoughts about how to reduce the likelihood of that happening.

I think it may be worth dividing the question into two different issues:

  1. How do you make sure that novices remain involved and active in a game with reasonably experienced players?
  2. How do you deal with having one player who’s really really good, like “regularly wins with 7 epidemics” good?

The former is a far more common situation, so that’s what I’m focused on here.

1. When there are newer players involved, some thoughts:

  • Teach them well. But how to do a good job of teaching a game to a new player is a whole nother topic; for now, suffice it to say that if the new player doesn’t understand how the game works, they have a harder time participating.
  • Make sure that every player does stuff. Have them draw their own cards, have them move their own piece. Either have them place disease cubes on the board on their turn, or give each player responsibility for one or more colors. If a player is sitting too far from a deck to draw from it easily, then have someone who’s sitting closer take the appropriate number of cards off the deck face down and hand them to the other player to draw/flip over.
  • Actively solicit newer players’ opinions. Don’t force them if they’re confused or overwhelmed, but make explicit space for them to make suggestions and give ideas.
  • Let them make mistakes. Cooperative doesn’t mean you have to have consensus on every move; let the newer players decide what they want to do on their turn, and don’t offer suggestions unless they ask for them or look lost.
  • When you do offer suggestions, make clear that there (usually) is no one correct choice, and that you’re offering suggestions rather than telling them what they must do. Phrase your suggestions as ideas or thoughts or suggestions, not as commands.
  • If another experienced player is being pushy or impatient, tell them explicitly to let the newer players make their own decisions.
  • In the original version of Pandemic, hands were hidden, and part of the game was communicating about (and remembering) what cards are in people’s hands. In more recent Pandemic games, the rules tend to say to keep players’ hands face up. I think both approaches have some advantages and some disadvantages for newer players: a newer player can benefit from seeing everyone’s hands, but a more experienced player may be more tempted to be pushy if they can see what’s in everyone’s hands. I don’t have a good answer here, but I think it’s an issue worth keeping in mind.
  • Take the time to explain what’s going on in detail, especially at the beginning of the game, unless that makes the newer players bored or impatient.

As for the second scenario:

2. Unfortunately, I don't really know what to do when one player is super good. I’ve only run into this once, and although it was educational (I asked some questions about general strategy), I’m not sure it was really fun for any of us. The super-good player made clear upfront that they didn’t want to be telling us what to do; but anytime we asked for advice, their advice was so much obviously better than what we had been going to do that it seemed silly not to take it. So here are a couple of non-ideal suggestions if you find yourself in that situation:

  • Turn it into a teaching/demonstration game. Have the super-good player walk you through a game, rather than playing it normally. Ask questions and make suggestions, but don’t expect that you’ll be participating the way you normally would.
  • Alternatively, play a different game, something where the players’ skill levels are more balanced or don’t matter as much.
  • Creatively figure out a way to reduce the super-good player’s abilities or input. Have them play blindfolded, or say that they’re an Oracle who can only be consulted three times per game, or have them listen to loud music on headphones while playing, or have them play some other game at the same time, or don’t let them see anyone else’s cards, or have them give advice only in cryptic riddles, or let them look at the game board only through a mirror, or start by drawing three infection cards per turn instead of two (which makes the game harder for everyone, of course, not just that one player), or reduce the super-good player’s hand limit or starting number of cards, or give them no special Role abilities (or a Role they’ve never played before), or set a timer when it’s their turn, or … I’ve never tried any of these variations; they’re all off the top of my head. Really I’m just saying that you as a group may be able to come up with a creative approach that increases everyone’s fun levels.

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