I love Pandemic it is one of our most played games, so I was excited about the In The Lab expansion – I’m an organic chemist, I basically lived in a lab for several years doing a PhD. The lab variant is great, but before I tell you all how wonderful it is I’m first going to get off my chest why I nearly refused to have this expansion in the house. This:
Why, why, why? Why did they choose to write chemical nonsense on their board? There are all manner of sensible chemical structures they could have chosen, they could have picked a known compound like caffeine or paracetamol (most people wouldn’t have noticed, but it would have been a cool in joke for any chemists playing). They could have made up a structure that at least could exist, not one with 5 bonds to carbon, and oxygens and nitrogens with not enough bonds. It makes me cringe every time I look at it (the only redeeming feature is the structures are covered up fairly quickly once you start playing so at least I don’t have to look at them). For a game that involves science it would have been so easy to check and get it right – even my husband whose highest level of chemistry education is a GCSE knew that carbon can only have 4 bonds to it.
One other thing to note is that although the lab challenge works fine with just the base game, most of the other additional modules require On The Brink to play – a fact we didn’t realise until after we had bought the game, it is written in small letters on the back of the box. However as the lab challenge is the main extra module it is worth it just for that. This review will therefore focus only on the lab challenge section.
Anyway, having got that gripe out of the way and cleared up what I’m actually reviewing, why do I like this expansion?
Firstly it comes with cool additional pieces. These lab vials, although not necessary at all for game-play, are lovely and add to the feel of the game. It also adds in some new characters and gives some old characters new lab based roles. (If you don’t own On The Brink you will have to substitute a different character pawn to use the Epidemiologist.) Actually even for some of the other roles it is sometimes worth substituting pawns as a couple of the colours are verging on indistinguishable.
The main addition to the game is the lab board with its sequencing cards which changes the way players work together to cure diseases. Every time a player treats a disease on the board they may choose to add one cube to one of the lab petri dishes on the left hand side of the board. These cubes can then be moved onto other petri dishes following the arrows by any player at a research station. Some movement arrows allow the number of cubes to be doubled, other arrows only permit the movement of one type of coloured cube or one of each colour. This adds a layer of strategy as it is important to consider where the cubes are moving and what combinations are allowed to move together when choosing where which petri dish to place a cube in. It is also vitally important that you do not allow too many cubes to get tied up on the lab board, as just as in the base game if you cannot place cubes on the main board when required to you lose.
You might be wondering why you’d want to have cubes on the lab board at all? Well those chemical structures that I really don’t like, they get hidden by sequencing cards. They show the combination of cubes you need in order to cure the disease. The gray spaces become the colour of the disease being investigated. To choose which colour disease to investigate a player plays one of their city cards of the desired colour onto the first slot. Then once at least one cube has made its way onto the sequencing card, a player can test the cure by playing another city card of the required colour onto the second slot. Finally once all the cube spaces are filled a player plays a set of three city cards to cure the disease. This is a clever addition to the game as it means that you generally need to spend less time getting a set of five cards into one players hand, as each of the three card laying stages can be carried out by any player. However this is more than compensated for by having to move the cubes around the lab board, which requires a player to get to a research station. And may even involve sending a player to treat a disease that is not causing a problem at the moment just to get some cubes of the right colour.
Overall, I recommend this as a step up in difficulty for anyone who enjoys the Pandemic base game (we struggle to win with only four epidemics, when we have a good success rate with five epidemics when using the base game). I feel that it enhances the theme by adding in the lab component and is an enjoyable addition.