Beijing, Chengdu, and Dehli are all quarantined. Michael Clayborn, my crack medical operative who has served me faithfully, has died in the industrial Siberian wastes of Irkutsk. The entirety of South America has been sealed off from the rest of the world, and Manaus is now considered a “lost city” so infused with disease that it can’t be treated or approached in any way. People are stating to suffer “pustulent buboes” in Santiago, a highly contagious development that I need to deal with. A pop-up box aide comes to me with a decision to make. Do I want to distribute medicine and help the suffering masses of Latin America? Or should I send in some white coats to analyze these curious buboes? Of course, I send in the scientists.
Quarantine is a turn-based management game about trying to contain and wipe out a disease that’s ravaging the world. Each city on the world map has four pips that show how badly it’s been infected. One pip is the start of a pandemic. Four pips is a lost city. You can do nothing for these places, everyone is dead or dying. At the top of your screen is an infection meter, if it fills completely, you’ve lost the game. If it empties entirely, after either all the read pips are scrubbed away or a cure is found through scientific research, then you’ve won. Well done, comman- I mean, director.
To fight back against these little red pips that increase and spread with every press of the ‘End Turn’ button, you get a handful of operatives – men and women who you dispatch to whatever city necessary to fight the disease. There are medics, diplomats, scientists and security folks, and they all have different strengths that work towards the endgame of eradicating the infection. A medic can treat more pips than the others. A scientist can obtain more samples with which to work toward a cure. But your little helpers can also take damage during an operation, and if they die it’s a costly trip to the WHO's job centre to replace them. This can be offset with security operatives, who take less damage during their assignments. The diplomats meanwhile, can build offices (ie. money-generators) for cheaper than normal.
This red-spattered map...no, not just that, the whole thing might look familiar to you if you’re a board gamer. It is more or less a single-player Pandemic. This is a premise, if you’ve played the co-operative Pandemic, that sounds both squiffy and baffling. Half the fun of that board game is discussing and arguing with friends about where to send the medical team, what to do with this token, trying to meet up with your friends' pieces on a wide map, disagreeing over where to concentrate your efforts in a bid to stop the spread of a constantly shifting disease. But co-operative board games have a tendency to indulge the quickest thinker or loudest talker at the expense of everyone else, so you can see why someone might be interested in a single player game of shuffling digital meeple in hazmat suits around like a surly general.
I can understand that desire, and yet I enjoyed the premise of Quarantine much more than the practice. Once you get used to the menus and learn how to fight back against the disease, you see how shallow the systems of the game are. It could be considered an anti-Plague Inc, which is an interesting angle except that Plague Inc itself, while enjoyable in a burst or two on the train, doesn’t really have much of its own depth. Here, you quickly realise that there’s a surefire pattern to follow to defeat the disease. Get some offices for cash, slowly hire more meeple, treat the infection in critical cities where its likely to spread, and corner it with hefty use of quarantines.
These are “expensive” operations which lock down the whole city, stopping spread of infection to and from that place. One of my games, tackling a virus with “zombie microbes” was coming to an end so easily that I isolated the disease in Niamey, Niger and spent turn after turn quarantining every city on earth, even though I could have eradicated the virus at any moment with a single clean-up operation. I essentially used a defunct disease as an excuse to become an all-powerful pan-governmental organisation and lock down the entire globe. Toying with a game’s devices like this can sometimes be a sign of robust systems and quirky mechanics. Here it was only a sign of a too-easy design.
I tried to switch it up by playing on hard mode. But I’m afraid I switched it up too much. My operatives were dying non-stop, forcing me to reinvest in new staff rather than quarantine zones or new offices. This felt like a more true-to form version of the game, and I was firmly put in my place after one of the random pop-up events told me that patients in Berlin were suffering from a phenomenon whereby their immune systems were attacking their own healthy organs. “Disable the T-cell response!” I shouted, not knowing what this means. “Situation resolution failed,” said the game in the most dangerous red. Berlin was dead.
Although this brought much more challenge to the game and the world succumbed to the virus within about 11 turns (sorry, you died horribly), I’m not sure if it brought anything else. I was still just fighting red pips. There was no real story or drama unfolding, save for the odd pop-up disaster, and even these quickly become seen only as a transparent method of throwing a poop-covered spanner in your pip-cleaning.
The tone of it all borrows heavily from XCOM, but it seems to forget that XCOM is a game of two parts. The management of your HQ along with the world map (which is a flood of decision-making and thriftiness purposefully designed to always leave your mouth just above water-level) and the tactical management of soldiers on the field, which is designed so that all your decisions and thriftiness can be put into practice.
Quarantine only has one of these things. Without the other half, there’s no depth to the choices, no feeling of consequence or seriousness, only: “Do I fight the pips here or there? Hmmm, let’s go there. Oh no, it didn’t work.” Yes, as always this is an early access title. But the core of the game is here and it doesn’t have much that Pandemic the board game doesn’t do better. My recommendation is to just grab four mates and fail to save the world together.
Quarantine is on Steam for £10.99/$14.99. These impressions are based on build 1623188