Game Night Verdicts #65 – Iberia

The film industry has long embraced the potential for profit potential that a “franchise” embodies. A successful film leads to sequels, spin-offs and much more. In the board game industry, too, there’ve been repeated attempts to grow a successful game into a lucrative game franchise. The results have been mixed. The cooperative board game Pandemic had a spin-off that I did not care for. However, I also know that there are Pandemic versions that are worth the praise. Iberia is one such game.

This is mainly because Iberia is not a rehash of the original, but instead a variant thanks to a handful clever little changes. If you know Pandemic already, you are likely to appreciate the ways in which it differs from its predecessor. Your core task is the same: four times you have to collect cards of the same color and discard them in one go (to get an antidote for each of the four diseases) to win the game together; or in this case to research the epidemics that plague the Iberian peninsula. To do this, you must coordinate with other players to exchange cards with each other according to strict rules to complete a set of cards. At the same time, you have to try to keep diseases (cubes) from spreading uncontrollably on the board. Because you lose the game, if too many of these cubes come into play. The fact that you only research and identify diseases in Iberia instead of developing an antidote is a subtle but far-reaching departure from the original.

Infrastructure and clean water have been implemented

Pandemic let you solve a problem in that an antidote not only enabled victory, but also greatly helped with fighting back diseases. With the right mix of skill and luck, it was even possible to completely eradicate them. In Iberia, one must be content with merely keeping the epidemics under control. You can contain the diseases, but not actively fight them. Even if you win a game of Iberia, you will not have eradicated theses diseases and infections. Which makes Pandemic and Iberia a simple way to illustrate why an endemic disease is not the same as a harmless one.

But Iberia shrewdly compensates this lack of player effectiveness through other elements. As in Pandemic, each player color confers a special ability to its player. In the original, these were useful, but their pragmatism also made them feel shallow. Iberia introduces new game elements like “railroad tracks”, “purified water” and “ports”, that inform many player color abilities giving players new tools to influence the course of the game.

Ports connect all coastal cities and make many places on the board easily accessible. Railroad tracks are placed on the board by players to shorten the distances between connected locations. Each location on a rail route is exactly one action point away from each other. This shortens travel and, by extension, increases our ability to react quickly to a dicey situation.

The effectiveness of the rail network pays off strongly later in the game. It’s incredibly satisfying to see the far-sighted decisions you made early on manifest themselves as tangible progress. What’s more, instead of only reacting to disease outbreaks and new infections, we pave the way for the scientific breakthroughs and findings that will win us the game. We can meet more easily to swap cards or reach places to preempt a disease outbreak there.

Halfway to victory

The “purify water” action also feeds into this perspective of preventive action. Water tokens function like a buffer for a small collection of cities. They can prevent the spread of a disease in the short term, but effectively only slow it down. Even during an uneventful turn, you always feel that the clock is ticking. The game keeps up a level of pressure without feeling oppressive. No matter how serious the situation is in the game, it never seems hopeless.

The abilities that build on these elements of the game shape the feel of Iberia the most. Despite a less definitive winning state, individual decisions feel impactful and lasting. As a team, we make a tangible difference. If nothing else, it’s this room for optimism that makes Iberia such a rewarding experience.

At first glance, you might want to dismiss Iberia as just a much (!) prettier rehash of Pandemic. But in practice we are dealing with a refined, not necessarily improved, version of the original game. Those familiar with the original will enjoy the subtle differences; but even those player a Pandemic game for the first time will find a game that artfully captures and accentuates the strengths of cooperative play.

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