27 December 2021
We enter the frozen wastes of the Icecrown Glacier in a new Pandemic System game based on World of Warcraft’s most famous villain – The Lich King
Words by Christopher John Eggett Images provided by Z-Man Games
for World of Warcraft ®: Wrath of the Lich King – A Pandemic System Board Game
This article originally appeared in issue 57 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
“This one is a little bit more beer and pretzels,” says Justin Kemppainen, fresh from writing on Pandemic Legacy: Season Zero, and also directly from us just about winning a game of the newest Pandemic System game – World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.
“Very early on we were calling it Heroic Pandemic,” adds Alexandar Ortloff, previously of Wind Rider games, who is probably best known for his work on the newest version of Citadel. Today we’re here to talk about making Pandemic epic, big shoulder pauldrons, and the joys of a bit of dice rolling – in this latest Pandemic System outing set in the World of Warcraft universe, especially as this is no paste-on IP job, but a variation on the Pandemic cocktail we know and love – poured over ice. Welcome then, to the frozen wastes…
As a series like Pandemic has reached maturity, we expect there to be these variations and riffs on a theme. While there’s no Matt Leacock involved here, the team at Z-Man games has run with the idea of taking a safe brand name, and doing something weird with it. It’s something that can either be afforded on a company’s first game, or their hundredth. That’s what it feels like anyway.
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King contains a lot of similarities to Pandemic, you’re going to be moving around a world, attempting to do whack-a-mole on the bad guys, and get everything under control. Here the enemy comes in the form of beautiful sculpted miniatures of undead ghouls and huge stitched-together abominations. The latter, a large and lumbering creature, will soak up a lot of your heroes damage during the game, as well as spend their activations moving along the network towards the nearest hero.
The hero sculpts are also beautifully rendered, but the star of the show is the Lich King miniature, an imposing figure on the field that sits on the cardboard construction of Icecrown Citadel – your final boss location. Before then you’ll have to trigger matching cards from your hand on played to the board against a number of mini-boss locations across the frozen wastes. And how are we going to keep the enemies at bay? Some heroes might use chain lightening to roast ghouls across linked locations – or you might just hit them with a big sword.
See, this isn’t just Pandemic, this is an extremely amped up version of the Pandemic System that introduces dice rolling for combat and heroic feats. Players are going to feel powerful, maybe even legendary.
“You’ve got dice rolling, you’ve got a gigantic board, all of these really cool sculpts and all of that put together – it makes it sound bombastic,” says Kemppainen, laughing, “but it’s still deep at its heart. It still has that layer of Pandemic strategy, that layer of cooperation and carefully considering your actions. But at the same time, you get to run around and bash the undead a whole bunch too.”
“We’ve tried to take Pandemic and just turn all of the action up to 11 while also trying to keep it Pandemic, which has been an interesting puzzle,” adds Ortloff. “It’s a big thematic departure,” says Kemppainen “leveraging this license makes it all about these larger than life characters, enormous shoulder pauldrons, you know, all of these details that just make it big and epic in its nature.”
And reader, I have to say, it does feel like that. It has a sense of playing a game like the recently reviewed war of attrition, 300: Earth & Water or the highly bombastic Planet Apocalypse. It’s co-op, but conflict driven, you’re rolling dice to kick back the enemy – with their expansion into the world hinging on the core Pandemic puzzle of containment. It feels good to roll some dice and decimate the enemy forces around you – giving the living a bit more breathing room. It feels like a wargame has broken out in the middle of your Pandemic board. And that’s a good thing.
The cards in the game also allow for more frenetic play – it is a card driven action system when you can use the cards available to make moves, or use them for quest completion at the major cities held by the Lich King’s scourge.
The main card types are fight, defend, travel and heal – each being able to augment actions you’re already taking. These are also required to complete the quests as you arrive at them. Quests themselves are variable in set up and are represented as different tracks of icons you have to match to complete.
“That dynamic card play lets you create combos,” says Kemppainen, “you can create really interesting, carefully layered turns and all sorts of Pandemic games. But at the end of the day, you’re still limited in actions. You can’t fly around the map and eliminate every hotspot just because you have this full combo hand ready to go. Which you can here. And that really lends itself to that feeling of these epic heroes.”
These quest completion aspects also add more drama to the game – it’s the equivalent of in action movies where the scientist is working on the doomsday machine to turn it off, all while a firefight is going off around them. Stepping away from the fray to move their quests on can cause strain with the other heroes around you, as they take more of the brunt of the attack.
It’s hard not to feel powerful in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Most Pandemic games have powerful characters, like the Medic who can wipe out diseases across the board, but here, everything is dripping with excess power from this fantasy line.
“Over the course of the game your power level will ebb and flow a little bit as you build up cards, spend them build them up again,” says Ortloff, “and then it culminates at the end because you get all these characters together.”
The final showdown with the Lich King is a separate battle at the foot of the Frozen Throne, and sees players attempting to bring down the death knight with their combined powers.
“We very purposely put in ways that your cards can help other people. While you can’t trade cards as you do in other games in the series, you can use your cards to help other heroes who are hanging out with you. And when you’re all hanging out in the same space, suddenly everyone’s hand is ‘live’ to be used for whatever you need it for as a team. It all comes together and all the cards that you’ve been building up naturally create this moment where you just have all your resources and get to use them,” he continues.
It’s not that you’re all powerful, but everything is so overblown at this stage of the game, that your player characters simply need to be superhuman.
“The scourge track goes all the way up to five,” explains Kemppainen, “which means that the very, very end game, if you’re playing on a high enough difficulty level, you’re going to be drawing five more ghouls every turn, which is, even with all the power given to you in the cards is probably more than you can handle for a couple of turns.”
Holding on the is the key here, and being able to get all your quests done in time is the only way to achieve victory.
“You have game states where it’s going to take some time to meaningfully make progress on the quest,” says Ortloff, “so you end up just trying to keep ghouls down and the continent looking alright. And inevitably you’ll start to lose control because the game ramps up and one turn something will be just out of reach with everything then spiralling out of control. You can keep decent control most of the time, if you really focus on it, but the more you’re spending time doing that, the less time you are progressing toward winning. It’s a balance you need to strike eventually.”
“That’s always a really big part of Pandemic,” says Kemppainen, “that push and pull between not losing and winning. There’s a lot of different ways you can lose Pandemic and you have to make sure that that doesn’t happen before you get enough going to actually win.”
The heroes of World of Warcraft might be alien for those who haven’t played the MMORPG, but they’re all full of history and interlocking stories that last for the entirety of the game’s life. It’s more or less a soap opera at this point and recounting many of the tussles would lead to an article twice this length. But the hero powers that each brings to the table enhance the whole team’s abilities. Tirion Fordring can move other players around the board, in what might be some helpful quarterbacking, Liadrin allow for better healing for heroes in close proximity, and Muradin can contribute additional quest cards. Sylvanas who has some fairly selfish abilities “for lore reasons”.
“A lot of it is baked into the cards you’re drawing, not necessarily just the hero powers themselves. Because we knew that trading cards wasn’t going to be a big part of the game, we’ve made fighting and helping one another in combat more useful,” says Ortloff, “it still lets you do that teamwork thing.”
In our game before the interview, we dashed across the board freely and semi-independently. It wasn’t that we didn’t communicate or cooperate, but I felt empowered by my character to work on generally pushing our cause forward, rather than having to do a group huddle and strategy chat each turn.
The biggest group decision, before that showdown, was where to place strongholds. These are fortifications what keep that area safe from ghouls and allows a certain amount of quick travel.
When the end game triggers we’re dancing across the map at speeds unthought of earlier in the game, cutting down huge swathes of enemies as we approach our boss fight. Once we were gathered around Icecrown Citadel we attempt to defeat the Lich King himself.
Naturally there’s a crossover audience for this game. Not only those who are fans of Matt Leacock’s work, but also those who want to experience the universe of Warcraft from the videogame elsewhere. While there are some good versions of the Warcraft world out there on our tabletops, it’s not always been the best treated IP. This is a proper outing that takes a core story from the lore and turn it into its own experience.
We asked the pair what their hope were for the reception of the game.
“We’re hoping they love it, obviously,” says Ortloff smiling, “a lot of care was put into making sure that the characters you are playing as and things you were experiencing rang true for those characters. So, we hope people notice that.”
“It’s also worth noting that like these characters haven’t been represented this way before,” says Kemppainen, “seeing these miniatures painted up in all their glory, as you inevitably will, lined up on players’ desks, that will be hugely satisfying.”
As with any first foray into this kind of adaptation, the pair are tentative about what’s coming in the future from Pandemic System games.
“We hope this is going to be the first of many,” says Kemppainen, “and some readers might sigh, thinking there will be a parade of crossover Pandemic System games, and there are a lot of Pandemic games already. But we’re trying to make them interesting, adding new mechanics to every single one of them – and hopefully we’re hitting the mark for those who enjoy that.”
While they couldn’t be drawn on what actual IP’s the team have lined up for future releases, we did ask what their dream Pandemic System crossover title would be.
“I’m going to go super leftfield here and Gravity Falls,” says Kemppainen laughing, citing the animated mystery comedy series about discovering strange cryptids. It would be a bold move.
“This is a hard question to answer,” says Ortloff, “but my polar opposite answer would be Halo. It was very formative to me,” which as a crossover, would pretty much write itself.
With these dream mash-ups now hopefully floating their way towards the IP holders, we’re just going to wait for our first chance to face the Lich King over our gaming tables.
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