18 November 2019
Moscow needs water and power. 5,000 miles away, Tokyo is desperate for food and first aid. At the same time, Johannesburg calls out for vaccines to save South Africa. You have 120 seconds to save the world. Go.
If that sounds daunting, you’d be damn right. Pandemic: Rapid Response is as intense, stressful and chaotic as they come. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun – as long as you can stand the pace.
FUSE designer Kane Klenko has taken the co-op heart of Matt Leacock’s globetrotting hit and pressurised it even further, setting the race to travel around the world and save major cities from infection against an ever-ticking sand timer. Each round gives players just two minutes to create supplies aboard a high-tech plane and drop them off to the right locations. But you’ll have to try there first. Oh, and move the supplies to the cargo bay before they’re delivered. And deal with the waste they produce. And ensure you have enough resources to make them in the first place. And simply move between the rooms in order to use them. Spent too many precious seconds considering your next move? Tough luck, there’s an extra city in need of aid now and you’re running out of time.
Rapid Response is an often overwhelming experience. While the game plays in real time, players still take turns one at a time in sequence, so there’s the added anxiety of knowing you’re holding everything up when you hesitate – and the fact that the dice used to activate rooms and perform actions are only rolled at the start of your turn means there’s only so much you can plan ahead. Reacting to your results (limited re-rolls grant some relief, but cost valuable time) and communicating with your fellow players (“We need first aid for Mexico City!” “I’ll fly us there!”) is crucial. It’s not a game to play with people who are going to umm and err for excruciating seconds turn after frustrating turn, nor people who are going to complain for the rest of the evening when you unwillingly hesitate for a split-second. It’s tough, and the fixed timer means there’s little leeway. It won’t be for everyone, and you’ll probably lose a lot to begin with.
When it all comes together, though, it does so with the sweat-inducing excitement of James Bond defusing a bomb with 0:07 left on the timer or Ethan Hunt stopping millimetres from a laser. As the gameplay flow becomes second nature (double-checking rules and chaotically chucking pieces around can quickly scupper early rounds) and the group around the table begins to think as one (like the best rounds of the Mind), Rapid Response’s sustained seconds from disaster tension becomes a masochistic thrill. It’s an electric jolt of excitement that lasts for just long enough albeit one that will might leave some frazzled.
There’s enough Pandemic in here for Rapid Response to feel familiar among the shock of the new, too. The characters newly named, rather than simply defined by their job – once again have individual abilities, giving each player a meaningful specialism without being hemmed into repeating the same task over and over. The reveal of a new city as the timer hits zero has the same creeping dread as drawing infection cards in the original game, with the few random cities used each game making it hard to always have a bulletproof strategy for success. Ramping difficulty levels and optional crisis cards – which make for a particularly brutal experience – round out what already feels like a particularly crammed two minutes.
Rapid Response will frustrate, intimidate and outright anger some players. At its worst, it’s a mess of chaos, confusion and stress intensified by an unforgiving clock. Find its rhythm with the right people and that intensity becomes its greatest asset, a rousing crescendo of co-operation, fast thinking and a little bit of luck. You’ll want to immediately chuck it in the bin or play again. Either way, it’s 20 minutes you’ll find hard to forget.
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Kane Klenko
This review originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.