The Next Monopoly? What “Pandemic” teaches us about public health

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close up of the Pandemic board game

By Sherline Lee

Even for an epidemiologist who works in public health preparedness and response, being asked to explain to the public what we do at CDC can be difficult.  

That said, sometimes opportunities to talk about public health drop into your lap.   A few months ago I was catching up with my friend Austin, an engineer for a large corporation.  It turned out that while on long-term assignments he and his team had recently taken to playing the board game, “Pandemic.”   One might think that an infectious disease would make for a strange game premise, but to my surprise it’s been gaining a loyal fan base. Of note, the game has recently profiled by Wil Wheaton on his “Geeks and Sundry” tabletop videocast seen by more than 350,000 viewers and positively reviewed on many board game sites.

What? You Think Public Health is Fun?

When I asked Austin about why his teammates enjoyed Pandemic, he pointed out that the game differed from many others in that it was designed to make players collaborate, not compete.  In addition, players had to learn not only their own roles but the roles of other players in order to attempt to outsmart the disease as it tried to spread city to city across the globe.

Sherline Lee looking over the board game PandemicFinding out that your job is the premise of a game your friend likes to play is amusing.  However this conversation provided me with an opportunity to reflect further.  As it turns out, I had played this game several years ago with a fellow CDC epidemiologist who had a connection to one of the developers.  She asked my team, who was also working on developing educational activities, to play the game with her to provide feedback on potential new roles for a planned expansion to the game and the gameplay itself.

I remember our team talking to her about how well the game reflected the reality and values of public health.  We also discussed how the game forced players to think beyond themselves and about the other people around their game table.  Public health response, after all, is all about the collaboration of multiple disciplines that function best when they do it together.  Public health professionals know that containing a pandemic requires practitioners all over the world to be well equipped and to be able to communicate just as well as game players around the same table.

Something’s Missing…

If there was one thing that did bother me, it was that among the five roles which players could pick from (i.e., archivist, medic, operations expert, scientist, and researcher), there was no epidemiologist.  However, as I looked at the new version my friend Austin was playing, I was relieved to see an epidemiologist had finally joined the ranks in the expanded form of the game.  That role, alongside seven new ones, became part of the “Pandemic” game world.

Pandemic board game cardsWhile I’m sure these additions were made to change the gameplay and offer new things for fans to play, I also think it reflects a subtle message about public health. We continue to plan with many specialists inside the agency along with local, state, national and international partners on a daily basis, getting ready to respond and “beat disease at its game.”

On a more personal note, I keep hoping to run into other friends and acquaintances that have played the game.  After all, each fan of “Pandemic” I encounter represents another opportunity to talk about what we do in public health preparedness.  And every game player might someday also become a fan of public health.

Sherline Lee is a CDC epidemiologist works in the Healthcare Preparedness Activity program ( in the Division of Strategic National Stockpile and collaborates on developing tools with public health, healthcare, and emergency management partners.

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Are you a fan of Pandemic? Do you have other public health related games you love playing with your friends? Tell us!

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One comment on “The Next Monopoly? What “Pandemic” teaches us about public health”

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    It’s not an exact mapping like Pandemic, but you might also appreciate Flash Point: Fire Rescue. It’s a board game about fire fighting.

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Page last reviewed: March 20, 2015
Page last updated: March 20, 2015