Of all genres, boardgames and their digital equivalents require perhaps the biggest initial outlay of time and effort. A first-person shooter or a platformer will, at least, appeal to your muscle memory, but the only commonality to be found in your typical boardgame is a lack thereof. Each is a language unto itself, a distilled set of rules to be learned and applied.
“Its rules might not necessarily be self-evident, but they are cut from the same cloth as games such as Othello and Go, and can thus be absorbed through osmosis and intuition.”Pathogen, it has to be said, does not make this learning process easy. Beyond its intriguing concept, in which players take on the role of viruses trying to out-evolve each other and fill the board first (one of those premises you don’t want to think too much about, lest you start to feel sorry for the unfortunate organism in which this is all taking place), little guidance is given. There’s a set of tutorial stages, yes, which introduce the capabilities of each cell type, but they lack detail, and don’t tie the concept together as well as they could.
There’s a difference, though, between knowing the rules of a game and knowing how to play it (a distinction comparable, to return to an earlier analogy, to the one between textbook and immersion learning of a language). And while Pathogen could do a better job of facilitating the former process, it excels at encouraging the latter. Part of this comes from the game’s fundamental simplicity – its rules might not necessarily be self-evident, but they are cut from the same cloth as games such as Othello and Go, and can thus be absorbed through osmosis and intuition. Placing cells, dominating the board, thwarting the opponent (there’s a fantastically nasty virus cell designed for just this purpose): these are classic, familiar tropes, and once a certain comprehension threshold is passed, strategies and tactics can develop naturally in the mind of the player.
The rest of Pathogen‘s appeal comes from its presentation. Superficial as it sounds, it’s a game that makes you want to learn it simply because you’d hate to see such smart design go to waste. Even before I really understood why the things on screen were doing the things that they were doing, it was clear that the developers had done a fine job of coupling the visuals with just the right sound, a chromatic piano scale which reaches its height as more cells are dominated and the virus spreads (once I did understand, this was a sound that could be by turns thrilling and infuriating, depending on whose side was doing the spreading).
As far as content goes, you get a campaign mode, each stage of which throws in a new element (an additional opponent, for example), or varies an existing one. For longevity, there’s multiplayer, both local and an online. The latter of these was pretty much unreviewable in its sparsely populated pre-launch state, although my fleeting experiences would suggest a remarkably seamless match-making system.
“Even before I really understood why the things on screen were doing the things that they were doing, it was clear that the developers had done a fine job of coupling the visuals with just the right sound.Recommending Pathogen, or any strategic boardgame, is hard for the reasons outlined above – it’s a new language, essentially, and there’s no way of knowing for whom its rules will click and for whom they’ll remain, well, foreign. A more detailed tutorial would certainly have been appreciated, but what can be said about Pathogen is that it’s well presented, with a keen understanding of how to make a good move feel victorious and a bad move feel disastrous. For a genre historically defined by slamming the table and laughing in your opponents’ faces, that can go a long way.