In the boardgaming hobby, any game that supports a high player count seems to be lumped in as a 'party game' whether it is or not. For me, a party game should be a conduit for a good time, create more fun than the rules overhead, and elicit genuine laughter from the venerable activity of light-hearted social play. American Pandemic struggles on all those counts.
Packed in a smallish box with an impressive amount of cards, Joseph Fountain's American Pandemic looks like the infamous Cards Against Humanity, with clean graphic design, an OK rulebook, a good reference booklet and a bevy of player aids. The decks are easy to distinguish and setup is pretty simple, though working with custom terminology - Pantry for tableau, Dumpster for discard - is always something that slows a newcomer down. Once you have put out the 12 months in order and slapped the Pandemic Headline on January, you must decide on a full, half or quarter length game.
From here, things start as they mean to go on, unfortunately. With the objective of getting as many 'Bad Luck' points in their 'Sick' and 'Crazy' Stashes as possible, each of the 2-10 players in turn draws an Escape card, then 1-3 Hoard cards (depending on game length), then a Quarantine card. The Escape cards give you random points based on which Headline cards in play match it; something else may or may not happen. The Hoard cards are stuff you keep in your Pantry and are worth between -20 (a new house) and +16 points (bulk Toilet Paper), but mostly +1 point, or +5 for a pair which you can trade to acquire. Quarantine cards also do something random; losing points, gaining points, and/or swapping cards around between players.
When all players have had a turn, new Headlines are added, and play continues until December is complete. Then Pantry card values are tallied, a bonus 10 points given to the ker-razy player with the most Bad Luck points in their Crazy Stash, and ditto the Sick Stash.
You might have noticed there is a lot of randomness going on. There really is. A stuffed toy being dealt cards could do as well if not better than a human; in fact we tried that, it did; it won! Not that there are no decisions to be made: who to give a bad card to; whether to use your Toilet Paper for the reward on a Headline card; who to steal Toilet Paper from; you get the idea. It might be challenging if you were really drunk; probably not, though.
Games with 'built-in' humour need to hit the mark: the niche comedy of Munchkin (Steve Jackson Games) is good for a laugh the first few plays before the mechanics wear you down. Telestrations (The Op) may be formulaic but it still manages to pack a comedic punch. You can make your own mind up about Cards Against Humanity (CAH). American Pandemic's attempt at wry wit did not elicit any guffaws, chuckles, titters or even smirks. If you don't find Toilet Paper the most hilarious thing on the planet (and I don't), then this will likely be a mirthless and meritless use of your time.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a case of 'too soon'. I actually agree that black humour is a valid way to deal with trauma - and 2020 certainly was 'Worst. Year. Ever.' for many. However, in the case of American Pandemic, what happened in lockdown should maybe have stayed in lockdown. If you're truly aching for a droll reverie of Covid-19's impact on society, you could stock up on booze, throw a Zoom party and hope the beer goggles reveal a better game than my sobriety did. Or not; save the money. Still, I did appreciate the graphic design.
(Review by David Fox)