Fight an apocalyptic disease outbreak in this new strategy game

I love the controlled chaos of games about fighting disease. They’re a relatively nonviolent form of strategy, forcing the players to confront diplomatic or scientific challenges for the greater good, and, you know, only occasionally deploy paramilitary toughs to kill farmers’ infected cows or crack some rioters’ skulls in the streets. Coincidentally, I’d like to apologize to the people of Havana for this last game of Quarantine, first for murdering their cows and then also cracking their skulls. I’m sure the two incidents were unrelated.

But, yes: the chaos. I like that games like Pandemic or Plague, Inc are about laying elaborate plans, then adapting them to a rapidly changing, unpredictable situation. Quarantine, as it entered Early Access last week, is like that in some ways and disappoints in others—but I can see the foundation of a great game here.

The strategy at the heart of Quarantine is about identifying which world cities are most at risk, then managing those cities’ health while simultaneously corralling the disease’s spread. A full game plays out in 45 minutes to an hour, a brisk pace compared to many similar board and strategy games. As you progress, you hire new agents to get more actions each turn and establish new bases in order to get more funding. Meanwhile, the disease gets its own turn, spreading from city to city and intensifying within the cities it’s already present in—though the player doesn’t get much information on how that works or what it means. If enough pips of infected population exist throughout the whole world, you lose. 

Random events can throw a hitch in your plans. Perhaps a celebrity will advocate for homeopathic solutions to the disease.

In a single turn you might deploy an agent to Havana (sorry, again) to treat the infection there, reducing its pips by a few. Meanwhile, you’ll deploy another to build a base in Bogota so your funding goes up. Finally, you’ll place your last agent to quarantine Dakar, connected to Havana, so that the disease can’t spread to a foothold in Africa. That base and quarantine cost you money, though—so you’ll have to forego hiring another agent and getting more actions in the coming rounds. Different agents excel at different things, but I found the lack of restrictions on movement in Quarantine makes the game less strategic.

At the same time, you’re trying to find opportunities to take time away from slowing the disease down to collect samples that will allow you to develop counters and cures to its various vicious vectors. You win when you’ve used collected samples to synthesize all the disease’s current adaptations—but take too long, and the disease will spawn new traits which must also be researched.

Your agents on the map have a few different powers, and are drawn from a limited pool. Medics are good at treating disease, removing more pips of it from a city per treatment action. Scientists are good at sampling, progressing you towards a faster cure. Diplomats are good at liaising with local governments, getting you cheaper outposts and more funding, faster. My favorite, Security personnel, take less 'stress,' essentially damage, when something goes wrong on an operation. They can stay in the fight longer before having to take a rest, or are less likely to die when you take a risk and something goes wrong. I also like Security because they synergize best with the game’s suite of tech upgrades—with enough treatment bonuses and buffs to their experience gain, Security become your tanks, implementing quarantines to head off possible spread vectors and stopping fresh outbreaks in their microbial tracks. If all of this sounds like board game Pandemic, it is, except Quarantine is more concerned with who gets deployed to do what rather than how they get there.

Random events can throw a hitch in your plans. Perhaps a celebrity will advocate for homeopathic solutions to the disease. Perhaps riots will break out in the worst-affected cities. Maybe, just maybe, the disease will spread via livestock and require mass culls to slow. These events are fairly rare, happening every few turns, and can inject a bit of chaos—but really only hurt you when you’re riding the razor’s edge between success and failure.

Once you find some proven tactics, though, Quarantine’s shallow strategic depth starts to show. As the game stands right now, you can pretty quickly find the solution to any given random start position. Setting up a clear line of defense and treating the worst-hit areas will ride you to victory every time on medium or lower difficulty, making the game a bit of a slog as you work on a cure—the diseases just aren’t dynamic enough to break out of your traps. Hard difficulty provides a more interesting challenge, but even then I was able to get my victories down to an art after four or five tries.

As it is now, Quarantine just doesn’t have enough chaos to provide an ongoing challenge. The diseases don’t do that much you can’t foresee. In other games like these, they’ll spread to a surprise location, cascade disastrously into unexpected regions, or explosively wipe out your base of power. In Quarantine, as murky as the diseases’ mechanics are to the player, you can pretty much tell where they could go and what they could do—there just isn’t quite enough uncertainty at present. 

It’s a promising foundation for a brain burning puzzle of a strategy game, and runs without a single hitch, bug, or crash to boot. I’m looking forward to following up with it after a few more months of development and see what all these devious diseases are up to.

Jon Bolding is a games writer and critic with an extensive background in strategy games. When he's not on his PC, he can be found playing every tabletop game under the sun.