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For: iPad   Also on: Android, iPhone

It's pathological

Product: Pathogen | Developer: Birnam Wood Games | Publisher: Gameblyr | Format: iPad | Genre: Card/ board game, Puzzle | Players: 1 | Networking: wireless (network), on one device | Version: Europe
Pathogen iPad, thumbnail 1
Pathogen is a new digital-only abstract boardgame. So it's probably worth knowing my tilt on this: I don't generally care for abstracts. I find their cold austerity off-putting. "Dice and dwarves are for children," they seem to sneer, "but we are games for adults."

It just so happens that I rather like dice and dwarves.

Thankfully, Pathogen has a thin membrane of story stretched across its mechanics. Your pieces are biological agents, three grades of cell from A to C and a virus. You drop them onto a grid-like board, attempting to fill more squares with your own organic goo than your opponent can fill with his.

You can play into empty squares, but more interesting things happen if you choose occupied ones. Play one of your A-cells on top of another and it will multiply into adjacent spaces, which may cause other A-cells to upgrade or multiply, even wiping over enemy ones.

B and C cells act similarly, except they also wipe over lower-ranked cells, leading to single moves capable of completely transforming the game state.

Stacking C-cells transforms next door C-cells of any colour into walls, permanently gaining you board spaces. Viruses, meanwhile, destroy all adjacent cells of the type onto which they're played. You can play an A-cell whenever you like, but the others have slowly increasing recharge times.

Growing organically

The similarities with Othello are obvious. But this is deeper - a rich primordial soup of permutations that are utterly baffling when you start out. This vast sea of possibilities is one of the things I find difficult about abstract games. With so many options, how does one go about whittling them down and make a decision?

Oriental masterpiece Go is terrible for this. When I was learning it, I asked a more experienced player how on earth he picked opening moves when he had the whole board to choose from. He told me to play from the heart instead of the mind.

I could never do that in Go, but in Pathogen it feels not just natural but essential. With four different pieces at your disposal you can't work through all the possible permutations.

Instead, success requires both thinking and feeling your way across the space, a delightfully snug balancing act that's much more fun than the haughty logic of other abstracts.

Digital diseases

Further thawing my frosty heart, Pathogen uses its digital platform to do stuff that would be impossible in a physical boardgame. Calculating all those removals and replacements in real life would be a colossal pain for starters.

It would also be difficult to replicate the game's delightful graphics and sound with actual pieces. Your stickily biological conquests are portrayed in a striking modern way, soft blues and purples against a field of bottomless starry black. Cells chime and tinkle as they multiply their way to victory.

And there's more. Solo play involves a campaign, encompassing branch points and different game modes along the way. Each level has a different layout in terms of size and the starting quantity and distribution of friendly, neutral and hostile cells. This offers a constant itch of curiosity to pull you onward.

Spreading infection

If solitaire isn't enough for your tastes - and the hard setting is pretty challenging for the masochists out there - you can always use the slick multiplayer interface to get match-ups against friends or strangers.

Or you can play face to face on the device itself, using a preset board or one you designed yourself using the handy editor provided. Pathogen really does seem to have thought of everything.

Part of me wants to hate Pathogen, just so I can continue my unremitting crusade against the drab joylessness of abstracts. But I can't do it: the game's just too enchanting.

Sometimes it could use a unified rulebook or just slightly clearer wording when it explains new concepts to you. Sometimes playing is just a little bit too much like hard work to be fun. But mostly, it's just infectiously entertaining.
Reviewer photo
Matt Thrower | 8 November 2013
A novel abstract strategy game that checks all the boxes for a fantastic digital experience and is charming enough, despite occasional accessibility issues, to win over abstract cynics like me
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