Quarantine: Graysles Anatomy
Once upon a time there was a cowboy by the name of Mark Klassen, though everybody called him Dr. Handsome. Nobody is sure what Mark did for a living — whether he erected hospitals with his bare hands, or just watched way too much Grey’s Anatomy and ER in between modeling gigs. Really, it’s a hell of a mystery. Whatever the case, Mark decided to design the board game equivalent of those fine television programs, though minus all the chiseled doctors and ravishing nurses hooking up. The result is Quarantine from Mercury Games, and it’s unlike anything you’ve played before.
In a nutshell, Quarantine sets you to the task of building and running your very own hospital. Beginning with only a lobby and a handful of treatment rooms that correspond with the four colors of sickly folks who line up at your doors, you admit patients, cure them, and use their money (all their money; medicine doesn’t come cheap) to add new treatment and special rooms, hopefully transforming your building from a plodding and disorganized country hospital into a humming engine of illness-curing efficiency.
That’s the pitch. And if it doesn’t make you want to sign off right this instant to buy the game, you’re hardly alone, because I wasn’t all that jazzed by the basic description either. “Where are all the hot nurses?” I complained to Somerset. She had no answer, and was similarly upset by their absence (I assume). Perhaps worse, it looked like one of those non-interactive games where each of the players might as well be playing a solo game, laying out tiles and shuffling around colorful eurocubes without having much of an impact on the course of the game for anyone else.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Competitive Aspect #1: Adding New Patients
There are two things you have to do on your turn. The trickier one is that you get four actions, but we’ll get to that in a minute. For now, I want to talk about adding new patients, and how it’s a brilliantly simple mechanic that makes everyone permanently invested in what’s going on during other players’ turns.
While you’re puzzling over how to spend your actions, the player to your left pulls four cubes out of the game’s draw bag and holds them (without peeking!) in their closed fist. At any point on your turn, you shout “New Patient!” with your throatiest, most cigarette- and liquor-braised voice, exactly the way you imagine a surgeon would; and in response, the player holding the cubes chucks one at you.
This cube could be one of five colors. If it’s blue, green, yellow, or red, then it’s a patient, and you get to add it to the end of a waiting line — any waiting line. Which means you could take all these new patients for yourself in the hopes of curing their various diseases and, in the process, squeezing their wallets until cartoon moths fly out. Or you could look over at the hospitals your loved ones are building and notice your wife’s line is gummed up with blue patients. Now you have a decision to make: do you refer more blue patients to her, further mucking up her line and probably making a Hospital Nemesis for life; or do you forge a Hospital Alliance by offering to trade useful patients?
Now, perhaps the cube isn’t one of the primary colors (and I realize green isn’t a primary color, but run with it) — perhaps it comes out gray. In which case, it represents infection, a case of the Graysles (really, that’s Quarantine’s pun, not mine). You’ll almost definitely want to avoid infecting your own precious institution, meaning this decision is even harder than referring patients. Now you need to decide which hospital tile to infect — and infection means a tile is quarantined, and quarantined tiles can’t admit or cure patients, so you’ve just royally screwed over somebody’s ability to make money.
Either way, your chosen methods of referring the ill can earn you fast friends and faster enemies, and keeps everyone riveted on whoever’s hand is busy delivering a stream of new cubes that turn.
Fighting the Infection
I mentioned above that you have four actions each turn. What I didn’t tell you is that they’re represented by four tactilely-pleasing discs. When you spend an action, you chuck one of these discs at the player to your left in an act of revenge for all the eurocubes he’s been flicking off the edge of the table when he was supposed to be handing them to you. In addition to the simple caveman pleasure of throwing things around, these discs also solve the age-old board game problem of players “forgetting” to track their actions — and in Quarantine, there are plenty of actions to pick from.
For instance, it gets back to your turn, and your dick roommate has infected a couple of your tiles. It isn’t absolutely essential to eradicate all traces of the Graysles disease, so you decide to let your quarantined yellow patient sit around for a while longer, and instead you spend an action to decontaminate your blue room. Easy as that, the disease is gone.
Actions do all sorts of other things too. You can admit a whole stretch of patients with a single disc, conga-line style, until they’re blocked thanks to too few treatment rooms, or the proper rooms already being occupied, or quarantines halting admission — so spending actions to shuffle the order of your waiting line can often be a great way to make sure you aren’t wasting those discs. You can cure patients, though one action only grants a cure for one color at a time, so working to specialize your hospital so you can cure 2 or 3 green cubes in one go is definitely something to look into. You can also renovate your hospital for maximum efficiency, points, or disease-containment; and even take bonus action markers to store up for bigger turns in the future.
And those are just the simple options. I haven’t even mentioned one of the game’s best mechanics yet.
Competitive Aspect #2: Opening Tile Contracts
One could argue that Quarantine is a subtle metaphor for the grand expense of a medical-industrial complex, because when you cure a patient, you claim his body and soul as currency — meaning cured patients are added to your supply, where they wait to be spent or counted towards your victory point total at the end of the game. Alternately, you might argue, probably a bit more sanely, that this is a tidy little abstraction that presents players with an agonizing choice over whether to trade in their victory points to improve their institution with new rooms.
The simpler option is to just spend two cubes for one colored treatment room. These are limited, so players hoping to energize their efforts to cure certain types of patients will have to act quickly before they’re all claimed.
More interestingly, there are also special tiles. The game comes with two each of 14 varieties of these (with 2 more types if you can get your hands on the First Aid micro-expansion), and in each game you only use eight types — meaning in one game you might have access to Graysles-curing Pathology departments, un-infectable Containment zones, Triage centers that let you rearrange your entire wait line in a mad bout of musical chairs, and Pharmacies that let you cure patients without even bothering to admit them at all; while in another game you’ll have Purchasing departments to help you buy more tiles, On Call Rooms that let you cure patients at hilarious rates, Maintenance offices that let you renovate your hospital with the speed of a YouTube Rubik’s Cube solution, and Gift Shops to squeeze cash out of your patients’ relatives for get-well cards and coloring books. Because these are randomly chosen, every game has a different dynamic: Labs turn Graysles into a moneymaking opportunity, Cafeterias transform extra action markers from vaguely pointless into a mighty action-multiplying strategy, and any hospital can be transformed into a slapdash comedy maze if you have a Helipad to life-flight your patients all over the place.
These rooms are cool, that goes without saying. Acquiring them, though — that can be a real pain.
See, you don’t just buy them. Oh no — you have to spend an action just to open a contract. When you do that, you put at least two of your cubes on it (there’s no maximum to how much you can spend) and hope nobody matches your price in cubes and colors on their turn. If they do, they take the room; if there are no rooms of that type left, you get your money back and a pity-prize bonus action marker, and you’re deprived of the tile itself. If, on the other hand, it gets back to your turn and the contract is still open, then you get to add the tile to your hospital.
What this does is creates a system where the players are setting the prices of the various available rooms and banking on how well they’ve read the intentions of their fellow players. Spend too little and your friends will gobble up that tile type before it comes back around to your turn. Spend too much… well, in that case you just wasted a pile of victory points. Or perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re the only person who’s cured any yellow patients at all, in which case maybe you can open a contract for two yellow cubes and nobody will be able to pony up the proper match.
Just Like In a Real Hospital, There’s a Lot of Risk vs. Reward
I’ve already talked about a couple examples of this. Any game that allows players to shaft each other comes with a bit of inbuilt risk-vs-reward. Hurting your opponents is a reward in and of itself as it pushes them farther from victory, though of course, the risk is that you just might be awakening a sleeping giant who’s going to infect the hell out of your hospital when they draw four gray cubes on their next turn. And opening tile contracts brings a whole slew of risks and potential rewards depending on how well you’ve managed to gauge all sorts of factors, like how much you’re willing to spend to improve your hospital in this certain way, how much your opponents are willing (or are able) to spend at this time, if anyone wants to nab your contract just to mess with your plans, et cetera.
But the really cool thing about Quarantine is that every single opportunity for victory points reflects some sort of risk-vs-reward mechanism.
The winner is chosen based on:
* 1 point for each special room tile in your hospital.
* 1 for each complete Nurses’ Station.
* 1 for every 2 cubes in your supply.
* 1 if you have no patients in your wait line.
Leaving aside all the stuff about spending patients for improvements, consider the Nurses’ Stations. These are created whenever four tiles meet at the corner. Simple enough, so you’ll want to build a boxy hospital rather than one with lots of long, narrow corridors.
The problem is, if you have Nurses’ Stations, then infections spread much faster. When someone places a gray cube on a tile that contains a complete Nurses’ Station, they get to place another gray cube on another tile that connects to that Station — so you just got two infections for the low, low price of one.
This transforms Quarantine’s hospital-building from a breezy minigame into a tightrope-walk across razor-wire. And the other mechanics do it too — you’re constantly trading one opportunity for another, or cashing in your victory points in the hopes that the sacrifice means you’ll be able to generate more in the future.
Final Score: It may not have all the genius female doctors and sexually-liberated male nurses you’ve come to expect from a hospital, but Quarantine has plenty of component-chucking and personal conflict. It’s simply staggering that this is Mark Klassen’s first game — it’s so tight, unique, and fun, that I would have expected a much more experienced designer at the helm. I had my doubts when I first heard its premise, and I’m nothing but happy to say I was wrong in my assumptions, and that this is an excellent game. I cannot recommend Quarantine enough.