Updated: 2015/1/7

Pandemic1 is a great board game, where the players represent agents of the Center for Disease Control and must work together to stop four epidemics from growing out of control. Players can build research centers which allow you to make cures for the disease as well as allowing them to travel around the world faster. The placement of these research centers is an important aspect of the game’s strategy and I’ll introduce a set of placements which are arguably optimal.

Base map

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Matt Wigway’s prior work. What he did was make a graph out of the cities and connections in Pandemic and use NetworkX to find the centrality of each node. In layman’s terms, a city’s centrality is how close it is to being the center of the universe. With no other information, this is a good measure for determining which of two cities would be better to put a research center in. My replicated results2 are listed below from least to most central. As you can see, there’s a very strong correlation between a node’s degree and centrality. The correlation is 0.58 with a very strong p-value of 1.33e-05.

City Centrality Number of neighbors
Santiago 0.0062 1
Johannesburg 0.015 2
Buenos Aires 0.020 2
Kinshasa 0.020 3
Lagos 0.025 3
Lima 0.027 3
Atlanta 0.038 3
Montreal 0.040 3
Sao Paulo 0.040 4
Washington 0.041 4
Miami 0.043 4
Bogota 0.045 5
Khartoum 0.047 4
New York 0.055 4
Beijing 0.056 2
Osaka 0.064 2
Mexico City 0.065 5
London 0.071 4
Essen 0.073 4
St. Petersburg 0.074 3
Seoul 0.074 3
Milan 0.075 3
Chicago 0.080 5
Madrid 0.086 5
Los Angeles 0.088 4
Moscow 0.093 3
Paris 0.096 5
Tokyo 0.097 4
Algiers 0.11 4
San Francisco 0.11 4
Riyadh 0.12 3
Sydney 0.13 3
Cairo 0.14 5
Istanbul 0.16 6
Shanghai 0.17 5
Tehran 0.17 4
Mumbai 0.17 3
Taipei 0.18 4
Baghdad 0.19 5
Karachi 0.21 5
Jakarta 0.22 4
Manila 0.23 5
Ho Chi Minh 0.25 4
Delhi 0.26 5
Kolkata 0.27 4
Chennai 0.29 5
Bangkok 0.31 5
Hong Kong 0.33 6

However, what we’re interested in is a set of n cities that together are the best places to put research centers, not a single best city. As our constraints, we only care about sets of size greater or equal to one and less than or equal to six as we don’t have enough pieces to have more than six research centers and we are given a mandatory free one in Atlanta.

How can we compare two proposed placements? The most intuitive measure for me is the average distance from each city in the world to the nearest research center. According to Stack Exchange, this is reducible to the problem of finding a dominating set which is known to be NP-Hard. Fortunately, this problem (despite being NP-Complete) is solvable in reasonable time for a problem as small as ours. Especially when you cache the all-pairs shortest paths matrix.

Obviously, with only one research center the only possible placement is Atlanta which is therefore optimal.

With two research centers the optimal solution is to pair Atlanta with either Baghdad or Cairo. Looking at the solution for two centers, one might think it would be better to do Atlanta and Karachi instead since that is seven away from Atlanta traveling both East and West, whereas Atlanta is five away from Cairo one way and nine away from Cairo the other way. This is a good intuition, but unfortunately the average distance for Atlanta and Karachi is 1% higher. Moving to Karachi makes you slightly closer to places like Jakarta, but it also makes you slightly farther away from places like Kinshasa and Essen and the trade off is just barely not worth it.3

Two centers

With three research centers there’s one optimal solution with the mandatory Atlanta, Hong Kong covering East Asia, and Cairo providing fast travel to Africa, Europe, and the Mideast.

Three centers

With four research centers, we take the optimal solution for three, move our Mideast center to Istanbul and put our fourth in Sao Paulo to cover the southwest side of the globe.

Four centers

With five research centers, we have seven equally good choices. Each involves placing one in Atlanta, one in Europe, one in South America, one in East Asia, and one in either the Middle East or South Asia.

North America Europe East Asia Mid east South America
Atlanta Istanbul Shanghai Chennai Sao Paulo
Atlanta Istanbul Hong Kong Delhi Sao Paulo
Atlanta Istanbul Hong Kong Karachi Sao Paulo
Atlanta Paris Hong Kong Baghdad Bogota
Atlanta Paris Hong Kong Cairo Bogota
Atlanta Essen Hong Kong Cairo Bogota
Atlanta London Hong Kong Cairo Bogota

Five center example

Finally, with six research centers we can cover all corners of the globe with Atlanta, Paris, Khartoum, Hong Kong, Karachi, Bogota. As per the rules,4 you can only have six research centers, so when you try to build a seventh you have to get rid of one of your existing stations. There’s a slight advantage to removing your Atlanta station and replacing it with one in Chicago.

Six centers

Of course, if we build a research center in Cairo we can’t move it to Istanbul until we’ve built six of them, which means it’s impossible to solely go through the optimal layouts. Furthermore, unless one of the players is the operations expert it’s unlikely we can build research stations in the optimal locations at will.5 What we want now is a ranking of which cities are the best for research centers and a separation of them into regions where we understand that it’s never a good deal to put two research centers in the same region.

The centrality measure previously discussed is a good judge of how good building a research center in a city is, but let’s check our work by counting how many times each city appears in the optimal placements.

City Occurences
Shanghai 1
Chennai 1
Delhi 1
Khartoum 1
London 1
Essen 1
Baghdad 2
Karachi 2
Paris 3
Istanbul 4
Sao Paulo 4
Bogota 5
Cairo 5
Hong Kong 9
Atlanta 13

The correlation between the number of occurences and the centrality measure depends a lot on whether we include Atlanta. With it the correlation rounds to 0.10 and is not statistically significant. Without it the correlation jumps to 0.27 with a p-value of 0.07. The likely reason these measures aren’t better correlated is because a lot of the most central cities are clustered together in Asia while optimal placement is based on spreading out.

One way we can separate the world into regions is with a Voronoi diagram where each research center in the optimal six center layout is the center of a zone.
Central Asia: Moscow, Delhi, Baghdad, Tehran, Karachi, Riyadh, Mumbai
Europes: Istanbul, Paris, St. Petersburg, London, Algiers, Milan, Madrid, Essen
Africa: Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Khartoum, Lagos, Cairo
Latin America: Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bogota
North America: Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Montreal, Washington, New York
East Asia: Manila, Shanghai, Sydney, Kolkata, Chennai, Seoul, Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh, Tokyo, Jakarta, Beijing, Osaka

Of course, we’ve artificially constricted ourselves by always having a research center in Atlanta. Is it possible to come to a better solution by relaxing that requirement? What if we’ve already been forced to put a research center in Santiago? Where should we put the rest of our stations if we’ve already made suboptimal moves? These are the kinds of questions that might be covered in the future. A useful app to make based off this work would be a REST API that tells you the average distance for the globe to the nearest research center of a given placement and then a pretty web frontend that uses it.

Update: 2015/1/7

In the base game, the above analysis isn’t as useful as it could be since you will most likely be busy dealing with one or two diseases more than the rest. However, in Pandemic Legacy this kind of analysis is much more useful as it’s possible to preserve a research station across playthroughs. It also has a slightly different map, but fortunately https://github.com/gracegallis gave that to me through a pull request.

For Pandemic Legacy, the first four solutions are largely the same as for the classic board. Your first station should be in Atlanta, your second should be in Cairo, and your third should be in Hong Kong.

For four stations they should be in Atlanta, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, and Hong Kong. The fifth when built should be in either Delhi or Karachi.

After the first five, the amount of good options you have rapidly explodes, so I’ll provide a list of cities and how often they appear in optimal solutions.

City Occurences
Cairo 2
Chicago 3
New York 3
Shanghai 6
Washington 6
London 8
Karachi 8
Sao Paulo 9
Atlanta 11
Delhi 14
Buenos Aires 14
Los Angeles 156
Hong Kong 18
Istanbul 23


  1. The Pandemic board game is copyright by Z-Man Games.

  2. I was actually planning to do the analysis he did, but after seeing he already did it, I expanded it to this.

  3. This was suggested by u/Robinetski on Reddit. It’s a good suggestion.

  4. I was initially unaware of this rule and was corrected by u/Erdomas on Reddit. The Reddit discussion can be found here.

  5. It’s also common to have scenarios where you want to build a research center somewhere so that you can cure a disease as soon as possible. For example, on the day I decided to write this blog post we had our medic fly down to Lima and build a research station there because another player went down to Santiago to cure some disease and happened to draw the cards needed to make a cure.

  6. Mostly as a replacement to Atlanta.

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