Viral: Sick Fun
Ever thought about the viruses and bacteria that get you sick? They’re fighting back against your body’s immune system to grow and reproduce.
In Viral, you play as a species of virus, spreading out to infect as many organs as you can. This unique area control game from MESAboardgames and Arcane Wonders is a Dice Tower Essentials pick, and it’s easy to see why.
Each player takes a set of 6 Zone Cards and 5 starting “Mutation” cards that corresponds to their chosen color. They also take matching Virus tiles according to the number of players. Finally, they take a player board which is helpful for keeping cards straight while they play.
Players take turns placing one Virus tile in each Organ until every Organ contains exactly one tile. The game board specifies 6 Zones, each containing 1-3 Organs. Players cannot place a second Virus in the same Zone unless there isn’t anywhere else they can place their Virus tile. After placing the starting Viruses, place the scoring tokens on the point track and research track. Place the Crisis tiles on their spots on the board and select six random Event Cards and place them face down in the event space. Finally, place a Zone tile in each of the zones, shuffle the Mutation cards and deal three face up. The game now begins.
Each Viral turn is organized into six steps. In the first step, all players choose a Mutation card and a zone card from their hand and place them face down next to their player board. Players reveal simultaneously, and then resolve their cards in player order.
This resolution occurs by the player performing the action associated with each of the Mutation icons on the Mutation card they played. If the icon has a blue background, it must affect one or many Viruses in the zone played. Two icons with a slash between them mean the player can choose one, but not both. Players can resolve these Mutations in any order.
After the first set of zone & mutation cards have been resolved, players choose a second set and play them in the same way. After resolving both sets of cards, players “clean up” by putting this round’s cards in a “Timer” space, making them unavailable for the next round. (The player may also retrieve any cards played in previous rounds.)
Mutation cards contain some combination of 7 available actions:
- Infect places a Virus tile in the Organ of your choice.
- Shield allows you to flip a Virus tile to “shielded”, protecting that Virus against being removed one time.
- Move a Virus tile from one Organ to another, following the circulatory path (arteries and veins).
- Attack to remove an opponent’s Virus tile in an Organ where you already have a Virus.
- Magnet can either attract or repel. Push an opponent’s Virus tile from an Organ where you both have a Virus tiles into another Organ (following the circulatory path) or attract an opponent’s Virus tile from a different Organ into an Organ where you have a Virus (still following the circulatory path).
- Absorb takes all Virus tiles in an Organ and places them under one of your Virus tiles in that organ. Those tiles are trapped inside your Virus tile until that Virus tile dies, or until step six when they are released.
At any time, if an organ has too many Virus tiles in it, players place the lowest numbered available Crisis token in that organ. This count is equal to the number of players, but never lower than three. These tokens remain, even if the Virus tile count drops below three.
Activate Crisis tokens in step 4.
After cleaning up the second set of Zone and Mutation cards, players determine who controls each Zone and assign victory points and research points accordingly.
For a player to control a zone they must have at least one Virus tile in each organ. If more than one player has this, whichever player has more Virus tiles in the Zone controls the Zone.
The scoring tiles placed during setup show a victory point value on the top and a research number on the bottom. Whichever player controls each zone gains that many victory points, but they also move their token up the research track by the appropriate number of spaces too.
When players pass certain victory point thresholds (4, 8, 12, 16) they choose a new Mutation card from the available face up Mutation cards and put it into their hand. When a player passes the 21 victory point threshold, they flip all of the Zone scoring tiles to their blue sides, which are generally more powerful.
Once research has completed, step 3 is the event card. Apply the effects of the event card to the current board situation. They’re all very different, and most are fairly humorous. Discard the card at the end of the step.
Each Organ containing a Crisis token triggers an Immune Response in step 4.
Resolve the Crises from lowest to highest number. First, the player with the most tiles in this Organ gains two victory points. Every other player gains one. Then, remove all unshielded Virus tiles from the Organ and return them to their respective players. Shielded Virus tiles lose their shields, and Viruses that have absorbed other Viruses release the Viruses and are killed if they are not also shielded. If this triggers another Crisis, that Crisis is resolved in the next round.
Crises aren’t the only threat to your viruses. Scientists are trying to kill them, too! For Step 5, examine the Research track. If your Research token is at the top of the Research track, the Scientists have found a cure. Remove all your unshielded Virus tokens from the board, remove shields from your shielded Viruses, and move your research token back to the bottom of the research track. Ouch!
To complete the round, players must update the tie-breaker table and release all viruses that were absorbed (potentially triggering a crisis). Players reorder the tie breaker table to match the victory point tracker. The player with the lowest score places their token at the top of the tie breaker table. The second lowest is next, and so on. Tied players maintain their relative positioning from the last round.
End Game and Scoring
Viral plays across six rounds. You’ll know you’re on the last round of the game because the event card pile will be empty. Add your scoring track Victory Points, any points from Mutation cards you acquired (there is an icon on them), and one Victory Point for each Zone where you still have at least one Virus. Whoever has the most points wins!
The toughest part of Viral is understanding all of the iconography. However, once this is done (with help from the rulebook), the game flows incredibly smoothly. Analysis paralysis is low, with only a few actual choices available to each player on their turn. The imagery is rich and bold, vibrant and clear. When we first saw Viral at a convention, our six year old sat down and was playing it with little more guidance than the salesperson was providing to adult gamers.
We did find ourselves tripped up at times by the circulation paths. These are a clever way to manage the players and force them to make strategic decisions, but given how bold the rest of the iconography was, the arrows were relatively easy to miss.
Replayability in Viral is high, with 22 Mutation cards that can be acquired (though each player will only ever get 4 in a game) and 13 Event cards (though you will only ever see 6 in a game).
Unusually, Viral supports a fifth player out-of-the-box, which, combined with its relative ease of play, pushes it up on our rankings, past many 2-4 player games.
Viral serves as an excellent introduction to area control. so if you are playing with adult gamers who are unfamiliar with the area control mechanic, this is a good option. The heavily stylized illustrations suggest this could be a kids game, but weaving the various mutations together strategically does require the ability to plan logically, something that younger kids aren’t great at. The box recommendation of 12+ is probably about right, but a savvy ten-year-old would do just fine.
The game can drag a bit, especially if a player gets too far ahead. At 60-90 minutes, Viral sometimes feels one or two rounds too long. Players could house rule this with less event cards (and thus less rounds) if they run into this issue.
We’re definitely going to keep Viral on our shelf. It’s a lighter strategic game that avoids complex mechanics and scales well at various player counts (we recommend 3-5). We’re glad Arcane Wonders got this area control game into circulation.
Check out your local game store or find Viral online at Amazon now!
The Family Gamers were provided a promotional copy of Viral for this review.
Number of Players: 2-5
Age Range: 12+ (we say 10+)
Playtime: 60-90 minutes