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If you like Pandemic, you owe it to yourself to make The ART Project your next co-op board game

Stealing hearts.

Image credit: The Op

Co-op board gaming has come a long way in the 15 years since Pandemic threw players into a race around the world to halt the spread of an infectious plague. Aside from that particular theme hitting differently in 2023 than 2008, designer Matt Leacock’s superbly refined gameplay - move between places, remove cubes and collect the cards needed to discover a cure - has stood the test of time.

While the base Pandemic might feel a little too simple in today’s age, the genius of its card-driven simulation of a spreading infection (as plague-hit locations are shuffled and placed back on top of the draw deck) has itself evolved into powerful new forms through the further refinement of spin-offs such as Pandemic Iberia - the best “classic” Pandemic you can buy today, for my money - and the groundbreaking (and roundly excellent) Pandemic Legacy trilogy. A number of games have tried to balance the same approachable simplicity and pure thrill of Pandemic’s save-the-world experience in the decade-plus since, but few have come close to equalling it. This year’s The ART Project is a strong contender for inheriting that crown.

The ART Project in many ways feels like it could slot right into the Pandemic series - which itself now includes spin-offs in the universe of Star Wars and even video game World of Warcraft. There are a lot of ingredients here that feel immediately familiar as a veteran Pandemic player. Just like Pandemic, it could be boiled down to moving between locations on the board, looking to slow the spread of an ominous presence on each space while you collect the cards needed to amass the items you need for victory.

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It could be compared in base terms that way, but that would be doing The ART Project a huge disservice. This isn’t a Pandemic clone, but a game that builds smartly on those rock-solid foundations laid down 15 years ago to create something worthy of standing alongside them. It’s quickly become one of my favourite board games of 2023 - and, as someone with hundreds of Pandemic games under my belt across the entire series, something I can see myself playing for years to come.

Let’s start from the top: The ART Project, as the name suggests, is about art. Stolen art, to be precise. As the Art Rescue Team - like ART, geddit? - the players must track down and recover masterworks stolen by the villainous White Hand organisation. It’s a rollicking theme, one that has wry nods to the real-life “acquisition” of artwork by museums and organisations from outside of the art’s home, even if the game gently steps around any deeper commentary.

Players must collect icons from cards to track down stolen art, then battle the White Hand agents protecting it to get it back. | Image credit: Dicebreaker/The Op

Before you can recover the art itself, you’ll need to find where it’s been hidden. That comes through the cards drawn by each player on each turn, which are played simultaneously by the group (with the ability to hint at what you’re holding) and resolved for their effects. Cards might grant helpful resources, cost resources to play, spawn White Hand agents on certain spaces - The ART Project’s equivalent to cubes in Pandemic - or offer up the icons required by players to discover a missing art piece, sometimes combining some or all of the above on a single card. As such, choosing which card of the two drawn each turn - and in what order players should choose to resolve them - becomes the deliciously sticky dilemma at the heart of The ART Project’s gameplay. Knowing what each card does is simple after the first couple of turns, putting all the focus on whether you’re playing the right card.

This isn’t a Pandemic clone, but builds smartly on those foundations to create something worthy of standing alongside them.

Get three matching icons in your stack of played cards and you’ll uncover an art piece on the corresponding space. Then it’s time to get your butts in gear and travel to the stop, spending fuel tokens - one of the game’s three key resources - to move between locations.

If too many White Hand agents amass in a city, they'll take control - making it impossible for players to move into. | Image credit: Dicebreaker/The Op

If agents guard the space, you’ll have to fight. Combat may be The ART Project’s most divisive element for some players, relying on the luck of dice rolls as you aim to roll over the combined number of agents on the space and the current threat level of the White Hand, which increases the more art you recover. You can tip the luck in your favour by having multiple players contribute their dice, hiring extra ally dice using walkie-talkie tokens - which then stick around for the rest of the game, and get cheaper the higher the threat goes - spending gun tokens (the third resource) to add two to a result or spending any unwanted cards to re-roll dice. Any resource tokens can be replaced by players’ precious hearts - lost when defeated in combat, with zero leading to defeat - presenting an exciting risk-reward toss-up of when to bolster your limited supplies with your health.

Beating up the thieves isn’t just handy to get the art back. You’ll often need to clear out a space to avoid too many White Hand agents amassing and turning that city into a lost city - the Pandemic parallel here being an outbreak - which stops players passing through it, any art from appearing and adds future agents to a global threat level. In other words: it’s bad, so you’ll need to sometimes split up to fight back the group before they gain too much control over the city.

There are six different maps in the box, each with unique rules around travel, combat and finding art. It makes for a game with lots of reason to replay. | Image credit: The Op

While difficulty is a tough line to walk, The ART Project does it well. It’s by no means an easy game - of the half-dozen games we played, we won once and lost the rest, but within a turn or two of victory - but hands enough control to the players to help it feel more than a crapshoot of dice rolls. There’s breathing room to amass resources and plan a few turns ahead before throwing yourself into a tough fight, while the time limit of the deck - which triggers defeat if it runs out - encourages enough urgency to avoid casual stockpiling. Even as we lost, we could see where we might’ve emerged victorious. Yes, that was occasionally down to unavoidably bad rolls or card draw, but was more often than not because of our own decisions earlier on. It’s unpredictable enough to remain tense and challenging, without the frustration of being totally out of your hands.

The variety in locations and gameplay is excellent, making for a game that feels far, far bigger than its compact box suggests.

Rather than the variety of each run relying solely on whether you roll right or which cards you draw, The ART Project’s standard box generously packs in a whopping six unique game maps, each with a slight variant on the basic rules. While Japan plays it straight with the standard rules, Egypt introduces a straight-line map that allows players to travel more easily by sailing along the Nile - but only in one direction - while the islands of Polynesia can be travelled between freely without following routes, but spawn agents more quickly. Scandinavia adds more costly travel routes and extra effects - some good, some bad - when art is recovered, Brazil requires players to seek out art in a specific order around the neighbourhoods of Rio, while the US makes players unable to share their clues for the location of a piece without meeting in the same city. Oh, and you can collect guns in Texas, naturally. The variety in locations and gameplay is excellent, making for a game that feels far, far bigger than its compact box suggests - you can also up the difficulty once you’ve bested the standard challenge.

Dice rolls decide fights, but you can help mitigate any luck by taking along your fellow players, gaining extra dice from allies, spending gun tokens to boost results and using cards to re-roll. | Image credit: The Op

Those maps are rendered in illustrator Vincent Dutrait’s gorgeous artwork, which complements the rest of The ART Project’s top-notch production. The box itself takes the form of a movie poster, with each player’s character represented by a different wooden meeple styled after a chess piece. Those characters are mechanically identical (unique abilities are ripe for a future expansion) but ooze flavour through their art and light backgrounds in the rulebook, from the bow-wielding Tower and acrobat Knight to the schoolgirl Queen and King, accompanied by a guide dog.

Joining White Hand meeples, wooden-crate cubes for the art pieces and miniaturised fuel, walkie-talkies and guns - all stored on a camper van side board that shows the supplies pouring out of its doors - it’s a board game that looks absolutely sensational, adding to the action-movie vibe and easy-flowing pace, which can wrap up a game in half an hour or so before you inevitably dive back in for another shot at winning.

The presentation is universally stunning, from Vincent Dutrait's artwork to the tokens for each resource and character. | Image credit: The Op

What makes all of this that much more appealing is that The ART Project can currently be picked up for around £30/$40 or less. Given the production values and number of individual maps alone, that’s a hell of a bargain. (I went and ordered myself a copy to play endlessly over the holidays after blasting through the office copy sent over by publisher The Op.)

If you’ve exhausted your copy of Pandemic and are looking for something fresh along similar - but different - lines, this should be next on your list. Even if you’re just after something to play that’s fairly easy to pick up and teach to newcomers but has enough tension and challenge to reward returning to again and again, The ART Project’s hunt for stolen masterpieces and battles against art thieves have captivated me like few other games have this year. It’s an absolute blast that’s sure to steal your attention and your heart alike.

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