Tonight we’ll try to save the world again, but it’s getting tougher and tougher. Matt, Satoko, Becky, and I will once again race against time to prevent the spread of four deadly diseases, as the world crumbles around us. Specifically, we’re playing another session of Pandemic: Legacy, the board game that has raced to the very top of the BoardGameGeek rankings in a very short time. Let me tell you a little about it.
What is Pandemic? Pandemic is a game from 2008 which is regarded by many as spearheading a wave of cooperative games. In a cooperative game the players don’t compete against each other, but work together to achieve a win against the game itself. In Pandemic, you are CDC agents, traveling the globe (the board is a map of the world) to fight four diseases. The goal is to cure all four before time runs out or disaster strikes. There’s a deck of city cards that gets flipped each turn, and disease cubes get placed on the cities that come up. If too many cubes go on a city, there’s an outbreak, and the disease spreads to all the neighboring cities. You have to prevent such outbreaks by treating cities while also trying to collect data to be turned in to cure the diseases. There are periodic epidemics which not only add a new city into the mix and increase the number of cubes that come out, but also put the cities back on top of the deck, meaning the same cities can get hit over and over. If you don’t clean them up, you are courting disaster. Too many outbreaks or running out of disease cubes can lose you the game, as well as running out of cards in the player draw deck. It’s a tight, tough game, and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve taught it to non-gamers several times and they’ve always picked it up pretty well and enjoyed it. It was my Game of the Year in 2008.
Okay, so what is a Legacy game? A “legacy” game is so named because the first one of its type was Risk: Legacy. This game was a variant of mass-market classic Risk, except with a major difference: the game changed permanently as you played it. In a Legacy game, things that happen in a particular session can affect future sessions. Cards used one time are removed, areas on the board can change, rules can even be added. This is noted through permanently changing the physical game itself. Cards are destroyed. Stickers are placed on the board. You write on the board to name cities or add features. At some point, a certain action in the game will have you open a sealed box that contains new pieces and rules for how to use them. Instead of playing a single game, you end up playing several connected games with a common storyline, where decisions will continue to ripple through the next games. Risk: Legacy was like nothing anyone had ever seen before and it had, itself, a permanent effect on games to come.
You got your Legacy in my Pandemic! Well, you got your Pandemic in my Legacy!
Pandemic: Legacy is, as the name says, the “legacy” mechanism applied to Pandemic. The basics are there: map of the world, CDC agents, trying to cure diseases, and so forth. But in this game, the disasters that happen stick around. For example (this is not really a spoiler, as you know it as soon as you begin) whenever an outbreak happens in a city, the panic level of that city goes up. If it gets too high, getting into that city to help it out becomes more difficult. Also, if one of the players is in a city when this happens, they get a scar, a permanent disadvantage on their character card. If they get too many scars, they’re dead. Permanently out of the game. There are other permanent effects as well, including (as you can imagine) the diseases getting more and more resistant to treatment. There are good changes, though. Winning a game gives you options for stickers you can put on the board or characters that help out.
I don’t want to talk too much about the changes, because this is a game with spoilers. You don’t know everything that’s going to happen when you start. There are sealed packages and boxes that you’ll open at certain times which add to the experience. Things are going to change, and change dramatically. But you’ll also get new tools to deal with them.
The game is played over a “year”. Starting in January, you play a session for that “month”. If you win, you move on to the next month. If you lose, you play another game in that same month. After two losses in the same month you’ll get socially promoted to the next one. So you’re looking at between 12 sessions (if you do fantastic) and 24 (if you’re utterly hopeless). So far we lost January twice, won Feb, March, and April, and then lost May twice. Tonight we start June. The first disease we named was “BOOGERS!!!” and we’ve also eradicated (temporarily at least) “Red Scare” and “Bugs in the Tummy”. Also, Europe is, like, a disaster area and the Eastern US isn’t looking so hot either.
As I said, Pandemic: Legacy has shot up the charts over at BoardGameGeek, but it’s not without its detractors. The biggest complaint seems to be the “permanent” aspect of it. Nerds have a really hard time not attaching themselves to stuff, and the idea of physically altering the game gives many the heebiest of all possible jeebies. There are supposedly tons of tips on how to play without “destroying” the game. That’s nuts, in my opinion. The permanent changes are the point, and are part of the fun. Getting 12-24 plays out of a game is a fine value, and these same people pay the same or more for other transitory entertainments, such as going out to a movie or eating a fine meal. No one buys concert tickets and is then disappointed that they can’t then watch that band perform forever, but I guess it’s a different problem when you’re talking about something that sits on your shelf. What do you do when it’s over? I don’t know; maybe you can play the final game state over and over, or maybe you can keep it on that shelf with the other memories of good times you don’t play anymore, or maybe you can recycle it and still cherish the fun times and experience.
A more valid complaint is that the storyline and drama is, to some extent, on rails. The events that happen are (so far, at least) less a result of player decisions and more a result of reaching a certain point in the game. For me, this is a non-issue because it still results in a unique and fun gaming experience. A novel or movie is no less entertaining for my lack of agency within it. Still, I can understand the complaint, especially since I believe this was less the case in Risk Legacy (but I never played that so I don’t know for sure).
Pandemic: Legacy was designed by Matt Leacock, who designed Pandemic, and Rob Daviau, who co-designed Risk Legacy, so you have two able hands here. They’ve created a game that shows that the legacy mechanism was not a fluke and can work in other environments. I can’t think of two games as dissimilar as Risk and Pandemic, yet both utilize this device well. I highly, highly recommend Pandemic: Legacy, one of the best games I played in 2015. Is it the best game of all time? Well, no, but it’s an experience unlike any other.