Published on February 20th, 2017 | by Luke Turpeinen0
A Year of Plagues
A review of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
The original Pandemic board game was released in 2008 and since that time Pandemic has become one of the most widely recognized board games in America. Pandemic distinguished itself in American markets by being one of the first popular co-operative games. Its non-competitive gameplay coupled with its approachable theme gave Pandemic lasting power with players.
Since 2008 Pandemic has received three expansions and a revised 2nd edition of the base game. These changes and additions to the game introduced more elements to the Pandemic world and fleshed out the mechanics and theme of the game world. Additionally, scenarios published for free by Z-Man games from their website allowed players to act out story based situations in-game. All of these expansions came together in full force when Z-Man games published Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 in 2015.
Since being published, Pandemic Legacy has won all manner of awards and acclaim for both its design and its theme. In my opinion, Pandemic Legacy’s success is not due primarily to the content of the game in terms of mechanics or physical components- but rather with the manner in which these are delivered to the players over the course of play.
The main concept for Pandemic Legacy was to create a game where the results of previous games have an effect on one’s current game. The idea came from the largely successful RISK Legacy game, which was the first game to include such a feature. During the course of a “legacy” game, players will write on cards, place stickers on the board and tear up or otherwise destroy components of the game. The chance to affect the outcome of such a scenario is a large part of the draw of a legacy game.
Pandemic Legacy’s approach to its legacy elements is significantly different to the method used in RISK Legacy. In RISK Legacy players were allowed to mark items after achieving a victory, and new materials were generally added when hitting an “achievement” type goal. In Pandemic Legacy, the narrative is much more controlled.
Pandemic Legacy takes place over a series of 12 months, and plays between 12-24 times. What this actually means is that there are 12 scenarios, and you’re allowed to try again (exactly once) if you mess up. the scenarios add different goals and victory conditions to the game, as well as expansion-style material- such as additional character roles. If you fail to win 2 scenarios in a row (ie: 4 games in a row) then the game starts building a little differently (no spoilers).
Under certain conditions in the game, such as being in a city where an Outbreak occurs, your characters may be given a “scar” in the form of a sticker that permanently changes the way that character plays. Outbreaks also cause Panic Levels to rise in cities, permanently, which is also represented with a sticker. On the other hand, surviving a game can allow you to upgrade characters with additional abilities, or allow you to establish an additional starting Research Center.
As you progress further into the game (the game refers to sessions as “months”) you are required to open more of the sealed boxes. Most interesting to me were the stickers with rules additions that you place directly inside the rulebook. Just looking through the rulebook gives you an idea of what to expect- extra components, additional actions and more.
Pandemic Legacy does better than other Legacy games in that there is a more linear order in which you experience the legacy elements. This means that the designers have a more firm grasp on the narrative and can mold the individual sessions into a story easier. RISK doesn’t have this- game additions are added somewhat ad hoc and with little to no story component. Pandemic Legacy feeds you a little story each month you progress through the game, and it’s fun to look back on the cards from past months as you advance forward in the scenarios.
It’s this sense of anticipation and the thrill of the reveal that are driving me forward in Pandemic Legacy. The game itself is the best version of Pandemic I’ve ever played, but it’s still largely Pandemic- a game that I’ve played hundreds of times over the years. I enjoy playing Pandemic, but the real fun in Pandemic Legacy specifically comes from the novelty of drawing an event card or opening the little black boxes that come sealed with the game.
Overall I’m enjoying the legacy elements of Pandemic Legacy, and it makes me wonder- with the success the legacy versions of both Pandemic and RISK- where will we see the legacy genre go in the future?
We’ve seen publishers like Stonemaier Games do semi-legacy games- the expansion to Viticulture, Tuscany, was a set of micro-expansions meant to be experienced like a legacy game without having to destroy or modify any components. You would track which expansions you unlocked as you completed games on a score pad that came with the expansion and acted as a high-score board.
While I feel like Tuscany was a successful implementation of its design goals, I found that the non-secretive way that Tuscany presented itself didn’t draw out my anticipation and excitement in the way that Pandemic/RISK Legacy have. By being knowing what expansions were available upon opening the box just made me want to immediately play with them all at once. Sitting through several games, gaining one mini-expansion at a time seemed too slow of a pace when I knew what I could add if I really wanted to.
I doubt that having sealed boxes would improve all games (imagine unlocking features in Agricola by multiple successive playthroughs), but you never know- people like a mystery. If games started to have subtle variations between the boxes, a la Pokemon games, collectibility could also drive up sales. With the rise of story-adventure games such as Mansions of Madness and Shadows of Brimstone, I imagine a scenario in which Legacy versions of these games skirt the line more and more between roleplaying games and board games.
However legacy games develop in the future, they will all owe a debt to Pandemic Legacy for paving the way for this new genre, which some said would never work.