Staff Pick: Pandemic Legacy

It's January. New Year's resolutions have been made and forgotten, the ball has been dropped, and heads are throbbing. Everyone looks forward to a fresh start. Little do you know, this year will go down in history: it's going to be one of the worst years we've ever seen. With 12 months of terror ahead, you and your team must travel around the globe, fighting diseases and quelling the panic that has started to take hold. Before this year is over, humanity will come close to ruin - it's up to you to hold it back from the edge. Are you ready to save the world?

Part 1: The Background

If you were involved in the board game world in 2011, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting someone talking about Risk: Legacy. For the fans, this was a holy artifact, handed down from the lord-on-high Rob Daviau. For the detractors, it was a cheap gimmick, forcing you to buy a new copy every time you wanted to reset the board. Regardless of either group, Risk: Legacy shook up the board game world with the idea of persistent elements across sessions; this was territory typically reserved for RPGs. Rules are modified, the board changes, cards are destroyed, and each game matters more than the last. In a bizarre move, these innovative mechanics were built on top of a notoriously boring middle-of-the-road wargame; but, even with the Risk name attached, this game was definitely not just Risk 2.0. It had different rules, tons of factions, map changes, and the Legacy system. Despite all this brand weirdness, it sold like bananas, making Rob Daviau an overnight celebrity (to be fair, he was pretty famous before, with more than 40 titles to his credit, but shhhhhh). Everyone was talking about his next project. Which wheel would he reinvent next? Which forgotten game would be turned gold by his touch? Catan Legacy? Clue Legacy? Scattergories Legacy?!

None of the above, as it turns out (I'm still waiting for Scattergories Legacy). Instead, we got something better. Rob Daviau announced he would be working with Matt Leacock on a new version of Pandemic. If you're unfamiliar with the original Pandemic, here's the quick look: it's 2-4 player cooperative game where you play CDC researchers that jet around the world and prevent disease outbreaks. You do so by collecting sets of colored "city" cards that represent one of four diseases. When you collect enough, you attempt to cure the disease. If you cure all four, you win. It sounds simple, but Pandemic has a well-deserved reputation for being brutally difficult. Your characters have limited action points, new disease cubes are being added to the board every turn, and the more you fail, the harder it gets. The game knocks you down, kicks you while you're down there, and burns down your home for good measure. Balancing out the difficulty is the fact that games only take about an hour - play through, and if you lose, it takes five minutes to reset the board and start again fresh.

The original Pandemic

The thing is, Matt Leacock (designer of the original Pandemic) has a sadistic streak. He loves to ramp up the difficulty and see what happens. It's not a character flaw, per se, as cooperative games thrive on high difficulty - without a challenge, co-op play would be boring and inconsequential. Matt Leacock just takes more pleasure in it than most other co-op designers (so much so that I was briefly afraid Pandemic Legacy would come with a packet of live anthrax).

"I’ve found that players get the most enjoyment when things are just out of reach — that they can almost, very nearly, taste victory each time. And of course, you’ve got to let them win some from time to time or the game will be declared broken. So that said, I generally hope the players will lose their first round or two of the game but — here’s the important part — they must both blame themselves and have some good ideas for what they’ll try next."

- Matt Leacock

Pandemic, he felt, was still too easy. It needed more tension, swearing, and sweat. The stakes needed to be higher. Players needed to feel like they actually accomplished something - not just a win, but something bigger. 

This impulse, combined with Daviau's innovative designs, created something magical.

Pandemic Legacy isn't just one of the best games of the year, it's one of the best games of all time. I'll explain why at length, but if you want to avoid some minor spoilers, just trust me here: you will not regret this purchase. Go and get a copy right now.

Part 2: The Review

From now on, I may discuss, vaguely, what you can expect from some of the legacy elements. I won't reveal anything major, but if you're very spoiler adverse, go buy the frakkin' game already and stop reading this.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 takes place over the course of a year. In these twelve months, you will lose friends, fail to save lives, and come close to the brink of disaster - or go right over it. You will find yourself understaffed and out of time. You will agonize over the sacrifices you made to gain the smallest victories. It will take everything you have to save the world. You will play each month in sequence, starting in January. Fail a month once, and you can repeat it. Fail twice, and you're forced to move on to the next month.

The basic gameplay of Pandemic Legacy is the same: 2-4 players take on unique characters with special abilities, move around a map of the world, and collect sets of colored cards to cure diseases. You still have epidemics, outbreaks, and events. Unlike Risk Legacy, no large changes were made to the basic Pandemic rule set; however, the rules will be modified as the game progresses.

As you play the 12-24 possible games, you will proceed through the Legacy deck - a series of cards that shake up the game in massive ways. They are triggered by certain in-game events - say, starting your first game, experiencing two epidemics, winning a game, and so on. This deck forms the unique "story" of your game. It will tell you to do things that seem almost sacrilegious - destroy a card permanently, place a permanent sticker on the board, write on your character with a permanent marker, etc.

All our board-game playing lives, we've been told to behave. Don't bend cards, don't mark the board, and don't break anything. Players will meticulously double-sleeve a thousand of their Magic cards just to avoid disasters like this. Yet the destruction of a Legacy game is freeing. We've all felt so frustrated with a game that our destructive impulses are hard to contain; I suspect that anyone who's ever flipped a Monopoly board is just holding back from lighting it on fire. This is a game that actively encourages it. You may have lost both January sessions, but at least you get to rip, burn, and smash the cards involved. This has a flip-side, though - the time may come when you have to destroy a character card because they died - or are "lost", in the game's parlance - and it's heartbreaking. You want to tuck it away somewhere, hoping the lost character may return in the third act, but they won't - they are gone for good and it's probably your fault. 

The other effect of the Legacy deck involves opening the mystery packets. This will probably be the first thing you notice when you unbox the game. There are eight large mystery boxes and around 50 packets in the "top secret" dossier. The boxes contain more components for the game, but I won't spoil what they are. The surprise is worth it. The "top secret" dossier is a bit more varied in content.

This is basically the Devil's advent calendar. It contains more misery, suffering, and pain than a Taco Bell Big Box. There are some good things in here, but on average, they tend to be more awful than not. If you thought the sight of a sticker couldn't make you physically ill, think again. When a Legacy card tells you to open a packet and the sticker inside is a new evolution for your disease, there's a brief moment where you might consider burning the monstrosity and walking away. That's the thing, though: you never do. Just like that Taco Bell Big Box, you keep coming back for more. Because, honestly, you need to know what's under the next one. It's part of your story.

And that's the thing that really got me. It's your story. When you first select one of the familiar Pandemic roles - medic, generalist, researcher, etc - you're told to give them a name. This seems silly at first, and the temptation to write something like "Dr. Poop MD" is hard to resist, but you'll realize down the road that you're attached to these characters. As your character survives month to month, they will gain upgrades, scars, and relationships. Your character may start out as a simple generalist, but by the end of the game, she could be a veteran disease fighter with a bad case of PTSD from the time she lost her co-worker to that devastating outbreak in Manila. These characters are not just powers and a silly name - they have stories. You helped create them.

Part 3: The Moral

There's a movie that I love called Contagion. It examines how the world would respond if a seemingly incurable illness started wiping out humanity. There's a character that sticks out to me: a CDC researcher, Dr. Mears, spends the movie tooling around the country trying to contain the virus. She talks to local bureaucrats, investigates the homes of victims, and sets up quarantines. Somewhere along the line, she catches the virus and lies dying in the makeshift quarantine station, lined up with the rows and rows of the sick. The old man next to her is shuddering from the cold. He asks for more blankets, but there aren't any left. With the last of her strength, Dr. Mears pulls off her coat and tries to hand it to him, but she can't reach far enough. The coat falls to the floor as she fades away.

I kept thinking about Dr. Mears throughout the game. I thought about her as I drove into disease-ravaged Delhi, knowing full well I wasn't coming back, and I thought about her when I fled a rioting city with the last bit of information I needed to cure the illness. Like Dr. Mears, I was grasping at my last bit of fight even in the face of insurmountable odds. Then I realized something: I kept thinking about Dr. Mears because I really felt like I was playing a character in a film. Every move I made seemed larger than pushing a meeple around. I wasn't just a powerless pawn to a screenwriter, though. My actions, and the actions of my friends, were writing this story. That's the beauty of Pandemic Legacy. It elevates my favorite part of games: their ability to create shared stories. The Legacy mechanic gives you the tools to create an incredible tale. It pushes this grander sense of what a board game can be. It's not about winning or losing or even playing a game. It's not about the points or those devilish mystery boxes. It's about the time that you and your friends took on impossible odds, fought against the dying light, and saved the world.

And honestly, isn't that what we're playing for?

-Charlie, Meeple Treatment Specialist