There’s no need to worry… you’re experienced at this. Contain and cure the four diseases that have broken out around the world, ensuring this is an isolated event and that the world will return to normal. However, this time things are different and the board won’t reset at the end of the game. What happens now will affect what will follow. This is Pandemic Legacy.
The original Pandemic is a cooperative game designed by Matt Leacock and was first published in 2007. In it, players are tasked to work collaboratively to cure four diseases that are spreading around the world in a series of outbreaks. It has proved to be a huge success, reaching a level of popularity that, like Catan and Ticket to Ride, extends beyond the confines of the hobby to mass market appeal. Capitalising on this success, Z-Man games has produced a series of expansions, re-implementations and re-skins, dice variants and other related games that now form ‘the world of Pandemic’. It is possible that Pandemic Legacy is the most successful of these.
Pandemic as a Legacy Game
Pandemic Legacy is designed by Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau. It was the latter who originally developed the legacy concept. He has spoken at length about this, explaining that it stemmed from a fundamental attempt to rethink the preconceptions of boardgames, starting with the suggestion that every game is a discrete event with no impact on later play throughs. The first implementation of this was Daviau’s Risk Legacy; the second was Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 itself.
The legacy aspect modifies the original Pandemic’s premise in interesting and increasingly complicated ways. It is used to tell a story across multiple play sessions. Now, instead of dealing with an individual global disease event that is resolved one way or another at game end, you and your fellow heroes are working across an in-game year to cure four diseases and get to the bottom of exactly what is going on.
The game is divided into months, which act as chapters, with your first session taking place in January. If you ‘win’ this game you can move on to February. However, if your group loses you try January again, moving on to February either way at the end of this second game. Subsequent months follow the same pattern as you play across a year, meaning that the whole campaign runs for a minimum of 12 games and a maximum of 24. It is likely that most groups’ playthroughs will fall somewhere in the middle (my own game group finished the campaign in 19 games).
Initially, the core mechanics of original Pandemic remain in place and the first game of the campaign begins much like any other. You are a team of medics, researchers and others working cooperatively to halt the spread of four diseases around the world. However, things soon begin to deviate from this familiar set up as one of the diseases proves to be unlike the others and begins to act in strange ways.
This deviation happens quickly. The game rules change to reflect it and are modified and supplemented in the rulebook by stickers. As your year progresses, you’ll find that even the very objectives you need to complete change.
It’s not just the rules and objectives that change. One of the most striking aspects of Pandemic Legacy is the way that the board itself is altered. The status of the cities can shift from unstable to rioting and can even fall, all of which occurrences have consequences for your ability to move around the world. These changes are marked by the permanent placing of stickers on the board. Additionally, stickers are placed on cards whilst other cards, most dramatically of all, are torn up and thrown away.
The player characters change too, affected by their experiences as the year progresses and the story develops. They can gain new skills that upgrade their abilities and take scars which hinder them. It is even possible for characters to be permanently lost. This is not to say that the game ventures into RPG territory. However, it’s likely you will become attached to the characters. You will give them names and play with them in the story over many games. Also, you begin to realise the situational relevance of certain roles. Depending on the situation you will probably pick different characters so as to best achieve your objectives.
The main storytelling device in the game, and the real engine for the ongoing campaign, is the Legacy Deck. This is a deck of cards that you consult before and after each month of gameplay and which provides details of the unfolding story. It also directs you to open certain packages, affix stickers in various places and more. Essentially, the developing narrative told through this deck allows for the introduction of new game mechanics and keeps things moving forward.
It is, perhaps, inevitable that the plot of Pandemic Legacy is a little limited in places. Nevertheless, it is interesting and works well to create a genuine sense of mystery. This will drive you to keep playing. As a player you simply don’t know how the game will pan out until you read the cards for that month. However, it is also true that the general plot pacing does vary. There are genuinely surprising moments that you’ll remember long after you have finished playing the whole campaign. To balance that there are also periods where the story falls into the trap of repetition and can feel a little padded. This in turn makes the introduction of the related objectives and game mechanics also feel a little samey at times.
Of course, the original Pandemic is great at creating tense moments. When you win a game at the last possible moment. Or when you experience the eighth outbreak just before you were due to cure the final disease. Pandemic Legacy capitalises on these kind of moments not least because of the permanent and ongoing effects they have on your board.
Level of Challenge
In Pandemic Legacy the player deck contains five of the dreaded green epidemic cards. This is equivalent to the normal difficulty in the original game. However, the level of challenge is not entirely controlled by these cards. Instead, events work to change and balance the difficulty from month to month and game to game. Essentially, Pandemic Legacy is structured to help those groups that might be struggling and make things more difficult for those who are sailing through with little problem. With each game you play the funding level of your team is altered. This means more or less ‘event cards’. These are cards with special powers that allow for specific actions.
Whilst the funding level of your team varies, the changes you make to the board are largely permanent. As cities riot and fall the board can become more difficult to move around. This causes an escalation of the difficulties faced in future games. My own game group had a bad run of games in late spring, losing three in a row in such a way that made the middle of the board very difficult to navigate for the rest of the campaign. This was particular to our playthrough, but it did leave us with the feeling that we couldn’t win a game, no matter what boons we received. We were wrong of course, and we ended our run of defeats in the fourth game, although it was close.
There is, in fact, a box that is only opened if your group loses four games in a row. I’ve a feeling that nearly every group that reaches the end of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 and hasn’t opened this during their play through will do so after completing December.
Experience and Novelty
Pandemic Legacy is a rich and rewarding game experience. The story developments and the changes they impose on the rules and objectives add novelty and innovation to the game in a way that will keep it fresh for even seasoned players of the original Pandemic. However, such experienced players may start to recognise some of the ‘new’ elements from the existing expansions to the base game, and may find that the repetition of certain mechanics detracts from their impact.
Z-Man Games advertises the play time for an individual game of Pandemic Legacy to be one hour, which is 15 minutes longer than the time listed for the original game. This is, on the whole, a fairly accurate approximation of the time you’ll spend actually moving your pawns around the board. However, it is not really a true representation of an average session.
The game requires a certain amount of admin. Before you begin playing you have to read the Legacy Deck, set up the game as normal and also select the events you wish to add to the deck. Additionally, you need to choose player characters. This last especially can take some time. It can take even longer if you have not played for a while. Then, at game end, you have to select your various game end upgrades. It is perfectly possible for one game to take nearer 1 hr 45 mins from set up to take down.
The implementation of the new rules added to the book through the campaign can lead to a slightly bloated gaming experience. The original Pandemic is a slickly designed game. Whilst each of the new elements in Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is well designed in itself they do cumulatively result in the overall experience feeling a little weighed down.
Pandemic Legacy is a rewarding and memorable gaming experience and is one that I highly recommend. It offers a genuine challenge for new and experienced players alike. It's sure to create fantastic stories within your game group. It does, perhaps, benefit from being played over a relatively short space of time. At least on a regular basis. This is as it can be difficult to remember your place in the story.