Board Game Review – Pandemic Legacy Season 1

As I come to the end of playing a campaign of Pandemic Legacy, I feel it is time to review the game; it is the first “Legacy” or permanent campaign-based game of its kind I have really played (apart technically from Time Stories and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which have a similar limited-plays nature but are a series of discrete missions to complete one at a time rather than a narrative campaign), and I was interested to see if it was as good as the reviews suggested. I have always had reservations about the idea of a board game with limited opportunities to be played, but I entered the campaign with an open mind.

Now the campaign is all but complete, I have thought about what I made of the experience; I enjoyed the game a lot, but at the same time a number of issues meant I never felt it was a truly great game. The potential is there for the Legacy boardgame model to do interesting things (although I still feel much of the design space it opens could be replicated with non-destructive alternatives such as apps), and I am eager to see how later games develop the ideas seen in Pandemic Legacy‘s first “season.”

Note: This review will discuss the development of the Pandemic Legacy Season 1 campaign, including details of hidden information and scenarios.

A key feature of Pandemic Legacy is how it has a narrative that players experience through the opening of boxes and envelopes within the game box, forming a campaign that brings a traditionally quite abstract co-operative board game closer to more story-driven games. The story as presented is entirely passable; it does a fine job of introducing new gameplay mechanics and changing the focus of each individual game over its twelve chapters, but it is at the same time a relatively unambitious story; in my mind, games like Above and Below, which is a hybrid of a Euro-style resource management game with a Tales of the Arabian Nights style choose your own adventure achieve more interesting things in terms of setting and decision making opporunities while, if anything, having less individual identity in characters. That said, Pandemic Legacy is not a bad story experience, and discounting it purely on this would be a poor decision.

What I do feel presents an issue is how the storytelling aspects impact gameplay, particularly in a co-operative game. The flavour text gives a sense of urgency to the game that, if one plays it “thematically”, makes losing a game feel meaningful. Cities get destroyed, characters take “scars” which depict a declining psychological state and the “faded” menace spreads across the world. As a result it feels “right” to try and play optimally in a way that a single contextless game of Pandemic does not. Winning or losing a single game of Pandemic has little emotional or narrative impact; although the game’s presentation evokes a disaster-control environment, the world is rebuilt and destroyed anew every time a game is played and it is very clearly gamist. If, instead, one is actively “scarring” and changing the game state, risking losing characters or cities completely, losing suddenly becomes significant and there is a – in my experience – much more “competitive” element to the co-operation.

What this risks enabling or encouraging in certain playgroups is unhelpful controlling behaviour from stronger-opinioned players. It is a fault I have fallen prey to frequently in co-operative games. A player drawn in by the added stakes – both narrative and mechanical, as “scarred” characters are functionally weakened – may play more domineeringly, which takes away the agency of the players being given orders. Indeed, the sense that a co-operative game is one where new players are told to follow orders of experienced players rather than make decisions is a sentiment I have heard from non-gamers introduced to the genre.

Yet at the same time almost the complete opposite problem occurs at other points in Pandemic Legacy‘s campaign; it is quite possible that the “pressure” to succeed that leads to meticulous planning of turns and counting of cards to see if “winning” is possible is purely a product of my regular play-group, and indeed sometimes its results are quite different. Pandemic is, I feel, a game which can become a little predetermined; there is sometimes a point in a non-Legacy game where it is obvious the board state is unwinnable (and this can create acrimony among more competitive players). In Legacy, this interacts strangely with the campaign mechanics, as our first game in the December chapter showed. It was obvious that completing two missions was not possible with the starting board state we were dealt, and so the decision was made to write the game off and play very atypically to create the most favourable board state for the next game. Similarly at other points in the campaign, once it becomes clear some missions are no longer vital, we found ourselves acting unthematically to, in a more gamist fashion, stack scars which did not matter on characters we were not planning to use. This felt a justified play decision by the game’s mechanics; it is not an easy game, and losing the campaign outright would have been unsatisfying, and yet at times the way to “win” (as a result of the sliding difficulty whereby successive victories reduce the number of events available) was to tactically lose or play in an optimised and gamist manner.

A related issue in turn is the way in which narrative developments can come out quite inorganically owing to the comparative randomness of the card-drawing. A major plot development which would ordinarily lead to a player-character being lost instead, owing to a combination of game-states, had effectively no mechanical impact (and thus lost much of its narrative impact.) Similarly the carefully engineered board state for December game 2 in our campaign has made – in my opinion – the ending a little anticlimactic. Now these are obviously exceptional circumstances which may well be unique to the group I played the campaign with, but they have impacted my experience of a game designed to be a single-use item.

My other issue is one that I think could be seen as unfair, but I intend it to be a hopeful sentiment and it has certainly not made me feel Legacy games (or indeed the upcoming Pandemic Legacy Season 2) are not worthwhile. Owning Pandemic with every expansion adds a huge amount of new mechanics to the game – the Laboratory board, the animal vectors of transmission, the mutating virus, and so on. They utterly reinvent the game, and make it constantly interesting. Legacy uses very little of these more dramatic mechanical changes, and – I feel – doles out new mechanics quite slowly. I was hoping that Legacy would have more of those level of mechanical reinventions as we opened envelopes and boxes. That it did not was again not enough to make me not enjoy the game, but instead make me hope that Season 2 is more adventurous.

I do not intend this review to be a total demolition of Pandemic Legacy, or to imply that I have not enjoyed playing it. It has been a fun social experience, and an interesting look at a genre of board game I came close to dismissing off hand. Nevertheless I feel Season 1 was, to me, a look at what is yet to come rather than something great as-is. It is likely with revision and improvement a more compelling narrative that better draws together meaningful mechanical decisions and thematic behaviour can be created. It is possible that with rebalancing the incentive to have an “alpha player” can be discouraged. As a proof of concept of a genre, I think the game is good – but nevertheless I am left after playing it more interested in seeing how the genre evolves than thinking that Pandemic Legacy Season 1 is what it should be.

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