Once in a while a game comes around that ends up defining a genre, setting the standard that all other games are measured against. Arkham Horror fits this bill for thematic boardgames, Agricola is the go-to for worker placement, and for cooperative games there is Pandemic. Sure, there were other cooperative games before Pandemic, and there have been some great ones that have come out since then, but Pandemic remains the standard-bearer for cooperative boardgames.
In 2008, Rob Daviau was tasked with re-implementing the classic game of Risk. Rather than slapping a popular intellectual property on the game, Daviau developed what would be called The Legacy system. Instead of resetting the game after every play, players of Risk Legacy are taken on a 15 game adventure through a whole pile of hidden compartments, stickers and ripped up cards. As an individual copy of the game is played, the game itself changes, in some ways dramatically and irrevocably. In the past four years Risk Legacy stood alone as the sole game utilizing the Legacy system, until now.
Daviau has teamed up with Matt Leacock to re-envision the modern classic Pandemic with the Legacy system. As play progresses through a twelve month campaign, the world rapidly changes and what happens in any given month drastically impacts the events of future months.
I am going to approach this review without any spoilers. The best part of the game is unfolding the story packed inside the Legacy deck. My opinions will be based on an entire playthrough, but the content I talk about will only be what is covered in the game when you open it for the first time.
When you first look inside the box, you are greeted with a familiar looking Pandemic game. In fact, the rules suggest that Pandemic novices play through a handful of games to get a feeling for how the game flows before jumping into ‘the real’ game. The collective goal of the players is to cooperatively find cures for the four diseases found across the world. On your turn, you can treat disease cubes, move around the board, give cards to other players and build research stations. At the end of a every turn, infection cards are drawn and cubes are placed in the corresponding cities.
One of the first hints of things to come is the introduction of characters. Each player takes on the role of a personality giving them some special ability to fight or cure the diseases. For example, the researcher can give cards away easier, and the medic can treat diseases like a champ. However, each role has a small dossier to keep track of various things that will unfold throughout the game. You start the game by naming each character (first mistake is forming an attachment), you can also see room for relationships (undefined currently), upgrades and scars. Character upgrades are added after missions have been played to make the characters more effective at their tasks, such as the Forecaster upgrade giving that character the ability to look at the next two infection cards at the start of their turn.
Scars lead into a larger aspect of the history of your particular game. In normal Pandemic it was bad when there was an outbreak; but in Legacy, if a character is in a city when an outbreak occurs, the character receives a permanent scar. These scars stay with the characters and give some negative rule to how the character is played. Additionally, if a character receives enough scars the character dies and can never be played with again. Ever. In addition to the nasty nature of scars, when a city outbreaks the local population starts to descend into anarchy. With every outbreak the stability of a city decreases making it harder for the players to move around the board and do their tasks, eventually cities will descend into an all-out riot.
This unrest is tracked via stickers that are placed on the board. Yes, stickers. There is also writing on cards and ripping up components in this game. Some people might have a problem with this, and I understand where they are coming from; however, the Legacy system requires a different mindset. Things that happen cannot be undone, and that is the beauty of the game. Starting in January, players will get an opportunity to play each month twice. If they are unable to win a given month, they must move on, giving the game a maximum of 24 game sessions. The game progresses via drawing… content… out of the Legacy deck. This is where the uncertainty and story of the game lies. At various times throughout the game players will be prompted to draw and resolve legacy cards. For example, the first card that players will draw happens in the middle of their first game rather than the end. In the middle of the first game things fundamentally change from the classic Pandemic game. The devices used by the legacy deck include a series of advent calendar style folders with closed doors and eight sealed boxes for larger components. As the game progresses, the various things that are on the back of those folders and inside the boxes continuously change the game, making it easier or harder for players depending on what is drawn.
As expected for such a large release, the components are top notch, looking very similar to the most recent edition of Pandemic. The base rules are broken up into ‘new’ content for returning players as well as full game rules for reference. The rules are supplemented as new content comes out with stickers that are placed inside the rule book. There is a whole page with empty boxes that will be filled in as new mechanisms are added to the game. In general, games take about an hour to play with a half hour of setup and teardown. Similar to regular Pandemic, a careful (or dysfunctional) group can extend the game longer by planning, or the game can be played quickly to add to the intensity.
One important aspect of the Legacy system is that you play with the same people for the duration of the twelve months. This is not essential, but it does add to the effect of the changing storyline. If someone is added to the last month of the game, they have no idea how the game got to where it is, additionally it is not very fun to only play the first session. So when thinking about playing, be sure to pick a group of people who are going to be consistently present. For our run-through, so that we didn’t have to rely on other people to be available when we wanted our Pandemic fix, my wife and I chose to play with just the two of us. Just two players, each playing one character, is supported by the game, but we each played two characters at the same time and treated everything else like a four player game. This worked exceptionally well for us, but like classic Pandemic, the number of players influences the difficulty of the game.
The experience is intense. You only get to experience the story the first time once. While there is nothing wrong with playing two different campaigns, the core experience is in the exploration of what is next. Because you cannot go back, it is particularly crushing to lose twice in a month. The game does help manage the difficulty by giving or taking away ‘funded event’ cards, such as the one time use cards Airlifts and Quiet Nights. Still, when the outbreak count spills over the second time, a small part of you dies inside.
The game does have its faults, primarily in interpreting rules and harsh randomness. Because the rules slowly come out it can be hard to find clarifications without spoiling the rest of the game. Several BoargameGeek posts help address this fairly well, but there were a few times that we interpreted rules that hurt us pretty bad, and a few times the opposite happened and we got a significant benefit. I can only imagine this is a very hard design problem to address, and it did not ruin the experience, but there were many times the specific wording of some of the supplemental rules was vague or confusing. The other harsh downside to Pandemic Legacy is how random the Pandemic system can be. In a normal game if you get off to a bad start, you just reset and try again. But in Legacy, if the first three cities (the ones with 3 disease cubes) start next to each other, and your first epidemic comes up in the first few draws of player cards it can be rough, not just for that game, but for all of the games afterwards. This type of randomness happened to us more than once and seriously disrupted the sway of the diseases and the general unrest in our world.
The story is awesome. I was surprised more than once at what came out of the Legacy deck. Just about every month brings something new in regards to the story and how the game plays. Things rapidly change from normal Pandemic gameplay, but becomes a whole different puzzle to figure out. This is the best part of Legacy. As normal Pandemic is a great introduction to cooperative gaming, I found myself playing all of the time. After your 20th game, you kind of figure out the puzzle and the optimal strategy (and that alpha player inside of you). Legacy blows that out of the water. As I mentioned before, in the middle of your first game, things fundamentally change and the puzzle becomes fresh and challenging.
Pandemic Legacy does not really fix any of the problems that are regularly leveled against its predecessor. Overbearing players can still ruin the game for everyone else, and the aforementioned randomness can screw with the game. All of those things are still present. Legacy is not a ‘fixed’ Pandemic, but more of Pandemic Advanced: similar to what it was before, but more intense.
In that vein, if you strongly disliked Pandemic, this new Legacy system is not going to change your mind on the system. However, if you were on the fence or just grew tired of the original, this new implementation is worth playing through, if only to experience the story in the Legacy deck.
Yes this is a one time play game. There is no way to ‘salvage’ the game after your last mission. If you wanted, you could replay the last mission over and over, but it would quickly lose the awesome factor. This is not at all something that bothers me. I think we ended up playing sixteen or seventeen months, meaning that we lost four or five months the first time we played them. Comparing Pandemic Legacy to other games of this price point, I feel like I got well over the full amount of value of the experience. I will not hesitate at all in signing up for season two.
Designed by: Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock
Published by: Z-Man Games
Time: 1.5 hours per session (max 24 sessions)
Mechanics: Cooperative, Legacy system, Card driven AI, Set collection
If you are OK only playing one game for the next fifteen or so gaming sessions, there is no other game you should be playing. Once you start a session of Pandemic Legacy, it will consume your gaming thoughts and time. Fitting as an amazing follow up to both Pandemic and Risk Legacy, all I can say is the hype is real. You need to play this game.