My wife and I have been saving the world for 2 months, 1 week and 5 days.
We should be watching The Good Place. Instead we’re playing Pandemic Legacy again, trying to stop the world from being torn asunder. Because the pull from Pandemic Legacy is better than the best show on Netflix.
In our alternate timeline, it is September. For nine months we have warred – together with Mack, Hermione, Alberta, Zoe, General Buzzkill and Smitty Jones – against four deadly viruses that threaten to overtake the world, time and time again. It’s a battle of order against chaos, or hope against despair.
Nine months. This world is our baby.
(Did I mention there were spoilers? This is your last warning.)
Four deadly viruses is an understatement.
Make that three deadly viruses, and a mother-loving, all-consuming zombie apocalypse.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
You’ve probably heard of Pandemic. It’s the most well-known and best received cooperative game in the world. Has been for nearly a decade now.
You work together with your crack team from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta to save the world from four deadly viruses that threaten to become world-ending epidemics.
Cure 4 diseases. Win.
Except in your game, it’s the yellow virus, the red virus, the black one, and this blue one. In ours – in our Pandemic Legacy – we’re waging war against Pustulence, Buttfacia, Phlegmsplatazoid, and C0dA.
This legacy game. You name your diseases. You leave permanent scars on the board. You write on the board. You add permanent stickers to the board, and tear up cards. You leave your mark.
The changes in the game become apparent mid-way through the first game. Just as we’re getting into our rhythm, we get our first game-changing revelation.
That original objective? Cure 4 diseases, the way that every game of Pandemic has ever gone? You take the objective card - tangible, solid cardboard - and rip it up. Take a piece of paper. Write a list. Put on it, "the easy way", "what I knew about winning", and "hope". Tear that up too.
One of the four diseases becomes bad news. Incurably bad. You get a replacement objective: cure 3 diseases. It'll have to do.
Poetically, the death virus is codenamed C0dA, because it heralds the very end for humanity. The virus consumes the humans it touches, and impersonal black cubes have become the "faded" - little translucent green monsters who overrun the board time and time again.
Let's face it. They're zombies.
We're going to need military help.
We burned Atlanta.
My sister-in-law is from Atlanta.
Diseases broke out here one too many times, and the locals are in a state of panic. They rioted and destroyed our pretty white research centre, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thankfully we'd built a backup facility in Kolkata.
It's hard to describe how down you get when you lose this game.
For four solid months, we were undefeated. On a high. High on arrogance and chutzpah. I seriously toyed with opening the mayday box - "only open if you lose 4 games in a row" - because we would never seriously need to, and I was curious.
Then we lost two in a row. The game had won, and that hideous defeat was permanently recorded on the board, in the game state, and on the back of the participating characters. The defeat was etched permanently on the board, and in my soul.
You're probably itching to quote me something about pride. You and your horde of lions can go jump. I'll just add 'pride' to my torn-up list above.
Losing four in a row was a sudden, distinct possibility. I spent the rest of the week in a funk.
I needed to play this game again.
I needed redemption.
Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design talks about games within games. There's chess, but then there's the mini-game of moving a knight or trapping the king.
Pandemic Legacy contains games within games, wrapped up in the meta-game, which is the narrative stringing successive games together. As you unlock new cards and new boxes, new ability and new mini-games become available.
Somewhere around August, a new game hits the table. Not only are you trying to cure the world's disease whilst avoiding the zombies. Now there's a new mini-game: find certain hard-to-find individuals before time runs out.
That's a hard decision. Do I spend time looking for the immunologist and the virologist? They might hold the keys to saving humanity... but it might come at the cost of surrendering September to the forces of disease and despair.
Let me sing you the ballad of Smitty Jones.
His birthday is the 21st of March. He's our Operations Expert. He's been our most successful operative, building military installations around the world from which to run our disease-fighting, apocalypse-containing operations.
These new military bases are essential in the fight to contain the zombie apocalypse, because while it cannot be treated or cured, it can be defended by aggressive quarantines and military roadblocks.
Smitty Jones is an expert. He's our most experienced character, taking up service on six occasions. Ain't no-one can pressure the locals to get their quarantine on like Smitty.
However fighting the battle against human annihilation comes with its perils. Smitty has taken his share of psychological trauma, acquiring an odd compulsion.
He has a phobia of even numbers.
But there is no rest for the wicked, nor rest for the weary. Smitty, the world hath need of you. There'll be time for rest in heaven.
Come September, and the game was ready to kick our ass again. We were tasked with finding the Paranoid Soldier, who apparently was keen to share conspiracy theories and divulge military secrets to a panicking public, as well as the Immunologist who might hold the key to saving humanity once and for all.
We set to the task. Mack - the infection-proof ultimate Solder, attended by his zombie-killing paramilitary entourage - and Hermione, our disease-eradicating trump card who had gained military clearance and travel-fatigue, took up arms.
While we fought potential disasters in East Asia and South America, C0dA broke out in Moscow, and then St Petersberg, before taking down an already weakened population in Istanbul. From there it spread through Europe and Northern Africa. The Doomsday Clock was ticking, but we were hot on the heels of the Immunologist.
Hermione got caught in a Faded outbreak. The scars leave her one unfortunate event away from permadeath.
The situation was dire.
A horrible dilemma: we could find the one who could create a cure, but neglecting the the Faded hordes would lead to imminent defeat. Seek a long-term victory at the cost of a short-term loss?
I thumbed a card in my hand. It was the nuclear option. Drop the bomb. Hold back the rising tide. Buy us some precious time. Drop the bomb and pray. Drop the bomb and hope.
Mack made a last-minute flight across the globe and, in a stroke of good fortune, found The Immunologist in Chennai. She finally came over to our side, seconds before the hordes of Faded exploded across the globe, driving our Outbreak counter to 8. The game was lost once again, but we had taken a vital step.
But there's a large, nuclear shaped hole in Istanbul. A permanent reminder of drastic measures and desperate times.
I did some maths. There are 48 cities dotted around the world, and 48 matching city cards. We start with 4 cards each, and then the 5 Epidemic cards are randomly dispersed among the remaining 40 (the 40 cards are divided into 5 even piles, and an epidemic card is shuffled into each).
Given we draw 2 cards every turn, an epidemic hits the table on average ever 4 turns. The world is normally overrun by the fifth Epidemic, but you can also get unlucky. Desperately unlucky. I knew some guys who lost their first game after ten minutes. It's a cruel game.
Mind you, if you start losing, the powers that be start giving you extra event cards - 2 per loss. Not only are they extra bonus powers, but more importantly, they also space out epidemics.
Of course, now that I ripped up the card that launched the nukes, we only have 47 cards. Epidemics are going to come even quicker. Whoops.
The fate of the world rests in our hands.
We located the Virologist and saved the Immunologist. These are steps in the right direction.
We'll have to re-play September, and then three short months until the end of the year, the end of the campaign, and potentially the end of the world.
But I have hope.
We can heal the world. We can make it a better place. A Good Place.