As life in Australia slowly settles back into something resembling normality — at least for now — after everything that happened in 2020, my board game crew have been finding our feet again and getting back into regular sessions. First up for 2021 was a long-overdue run through Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, which…may not have been the best idea.
Some background before we go any further, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about: Pandemic is an absolute classic board game that’s about stopping the spread of several rampaging viruses. Publishers Z-Man have released loads of versions of it over the years (I reviewed one last year), and every one of them I’ve played has been pretty good. The thing is, all the others have been designed as standalone board games, play-it-once kinda deals, but Pandemic Legacy takes the series’ fundamentals and tries very hard to spin them out into a long-running, branching campaign where your actions in each game can be as important as whether you “win” or not.
Beyond that, the “Legacy” in the name means in board game terms that it’s a Legacy game, which is sort of like a video game’s Iron Man run, only more lasting. A Legacy board game is designed to be played once and once only, with directions to cover your player cards in stickers and literally destroy cards — like, tear them to pieces — after they’ve been used, with the idea that this creates tension and makes players really think about what they’re doing.
The general experience of Pandemic Legacy takes the same basic shape as a regular game of Pandemic. Players work together playing as different characters — soldiers, builders, virologists — to contain the spread of a number of viruses, work on vaccines and build a global infrastructure that lets everyone get all their work done and move around as quickly as possible.
The big difference here though is that you’re supposed to play over and over and over again — between 12-24 times — with a story linking each individual session together, and special objectives throughout that need to be completed in order to drive the events forwards. Some of these just make your life easier in the short term, while others can have enormous consequences for the game as a whole.
The thing is, while playing you don’t know which decision is going to be which, and this being a Legacy game, I found that pretty frustrating. Had this been an all-new game, one built from the ground up with the express purpose of serving this kind of campaign structure, I’d have approached it with a completely open mind and taken every lump as it came. But this was Pandemic, a game I thought I was pretty good at, and so I played Pandemic Legacy as such.
Big mistake! I would have been a lot better off approaching this as a single, larger game with loads of chapters than as a bunch of individual games of Pandemic, where winning each one felt like the most important objective, because in the end while we did OK — the game has a number of different endings based on a cumulative points total based on your decisions and results — we certainly didn’t get what I’d say was a victory, seeing as it still involved the deaths of billions of people.
Getting to that ending became a frustrating grind, because while Pandemic Legacy is a brilliant idea, it’s let down by the fact it’s built too closely on the original game, only it asks you to play it 12-24 times. I like Pandemic, but man, that is too much Pandemic. It was also a huge drag to have the evolving story introduce new threats and objectives to face, but then have you continue to have to fight the same four basic viruses you do every other game of Pandemic, which was never not an enormous pain in the arse, not to mention a bizarre narrative oversight.
Another issue I had, and I recognise this is a deeply specific and personal one, was that in both of our playthroughs of the final month, we were one turn away from victory, and in both cases lost the game on a final card draw. One card draw! Twice in a row! I’ve already said this experience was undermined by how it follows a standard game of Pandemic too closely, but this was too much. Having months of effort blown away by two card draws — my least favourite way of resolving actions, since I have absolutely no agency in them — one after the other broke my heart in a way I can’t remember a board game ever breaking it before.
These gripes, both big and small, weren’t enough to completely sour me on the game, and I feel like I’ve only dwelled on them here because they were such a big part of how the Legacy experience differentiated itself from a standard game. As annoying as it was playing Pandemic over and over again, I do still like Pandemic, and it’s wildly impressive how the creators were able to take a single standalone board game and turn it into a sweeping narrative campaign that sure does go some places, and becomes especially gripping as it draws to a conclusion.
What did sour me more than the game itself, though, was the timing of my playthrough. See, Pandemic Legacy was first released in 2015, and while many folks shared some of my concerns at the time, for the most part it was received very well, to the point where it’s now had two sequels. Playing it in 2021 hit a little different, especially when my game ended frustratingly the way it did, because it hit a little too close to home.
No matter how hard we worked or how clear our path to victory seemed, we were constantly being undermined at every step of the way. There were shadowy forces arrayed against us working for their own insane agenda, and viruses slipping through the cracks of our hastily-applied countermeasures.
It all felt a little too real, a depressing retread as we spent 12 months in Pandemic Legacy facing the same obstacles we’d all just overcome or lived through in the last 12 actual months outside (or, inside). I started the game wanting to cure these viruses and save the world, and the best I could do was sit helplessly by as billions died and I tried to make the ending suck less. It was a massive downer.
All this said, now that I’ve finished Season 1 of Pandemic Legacy, and taken note of what it does so ambitiously right and what it does so heart-breakingly wrong (just as a game, the whole 2020-21 thing isn’t its fault!), I’m very keen to play Season 2, which unlike its predecessor begins with a totally clean slate and a game custom-made for its experience.
Though being set in the aftermath of a world so ravaged by viruses it’s closer to Metro 2033 than our present reality, it might take me a few years to work up the courage.