[Editor’s note – if you have not yet played the game, you can still read this review in its entirety. There are no game-related spoilers included in this review, so you can rest assured that your experience of the game will not be changed/shortened/etc. by reading through this! ]
Designer: Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Time: 60 minutes
Times Played: Pandemic Legacy – 13 (we started August this week!); Pandemic – 38; Risk Legacy – 17
This is a legacy game – which means there are a whole lot of surprises, twists & turns baked into the design and stuffed into the corners of the box. It makes reviewing the game in any detail a tricky proposition.
There are no spoilers ahead (or hidden in the picture of our own Pandemic Legacy story above)… so you can read on without fear. But you could probably better spend your time and your hard-earned dollars getting a copy of this game and gathering 2-3 friends to play it with you.
Cuz, dude… it’s a stinkin’ case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
First, There Was The Potential of Four Global Epidemics
It was 2007. The iPhone was introduced. The final Harry Potter book came out. And Matt Leacock unleashed Pandemic on the gaming community.
The infection and outbreak mechanisms in this tremendous cooperative game married clean game design with thematic resonance. In other words, Pandemic not only plays smoothly, it also “feels” right – that this is what could/would happen if diseases began to spread.
While Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is considered the first cooperative to make a major dent in the post-Catan world of boardgaming, Leacock’s Pandemic has become the gold standard of cooperative design, spawning three expansion sets as well a continued career for Matt in creating well-crafted cooperative games. (I’m a big fan of his Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert games… and I really want to try the just-released Thunderbirds.)
Then, A Whole New World
It was 2011. The Mayan calendar ended… but the world didn’t. There was a royal wedding. And Rob Daviau unleashed Risk Legacy on the gaming community.
For years, Rob and his compatriots at Hasbro had been experimenting with the Risk game system: Risk 2210, Risk Godstorm, Risk: Black Ops, Risk: Balance of Power (sadly only published in Europe)… all in the interest of making the game more streamlined and packed with more thematic touches. (A tiny bit of collector bragging: I own copies of Black Ops and Balance of Power.) But the biggest innovation was yet to come.
What if a game remembered what had happened during the previous games… and that game told an epic story? That’s always been true in role-playing games (well, those that didn’t devolve into rules arguments and/or what fellow OG writer Jeff Myers calls the min-maxing of character stats: “Dungeons & Accountants”). Rob’s brilliant design idea took the core engine of 56+ year old game to a whole new mind-warping level as travel to parallel universes begat new conflicts and redrew old maps.
When I wrote about Risk Legacy back in early 2012, I suggested that it was “gamer catnip”:
Let me explain – each time you get to open a new packet, it feels very similar to the “rush” you get when opening a new game or game expansion. And it not only gives you the “new car smell” effect, the added stuff takes the story of the game in a new direction.
Now, Cue “Also sprach Zarathustra” and Watch in Awe
It is 2015. David Letterman retired. The best places to find new TV shows are an online retailer and a service rented DVDs to you by mail. And Matt & Rob combined their successful designs into something amazing.
The Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ads from my childhood used to say “two great tastes that taste great together” – and that’s absolutely true of Pandemic Legacy. Combining the exquisite nail-biting tension of Pandemic with the surprises and story arc of Risk Legacy is a stroke of genius.
The “gamer catnip” effect is still present. So are the heightened stakes familiar to any RPG player: “Can my character survive? Did we choose the right resources for this adventure? Why does the DM hate me so much?” (On that last one, you’ll need to substitute “Why do Matt & Rob hate me so much?”, but you get the idea.)
Q&A From a Rabid Fan of All Three Games
Q: So, is there any real difference between Pandemic Legacy and Risk Legacy?
A: Besides the name? Yes.
- One of the hallmarks of the Legacy system is the customizable nature of the game. From the beginning, there are more options for customizing the board, cards and characters in Pandemic Legacy over Risk Legacy.
- Changes to the game system drip into the game in Pandemic Legacy rather than dropping like a bomb as in Risk Legacy. The Legacy deck ensures that there will be a steady progression of twists and turns.
- As a cooperative game, the system adjusts difficulty based on how well your team is doing. The more success you have, the less funded event cards are placed in the deck. Failure brings more funding (and more cards)… and abject failure (4 losses in a row) even has a sealed box of goodness to mitigate the pain. (No, I don’t know what’s in it. So far, our longest loss streak is two games.)
Q: You helped playtest SeaFall – how different is it?
A: My boys and I were part of the earliest SeaFall playtests – over 18 months ago – so for all I know, Rob could now have live sharks and gunpowder hidden in the sealed packets. I will say that the Top Secret folder of game changes in Pandemic Legacy bears a strong resemblance to a game mechanism in the early versions of SeaFall, but if I say any more, Rob will send ninjas to steal all my games and make me cry. (I will say that I’m really looking forward to both new legacy games next year: SeaFall and Chronicles 1: Origins.)
Q: Will Pandemic Legacy work with less than 4 players?
A: I was going to smart off with some crack about “it says 2-4 players on the box, right?”… but then I remember that Goldsieber thought that Wolfgang Kramer’s Goldland would be a great 5 player game (it’s not) and decided to keep my mouth shut.
My two sons and I have been playing with 3 players… and for the first 4-5 games, we played with 3 characters. When things got a little dicey for our hazmat-clad heroes, I began taking two characters and we’ve been playing that way ever since. (Note: my boys have refused to change characters – the ones they started out with have been in every game so far. I’m like a repertory theater actor with a rotating cast of experts assisting the two of them.) Since cards are face-up, it makes it much easier to play multiple characters.
The rules give specific guidance for 2, 3 or 4 players (which consists of varying the number of cards in hand at the beginning of the game). If I was playing with 2 players, I’d have each player control two characters… but as far as I can tell, the game works with all player numbers.
Q: Can a rotating group of players play Pandemic Legacy?
A: While we had a good experience rotating players in and out of Risk Legacy in our game group (a total of 9 different folks played over the 15 game arc), I think that Pandemic Legacy will be more enjoyable with a set group of players. My boys and I know the whole history of our world – what city fell first, when certain things appeared, how relationships formed… and that shared history is part of what makes the game so incredibly enjoyable to play.
Q: Does Pandemic Legacy have the same “alpha player” problem as many open information cooperative games?
A: Only if you:
- play with obnoxious people who should know better
- are the obnoxious person who should know better
Seriously, you can work NOT to be “that guy”. In my case, I’ve put the choice of characters for the team and funded event cards completely up to my 10 & 14 year old sons… and I only veto the craziest of game end upgrade suggestions.
Q: I have to destroy game components? It’s like Rob & Matt are asking me to rip out my soul…
A: If you can’t bring yourself to destroy the components, do what we do: hide them under the vac tray and sealed boxes at the bottom of the game box.
But don’t sneak a peek at stuff you don’t get to reveal… leave some mystery so you can potentially enjoy a second trip through the game system with a different group.
Q: Is there a difference between the blue box and the red box of Pandemic Legacy?
A: Yes. They are different colors. (No, there’s not – they’re the same on the inside. This allows you to have two copies of the game in play and not mix up which one you’re supposed to be playing with. It also looks cool.)
Q: If I don’t like Pandemic, will I like Pandemic Legacy?
A: The general consensus online appears to be “yes”. I’ve seen a number of comments from folks who didn’t particularly enjoy Pandemic who are caught up in the story and the tension of Pandemic Legacy.
While it’s not the same game, we saw a similar reaction to Risk Legacy – players who didn’t particularly like Risk enjoying the Risk Legacy experience. (Note: this wasn’t universal. I had other friends/game designers who quickly grew bored with it – showing that even brilliant people can be dead wrong.)
Q: Any other suggestions?
A: If you own Pandemic: On The Brink, now is the time to “borrow” the petri dishes for use with Pandemic Legacy. They look awesome. Alternately, you could go buy your own petri dishes.
I’ve tried to write this final paragraph two or three times, and it just boils down to this:
This is my favorite game of 2015.
(And that’s saying a lot, considering how much I’ve enjoyed Survive: Space Attack, Roll For the Galaxy & Favor of the Pharaoh.)
Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers
Matt C: I’m not very far into it, but I have to acknowledge the brilliance of combining the “Legacy” type treatment with a co-op game like Pandemic. The “Legacy” style of ongoing, changing game serves to bring a group together as they share a common experience. Using that within a co-op framework makes the sense of community even stronger. (Oh, and spoiler alert – there are diseases in the game, and you have to try to cure them…)
Lorna: I love it! While I like regular Pandemic, Legacy really heightens the tension and suspense of the game. I am participating in two separate groups and even though I have some spoilers it’s still really interesting to play through.
Tom R: I have played 17 games of Pandemic Legacy, having just finished the campaign, and I think that it may just be the best board game ever created to date. It was such a fantastic three-week gaming experience that it’s impossible to boil down into a few sentences here. The game does such a fantastic job of building a narrative arc and a memorable story. If just hearing about the concept doesn’t get you excited then I’m not sure there’s anything else to be said, but if you’re intrigued and interested but unsure whether to take the plunge, then do it. Get the game, get a reliable group of people, and make it happen. It’s incredible; you won’t regret it and you won’t ever forget the experience either.
Eric M: I played through March on a prototype copy of Pandemic Legacy with co-designer Rob Daviau and publisher Sophie Gravel of Z-Man Games in March 2015 and was burning with excitement to get the game onto the table with two friends of mine who are great, spirited players.
After months of waiting, we finally made it happen when the game debuted in October 2015 and the published game was as good as I had anticipated. The game is great, but more importantly the gaming experience surpasses it. We’ve created this shared world and are living in it together, exploring it and cursing at it and reveling in victories large and small. Utterly sublime…
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! – Mark Jackson, Lorna, W. Eric Martin, Chris Wray, Tom Rosen
- I like it. –
- Neutral. –
- Not for me. –