Pandemic Legacy: An Appreciation

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 Box Cover

A couple of months ago, as my daughter Amy and I finished up our last game of Pandemic Legacy: Season 0, our mood was somewhat melancholy.  Part of that was due to the result of the game:  after achieving partial or complete wins during the first 11 months of the campaign, December gave us our first loss.  And given the theme of the game, it isn’t much of a spoiler when I tell you that things didn’t end well for the citizens of 1962.

But it was more than that.  This was our last game of the Pandemic Legacy franchise ever.  Designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau have made it abundantly clear, in multiple interviews, that Season 0 will be the last game of the series.  They’ve done the present, the future, and the past.  They have nothing more to say, so rather than milk this extraordinarily successful series of games, they will go out while on top.

And that made Amy and I sad because we have enjoyed this group of games so very much.  Playing it has been a highlight of our visits together for almost 6 years.  It was like saying goodbye to a dear friend.

The irony is, we were hardly the ideal audience for this series of games.  I’ve never cared for cooperative games as a whole; I like competition too much (even though I really don’t care who wins) and co-ops often just seem like extended solitaire games, as well as frequently suffering from the Alpha player problem.  And while I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of legacy games, requiring the same set of players to play the same game over an extended number of sessions just doesn’t fit how my group plays games:  too much player turnover from week to week and too many shiny new games clamoring for our attention.  As for Amy, she loves co-ops, but had never played any form of Pandemic before.  Plus, she and her husband live about 5 hours away from our place.  We visit as often as we can, but it’s only a few times a year, so finding the time for the 20 or so separate games that would be needed to play through the entire campaign of a Season would be a definite challenge.

In spite of all that, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 was an immediate hit when we started playing it back in 2015.  And since then, we’ve grabbed the next two games of the series the moment they became available and each of them has delighted us both.

There are many reasons why these games worked so well for us.  First, the foundation of the game is rock solid.  Daviau launched the audacious concept of legacy games with Risk Legacy, which electrified the gaming world.  But as clever and groundbreaking as it was, at the end of the day, you were still playing Risk, with all of its warts and flaws.  Leacock’s Pandemic, on the other hand, is a very well established and well designed title, so even without the legacy elements, there is still a good game under the hood.

But then, of course, Leacock and Daviau took it much further.  I think the thing we most enjoyed about the Pandemic Legacy series were the wonderful storylines.  You really found yourself emersed in the backstory of these games.  There were dramatic twists and turns, successes and failures, and most of them caught us completely by surprise.  It wasn’t just a case of introducing a few new mechanisms to make the next game session play a bit differently than the last one; no, this was a narrative that you felt viscerally.  This contrasts strongly with many current games that try to introduce some legacy elements by applying a weak story from game to game that does nothing but vaguely annoy you.  Whereas, in Pandemic Legacy, there is genuine drama.  Of course, it also helps that this is life and death we’re talking about here, not building some medieval cathedral or trying to deliver cotton on time—it’s much easier to be affected by the events of the game when they are so meaningful.

It’s also helpful that you’re playing a character, not a nation or some amorphous group.  Since, over the course of the games, there were good and bad things happening to a person and that person, at least temporarily, was you, you felt the outcomes much more deeply.  It really wasn’t like roleplaying—we never got into the psyches of our characters—but there was similar delight when a new ability was gained and a genuinely felt disappointment when restrictions were applied.  It went far beyond anything that Eurogames, or even thematic designs, can provide.

Then there were the many clever mechanical differences the designers introduced as you made your way through each Season.  These were excellent and kept each game extremely fresh.  Other games have tried to imitate this, but I’m not sure they’ve succeeded to the extent that PL did.  For example, Knizia’s My City introduces new rules every third game or so, but I’ve never been tempted to try it, since these just seem like small differences that require you to employ different strategies.  By contrast, in Pandemic Legacy, the game you are playing at the end of each Season is dramatically different than the one you started out with.  And, even better, the reasons for those differences tie in completely with the storyline.  This series of linked games was very appealing to us.

Finally, the unique way in which you interacted with the components was a major plus as well.  Tearing up cards and marking up the board was definitely a guilty pleasure—it was like being given permission to eat ice cream for breakfast, after years of being a dutiful child.  And when it came time to open up another sealed compartment, you were just like a kid on Christmas morning—what new surprises would we find this time?  It was such a kick!  These are emotions and experiences you just don’t find with other kinds of games and while I wouldn’t want a steady diet of them, being able to share them with someone else was just delightful.

I think our favorite of the series was Season 1.  Part of that was that it was the first and therefore, the most deeply felt of the games, as there was nothing else to compare it to.  But it also may have had the best, and most dramatic story.  Every victory lifted you up and every setback—and there were some doozies!—just crushed you.  We both felt we were on a rollercoaster ride the entire time and it was just an exhilarating experience.

Season 2 was a vague disappointment.  It was still very good and one of the highlights of the year, but it wasn’t quite up to Season 1’s standards.  I think it might have been hurt a bit by the basic concept of gradually discovering different portions of the world as you moved through the games.  As innovative as that was, it gave the games a somewhat disjointed feel.  Mostly, though, it seemed to lack the dramatic impact of Season 1.  That probably had more to do with us than the merits of the game and could have easily been a case of unrealistic expectations.  We both still enjoyed it a great deal, but were hoping for a bit more.

With Season 0, however, it seemed as if the system returned to form.  We were initially put off a bit by being spies, rather than scientists, but that didn’t last long.  The game was the most ambitious mechanically of the series and we thoroughly enjoyed how much the game changed over the course of the season.  This included some cleverness with the actual components; we literally squealed with delight over one of those twists!  But the best part was how dramatic the games were, often coming down to the last possible moment for us to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  We had multiple games in which we were sure we were going to lose, with no path for winning in sight, but an unforeseen event or rule change would give us a shot and, against all odds, we’d pull off at least a partial win.  Some of this is good fortune, of course—no designer can consistently arrange things so that last minute victories become the norm.  But it happened often enough that I’m reasonably confident that they were at least partially due to good scenario construction.  That can only come from solid design work and thorough playtesting.

So now that it’s over, I just wanted to give thanks.  Thanks to the creative people at Z-Man, for overseeing this most ambitious trilogy and carrying it off so extremely well.  Thanks to the Z-Man production team that was responsible for the physical construction of the games; they were given some real challenges by the designers and made them all work.  Thanks to the playtesters, whose efforts in a game like this were absolutely essential for it to have the impact it did.  And, most of all, thanks to Matt and Rob.  These were three monstrous creative efforts and the skill, blood, sweat, and tears to make them a reality had to be immense.  I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with both these gentlemen and not only are they very talented, but they’re both just nice guys.  And it’s just so great when good things happen to good people.

So that leaves just one question, from both Amy and me.  What’s next?  Is there something comparable to the incredible Pandemic Legacy experience on the horizon?  Maybe even another collaboration between Leacock and Daviau?  Or someone equally skilled?  Lightning rarely strikes twice, but it’s already hit us three times, to our delight, so all we can do is hope that there’s a fourth bolt ready to smack us between the eyes and thrill us yet again.  But if it never happens, we’re both so very glad that Pandemic Legacy became part of our legacy.  Thanks again, to everyone involved.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers:

Mario Pawlowski: Couldn’t agree more with (almost) everything Larry said. Also in our family / game group all three parts were absolute highlights in the weekly gaming sessions. Maybe it was even easier as we all like (even prefer) co-op games. While I also think that the 2nd season was the ‘weakest’ of the the three (with ‘weak’ being much stronger than a lot of other games we played), I liked the discovery part quite a bit, but the end (at least for us) seemed to be like a coin flip, which felt a bit unsatisfying after playing some fifteen games over several weeks. Anyway I consider each of the three a true masterpiece and each of them deserves my (pretty rare) ‘10’-rating on BGG.

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