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Spoiler-Free Musings on Pandemic Legacy

The Pandemic Legacy games have always been polarizing. To some, they are the best games ever made: a masterclass in game design, an innovation in the field, and a shining example of the future of board game design. To others, Legacy games are indicative of the excess in game design today, they’re no repayable, and they’re overrated pieces of garbage that should be boycotted.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. I played Pandemic Legacy: season 1 with my wife and her parents. Our four-player sessions were some of my favorite gaming sessions. We finished the game in satisfying fashion, enjoyed the story twists and mechanical twists, and finished the game pumped and ready to play another campaign together.

The Allure of Legacy

Legacy games are a little bit different than a simple campaign game. What a legacy game promises is a mutable experience with every play. While a campaign game may offer new story elements, or new character abilities, a legacy game unlocks new story elements, new character abilities, new game mechanics (this is a big one), new map locations, and more. The entire character of the game changes over your plays, such that your game at the end is unrecognizable from your starting game. It’s possible that some campaign games do this, but the promise of legacy games is obvious: your decisions have consequence. Your decision may be putting a sticker on the board permanently, or destroying a powerful card, or crossing off a previously accessible road.

Permanence. Truly weighty decisions. Unhinged from the single-play structure, in a legacy game your decisions will affect future you (some people would argue that a game could accomplish this without the environmental impact i.e. stickers and marking cards, but that’s a discussion for another time). This is what drew me to legacy games: because my choices affect our future games and our chance at winning, the impact of my choices is doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, even (this is also why a competitive legacy game must address a runaway leader problem).

Definitely our fault

This can go off the rails when you make a mistake that affects your gameplay adversely. At worst, you could screw up a game so badly that it’s impossible to win the game by the end of the legacy campaign. This happened to us in season 2. A simple mistake, overlooked in the doldrums of the middle months, condemned us to play the game on a brutal difficulty for the rest of the campaign. Ten games, over which we went 4 and 6, were missing the one piece we should have had. We played on insane mode.

Not surprisingly, I hated the experience of playing. It felt like everything about the game was slanted against us, and our wins only brought us mercifully closer to the end of the campaign. We kept going, but only because my wife and in-laws are all so stubborn that we couldn’t quit the game. So, in fits and starts, we stumbled through our months towards the end. By the last month, we resolved to ‘cheat’ and use the rule we thought we hadn’t unlocked, making the game possible to complete. Only after we completed it, and ‘won’ the campaign, did we find out that we should have had the rule unlocked months ago.

This isn’t the game’s fault, and I have to uncouple my own bad impressions of the losses from the merits of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 as a whole. Clearly, it’s not the game’s fault that we missed this, and an inert board game box can’t rise up and order us to play without mistakes.

Also, the way we structured our gameplay sessions was deeply flawed. While we cruised through Season 1 with regular weekly plays and finished in 17 games, we had long gaps in our Season 2 plays, and often returned to the game after a three month hiatus. Some of this was unavoidable with life-craziness, but in hindsight, we should have invested more in our sessions, maybe playing two or three games in a sitting instead of just one. A lot of this was my fault: I was never up for a second game after we’d taken a particularly bad loss. Playing more often, and more games per sitting, could have kept us immersed in the story.

I was definitely guilty of falling out of the immersion that the game painted, and by the end I just didn’t care what we did, or what happened. That’s a death knell for a legacy game built on story and attention to detail.

The game’s fault?

But a successful legacy game can’t get too cute. Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 offered so many mechanical additions, so many abilities and sub-abilities and actions available to take, that we were often overwhelmed by the choice and the options. It’s no wonder we missed a crucial unlock at a point when we were unlocking five or six new abilities and rules per game.

A Legacy game should offer new mechanics and interesting innovations — that is, after all, the main raison d’être for a legacy game is the ability to add and unlock new mechanics as you progress through the game. But a legacy game shouldn’t add so many new mechanisms that it exhausts and puts off the players.

Significantly, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 put a much larger emphasis on reading the flavor text than Season 1 did. In Season 1, the story mainly happened, and there weren’t too many clues or hints to be gained from the text: it was purely information. By contrast, Season 2 was much more akin to T.I.M.E. Stories or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. I realized, looking through our unlocked cards later, that we’d missed a litany of tiny in-game hints that could have nudged us to play better throughout the campaign.

The idea is, the nudges would have pointed us to some direction on the mechanics of what to do in the campaign. Why not only add the mechanics that are necessary? But I guess that would minimize the sandboxy nature of the game. A particularly cutting moment was looking at a particular card we’d unlocked, and reading direct foreshadowing for our final month’s challenge: things we could have done to lay the groundwork for the end. Somewhere in the fluster of the gameplay, we missed it.

So I’m unsure as to how hard I should come down on Pandemic Legacy: Season 2. The game was absolutely a frustrating experience at times: how much of that was our own fault for playing the game slowly, and how much of that is a flaw in the game (especially as compared to Season 1), I can’t really say. I wanted more story and mechanical exploration after Season 1: and Season 2 delivered that. And after reading through many of the game threads here on BGG, I think that the game had enough balance and nudging to push players to the right conclusions in the end. For all of our struggles, we did win the game, with a middle-of-the-road final score to boot.

I was left wanting more, “Aha, we brilliantly figured this out!” Moments, and fewer “No matter what we do, we are playing from behind.” Again, as a huge caveat, we missed a crucial rule that made the game brutally difficult. So I can’t really blame Pandemic Legacy for my own human nature. I wish we’d caught the oversight, and I wish we’d played some important swathes of the game more effectively. I’m leaving the campaign a little exhausted with Pandemic’s game structure (which, for all its innovations, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 is still defined by the player deck, the in-game epidemics, and the card distributions). I would probably give Season 3 a try, but I would rather play it straight through, in no more than eight real-life weeks, with several plays per session. It’s also probably essential to have some sort of in-game journal with notes and observations to work through.

What to do about it

Where does this leave the genre of Legacy games, though, or at the very least, the Pandemic Legacy series specifically?

It’s clear they haven’t been as big of a success as some of their fans might have hoped. While we’ve had a steady trickle of new legacy games, the floodgates have never really opened. Some games — notably Charterstone and especially Seafall — have been commercial failures (both are competitive, which I think is telling). There are already more legacy games than I can personally play (Aeon’s End Legacy, Machi Koro Legacy, Betrayal Legacy, Risk Legacy, Legacy of Dragonholt, Werewolf Legacy, and probably more that I’m not even aware of).

With such a huge inherent time commitment, I’m only going to play legacy games that I can evaluate and assess to be worth my time. Pandemic Legacy, for all its flaws, has been worth my time both times we’ve played it. I held off on Season 2 for so long because there’s no “play a demo game” when a legacy game is involved. I’m left looking at the spoiler-free reviews of others before I take the plunge.

So before I play Season 3, these are the things I want to make sure of before I jump into yet another time-consuming legacy campaign:

Lean into story. 

If this is a story-telling based game, I need to know that going in. Season 2 flipped from Season 1 — story elements now left clues to help us forward, but we weren’t primed to look at the game that way. Specifically with Season 2, a small nudge in the rulebook would have been nice. In fact, I love the storytelling potential of legacy games, and I would relish a game that leans even harder into the story than Seasons 1 and 2 did.

Respect my decisions.

In the end, my own decisions screwed me on Season 2. As much as that annoys me, I’d rather that than the game artificially railroad me to the right solution. If I play poorly, I deserve to lose. This is both the good and the bad of a legacy game with permanent consequences, and both Season 1 and 2 did this well. Keep it up!

Better ways to catch up. 

This isn’t contradicting my above point. Part of the inherent nature of a sandbox game is that we are free to ignore the story elements at our own peril. We don’t have all the information, and sometimes we’ll choose wrong. But you do need to get through the story, at the end of the day. Both seasons have handled this pretty well. For example when we missed a key objective in Season 2 April, the game force-fed it to us, but with permanent consequences that made our path forward harder. I just need more of the same for Season 3.

Give me highs to accompany the lows. 

Season 1 had a few instances when we felt absolutely brilliant. It also packaged a few twists in the story (and the mechanics) that felt absolutely gutting. I loved these high and low swings in emotion. Season 2 had one — only one instance — that made my jaw fall open. Part of what made Season 1 so satisfying was both the high and low peaks. For better or for worse, Season 2 was much more uniform — it was brutal and hard for twelve months straight. I’d love a Season 3 that tacks back towards Season 1’s highs and lows.

Minimize the upkeep and bookkeeping.

Season 2 often felt like 45 minutes of setup for 30 minutes of gameplay. That is way out of proportion, and it’s no wonder we missed stuff when we were taking 30 minutes to set up, and sometimes 20-30 minutes to tear-down (the game often required additional player actions and decisions after we’d finished the game!) Trim down this bookkeeping a little bit, and I think the game (or its hypothetical sequel) would be improved.

Maybe none of this makes sense, but I enjoyed playing both seasons thus far, and I’ll give Season 3 a try when it comes out. I’m still kicking myself for our stupid mistake in Season 2, but I can’t blame the game for that! Here’s to an even better Season 3.