The Year We Fell is a Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 game diary. The previous entry was January.

I mentioned my daughter’s rugby team was taking part in the Kent Cup rugby finals. To everyone’s surprise, her team walked away with a trophy. You have to understand they had not fared well in the first round and we were just hoping for some good rugby, a fighting spirit. But the rugby they delivered was nothing short of amazing: constantly driving forward; passing the ball down the line at speed; tenacious, ever so tenacious.

Every girl in the team was given the chance to take the trophy home for a week.

When we took on Pandemic Legacy in February, we had possession of the trophy. It sat behind me as we set up the board.

On Sunday, February 12, I hoped it would share a little triumph with us that night.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN

The Legacy deck was on the table, released from the rubber bands that had kept it secure. Perhaps to keep us safe from its secrets. What grim revelation did it have for us this time?

The big blue virus had mutated and was no longer treatable. Yes, that’s right. No more removing blue cubes from the board. Even though it was a surprise, I don’t think anyone was surprised. This was exactly the kind of thing you would expect from Legacy considering what happened in January. We were already grizzled veterans.

We were sent to the dossier for more stickers and discovered a hidden instruction, telling us to open our first package! Oh my GOD. Here WE BLOODY GO. Package numero uno. Time to crack the seal… but, well, I had guessed what was in the box already. The dossier sticker had already spoken of “quarantine markers”. Inside the package: quarantine markers.

The sight of those black boxes when you open up Legacy is thrilling. You cannot help but wonder what secrets they hide. But given a moment to think, it’s obvious what sort of thing they contain. The dossier: stickers. The Legacy deck: new cards. The packages: new pieces. Don’t misunderstand, though, the unopened packages still smelt of mystery and doom.

We stuck our first new rule into the instructions. Any character can place the city they’re in under quarantine; it acts like a layer of armour. When the game tells us to disease up a quarantined city with a new cube, the quarantine marker is removed instead. This is how to manage uncurable cubes.

And then Legacy casually drops in the concept of “relationships”. Blank spaces for character relationships were on the cards from the beginning but went untouched in January. Here we had our first Legacy problem: it relied on adding legalese rules to explain an entirely new mechanic. There was no “here’s how relationships work” booklet. I guess there is no manual to explain relationships in real life…

Relationships are bonuses that tie two characters together. For example, they might gain an extra turn if they’re in the same city with a fellow family member. But, we are supposed to add a relationship when creating a character. But we’re one game in? Were we supposed to add them to all existing characters as we saw fit?

I did not want to Google anything to do with Legacy if I could help it, although it did turn out we were not the only group confused by this. After much discussion on the table, we came to the conclusion the rule was only meant to apply to new characters going forward. We struggled because this seemed so arbitrary although from a game designer perspective it was understandable: you didn’t want to turbo-charge all of the existing characters with incestuous relationships. It was meant to be a light change, another tool for the trials ahead.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

The Legacy deck also delivered a new character to choose from. It was our old friend, the Quarantine Specialist! She was a bit different this time around. In her classic Pandemic incarnation, she would just hang around and suppress cubes with the very power of her presence, which could make her a bit too stationary at times. But not any more. In Legacy, she can erect a quarantine remotely.

What worries me is that Legacy characters are not invulnerable. If they are caught in an outbreaking city, they’ll develop a permanent scar, a debility such as reducing their hand card limit or spending two actions to treat a disease in a rioting city. Pick up three scars and they’re out of the game, no longer able to function in the field. Also if a character is in a city when it falls – that’s it, they’re gone. And when Legacy says a character is “lost”, they mean shred the card and feed it to your cats.

During January, it seemed easy enough to keep characters out of harm’s way and the need for characters to be present to establish a city quarantine is clearly designed to put them in harm’s way. Still, I suspected Pandemic Legacy was not done with putting our boys and girls in danger as it seemed a little too easy to avoid trouble.

Now, by the time we had chosen characters, we had already spent a good half hour on just setup. We had Lockdown Girl (Sandra Phoenix, Quarantine Specialist), Dispatcher Boy, Medic Mum and Researcher Dad. We decided to move the players around a bit. As Lockdown Girl was an all-new character, we gave her a relationship with Henry Phoenix, the Medic. If they were in the same city together, they’d get an extra action for that turn. For February, this would turn out to be useful but not essential.

Were we finally good to go? No. We faced the agonising decision of choosing which paltry two funded events to shuffle into the pack. A new contagion was spreading through the players and its name was Analysis Paralysis. In the end, we selected Resilient Population (remove a city from the infection deck) and One Quiet Night (no infections for one turn).

LET THE GAMES BEGIN…?

So. We were finally ready to play. The Legacy deck was at rest. There were no midgame surprises scheduled this time, nothing like “on your second epidemic, look at the next Legacy deck card and have a good scream”.

In some ways, this month felt like a practice game, an opportunity to learn how to use quarantine zones to manage an untreatable disease. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I like to pretend I understand the game design. This is a total facade. I have no idea what Legacy is planning for us nor what it’s trying to do. Pandemic Legacy was playing my anxiety like a violin.

We started the gang from our permanent research station at Delhi, close to Europe, so we could put the freeze on the blue cubes that emerged from the board setup. And our January win bonus allowed us to delete a couple from the board.

Lockdown Girl went first and started quarantining blue-infected cities. As usual, it was not possible to know who should be collecting what colour yet, so we started cleaning up cubes.

But we got completely confused about player colours. Normally, pawn colour is associated with the character being played, but Legacy has more characters than pawns. The colour represents you, the player, not the character. I kept asking which pawn was mine, sounding like the Dad who can’t keep track of all these new-fangled board games.

On the third turn, Dispatcher Boy revealed an epidemic card. Essen. Yes, that’s right, a blue city. Essen had already experienced an outbreak in game one; we could have a rioting city (panic level 2) unless we sorted this out. And then – bollocks.

We realised we’d done something illegal. Lockdown Girl put down two remote quarantines in her first turn. The rules state Lockdown Girl can only do that once in a turn. It was too late now. It’s a small, minor mistake right at the start; we took a look at the board and took an educated guess that it wouldn’t have significant repercussions in the long-term. We let it go so we could resume enjoyment instead of embracing self-persecution… or restarting the bloody game. It wouldn’t happen again.

Our good blue friend Milan then popped out of the infection deck after the epidemic, but fortunately it was suppressed by quarantine. We chose to maintain the quarantine across Northern Europe otherwise we could easily see cascading outbreaks. This unfortunately meant players kept hanging around Europe because we couldn’t leave all the work to Lockdown Girl.

Still, breaking with tradition, it looked like our first cure was going to be the black plague. However, the second epidemic was drawn before we could cure it. Tokyo. We had already picked up the One Quiet Night event and the suggestion was put forward: should we use the card now? I remember being strongly against this. We were still in the “two infections per turn” phase of the game. You want to save One Quiet Night for when you’re dealing with three or four, because players just don’t have enough actions at that point to keep the infections under control.

I noted it was 10pm already. This was no quiet night.

Lockdown Girl, who had been doing us all a solid with her quarantines, pulled together the black cure! We were 33% of the way to winning. We all sensed that being able to “forget” about the blue virus had simplified our decisions – but, hey, what do we know? Milan then broke the quarantine again.

Soon enough, we were close to assembling our second cure, the yellow cure. But Tokyo was still carrying three cubes after the previous epidemic and the city was lurking in the infection deck somewhere, waiting to be drawn. I’ve always fought against the urge to clean up cubes, because cures win games. But Legacy outbreaks will haunt us for the rest of the year. No one wants panicking cities. No one.

Here was the problem. We were on the verge of pulling together the yellow cure but all the moves had to be precise – the players were gathering in Kinshasa to execute this plan. But Dispatcher Boy was worried about the potential for a Tokyo outbreak and there was an… outbreak of argument over this.

There’s no alpha player in our Pandemic play, although Lockdown Girl usually has less to contribute than the rest of us. We always have to agree on what we’re doing because it’s not really possible to beat Pandemic as “independent players”. But Dispatcher Boy is usually the brains, the expert in throwing together audacious and incredible plans, the kind of person who really should play roguelikes. It’s a freaking crime he’s never tried. But Dispatcher Boy was losing the Tokyo argument.

Looking at the board, it was not possible to slip Tokyo into the yellow cure manoeuvre. Not aligning the stars around the cure, which we were half-invested in already, would cost countless turns. And once the next epidemic kicked us over the line into three infections per turn, the world would be a damn sight harder to manage. The table said no to Tokyo, even though Medic Mum was born there. Even though Dispatcher Boy and Lockdown Girl love visiting it. Even though I spent five glorious years in its bright embrace.

What happened next was this: an outbreak in Tokyo.

Dispatcher Boy was well pissed off.

WELL BEGUN IS HALF DONE

The yellow cure was soon in the bag, leaving just the red cure to sort out. The board was gradually edging towards chaos, but we were doing a great job of keeping a lid on it.

For example, Chicago had been left to build up three blue cubes, then Lockdown Girl swooped in and remote-quarantined it while suppressing a potential Algiers outbreak. Then she pulled out an epidemic card – I cannot remember where the epidemic took place – and we threw in the still-unused One Quiet Night to resolve the worry.

What followed next was the second big decision of the game. It was big boy pants time. We realised we could throw together the red cure and finish the game or… take a risk, and try to eradicate the yellow disease. This is important because, if you recall, you can win a positive mutation upgrade for an eradicated disease. These special upgrades make curing the disease easier in future games. Maybe the risk was worth it.

The table decided: eradicate.

Dispatcher Boy used a power we often forget about – he used a form of mesmerism to move Medic Mum instead of himself. If you recall, medics can steralise cubes of a cured disease by simply being present in a city. This was how the yellow disease was eradicated. It was incredible to behold.

Now, I was writing so many notes that I was not paying enough attention to what Dispatcher Boy was explaining. He was planning every single move to the end of the game, spread over four turns. I trusted him completely. Whatever your plan is, I’m sure it’s brilliant. (Medic Mum had paid attention and vetted the strategy.)

I just admired the choreography. Medic Mum first put a new quarantine on Chicago, to replace the one that had just been broken. Then it was Lockdown Girl: she re-quarantined Milan and flew from New York to Bangkok to prep a card handover. Moving forward but always reducing the danger. Always.

But then Lockdown Girl drew the next epidemic: Hong Kong. This didn’t derail the plan. Also, yellow infection cards started falling out and this was delicious. Infection cards of an eradicated disease have no effect.

It was then Researcher Dad’s go and I simply carried out the steps Dispatcher Boy told me to follow. I guess this wasn’t too dissimilar to the Dispatcher Boy’s mesmeric power, except somehow he got to use it during my turn. Do what I say, Dad. Yes, son. Give me more Rocket League time, Dad. No, son. I dropped in on Hong Kong and threw out a cube.

Quarantine then broke in Milan (yet again) and Chicago but we didn’t give a damn because Dispatcher Boy cooked up the red cure in Delhi and saved the world.

I CAN’T BE HAPPY, NO

Well, that was pretty freaking amazing. We won the game with only a single outbreak that was, in a sense, our choice.

We got a brand new win bonus allowing us to drop a quarantine marker on the board after setup – and tore up the February bonus, in keeping with Legacy’s desire to be sculpted and damaged by its players. It was slightly bittersweet to receive new Funded Events from the Legacy deck because our second win in a row meant our funding level was now falling to zero. No funded events in the next game. Nope.

Then we had to decide on the two upgrades. It was a no-brainer to grab the positive mutation for the Yellow virus – the first level upgrade allows us to discover the Yellow cure without having to visit a research station. It took more time to decide on our second upgrade.

We were tired and could not figure out what might be the better course of action. Eventually we came to agree on the Forecaster upgrade for the Quarantine Specialist which will allow the character to see the top two infection cards at the start of their turn. That’s every turn, not just once in a game. We briefly discussed the worry about “seeing the future” too much, because there’s a danger of being goaded into chasing cubes instead of curing diseases.

Before we closed up shop for the evening, we remembered eradicating a virus meant you could name it. Oh goody. If there’s one thing destined to cause trouble on the table, it’s coming up with names.

The minutes rocketed past as no one could agree on anything. At one point I floated ‘Mayfly virus’ and Dispatcher Boy told me off because this was not May, it was January. I explained there is a thing called a mayfly. But I thought, fine, if you want to name it by month, let’s call it the Valentine Virus because it was two days before Valentine’s Day.

The motion carried.

What did I learn from this game? That we needed to be aware that our Legacy games were longer than expected. The packing up time was 11.30pm meaning we’d been at the board for three hours. New rules mean we need extra time to get up to speed; I need to bear this in mind for our March game.

Still. Didn’t February feel a little too easy? Maybe that rugby trophy brought us a dash of luck after all. But we won’t have it next time. We’ll be on our own.

And there it is again. That tingle of dread.

Next: March

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12 thoughts on “The Year We Fell: February

  1. had a moment of confusion with the opening paragraph. did i miss a post? did i forget the introduction of the Rugby Girl character in january? oh.

    getting a win on your second game is nice. maybe this game wont be so tough after all…

  2. There was this throwaway line: “One Sunday was already written off for baby girl’s Kent Cup rugby finals.”

    This was meant to be an implicit continuation (not originally planned ofc!) but I’ve obviously not built enough of a wordy bridge here…

  3. I bet that’ll flow fine when people are reading these as a backlog! It’s just been some time since we read January. But yeah, the “[role] [family member]” convention you’ve been using for player turns definitely came to mind and tripped me up for a second as well.

  4. You’re right, it’s too close to the role/family member format I had adopted. I have updated the opening which I think fixes the problem!

  5. Interesting read, congratulations on your win! And your daughter on her rugby exploits too.

    I’m not surprised ‘alpha player’ syndrome has attracted some attention. Shannon has some sage advice but I do find it interesting that even as a board game designer, the author doesn’t see this as a design problem. Rather they prescribe a lengthy manual to help users who are holding it wrong.

    I’m not trying to suggest they’re wrong or anything, it’s just interesting that this seems to be an implacable obstacle. I’ve tried all of the suggestions on how to be less of terrible human being with varying success, ultimately concluding that cooperative board games are not for me. Or more accurately, cooperative board games with me are not for everyone else!

    I do take part in a D&D group, which seems like it would suffer the same problems, but for some reason my brain recognises the clear demarcations of someone else’s player character and role playing experience as sacrosanct, so I’m a lot better at not trying to dictate other people’s turns or actions.

    I do still have to be careful not to take up all the oxygen in the session, and it’s possible (though I’ve yet to put it to the test) that this might have been good training to be less of an alpha player in other game contexts.

    It seems adjacent to a couple of other famously thorny social problems in the hobby, for example, how to play a competitive game against someone worse than you (do I let them win? How often?), and how to introduce someone with no prior experience to games (how much input is appropriate?).

  6. If the alpha player problem is a design problem, that implies there is a design solution. But if there’s no design solution – and that this is what the co-op genre is. A design that only works with particular groups of people. And I guess all board games are like that to some degree?

    Maybe all we have is lists asking people to be nice to each other. Is there a design solution to the alpha player problem?

    I’m pretty lucky at home but god knows how I’d bring in someone new to try out Pandemic; we’d be constantly haranging them.

  7. There are co-op games designed to avoid alpha players, but in doing so they fundamentally change the nature of cooperation.

    Most commonly, games with heavy limits on communication — one player can’t steer everyone when even figuring out what the state of the game is requires tough choices from everyone.

    Games with a ‘hidden traitor’ mechanic are often designed more like ‘co-ops with reduced trust’ than they are like Werewolf/Mafia descendants. I see games where there’s a 50/50 chance everyone at the table is on the same team, but that doubt forces you to use your own judgement.

    Other games take a lighter touch, and try to set things up so everyone’s separate knowledge and capabilities are ample enough that it’s inconvenient to solve the whole puzzle yourself. Like Pandemic’s separate hands, but amplified. It becomes easier to ask ‘hey can you do anything about X’ than to figure that out for your teammate, because you’re busy looking at your own stuff. It’s still possible to figure out everyone’s slices of complexity yourself, but it’s a sliding scale, where a bigger game requires an even-more-alpha player to alpha it.

    You can see how each of these makes the game feel less cooperative in one way or another — but since different people “want to play co-op” for different feelings, some of these work well for them! But my dad, for instance, loves playing Pandemic with us even though he’s too competitive to enjoy most board games. I don’t think any of these alternatives would work for him in the same way.

  8. Sometimes I fall into a rabbit hole about wondering what “co-op” should be. Shouldn’t this game style be reliant on people actually co-operating? All players individually making their own decisions and building something together?

    And then I think, well, damn, real life isn’t like that. Usually if a group of people are trying to organise something, they’ll have a leader who commits everyone to a course of action. This may via consent, of course. This would only really translate if, as you say Stephen, individuals carried so many complicated resources that a leader has no option but to delegate the details of the tasks. Are there games like that?

    I suppose a limit on communication can effect this kind of change. Like how Space Alert forces everyone to to think semi-independently due to time constraints but even that isn’t immune to sharp alpha players.

    And I was also thinking, Pandemic cries out for its players to lay out their cards. I think classic Pandemic suggests you keep your cards to yourself, but the drive towards action efficiency on higher difficulties means it makes little sense to withhold the information and “force” resource discovery via conversation.

    #1 What is a co-op game? From the people who brought you “what is a game” and “what is difficulty”, a new series of questions coming to Netflix soon.

  9. This was such an interesting read! I’m not too into boardgames but I am obsessed with this format, and how the boardgame is working to be a commentary on its own genre. This is such a funky form of storytelling, so tied to player experience. I just read through the prologue, January, and February, and I will definitely be keeping a close eye on this series. This gives me a lot of food for thought on game design and player experience–thank you so much for sharing, and I can’t wait to hear the rest!

  10. Agreed Gwen, the narrative diary format is a lot of fun. It’s a shame more sites don’t do it, RPS used to back in its heyday, but I suppose it just takes too much time and effort to be cost-effective.

  11. Thanks Gwen. I have to start writing up March soon 🙂

    You need to right game for a diary and I think Pandemic Legacy works. I don’t know if either of you (Gwen, CA) were reading Electron Dance far back in 2011, but I wrote a Neptune’s Pride diary which got a *lot* of traffic at the time. Hellish to write but really proud of it. I’d love to turn that into a film but it would probably take ten years.

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