The Year We Fell is a Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 game diary. The previous entry was February.
I had included Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy on my 2022 Christmas list. This was the second time it had been listed. I thought it was a shoe-in but, since the Year of our Lord 1 A.C. (After Children) I’ve become a notoriously unreliable reader; I’ll read something in January then lose the literary mojo. Reading sometimes feels like one of those hobbies that I dream about like mastering the piano, picking up tennis or playing Dark Souls.
But I held my nerve and kept it on the Christmas list. With the second roll of the dice, I was rewarded with the trilogy. I cracked on with the first book, Annihilation, before December faded to dust.
On the evening of Wednesday March 15, I read the final pages of Acceptance, the last book in the trilogy. It had been an uneven adventure; while dread haunted its ambiguity, there were elements that felt like an exercise in padding which ran riot through the middle book. Reading a novel can be a leap of faith: does it get good later? But there’s a much larger leap when you’re throwing yourself at a series. And so I had to see it through.
I closed the book and headed downstairs. I grabbed a light stick, a tripod, a pen and some paper.
We were setting up the March game of Pandemic Legacy. For we had to see it through.
We earmark Saturday night as a TV night and that often gets beaten up and kicked to the side by our unpredictable family schedule. I suppose there’s something thrilling about having a calendar that jitters like it’s downed five slugs of espresso – but this is precisely the reason I find it tough to keep a reading habit going.
So Legacy was still not a ritual for us; it had been postponed three times in the previous week due to impromptu socialising, a rugby tournament that was twice as long as expected (oh yes, another trophy) and illness.
School strikes had drawn a circle around Wednesday as a prime candidate for Legacy. If we screwed up again and finished late, the children didn’t need to get up for school early. I had to go to work, of course.
SAME OLD PLAGUE
The new Legacy rule changes this month suggested we were going to play a transitional game. The first big change was the introduction of the snot-coloured military base lurking in package 2. Anybody could make a military base but only characters bearing a military insignia could use them to hop around. The table noticed a rather subtle point: you could establish a military base in rioting cities where research stations were impossible.
The second big change was a requirement to complete two objectives. Curing three diseases was mandatory but we had two other objectives to choose from: put a military base in each region (marked by previously unused thick white lines on the board) or eradicate a disease.
Naturally, the Legacy deck offered a new character aligned with this: our old friend the Operations Expert who can make bases for free. And there was a new event “Remote Outpost” which could add a military base for free. What-the-fuck-ever. This was our first month with zero funding so no events for us. Boo hoo.
But think about this. Military bases are not that useful as only two characters on the current roster can make use of them: the Operations Expert and the Quarantine Expert. We’ve already spotted multiple new character cards lurking in the Legacy deck, so perhaps more military staff are coming.
But I could not help noticing our February win with an eradication could have been transplanted to March without change. We couldn’t have copied our January win to February. As a result, this felt like a transitional game rather than transformational. But a transition to what?
We took on the Operations Expert, named him “Omar Jelani”, and added a Rivals relationship between him and Robin, the Dispatcher. This allows these characters to snatch up a card the “rival” discards if you toss away two City cards in exchange. There was some spiky debate about the Coworker relationship which allows two characters to easily share City cards – and we thought this was a combo best suited for the Scientist and Researcher. But we weren’t going to use either, of course. We wanted to play with our new character!
It became Operations Expert Dad (which I’ll refer to as Builder for brevity), Medic Boy, Lockdown Mum (“okay, what does she do again?”) and Dispatcher Girl. And I repeated the same mistake I did last month. I thought it was a dull detail, so I didn’t put it into the February diary. As the instructions are altered every month, I was making a point of following the rulebook religiously: however, the frankly, batshit layout of the rules means it’s easy to skip step 4.
Anyway, it took 40 minutes to get to this point. 40 bloody minutes.
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
This time we had a lot of black activity on the initial setup but our incurable, untreatable blue nemesis, the COdA virus, was nowhere to be seen. This felt like a lucky draw. We used our February win bonus to toss a free quarantine on Cairo and started the team at Delhi.
It was looking promising. Medic Boy used his stunning powers of virus whispering to clear out all the black cubes around Cairo and Riyadh and, with a fifth action gifted through his relationship with Sandra (Lockdown Mum) he plopped a quarantine on Riyadh. Nice. And then he flipped over Essen from the Infection Deck. Yes, that bastard Essen again. Why do you hate us so? To refresh your memory, Essen is a blue city that was already at the first panic level.
Lockdown Mum then used her new forecast upgrade to reveal that the blue cities of Chicago and Atlanta were hiding at the top of the Infection deck, so she did what we all agreed was an extremely good idea. She quarantined those cities – only to draw the first epidemic which meant the predictions and quarantines were practically useless as the Infection discards got shuffled back in. Chicago and Atlanta were buried “sometime in the future”. This was horribly early for the first epidemic. To add insult to injury, the epidemic hit true blue New York.
This derailed a plan we had for Dispatcher Girl to hand a black Riyadh City card to Medic Boy who was hanging out there. Instead, she used all her moves in a frantic race to the Big Apple and put down a quarantine immediately. Builder Dad used his cool Rivals relationship to save the Riyadh card from the discard pile. The plan would continue.
We thought we were still in control at this point.
When it was my turn, we weren’t sure if I should head down to Latin America which had Kinshasa ready to outbreak or go to Riyadh as per plan. After some intensive discussion, we decided to stay with the plan and I dropped some military bases in the area to support our second objective.
A couple of turns later, Lockdown Mum’s foresight revealed that blue New York and yellow Kinshasa are parked on top of the Infection deck! This yanked our attention by its ponytail – away from cures and to crisis management. And guess what, she then drew the second epidemic card which means her actions diverted to crisis management were a total bust again. New York and Kinshasa were now buried in the Infection deck and there still was no sign of Chicago or Atlanta.
The epidemic struck Jakarta. At this point, I had a terrible sense of impending doom.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY
We were being dragged all over the world as conflagrations flared up in spots as far apart as possible. Jakarta. New York. Kinshasa. Whole turns were being sacrificed to the God of Cubes instead of God of Cures. That niggling worry last month that Lockdown Mum’s new Forecast ability could corrupt our focus had come to pass. And Medic Boy’s ability to clean up cubes en masse was repeatedly causing him to drop plans to organise a black cure.
By turn eight, we realised we needed to boost our travel options: more research stations. It was my turn and we spent an age debating where I should magic up a base. We eventually decided on Taipei but it led to another personal epiphany I had to share with everyone. There are so many bonuses which act in special edge cases – the relationships, for example – that a heaviness has infected our decision-making. The drive for efficiency with rules we were still unfamiliar with had become almost painful to work through.
Another couple of turns later and the board was screaming at us. Osaka, New York, Tehran, Jakarta and Lagos were all on the verge of outbreak.
We were all expecting the third epidemic to drop any moment. Every turn when it didn’t crawl out of the player deck provoked a chorus of sighs. It was on the twelfth turn, when I was making a new base at Shanghai, that it emerged. A monster that changed everything.
It rained three blue cubes on Essen’s neighbour, St. Petersberg. We went through the infecting cities step. Lagos: Outbreak. Manila: Outbreak. We were then treated to an uncommon but often disastrous consequence of how Pandemic runs epidemics: St. Petersberg turned up.
This meant St. Petersburg had an outbreak immediately before we could react to its fresh cubes which meant Essen was now nudged to the edge of an outbreak. If Essen blew up, it would lead to two instant outbreaks and two neighbours at panic level 2: rioting.
THIS IS HOW THE WORLD ENDS
What followed was a huge discussion. Medic Boy was up next. Even though we had been trying to get black City cards to him since the beginning, only now, on the thirteenth turn of the game, was he ready to create the cure. But if he did that, Essen might explode. This would have permanent consequences for every game for the rest of our Legacy campaign.
I had to vocalise what everyone felt in their bones. The game was over. There was no winning here. We chose to slim down our plans and aim for something achievable and useful – eradicate a virus. Remember: losing a game still earns you two upgrades.
Medic Boy sorted out a quarantine for Essen but this was followed by outbreaks in Tehran and Osaka. Every turn was like dragging ourselves across a bed of broken glass.
Several turns later, the fourth epidemic dropped at Shanghai which led to another outbreak at St. Petersburg, exposing Essen yet again. Worse, it was our first rioting city, bumped up to panic level 2. That meant no more direct flights in and out for the rest of the Legacy year.
Medic Boy was on point for the seventeenth turn and he counted the cards remaining in the Player deck. There were six turns left. That’s how long we had to keep spinning plates. Six turns of pain and despair.
Medic Boy was faced, yet again, with a decision to implement a black cure or save a city. It wasn’t a city we were worried about, though. It was Dispatcher Girl who was parked atop three cubes at Essen. If Essen experienced an outbreak, she would acquire a scar, a permanent debility. There was no real choice here. Save the cheerleader, save the world.
It was the right choice to re-quarantine Essen because it blasted out of the Infection deck at the end of Medic Boy’s turn. But it wasn’t all good news. Jakarta had an outbreak.
We were fractious and tired, wanting the game to end. You have to play out the cards and let all the poison hatch out. We stopped talking about eradicating a virus. Our only goal was to avert outbreaks while counting down the Player deck clock. We’d never had to play like this before and I don’t think we had the Pandemic muscles for it. Have you ever thought about how to lose as fast as possible?
Do you remember those quarantines Lockdown Mum put on Chicago and Atlanta at the start of the game? It was only a few turns from the end that they finally turned up. A sign that we had squandered early moves chasing phantoms.
Still, if one more outbreak hit us the game would instantly be over. And in the penultimate turn of the Player deck, Lockdown Mum turned over the fifth and final epidemic. Tokyo was hit with three cubes and, unfortunately, Tokyo had already sustained a red cube hit by an neighbouring outbreak. That meant Tokyo exploded – our second rioting city.
All those turns of pain and we still couldn’t stop that one, final outbreak.
We had been at it for three hours. Everyone was exhausted but we had one final duty, something positive. We had to review our upgrade options. Considering travel had turned out to be a serious problem, we chose to make the Taipei station permanent, and a lack of Event cards meant we wanted to implement something to make up for them.
We turned the Atlanta City card into an Unfunded Event card, which would be in play every game. When a player picked it up, we could either deploy it as an Event card or as Atlanta. The Event we created was “Grassroots Program” which allows you to remove up to three cubes if you burnt City cards with matching colours. Anything that could help us sweep away the cubes was welcome.
And, of course, it was only then I remembered that we were supposed to draw the next card from the Legacy deck when the game finished before choosing upgrades. Sigh, Legacy offered us more upgrades to choose from. Additional character upgrades as well as stickers for permanent military bases. We decided we wouldn’t have done anything different though.
If you want to know why a Side by Side episode was delayed this month, one contributing factor was Legacy: not just running a session but failing it. Mum decided we should throw ourselves into the grinder a second attempt immediately, while the bruises were fresh. The following day was my last night before I travelled to Wales for the weekend, my last night available for video editing. So Pandemic took out not just thousands of people but also Side by Side.
It felt like a good call at the time as we were reeling from an awful defeat. We didn’t just miss a win by a few turns, but presided over a disaster that mimicked the UK’s act-when-too-late approach to the 2020 pandemic. It was regurgitating Covid into care homes and dismissing it with, “Who could have possibly foreseen all the people we would kill? Them’s the breaks.”
It was Thursday, March 16. Setup was rapid because there were no new rules. Further, we chose to play exactly the same characters as the first attempt. It was an implicit admission that our in-game decisions were at fault rather than blaming the fall of the cards. Let’s do that same again, we were saying, but do it right.
There was, of course, one minor difference. Having lost a game, our funding went up, blessing us with two funded event cards for this game. Not only are event cards useful but also bulk out the Player deck, making the game run a little longer, spacing out the epidemics. We chose One Quiet Night to avoid one drawing Infection cards for one turn – which we thought might be useful in conjunction with Lockdown Mum’s foresight – and also Remote Treatment to launch two dirty cubes into the Marianas Trench.
Mum had been upset that Latin America had proved expensive to reach in the previous game so I suggested starting out in Taipei, so Builder Dad could work his way down to Santiago which had three yellow cubes. Once there I could install a research station enabling fast travel to Chile. But considering the black cubes lurking on the board, I was overruled: the table voted to start in Delhi.
It felt like an ill-omen that the first player, which Legacy declares as chosen randomly, was the same as in the failed game: Medic Boy. Nightmarish deja vu followed Medic Boy around the board as he did his usual thing mopping up cube clusters.
We started organising City card handovers and it felt like cures were developing a tad bit faster than the first game: but in the second turn, Lockdown Mum drew the first Epidemic card, dropping on Kolkata. Once again, an epidemic had negated her forecast ability. It also pumped Miami up to three cubes… and that’s where Lockdown Mum had stationed herself for a forthcoming City card exchange three turns later. She was in danger if another epidemic hit before her turn.
Dispatcher Girl took a detour, defusing the potential cube explosions in Kolkata and Miami. But a detour is just a softer word for derailment. The Infection deck continued to do its dark work and Algiers became engorged with three cubes. Were we still in control?
Looking back, I suspect the fourth turn was pivotal.
It was Builder Dad’s first turn. My plan had been to go to Tokyo, build a military base and wait there for Dispatcher Girl to pass me a City card three turns later. There were plenty of cubes sprayed across the globe that needed cleaning and Medic Boy was pushing for cube control which lay the groundwork for eradication down the line.
I looked at the cubes and the cities itching to outbreak.
It was bait. All of it was bait.
Like I’ve explained before, the early game is where you must focus on assembling cures because the board is relatively quiet. Cubes had run us ragged yesterday and I absolutely could not let this happen again. We had to accept outbreaks in pursuit of victory because yesterday we refused to – and suffered a world-changing eight outbreaks as a result.
I was quite blunt and a little tetchy. I said that chasing cubes was the mistake we had made yesterday. We had to make the cures now otherwise we were going to lose again.
The motion carried and I bunked in Tokyo as planned.
I realised that while Medic Boy was brilliant at coming up with incredibly efficient plans, he was focused on what he saw on the board. Was that because he was playing the Medic? Deep down, I had known we had made mistakes while playing the previous game but, as I didn’t feel like the smartest Pandemic expert on the table, had declined to protest other than expressing vague “concerns”. Perhaps Medic Boy was the tactician but I was the strategist. The Yin and Yang of the game.
But then again, where was Lockdown Mum and Dispatcher Girl in this picture? Lockdown Mum looked tired, wearing the kind of exhaustion associated with managing a pandemic or rising early to make packed lunches for children. And Dispatcher Girl? Was Dispatcher Girl even in the room with us right now?
THE SPHERICAL ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Pandemic is a game where you must always think four moves ahead and while Dispatcher Girl was good at coming up with plans for her current or next move, her ideas never joined up with the bigger picture. Her suggestions were rarely accepted by the table. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t smart enough to play at Pandemic, because she had a much better grasp of Pandemic-adjacent game Forbidden Island. But years of being overruled and rebuffed during Pandemic had calcified into disaffection.
This week, having lost her to the phone during the game, Mum and Dad had already ordered her to put it away because she was never going to follow what was happening. Her next alternative was to draw. But that came to an abrupt halt, when she started getting pencils out in the middle of her own move.
We suggested she got a fidget toy that would keep her diverted yet still with us. While the rest of us pored over moves, she disappeared to get a “fidget toy”.
On her return, she dumped a giant spherical labyrinth puzzle on the table. Like a plastic asteroid come to eliminate the human race, it would obliterate the board if it accidentally rolled. Perhaps it was more like a gauntlet thrown on the table. A challenge to authority. If you insist on robbing me of my phone and pencils, then you must face the plastic asteroid of doom. Fear me.
It didn’t take long before this additional anxiety broke us and we had to tell her to toss her threatening weapon on the floor.
In January, she had committed herself to accompanying us on this journey and I would love this to continue being a family experience. But I don’t know if she can ever feel involved. Is it worth it for her? To be continued.
HACK THE RULES
It should come as no surprise that the second epidemic, hitting Osaka, played out in Lockdown Mum’s turn yet again. That foresight power was proving to be useless. But we stayed the course. Medic Boy was dissuaded from chasing cubes, cards were exchanged and, in my second turn, I almost had the complete recipe for a cure. The price? An outbreak in Moscow.
Even better, I picked up a card for Santiago. That meant I could fulfil my life-long dream of building a research station there. But it did feel like I wasn’t exactly living up to my role as an “operations expert”. Was I building anything at all?
We had also shied away from the military base objective towards eradication and so, with the table’s blessing, Medic Boy cleaned up cubes in Asia to prepare for this.
After that, the yellow cure fell out of the player deck into Lockdown Mum’s lap and she wouldn’t even have to visit a research station to manufacture the cure because of the positive mutation upgrade we earned last month. Victory was right there for the taking. We just had to keep our cool.
Then an interesting thing happened.
Dispatcher Girl picked up the Grassroots Program event that we had created at the end of the failed game. We used it immediately, discarding three City cards she had been carrying to zap cubes in three different cities. And because of my Rivals relationship with Dispatcher Girl, I then threw away two cards to reclaim the Grassroots Program event and use it again.
So many new rules, so many new exploits. I suddenly realised we could use Rivals to hack the card sharing. For example, Dispatcher Girl could discard a card to travel somewhere and I could use Rivals to buy it back instead of having to meet up.
I didn’t use Grassroots Program to clear three cards – I was holding the red cure and Santiago, and only had two black cards to throw away. Medic Boy was collecting black cards and I had to reassure him that there were five more black City cards in the deck – he would be fine to complete his cure.
It would be too expensive for Dispatcher Girl to use Rivals to buy Grassroots Program back one more time – we couldn’t just keep hurling City cards into the discard pile. But while the quarantine in Santiago broke, the board felt so much clearer now!
Except I had made one minor mistake. Yes, Builder Dad had the full red cure in hand – but not enough actions to get to a station and craft it. This proved to be just a minor oversight.
Medic Boy, who had worried about the black cure he was slowly assembling, was fortunate to have the remainder of it delivered straight into his hand by the Player deck. And in the next turn, Lockdown Mum cooked up the yellow cure. We were celebrating: only stupidity could stop us now.
As was now traditional, Lockdown Mum’s foresight ability was trashed as she turned over the next Epidemic card. It hit red Manila with some collateral damage to another red city, Osaka. That meant we would need to work a little harder if we wanted to eradicate red. In fact, we were deeply worried that ongoing infections would ruin the eradication plan.
But everything came together. In the sixteenth turn of the game, I delivered the red cure and built a research station in Santiago. After that, Medic Boy made the black cure. And with the late arrival of the One Quiet Night card, we paused infections while Dispatcher Girl eradicated the last cubes of the red virus. She proposed some moves and I asked her to stop because I didn’t understand them: she explained them carefully and gently scolded me because “I have been listening, Daddy.” Welp.
We won the game in one and a half hours, with just a single outbreak. Were we lucky? The untreatable blue virus hardly impinged on our game, only hitting London and Madrid. No bloody Essen. Maybe we were lucky. But you have to work your luck and we worked it hard. On the second roll of our March dice, we were rewarded for our persistence.
For upgrades, we made the Santiago lab permanent to alleviate travel problems and took on the same positive mutation for the red virus as we had for the yellow virus – the ability to cure outside of a lab. And, before we could pack the box away, eradication meant it was time for another naming ritual. The red germ was labelled “Crimson Fever” as Scarlet Fever was already taken.
We ripped up the February win bonus and was disheartened at the March bonus: create one free military base at the start of your game. The “matcha” base as my son called it, making us all laugh. Why do we really need these bases? What are they going to be used for?
I had no answers as I reduced our funding bonus to zero again.
Perhaps April holds those answers.