If you ask my son what his favourite board game is, he’ll probably call the police because a stranger has asked him if they could play a board game together. But if I ask him, he’ll tell me co-op stalwart Pandemic.
We don’t play Pandemic as much as he would like. I find it stressful and his sister is only interested in playing with the coloured cubes inside the box. She finds play a little dull because every time she makes a suggestion, it is inevitably overruled. Yeah, she’s playing Pandemic with three players who “know what they’re doing”. You guessed it. It’s our fault she doesn’t want to play.
But we’re going to do something special this year.
We’re going to play… Pandemic Legacy.
What makes Pandemic compelling? Pandemic reminds me of a roguelike – tactical turn-based warfare against shuffled cards, reacting to what is put before you and being so well-versed in the Holy Rulebook that no crazy trick gets left behind. It’s a total brain feast. Watch the card countdowns, watch the discards, feel the rough texture of probability itself.
During the actual pandemic, I bought my son Pandemic: Rising Tide (because what I wanted to get, Pandemic: Iberia, was out of print) but I think we’ve only played around a handful of Rising Tide matches. Although we were happy playing in three player mode, we’ve not had a great experience with it. I don’t mean it’s a bad game, I mean we’re not very good at it. There was actual shouting in one of those failed games.
Rising Tide is about flood control in the Netherlands but we always hit a tipping point where flooding ends the game suddenly and unexpectedly. And, I’ll be frank, the board is a bit cheap and you have to cover it with 10,000 matchsticks to represent all the individual dikes; setup is a pain and it’s a bit too easy to accidentally disturb the dikes. Maybe your washing machine turned on or perhaps a butterfly flapped its wings in Hawaii. It’s an intriguing game, though.
But in 2022, I had this sad feeling that our family board gaming was coming to an end, if it wasn’t already over. I’ll talk about this in a separate tale. For now, I wanted to try to go out on a high. I would gift my son a game he would appreciate. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1.
THE OPERATING THEATRE
For those that haven’t heard about “legacy” board games, here’s the skinny: you play a “legacy” game once then throw it in the bin. I’m only half joking. A legacy board game is a story campaign where each session has a lasting impact on future sessions. There are surprises. New rules appear. You stick things on the board. Cards get torn up. Children are born, people die. And war? War never changes.
The first legacy game was Rob Daviau’s Risk Legacy and Daviau was hired to craft a legacy version of Matt Leacock’s classic Pandemic. Since its 2015 release, there has been no end of praise for Pandemic Legacy. One of the bestest board games of all time that no one can tell you about because it has SECRETS AND SHOCKS AND SURPRISES. It spawned a sequel, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 and a prequel, Pandemic Legacy: Season 0.
I would never have bought Legacy for myself. The idea of buying a £60 board game which, once finished, cannot be sold on and its only remaining utility is in a campfire seemed like the pinnacle of board game consumerism. And tear up cards? I don’t know, man. Could I do that?
Inevitably when discussions of “cost” vs “longevity” rear their ugly heads, we start grasping for an appropriate comparison. Some other purchasable good with which it shares vital statistics. With indie games it was the generosity of software that kept giving you love compared to the brevity of a cup of coffee. Daviau offers this in a 2016 interview with Slate:
The approach hasn’t been universally embraced. “There are people who think that board games should be infinitely replayable,” said Daviau. But he isn’t interested in creating objects that can be kept in mint condition. “I’m creating a concert. You buy a ticket for an experience.”
So we’re off to the theatre.
But before we tackled Legacy, we wanted to stretch those long-unused Pandemic muscles. We had only played Pandemic once last year. We needed a refresher game.
If you’re familiar with Pandemic, skip this section.
In Pandemic, players travel around the world dealing with the emergence of four new killer diseases. They have to juggle two competing two goals.
First, manage the spread of the diseases, represented by coloured cubes on the board. If you don’t do this, the game will end miserably early. If you run out of cubes for one of the diseases, it means you’ve lost control leading to worldwide panic. This is a state known as YOU LOSE.
Every turn, infection cards are flipped over revealing which cities get more cubes – up to a maximum of three. If a city is already at its maximum level, then it experiences the dreaded “outbreak” and all the neighbouring cities get an extra cube. Too many outbreaks and there is worldwide panic. YOU LOSE.
The second goal is putting together cures. Players need to exchange city cards of different colours and once a player has five cards of one colour, they can cook up a cure for that disease. Normally, to move a single card between players is an expensive operation like buying a house in Vancouver expensive: a city card can only be exchanged if two players are in that city at the same time.
And the “player deck” which contains all these city cards is like a clock: once all the cards are drawn, the game is over. If you haven’t cured the diseases, there is worldwide panic. YOU LOSE.
To succeed, you need to use every trick in the rule book, from each player’s special abilities to event cards. It often requires audacious planning. And sometimes audacious shouting.
Is it fun? It’s fun in the way Dark Souls is fun. It might be stressful but there’s pride in victory.
When we play Pandemic on intermediate difficulty – which smuggles five epidemic cards into the player deck, we usually win. Not always. But usually.
We started our practice game. After a couple of rounds, I was conscious we were falling into that typical Pandemic trap. You rush around the world putting out fires and patting yourself on the back but not working towards any cures. This is deadly. As the game progresses, the fires get wilder and you increasingly find yourself focusing on cities on the verge of a nervous outbreak. You need to make the most of the early game freedom.
The disease itself is like the Space Invaders saucer. It feels good to stamp it out but it’s a distraction from the real enemy. In Pandemic, your real enemy is the clock. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead.
To be fair, it’s difficult to know who should be collecting what at the start of a four-player session because each player holds just two cards.
My wife had been assigned the role of Scientist and she could create a cure with just four cards. It’s good for the scientist to get a move on, although we’ve had a game where the scientist was doing all the fire-fighting and never cured a single goddamn virus. It always sounds like a nice idea for the scientist to handle all the cures, but players are limited to carrying seven cards, so that’s out of the question. Players have to work on cures in parallel.
I was the Quarantine Specialist who could halt infections in the cities around them. This can sometimes be a lonely existence as you’re often heading into areas that are nearing an outbreak. Instead of flitting around the board, you get used as a suppressing measure, sometimes permanently. Not in this game. This time I was doing a lot of work.
My son was the Contingency Planner who could resurrect used Event cards from the discard pile. Now you have double the airlifts, for example. This is a great power and doesn’t restrict how you work with the board like the quarantine specialist.
My daughter, however, was the Operations Expert. And there we had an unexpected problem.
Research stations are important because they enable fast travel, plus it’s where players craft vaccines. But you have to donate a city card that you might prefer to retain. The operations expert can click their fingers and create a research station for free. What makes the operation expert even more useful is that they can also zoom around the globe quite easily by burning one of their city cards. Your expert’s primary task is to develop a global network of research stations.
Except our operations expert kept on turning over event cards and epidemics at the end of each turn instead of city cards. This starvation diet meant her character, while useful, was not able to roll out the research network rapidly.
Still, my son kept coming up with crazy plans to move us around the board in super-efficient ways. And I was ebullient after we developed three vaccines in the same round, leaving just one disease to tackle. The black plague.
We’d been playing for around an hour now. My son then committed a terrible crime. It seemed harmless. It will seem harmless to you. All he did was count the number of player cards left in the pile, checking the clock, in other words. And then he made an announcement.
We were going to fail.
My son had just one turn left and he was the character who was best positioned to vanquish the last disease. We had all the elements for the final cure, but we couldn’t load him up with the two city cards he needed in one turn. If he had a second turn, sure. But the clock decreed the game would end just before he was due another turn.
There was panic across the table.
The game stopped as we grappled with the new facts. Surely there must be some wacky Ocean’s Eleven heist to seize the day. We were so close but to get him two black city cards during his final turn is a huge ask. A player has just four actions. To finish the game in one turn meant his turn had to play out like this: pick up card, travel, pick up card, cure. He had to move between two cities that had players holding the appropriate black city cards, and a research station.
And do you know what? We could almost do it. Like Jesus Christ, man, we could practically taste that delicious vaccine. But every plan came up just one move short. An airlift here, build a research station there – no, the clock wins. What about this? The clock wins. What about that? THE CLOCK WINS.
After 45 minutes of discussion, I said it’s not possible. But there’s one long shot. I realised if I was lucky enough to draw two black city cards at the end of my turn, we could win – provided we planned for it. I sketched out the movements, wife go here, daughter go there, I do this, we clinch victory from the jaws of defeat.
We agreed, although the table was reluctant to sign off on a plan which relied on luck. This was it. It was all in God’s hands now.
I picked up the two cards that would decide everything.
It was like the moment in a gameshow, where you find out whether the plucky contestant takes home £10,000 or leaves empty-handed.
I flipped the two cards simultaneously which felt like tearing a plaster off a hairy forearm in a single, swift movement.
HA HA HA HA
THE COLD LIGHT OF MORNING
You may wonder why I considered my son counting the cards to be a crime. It’s a legitimate tactic because sometimes you need a kick up the CDC backside instead of taking it CDC easy. But my son’s action extended the game by a full extra hour of discussion and, to our delight, even my daughter started spinning plans. But if he hadn’t counted the player cards, we would have soldiered on in ignorance and failed the game after ten minutes instead of another hour.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss but I suppose I’d have been singing his praises if we’d pulled a cure rabbit out of the magician’s diseased hat. And that’s the magic of Pandemic: the feeling of pulling off victory against tight odds. But near-victory creates a sad moment of reflection as you fold away a fallen world back into the box. What could we have done better? Where did it all go wrong? Why did that game last two hours?
And that was our practice match. Do we need to practise more?
You don’t understand. There’s no time for more practice games.
Pandemic Legacy is twelve games long – each game representing a month in Pandemic’s world. We planned to tackle it in real-time and attack one game every month. But half of January is already dust. Listen: we’re up against the clock and the clock loves to win.
We’re running out of time. We have to do this now. And we’re going to do this together.
A year in Pandemic Legacy.