Pandemic is a co-operative board game in which you play an international response team fighting against global disease outbreaks. There’s a lot of Arkham Horror in Pandemic‘s genes: the gnawing sense of anxiety that you’re always just on the brink of being totally screwed, the war-room feel of co-operative planning – but it has a much simpler, tighter design that makes it playable in an hour or so.
Pandemic Legacy is a variant following in the footsteps of Risk Legacy: the idea is that you play a series of games, each game having lasting effects which change the balance of later ones.
[I don’t normally give spoiler warnings, but the experience of Pandemic Legacy relies fairly heavily on not knowing what’s to come, so if you’re already planning to play it but haven’t done so yet, you may want to skip this.]
The first thing to be clear about is that this is a $70 game which is destroyed in the playing. You’re going to write on character sheets, affix stickers to the board, tear up cards. One can imagine a world in which all of the Legacy elements were reversible and the campaign could be played through multiple times – but even then, much of the enjoyment lies in the anticipation of the unknown. Most of the developments in the game are hidden, sealed inside perforated boxes or within a pre-sorted event deck. Anyway, you’re going to get 12-24 games out of it, most likely skewed towards the upper end. I’ve got plenty of games I’ve used less.
Legacy introduces a ton of new stuff: new objectives, threats, characters, abilities. And it does this in a very videogame-like way: you play a level, then one or two new game elements get introduced and you have to learn them. Sometimes old elements become irrelevant or get taken out entirely. You figure out a strategy that will let you beat the challenge, and then the challenge becomes more complicated. Or, if you lose, you get another try: maybe the stuff you did in your losing game helps you out the next time around, or maybe the game offers a little help.
Moreover, this all adds up to a story arc. This is a pretty natural fit, because in a co-op game you’re mostly struggling against external threats, so it’s easy to make the story rotate around the progression of those threats. It is not a great story – it’s formulaic disaster-movie stuff – but it’s about what you’d expect out of a level-based strategy videogame, and it does its job of making the mechanical challenges feel more substantial. (‘This is great, it feels like we’re XCOM,’ observed one player.) Not all of the storyish elements work; you’re encouraged to give your characters names, and develop them a little bit like RPG-lite characters, gaining bonus abilities, developing Relationship powers with other characters, marking their campaign histories on their sheet. All this never quite translated, for me, into thinking of the characters as figures in a story; they were all subsumed into our greater-good planning, and the real narrative was about what was playing out on the map.
Still, it was fun and compelling; we played three or four games at a sitting, two or three times a day, over the Christmas holidays. We joked that busting open all the little packets was our Advent calendar. I haven’t played a tabletop game that intensively since the incident with the grounded helicopter pilot, Steve Jackson’s Illuminati, Aaron Reed and several litres of home-made chartreuse.
OK, spoiler time.
The initial variation of Legacy is a new, potent disease that doesn’t behave like the other diseases; this is not a shocking development if you’ve played regular Pandemic with any of its expansions. Through the early game, you gain more and more permanent advantages against the other three diseases, allowing you to focus more on the mutated virus.
Round about midway through the game, this virus undergoes a mutation which turns people into Faded. Narratively, the Faded are part-time zombies: they suffer episodes of uncontrolled rage, but (apart from alarming translucent skin and muscle) are normal otherwise. Regardless of the story, the game mechanics treat them exactly like zombies: they’re mindlessly violent, contagious mobs, and you can kill them en masse without compunction.
There’s something of a tactical fork in the game, if not precisely a narrative one. You start out with a whole bunch of medical professionals; then, as the Faded emerge, for a while all the new characters and upgrades and that become available to you are military. You can build roadblocks and military bases, switch medical characters out for military ones, and so on. Switching to new characters is encouraged – you can only create Relationship powers by creating new characters, for instance – but we were really happy with our existing setup, and weren’t all that keen on the trade-off. We used one military character extensively – the Quarantine Specialist is kind of indispensable for much of the mid-game – but otherwise we didn’t build a lot of military bases, virtually no roadblocks. We could sense the game trying to tempt us into relying more and more on the military, and we weren’t interested.
Anyway, as you’d expect from this kind of story, the plot turns towards tracking down a conspiracy within the CDC and military, secret unethical labs, and the usual stuff you’d expect from someone whose idea of the problems of government is primarily derived from watching The X-Files.
This is irksome, because the original Pandemic is kind of the opposite of a black-helicopter story. It’s a game about the importance of working together to accomplish needful things which would be impossible to tackle with individual action, and which aren’t warfare. There aren’t a whole lot of narratives that address that. It’s definitely safe, do-the-obvious writing, when presented with Pandemic and asked to expand it into a narrative arc, to respond with ‘OK, let’s add zombies and army men.’ But I think it’s a disappointing approach quite aside form being uninspired and predictable; it’s another version of the World-Destroying Conspiracy, that comfortable refusal to think about more real and troubling problems.