The hobby games market has always been a world that creeps forward through subtlety and the clever application of themes. "Paradigm shift" isn't really a term that's used very often. The reasons seem obvious; dice with numbers on them aren't patented, and neither are decks of cards (although tapping cards sort of is).
Nevertheless, every so often there are games that cast a long shadow. The last time something big happened in the tabletop world, something that could even closely approximate a paradigm shift, was the release of Risk: Legacy in 2011. Rob Daviau, a tabletop designer who has made more and better Risk variants than practically anyone else, got a crazy idea: What if the game board, as well as the factions at the table, changed with each playthrough of the game?
The result was a board game that becomes uniquely your own, one that grows along with its players, bonding them together to tell an epic, collaborative story. For that reason, Risk: Legacy is a masterpiece that ranks among my most-recommended tabletop games of all time.
Since Risk: Legacy was released, Daviau left Hasbro and went indie. He's teamed up with Matt Leacock, the designer of another one of the best board games in recent history, Pandemic, to create Pandemic Legacy.
I put it on the table earlier this week, and was simply blown away.
There's a big caveat to the rest of this story, so I'm going to put it in bold right here:
What follows may spoil the opening rounds of this game for you. If you've played Pandemic and love it already, just stop reading and go buy Pandemic Legacy right now.
If you don't care so much about mild spoilers, or if you've played Risk: Legacy more than a few times already, then this article is for you.
Vanilla Pandemic is, at its core, a cooperative worker placement game. A team of up to four players takes the role of certain characters, like the medic and the scientist, and travels the world trying to stop a series of highly contagious diseases.
Along the sideboard is a deck of cards that represents where outbreaks of disease will occur throughout the course of the game. Only by moving to the right cities, in the right order and at the right time, can players ever hope to win against formidable odds. It's an incredibly difficult game.
I've played Pandemic perhaps a dozen times in my life, and I've only ever beaten it twice.
There's a lot of little bits inside of vanilla Pandemic, so when I opened the lid of this new "legacy" version I noticed straight away something strange; nothing fell out of the box.
Everything inside Pandemic Legacy is very, very tightly wrapped, and that's because most of the game is secret, locked away behind closed packages.
At the very top of the stack is a manilla envelope marked "top secret." Inside are 69 sealed panels, like an advent calendar, that you must not open unless the game tells you to. Below that are eight sealed boxes. Some are heavier and noisier than others, but these also must remain sealed.
There's also a sealed deck of cards. These "legacy cards" are pulled, one at a time, and read aloud in order each time you play. There's a special slot to put the unread cards, and a special slot to discard them. If you get them out of order, the game tells you to find someone who you know will never want to play the game and kindly ask them to re-order them.
It's this deck that tells you when to start opening secret panels. It's this deck that will, I imagine, give you permission to finally open up those mysterious little black boxes. Sometimes the deck will reveal a new mission, or a bonus reward. At other times it will give you options, and ask you to scratch off little windows on other cards or panels with a coin.
One thing is for sure once you break the seal on that deck — there's no going back. In fact, it's the first game I've ever played that recommended we do a practice game first so we didn't screw it up right out of the gate.
As you play the game, you'll be asked to apply stickers to the board. Cities will begin to riot, limiting travel to and from continents. The diseases themselves will evolve, becoming harder or easier to defeat in later games. Characters will develop relationships between each other, learning new skills but also earning physical and mental scars.
Most disturbing of all, when a city falls all the characters stuck there will be buried there. Take their character sheets, tear them up and throw them away.
Based on my experience with more than a dozen games of Risk: Legacy, I have no doubt that other, even more terrifying things await inside.
But this legacy deck can only ever be revealed once. In essence, that means Pandemic Legacy will eventually self-destruct. You'll only ever be able to play it so many times. The game is divided into 12 months, and you've only got two chances to win each month.
The math is pretty easy; you only get between 12 and 24 chances to play this $70 game. In a clever move, publisher Z-Man Games is actually selling two versions of the game, one in a red box and another in blue. Theoretically, they're exactly the same allowing you to run more than one game at a time, with more than one group. Also, the game is subtitled "Season 1," which means Daviau and Leacock have left themselves the opportunity to build a sequel.
The whole self-destructing game issue had many tabletop gamers up in arms about Risk: Legacy, but I never took much credence in the complaint. I have three copies right now, one of which is unopened, and I'm not sure I'll have the time finish any of them in the next year or so. Already, each one has given me dozens of hours of playtime and I consider each copy worth the investment.
More problematic with Risk: Legacy is that a few bad games can ruin a board, weighting the accumulated bonuses in one player's favor for all time. And yeah, with one of my copies I'm having that issue right now. Pandemic Legacy is a different animal though in that it's cooperative. There are no individual benefits for certain people at the table, and every terrible outcome is shared by the entire group.
This isn't a review, because I'm nowhere near finished with the game.
There's also this one box — box number eight — that has explicit instructions only to be opened after you lose four times in a row. Theoretically that's where they hid Pandemic Legacy's easy mode, or at least a way to pull a long-term gaming group back from the brink of destruction.
This isn't a review, because I'm nowhere near finished with the game. At best, I've got 22 more games to go. That's something like 40 hours of playtime. Only then, after I've gotten enough people together at the table, will I really know if this game is as good as it seems. It could be broken, or just not any fun past a certain point. I'll let you know when I get there.
One thing is for sure, and that's after three hours of play I have three other people who want to get together at least once a month to join me on the journey. To me, that's high enough praise for any game.
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