Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (Spoiler-free)
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Designer: Rob Daviau & Matt Leacock
Publisher: Z-Man Games, Inc. (2015 English edition)
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 60 mins.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 takes the popular cooperative game Pandemic and gives it the full "Legacy" game experience. If you’re unfamiliar with “Legacy” games, they are a type of game where actions in one game may have consequences in a later game. You add stickers to the components, open sealed boxes to introduce new components and rules, and even destroy cards as the overarching plot progresses.
The original, non-legacy Pandemic was the first cooperative board game I learned when I joined the hobby in 2008. To summarize, Pandemic is a game for 2-4 players who must race around the globe to keep four deadly diseases from erupting into a true pandemic. If they can discover cures in time for each disease, they win!
Sounds simple, but Pandemic is cruel. At the end of each player’s turn they must draw infect cards that add disease cubes to the board. If the players ever run out of cubes for a disease, they lose. If a city has too many disease cubes it “outbreaks” and spreads the disease to all adjacent cities, which can cause chain reaction outbreaks. If eight or more outbreaks occur, the players lose. And, finally, if the players take too long and exhaust the player deck, they lose. Every time I've played we've been on the brink of disaster for the bulk of the game, until we suddenly pull together the last few resources we need to achieve victory. Or until we lose. Pandemic is not an easy game.
Pandemic Legacy expects players to be very familiar with the rules and mechanics for the original game. A brand new copy of Pandemic Legacy can be used to play the original Pandemic game until the mechanics feel natural. The rulebook even encourages players to do so because once the legacy campaign begins, things will start to change rapidly. There is no going back.
The full Pandemic Legacy campaign lasts 12-24 games, or one full year in this game's world. The first game takes place in January. If the players win, they move on to February for their next game. If they lose, they get one more try to win in “late January.” After that second game, win or lose, they move on to the next month. As the game progresses, the players will learn more about the diseases and uncover new objectives.
But Pandemic Legacy is more than just a campaign mode for Pandemic. If a city outbreaks, the players have to add a “panic level” sticker to that city’s spot on the board to represent civil unrest. If the panic level gets too high, airports will shut down and traffic in and out of the city will become more challenging. The players will gain bonuses each game, including special event cards, positive disease mutations to make them easier to cure, and character upgrades that permanently grant new abilities to a character card. Characters can also suffer emotional scars from psychological trauma. If they witness too much, the players must destroy the character's card and remove it from the game forever.
One of my favorite mechanics in Pandemic Legacy is the “funding” system. The game comes with several “funded event” cards. To start the campaign, the players have enough funding to shuffle four of these event cards into the player deck (matching the count in a standard Pandemic game). But if the players win a game, their funding drops for the next game. Since they’re managing so well, they probably don’t need all of that money. If the players lose, their funding increases as a panicked world wants to make sure they have all the resources they need. Thematically, it’s clever. Mechanically, it means that players will quickly find a nice balance point tailored to their skill level. It’s unlikely that players will win 12 games in a row, but it is possible. More realistically, players will play 18-20 games, so their funding will rise and fall with the difficulty curve of the game’s campaign.
What this means is that no two campaigns are ever the same. Yes, the overall narrative follows the same structure in every box. But where events occur, how the panic level grows, which diseases receive mutations, and how characters are upgraded will differ from group to group. Which raises the question: do you have to play Pandemic Legacy with the same group of people every time? I've tried it both ways, so I can definitively say that the short answer is "no." There is no reason that you can't have a rotating group of friends pop in and out to play a game and then come back further into the campaign. The game comes with a variety of characters, and does not require that players use the same character every time. Mechanically, you can treat each game as a version of Pandemic with a unique scenario and custom rules.
However, I think you miss out on part of the experience when you play it this way. Pandemic Legacy tells a cohesive story over the course of 12 months, and those narrative beats won't have the same impact on a player who just came for one game in July as they will for players who have seen the entire progression. Also, the Legacy game aspects are far less meaningful with a rotating cast. A player who isn't going to come back for a while won't care as much about planning for the future, they'll be focused on the immediate challenge. Awarding game-end upgrades won't matter since they won't be able to enjoy them next game. But when it's the same group of players every time, well, they'll grow attached to certain characters and develop shared memories about how the games have evolved through time.
And, frankly, Pandemic Legacy is a complicated game. Without spoiling anything, the game throws new rules and mechanics at players all the time without removing any. If they play each game in sequence, they'll benefit from learning the new rules as they appear. But a player who drops in for one game in July gets stuck in the middle of it all, and it can be overwhelming. As challenging as it is to get 3-4 people in the same room at the same time for a board game with any regularity, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is one of those games where it is definitely worth trying to pull off.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is my favorite board game. In an age where thousands of new games are published every year and hobbyists amass collections of dozens or hundreds of games, Pandemic Legacy provides an incentive for players to actually play the game 12-24 times. That's more than I've played most of the other games in my collection. Yes, it is true that once you've finished the campaign the only way to play it again is by purchasing a new copy. The secrets and surprises have all been revealed so you can't recreate that experience. Despite all of that, I've played five separate campaigns of Pandemic Legacy because it really is that much fun. I love the narrative, I love the game's difficulty curve, and I love sharing this experience with friends who haven't played it yet! I've gotten pretty good at not revealing things that are going to happen in the future so my friends can enjoy the surprises for themselves.
Pandemic Legacy is not a game you master. It's a game you experience. The legacy mechanics mesh seamlessly with Pandemic’s existing structure, while the narrative tension perfectly matches the campaign's overall difficulty curve. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is the best Legacy game released to date*. You should play this game.
*Gloomhaven fans, I see you over there. I haven't played Gloomhaven yet. We'll see if that changes my mind once I can dive into that adventure.