This review will be split into two sections: the first, a non-spoiler filled overview of the game and its mechanics, particularly the basic elements that separate it from vanilla Pandemic, and the second, a review of the final product containing reactions and opinions to specific moments from the game. Each section will be clearly labeled.
Fundamentally, Pandemic Legacy remains the same all throughout its 12 to 24 gameplay sessions. If you’re already familiar with how Pandemic works, or you’re just reading about it for the first time, that alone should be enough to inform you about whether you’ll enjoy playing Pandemic Legacy or not. With some exceptions, the actions you can take on your turn are nearly identical to those found in the base version of Pandemic or several of its expansions. And ultimately, Pandemic Legacy is an amalgam of all of it. But it’s also so much more. It brings purpose and consequence to the decisions you make, something so foreign to the hobby. Because your actions have repercussions that resonate for the rest of the campaign, every single choice you make should be scrutinized. Failing to treat a single disease cube early in the game could result in a chain outbreak, and while this is normally something you don’t want happening already, because these outbreaks cause cities to descend further into chaos, you are effectively altering the status of the board forever and affecting how you play future games.
The very first time you set up the game, you are essentially playing basic Pandemic on a modified board. Shortly into your campaign, things turn dire, new events are revealed, and if you’re unfamiliar with the Legacy concept, stickers will be added to the board indicating permanent changes while new cards will be revealed as old ones get torn up. The Legacy system, having only three published games in its library thus far, is certainly an acquired delicacy. The idea of spending money on a potentially non-replayable product is hard to swallow for some. But the depth of content and sheer hours this game offers more than warrants the purchase. In Pandemic Legacy, 2 to 4 players have anywhere between 12 to 24 gameplay sessions to complete the campaign. Each month in the story can be played through twice (a second time if you end up losing in the first half). As with normal Pandemic, a game can last anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
Like a Hollywood summer blockbuster, Pandemic Legacy seeks to deliver a spectacle of an experience. Though the game can feel blatantly scripted and cliché at times, the way in which your actions can alter certain aspects of the story make it feel incredibly personal. A handful of key moments in particular will define the whole experience, and for better or worse, dramatically change the way your group plays the game thereafter. As is shown on the board, the introduction of panic levels for cities creates real tension as certain areas of the world become harder to access, if not impossible. As a city’s panic level rises, its infrastructure declines, preventing direct or charter flights in or out of the city. If it begins collapsing or eventually becomes fallen, the city essentially becomes a dead zone, as even land travel becomes a burden.
The story is told to you over 12 in-game months through cards that you reveal as you delve deeper into the mystery. Typically these cards will provide exposition and motivation for your characters, and then have the players open up packets in the box that may either add new abilities, characters, or victory conditions. Each month has a certain number of objectives that must be completed, indicated by the stars over each month. Most of the time you’ll have a single mandatory objective and a choice of several optional ones that might persist from game to game, or get ripped up when completed for the first time. Each character has several blank spaces waiting to be covered with stickers: two for relationships, which you share with other characters in the game and can offer you special free actions on your turn; upgrades that enhance or otherwise supplement your character in ways you might otherwise be unable to; and scars, for being in a city that suffers an outbreak, which hinder your character in a variety of ways. There are two spaces for each type of sticker, and although you can cover up and replace relationships and upgrades, should you need to place a third scar and are unable to, the character is killed and you must rip up their sheet.
The special event cards from regular Pandemic return in the form of government funding, and mostly behave the same way; however, you are restricted by the amount of cards you can include in the player deck based on how well your group is doing. For each victory you achieve, you reduce the amount of funded event cards by 2 for the next game, until you are at 0. For every defeat, you increase the amount of cards by 2, up to the maximum of 10. Regardless of whether you win or lose, every time you complete a game you can choose up to 2 game end upgrades that add permanent changes to either the board or your characters. These can include making existing research stations permanent, so that in future turns you have access to more at the start; unfunded events, which are added directly to a city card from the player deck and act as free events not counted toward the government funding; a character upgrade that I mentioned earlier; mutations to eradicated diseases, which make them easier to treat for future games, and more. Whether you were victorious in the first or second half of the month, or lost both games, when you’ve finished choosing your upgrades, you may proceed through the Legacy deck, revealing the next several cards until you are told to stop. At this point, it’s time to set the board up and start all over again, with any new rules or changes now in effect.
My group approached the game from a unique perspective; rather than attempting to binge through it and complete the campaign as quickly as possible, we worked our way slowly but surely over the course of an entire year, playing only in the month of the game month we were in. Having just finished our December session, and thus, the whole game, in the week of December 11th, I can say unequivocally that there was no better way for us to tackle this. The suspense of having to wait each month to find out what happened next only kept the game more exciting for us, and while some months were more eventful than others, this allowed us to keep the spirit of the story alive as we endured the year-long struggles alongside our characters. In that vein, I had decided at the onset of our game, to create a journal of our experiences, narrated by a fictional, unnamed character within the story. Pandemic Legacy Journal was the process by which I coped with the consequences of our actions. For every good or bad decision or result that occurred, I created a story to justify it. And with our game now finally over, the last entry in the journal will be going up in a few weeks on New Years’ Day.
So with all that being said, there’s no better time to talk about spoilers than now. If you don’t wish to read any further, here’s the final breakdown.
Time: 45+ minutes per game (12-24 games)
Set Up/Clean Up: Long/Long
Component Quality: Good
Final Verdict: Excellent
The single biggest takeaway I have from this entire ordeal is that I don’t think I will ever be able to enjoy basic Pandemic ever again. Without the narrative or emotional investment in the characters and the world, it just feels like a thoroughly filtered version of a much more vibrant game. That’s not to say Pandemic is not still a superb game – if it wasn’t, then Pandemic Legacy would not have been so much fun. As I mentioned, they both still adhere to the same fundamental rules. But every time I might spark up an interest in taking out Pandemic, I’ll think about the moments from Legacy that defined it as one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had across any hobby.
Moments like the initial reveal of COdA-403b or when they mutated into the zombie-like Faded and the introduction of those tiny translucent miniatures; military bases, road blocks, quarantines; the plethora of new and interesting characters to choose from like the Virologist and the Operations Expert. As I said in my non-spoiler review, many of these elements are taken directly from the expansions, but their context within the narrative of the game is what sets them apart. Now I wasn’t just setting up roadblocks and throwing down quarantines just to win the game, I was trying to preserve and save the world because if that outbreak spreads too far, then in a future game it could potentially block all access to that city. I’m no longer thinking in binaries – win or lose. Pandemic Legacy demands each player consider every single consequence of their action, and what those consequences could mean for future games. And the objective cards are a prime example of this.
Most of the objectives throughout the entire campaign are optional, save for the “Cure 3 Diseases” one and the couple you get for December. That is to say, you must always complete a specific amount of objectives each month, but you often have more than the require amount to attempt. Some months require you to complete 2 or 3 objectives total, but might offer you a choice between 4. That extra one may be a one-time only objective that gets ripped up when completed, but is slightly more difficult. So now you’re faced with the decision: do you do everything in your power to complete that objective and reap its rewards, at the risk of throwing the first game? Or do you try to complete the easier objectives first and, along the way, see if you can get that one done without much effort put into it? How many games do you prolong those one-time objectives, and when does it become too late? These sorts of decisions will have an effect on the game, not just on your experience playing it but on the overall narrative as well.
And then, of course, there’s that moment. The biggest shock of the entire adventure: the military was behind it. But not only that, one of your characters – perhaps a character someone is currently playing, one that you have upgraded and made into a Faded-fighting machine, is the traitor. In hindsight, of course they were. The military is always behind it. But that, itself, was not the twist. Because for the majority of the game, one of your optional objectives was to construct military bases. Not only did these allow extra means of fast travel for military characters identified with the dog tag symbol, but it also allowed you to put up roadblocks, effectively cutting off the spread of diseases between cities. It was a two birds-one stone situation: why wouldn’t you want to do it?
And then they pull the rug out from underneath you. The military has been using you this whole time, wanting you to construct those bases for their own personal benefit: the character revealed to be the traitor is ripped up and forever removed from the game; the objective to construct military bases is replaced with one to destroy them; and now, the sheer existence of them on the board becomes a hindrance to your game. Suddenly, everything changes. Things became a lot more personal for my group after this moment, especially considering our traitor ended up being the Colonel, who – as I said – we’d built up to be the Faded killer. His betrayal wasn’t only a gameplay shock, but it was a personal one as well. He was my character, and now he was gone. And my entire course of action had to change. The game forced me to get attached to a piece of paper with a picture and some text, took it away, and basically said “Do something about it.”
And that is something no other type of game can offer. So when people tell me Legacy games aren’t necessary, I tell them this entire hobby isn’t. Board games are a luxury, and a means of entertainment. If I can pay anywhere between $35 and $60 for over 20 hours of genre-defining gameplay that I can experience with friends, I’d be a fool not to.
Pandemic Legacy isn’t something I can recommend to everyone, simply because I can’t change your opinion on this style of game. However, I can say with the utmost sincerity that it is the single most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had playing a board game. It’s a hobby-defining triumph, the kind of game that should not be replicated but simply left alone to be admired. Legacy games, as I’ve said, are a very divisive thing, and while I don’t believe we’ve reached the point of overexposure yet, they should be treated as extremely fragile creations. Allow the game to define the Legacy experience, rather than trying to artificially create Legacy aspects where they aren’t needed. Because sometimes, a game is just a game.