Games of 2016: Pandemic Legacy

It’s the end of the year! And that means it’s time to talk about end of year assessments of the most important piece of culture: GAMES! I might come back to this, so I’m not going to cap myself at “TOP 5” anything. But I might not come back to this, so I’m going to start off at the top. I want to talk about one of the most important board games for my 2016: Pandemic Legacy. In particular, I want to talk about it with this idea: Legacy games illustrate a particular kind of RPG-esque storytelling that provides ripe new territory for game design. This entire article will contain no spoilers, so don’t worry if you haven’t played Pandemic Legacy—the secrets of the game are safe with us. (And yes, I am aware that Pandemic Legacy came out in October 2015, but I think that means for most of us, it was most relevant in 2016, so I’m counting it anyway and you can’t stop me.)

What is Pandemic Legacy?

Pandemic Legacy Zman Games 2015The board game is based on Matt Leacock’s award-winning game Pandemic, a co-op game in which the players work together to stop four plagues across the world. It’s a tense game, an interesting puzzle, and it’s proved itself through its longevity. It’s not perfect—often criticized for “alpha player” problems, when one player tells all the others what to do—but for the most part, it’s pretty darn solid. Pandemic Legacy takes that initial framework and then blows it out. Instead of just playing one crisis moment of four terrible plagues spreading across the world, you’re playing specific, named characters struggling against terrible diseases throughout the course of a year. Those characters can gain improvements that give them greater abilities; they can earn story-based adjustments that change or improve their abilities; and they can be scarred by the events of the game, giving them disadvantages or complications. All of these abilities and changes are permanent, stickers you actually attach to the character’s little card. The same thing becomes true of the board. In the base game, you’re playing on a world map, but every city is functionally the same. They matter mostly for where they stand on the map and the possibility that they will become overwhelmed with disease cubes. But in Pandemic Legacy, they can change and be affected permanently in ways that alter how they fit into the game as a whole. Again, you’ll be adding stickers to those cities throughout the game to represent these permanent changes. Pandemic Legacy Zman Games 2015There are lots of other bits and bobbins throughout the game, things that can change and ways that you can change them, along with what is perhaps the single most important deviation point from the base game—the event deck. It’s a pre-sorted deck of cards and stickers that you work your way through from the top down over the course of the “year”. As you pass from month to month (taking one or two games, at most), you flip over pieces of the deck that add new game elements or new objectives, changing how you play and what you focus on. The deck means that the “story” of the year unfolds in a similar fashion between every box of Pandemic Legacy, with events happening at approximately the same time. The event deck controls the pacing of the game, and it’s the part that makes the 12-24 total games you’ll play with one box the equivalent of an epic TV miniseries or movie. And the event deck is what I want to focus on.

How Pandemic Legacy Tells Stories

It’s a subject for exploration in another post, but I’ve been thinking about a point well-articulated by many others—specifically that there was a difference between story games and roleplaying games. First of all, for the sake of this discussion, abandon all other conception of what those terms mean, because I’m going to be using them in a specific way here. Pandemic Legacy Zman Games 2015The idea, according to my own understanding, is that story games are designed to help players tell a story, while roleplaying games are designed to allow players to inhabit a role. Ultimately, the players inhabiting their roles well will lead to a series of events which, in retrospect, will appear story-like. But the goal of the game isn’t to tell a story the way it is in a story game, which is instead focused on directly and purposefully creating a story-like narrative. Not a series of events that snap into focus as a story in retrospect, but a story, directly. It’s a difference made most clear in the comparison between Apocalypse World and Swords Without Master. Apocalypse World is all about inhabiting roles and watching what happens. In the long run, you’ll be able to look back on it and figure out how it’s a story, but while you’re playing, it’s not “story-shaped”, to borrow a favorite phrase from Neil Gaiman. For Swords Without Master, however, every step of the way takes the form of you all trying to tell an awesome swords and sorcery short story. Yeah, you’ll only know the full shape and size of the story at the end of play, but the things you’re saying and adding to the game’s conversation are fundamentally different. Why does all of this matter for Pandemic Legacy? Because it provides an interesting third pole. (For those of you who like Atomic Robo, “THE ZORTH AXIS!”) In Pandemic Legacy, there is an outline of a story, pre-built. Certain events will always take certain general forms, and happen around certain pre-determined times. But the specifics will always vary. You can never tell EXACTLY when certain things will happen (not least because you probably don’t know what’s coming in the event deck), and you can never tell exactly how those events will manifest on your board, because they take into account the current board state when they occur. And that’s all on top of the general system pieces which will tell a story all their own. For example, every time there is a major outbreak of a disease, that city will get a little sticker attached to it to indicate that it has permanently increased unrest. Over the course of playing the full campaign, those little stickers will accrue, and tell their own story of those cities you couldn’t save, and where the struggle was worst. So on the one hand, Pandemic Legacy tells stories a bit like Apocalypse World. After you run through the system, pursuing system defined goals and following the system’s rules, you will be able to look backward on the events that happened and see a story there. And on the other hand, Pandemic Legacy tells stories a bit more like Swords Without Master. The event deck is designed to create the outline of a story, and as you play you’ll be plunking certain events into the blank spaces so it will feel like a story not just in retrospect, but in the moment. Pandemic Legacy Zman Games 2015That relationship between a pre-built story, but a system that adds in enough variation and opportunity for change, creates a sort of perfect mixture. The game is still a board game, and much of the enjoyment during play lies in solving the constantly shifting puzzle of Pandemic (along with all the added complicated elements). And in pursuing that enjoyment, players wind up taking actions which will fill in pieces of the pre-determined story outline organically, making it a bit like watching a movie unfold while simultaneously playing in it. And then, your system-based actions will in turn have their own consequences within that system, completely outside of the story outline, thereby adding further details and garnishes to make the story your own, a unique tale. So, the ingredients are:
  • An interesting system with its own clear goals and rules
  • Permanent consequences to actions taken within that system that do not necessarily have immediate effects, but instead reflect a landscape that changes as a result of system-based decisions
  • A series of predetermined events whose specific form and effects will vary based on the overall game state, thereby fleshing out an overall skeleton of a story with specificity unique to that individual game.
It’s a wonderful melange. And not every game should tell stories like this, for certain—but it’s a form that’s fascinating, and I’m interested in seeing still more games taking advantage of it.

Games That Already Do This

There are some! And it’s worth examining how they do it, especially without the budget and materials of a full Pandemic Legacy. Fall of Magic echoes Pandemic Legacy’s event deck very well. (First of all, just to say, it’s a gorgeous, cool, smart game.) It’s absolutely a game more in the story-telling tradition, aiming to flesh out the story of a Magus on a journey and those accompanying or journeying. Beyond being a gorgeous game, here’s the genius of its structure—the journey itself is the outline of the story. Each place that you can go to is another point on the outline. And while you might choose different journeys, thereby making different outlines each time you play, it still uses the tool of structure with individual variation based on your specific game. The pieces that Fall of Magic is missing from the Pandemic Legacy formula are the system with its own clear goals and rules, and the permanent consequences of taking actions within that system. In Fall of Magic, I’m not making decisions to solve a problem, or to achieve some end—I’m actively trying to tell a story. There is no system that shapes my decisions to achieve a goal, and as such, there are non system-based consequences for those decisions. You could argue that the places we choose to journey to are the equivalent of this piece of Pandemic Legacy, but those decisions are made mostly based upon story-telling decisions as opposed to systemic decisions. Here’s another game that has pieces of this: The Quiet Year. (Another brilliant game that you should look up.) In The Quiet Year, there is a hard system about how you’re allowed to communicate, and a clear outline of the story that you’re telling. Like Pandemic Legacy, you’re telling the story of a year, this time in the life of a post-apocalyptic colony. Ostensibly, your goal is to make the colony thrive, although the game doesn’t make that as clear of a goal as eliminating the diseases is in Pandemic Legacy. But the hard system around how you communicate has consequences and effects outside of what you might expect, including the contempt tokens (which don’t have a clear in-game effect, but still act as consequences to reshape the story). And the deck of cards that includes events for each season is a lot like Pandemic Legacy’s own event deck, albeit with more variability in exactly which events are drawn. The difference here, again, is the lack of that hard goal. Pandemic Legacy is very successful at a kind of sleight of hand, making players mostly focus on their moment to moment goals of each individual game. Which means they sometimes make decisions with long term consequences and effects without thinking about it or knowing about it. Because The Quiet Year doesn’t have as clear of a system with systemic goals to pursue, the long-term consequences of decisions you make are never quite as obscured. To put it another way, it’s unlikely to create the exact same sense of surprise and discovery when you realize that doing something a few games ago has completely reshaped what is happening now.

Lessons to Learn

Both The Quiet Year and Fall of Magic are excellent games, and do what they do exceedingly well. My point in these comparisons is not to make either of those games seem deficient—just to really come out and say it, they are both very much worth your time, attention, and money—but to show that there is still room to explore and develop. Which is exciting! How do we make an RPG, not a board game, that does what Pandemic Legacy does, and maybe still more? What does that game look like? How does that work? Pandemic Legacy is, for me, one of the most exciting games of 2016 because it made me think about these lessons, and what else could be tried. What other new worlds of design we have to explore. Yes, I’m a nerd.