As much as we love pushing our armies around the table sometimes we need a break. Whether its a quick game between rounds or an all day main event, the Goonhammer team can often be found pushing chits, cubes, and cards around a board game. Boardhammer will bring you periodic reviews and articles from the land of hobby board games and wargames not called Warhammer. Since its initial release, Pandemic has spawned a number of expansions, spin-off, and special editions. They range from the woeful (Pandemic: Contagion) to the weird (Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu) to wonderful (Pandemic: Iberia). In this article we’ll talk about just a few of the ones we’ve played.
Earlier this week we told you about Pandemic and its various expansions. We talked about the tension that comes from a brilliant disease mechanic, the pressure to avoid one of the game’s three loss conditions, and the satisfaction of saving the world. But if all that goodness is in the original Pandemic, then what does Pandemic Legacy have to offer?
Oh sweet summer child, you know not of what you ask.
Pandemic Legacy adds persistence, personalization, and a sense of dread that every decision you make is going to come back to bite you. For in Pandemic Legacy, letting a city succumb to an outbreak won’t merely hurt your chances of winning right now. If a city suffers an outbreak, you place a physical sticker on that city to indicate it’s beginning to panic, and the game gets permanently harder. Forever.
That’s the rub – unlike standard board games, Legacy games change as you play them. During and after each game, you’ll unlock new content for the game; you’ll add cards to the game’s decks, remove others, and permanently alter the game through stickers. You’ll even permanently modify the rulebook itself, adding new rules and changing win conditions. And as time goes on, the game will get tougher, the stakes will get higher, and the viruses more deadly.
But there’s a saving grace: the characters you play. In Pandemic Legacy they are no longer roles. They are living characters. You name them, you grant them powerful abilities that stick with them for all future games, and they can even die. As the world falls apart around you, your characters get stronger to tackle the increased challenge. Everything keeps ramping up until…
Well, I don’t want to spoil anything. But let me make something clear: I’m avoiding spoilers for a board game. A board game that came out half a decade ago. I’m avoiding spoilers because Pandemic Legacy also features a compelling narrative. On its own the idea of a game being permanently altered by your decisions is awesome, [Ed – Check out Risk Legacy for a great competitive legacy game] but Pandemic Legacy layers in a narrative.
Each game is still a fairly regular game of Pandemic, but they’re contained within a larger narrative. Pandemic Legacy spans one calendar year with each game you play representing one month in that year (you get two chances to succeed). Throughout the year the narrative will throw changes and twists that are appropriate to the disaster movie genre, and you will shape this narrative and be shaped by it in turn.
Pandemic Legacy shot its way up to #1 on the BoardGameGeek rankings in record time and – at the time – was the fastest selling board game of all time. If you think that’s overkill, then that means you haven’t played a Legacy game. You haven’t yet experienced the emotional attachment to a medic treating the infected, to a researcher seeking a cure. You haven’t held your breath, waiting to hear the grim announcement of how your best-laid plans will crumble to dust. You haven’t yet watched a disease sweep the world away and leave nought in its wake but scarred rescuers and fallen cities.
And I must stress again, I’m talking about a board game. Any resemblance to an actual pandemic is entirely coincidental and unintentional. But if you happen to find yourself in an actual pandemic, then do yourself a favor and pick up Pandemic Legacy Season 1. It’s fairly cheap, especially considering the dozens of hours of fun you’ll have, the memories you’ll share with friends and family, and the experience you’ll have playing a game like none other.
Alfredo: Pandemic Legacy was my first legacy board game and I played it without any prior Pandemic experience alongside a good friend with a similar lack of knowledge. And what an experience it was. While there are spoilers to be had, at the same time the narrative you craft during your playthrough of Pandemic Legacy will be unique and your own, with twists and story points that become part of a singular story that you share with those who played the game alongside you. That was something I had never really encountered before, a board game as a storytelling engine and narrative generator, and I will say, it got me hooked. Legacy games are certainly not for those seeking infinite re-playability but they are perfect for people who like emergent storytelling and a “campaign” feel. And to be clear, you play the game out over at a minimum 12 sessions that are the length of a regular Pandemic game, so you’ll get plenty of playtime out of it. As someone who had never played Pandemic before, I liked the way the game gradually introduced rules and complexity; I felt like I was able to get a grip on it after a session or two (at which point the game starts throwing curveballs at you) so the difficulty curve is quite good.
Robert: As someone who had played the base Pandemic a ton, I really enjoyed working through Pandemic Legacy with my wife and our friends. The added pressure to succeed each round and the extra game outside the game (picking upgrades, determining which advantages you want to try and take into the next game), really added an extra layer that I appreciated. There are also a bunch of narrative distinctions in Legacy that make things more interesting and harder to deal with, such as a military-civilian distinction that adds a bunch of new wrinkles. If I have one gripe with the game, it’s that it can be a bit too dependent on your players – our game group was two couples – my wife and I plus my friend and his girlfriend, and when they broke up it killed a lot of our momentum to keep going.
Raf: Pandemic Legacy begins with Season 1, and the narrative continues in Season 2. There is no character carryover; regardless of how you do in Season 1, you’ll begin Season 2 in a world that has fallen to disease. Only a few coastal cities exist and your starting territories are floating oasis structures slowly running out of resources. Season 1 is about preventing the breakdown, Season 2 is about rebuilding a wasted world.
For me personally, Season 2 was a touch disappointing. It’s clear that the design team felt freed of restraints and each month adds systems, mechanisms, and actions that are exciting but for us felt like too much. For a couple games I had such a large draw deck with so many stickered cards that to shuffle I had to smear the cards all over the floor before gathering them up. Many others out there prefered Season 2 or at least hold it in equal regard, so I recognize that my opinion may be the minority but I wanted to share. I will say that Pandemic Legacy Season 1 is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. My wife and I played over a series of months and when it was all said and done, we signed the board, stuck our favorite characters to it (Chuck Taylor and Taylor Swift), and had it framed. It sits over the table in my gaming area.
Z-Man games announced Pandemic: Iberia in 2016 and introduced the world to its Survival Series. Every year Z-Man hosts a Super Hard Mode tournament in a different country and then a game designer from that country designs a new version of the game with original designer Matt Leacock. The latest is a real-time dice rolling version, whereas the first three are set during historical periods of the host countries and may not even be about disease outbreaks. We have not played all the spin-offs, so will be limiting the rest of this article to the ones we’ve played.
Iberia takes place on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the age of Cholera. The board is different, diseases can have unique characteristics, and advanced modes emulate population movement and other disease containment variables. Like the expansions we talked about yesterday, much of it is modular and can be tweaked as desired.
The core systems are the same; players use resource cards to move around the board and cure diseases, the Infection Deck fills the board with cubes, and Epidemic cards still bring ruin. Most of the changes feel like tweaks on the underlying system. Instead of rapid movement anywhere, players are limited to movement along the coast on ships. Moving inland is harder though players can invest in railroads to make later movement more efficient.
The biggest change is the introduction of Clean Water tokens; access to clean water was critical to surviving the Spanish outbreak of the 1800s. This mechanism allows you to develop clean water sources in various regions that prevent the placement of disease cubes. The strategy in Iberia becomes more about establishing regions of control and influence over targeted treatment of outbreak sites.
In Rising Tide, we move to the Netherlands and leave behind the entire concept of disease containment. Instead, players are building and maintaining the intricate system of dams that hold back the sea and keep the Dutch dry. Water has a directional flow that can be managed with locks, population must be saved, and instead of curing diseases you’re building 4 of the major engineering structures that make the system work.
Rising Tide is heavier than previous versions, no doubt due to designer Jeroen Doumen’s experience with boutique heavy game company Splotter. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that Pandemic’s skeleton supports the additional weight nor do I think that Pandemic is what I’m reaching for when I want a heavier experience. To be certain, Rising Tide is both compelling and exciting. The water flow system is particularly notable. I just found that I rarely reached for this version when game night rolled around.
Similarly, Fall of Rome adds a number of new systems while maintaining a core Pandemic flavor. In Fall of Rome, players are leaders in Ancient Rome attempting to fight back the barbarian hordes that threaten the capital city. This version of Pandemic adds die based combat, and sees you raising and transporting troops through the countryside. Peace treaties replace disease cures, and pressure comes through a tweak in the way barbarian troops are added to the board.
In Pandemic, Infection cards add a cube directly to a named city. In Fall of Rome Invasion cards dictate the target city, but Barbarians travel along a route printed on the board. This means you can intercept placement in important cities by deploying legionnaires to defend the major routes. To combat your ability to mitigate invasians, the game adds an instant lose condition: if Rome ever Rebels (Outbreaks) you immediately lose. I’ll take Fall of Rome over Rising Tide, but I already have a lot of Pandemic on my shelf. Iberia is the only one of these that I’ve kept.
There is a saying in Thailand: “Same same, but different”. It’s often used to compare one thing to another more familiar thing. A lot of the Pandemic spin-off titles are same same but different. Legacy adds permanence while Fall of Rome adds dice, but at the end of the day the underlying structure is still the emulation of real world systems that degrade or intensify in ways that spell doom. I’ve played a lot of Pandemic; but I’m still up for more.
That wraps up our look at Pandemic and its spin-offs, but there’s more Boardhammer to come as we settle in for more time indoors. If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to drop us a note in the Comments below, or email us at email@example.com.