Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was an amazing innovation when it was released in 2015, and it continues to be one of the newest foundational games in the co-op hobby. What made it so great? It’s not just that it broke new ground with its Legacy-campaign play, but also that it integrated that fully into its existing simulation.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 by Rob Daviau & Matt Leacock
Publisher: Z-Man Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Legacy, Set Collection
The players take on the role of various specialists who are trying to cure four pandemic diseases that are ravaging the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing disease cubes (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to win the game). However, there’s a twist: the game repeats over 12-24 sessions, with characters, the gameboard, and the rules all evolving over time.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with one big change: the game evolves and changes from one session to another. Much of this comes about from careful changes to Pandemic’s simulation, linking its core model of disease to Legacy changes. For example:
- If a disease outbreak occurs in a city, then unrest begins to rise there, leading to: instability, rioting, collapse, and eventually the fall of the city. This makes the city harder and harder to access in future games.
- If a disease outbreaks occurs in a city with a character, then the character is “scarred”, receiving some disadvantage in future games.
- If a disease is cured and eradicated in a game, then the players can make the disease easier to deal with in future games through an “upgrade”.
These extensions effectively expand the gears of Season 1’s simulation from something that affects a single game to something that has repercussions in future games — which is just as innovative as Pandemic’s simulation system was when it first appeared.
There’s one other major change to the challenges in Season 1: the end-game goals are laid out by objective cards rather than a simple rule, which allows them to change over the course of the campaign, creating more variable gameplay. Though the first objective is to cure four diseases, just like in the original Pandemic, by the end of the campaign, the gameplay will be very different.
Whether the players accomplish their goals can also affect the simulation: if the players win a game, then they have fewer resources for the next game, while if they lose a game, they’ll get more resources next time. Maintaining the difficulty of a game over time has been a real issue with campaign games, with one of the main complaints with the very innovative Descent: Road to Legend (2008) campaign being that it got too easy for one side over time. Season 1 demonstrates how to use a simple but very effect method to dynamically adjust a game’s long-term difficulty based on the players’ success.
Though each game of Season 1 will evolve very differently because of its simulation-linked Legacy changes, the game also pushes its plot (and the changes to its challenge system) in a set way: between games players draw cards describing changes in the world, some of which will cause set changes to the challenge system. A disease might become incurable, epidemics might occur faster, or something totally wacky might happen. This obviously creates variability from game to game, and also keeps players on their toes.
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Campaign; and Replicating Task Threats.
The cooperative elements of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 are largely unchanged from Pandemic, but that cooperation is now expanded to span an entire campaign, not just an individual session. To start with, there’s cooperative metagaming at the beginning of each session, when players decide which characters to use from a pool, focusing on how their special abilities will likely impact the coming challenges. There’s similarly metagaming within each session, because players must make decisions (about sunsetting a disease or letting a city outbreak) based on repercussions in future games. Finally, the players make cooperative choices between games, when they purchase upgrades for cards, characters, diseases, or the board, using a group pool of points.
Season 1’s Legacy rules notably expand the adventure system of Pandemic. Part of this comes through the aforementioned upgrades. At the end of each game, players can choose to make cards better, characters better, cities better, or diseases worse. The character upgrades in particular feel like “experience”, an important element of the roleplaying games from which adventure games derive. There are “downgrades” too: players can be scarred … or die! This ups the ante of the adventure-style play.
Season 1 also contains a lot of “story”. The set cards revealed after each session describe the plot of outbreaking and changing diseases. This explicit plot combines with the implicit story of simulation changes and various upgrades to add color and change to the game; players come back because they want to see what happens next!
Finally, Season 1 also revisits the concept of a campaign co-op popularized by Road to Legend and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) and central to true “roleplaying” play, but it uses a very different model. Where Road to Legend was just a big 40-hour game broken into bite sized bits, and where Pathfinder ACG focused its campaign around selective character changes in the face of set systemic changes, Legacy instead makes systemic changes its entire game over time.
Expansions & Variants
Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (2017) followed a few years later and Pandemic Legacy Season 3 looks likely to be a 2020 release.
Pandemic was a foundational game for the co-op industry thanks to its implementation of tight, quick, abstract play. Season 1 innovates things again by introducing clever methods to expand Pandemic’s simulations to a long-term campaign.
Matt Leacock & Rob Daviau
Leacock is the creator of the original Pandemic. Daviau’s claim to fame is “Legacy” style games, the first of which was Risk Legacy (2011). They’re built around the idea that the game will change from one session to another, with players permanently marking and changing their game components (and presumably throwing out the game when it’s all played out). Pandemic Legacy was Daviau’s second Legacy game, followed later by the competitive SeaFall (2016) and the cooperative Betrayal Legacy (2018).