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I’m a big fan of Pandemic – especially with the On the Brink expansion. And even though the Legacy version had gotten a lot of buzz, I was unsure. The logistical hurdles that Legacy games can bring is a bit of a turn off for me. But when I received a copy for my birthday, I knew I had to play. The result was one of the most engaging board game experiences I’ve ever had. And I was sorry to see it end.
The Basics. Pandemic Legacy starts essentially with standard Pandemic rules. But, it is a Legacy game after all. So there are a few tweaks that ensure that the actions of one game can carry over to the next.
For instance, whenever a city has an outbreak, you permanently put a sticker on the board. The first is a number one which marks the city as unstable. Not great, but no in-game effects just yet. The next time that city outbreaks, though, whether in that game or in any future game, you cover that sticker with the next highest number. At 2 and 3, the city is rioting and you can no longer fly directly to or out of that city. At 4, the city is collapsing and you need to discard a card just to enter it. At 5, the city has fallen and you need to discard two cards to enter it.
Another change is that the players have access to just a few characters. But after each game, the group can collectively choose two upgrades. These upgrades might be special abilities for the characters, things that make diseases easier to treat, or even permanent structures – allowing you to start with another research station on the board from the get go.
Of course, those uniquely identified characters can also be lost. For instance, if they are in a city when it outbreaks, they will get a scar – a permanent bad ability. If they would get a third scar, then they die. You rip up their card and can’t play with them any longer.
The final major change is the Legacy deck. Pandemic Legacy is played over 12 months – January through December. When you start, you pull cards from the Legacy deck, reading each in turn, until it tells you to stop. Those cards might give rise to new abilities, new challenges, and always furthers the story line. They can even add new components to the game. There are eight boxes that hold new bits and bobs. Every time you get to open one, it’s an exciting experience.
You have just two chances to complete the objectives that each month presents. If you win, you move immediately to the next month and get a minor bonus to start with. But if you lose, you try the month again. Lose again, and you move on to the next month with no bonus.
The Feel. The number one change to Pandemic is the storyline. While it mostly takes the form of flavor text, Pandemic Legacy is driven by an intriguing narrative. That narrative not only provides context for a lot of the mechanical changes that are happening on the board, but also creates a number of twists and turns.
While I won’t give away any of those twists (at least, not in this post), some of them are absolutely fabulous. And the vast, vast majority make you hold your breath. Most of the events that take place make the game more challenging or disrupt your current strategies. Sometimes new objectives will pile on top of old ones and you have to figure out how to do more in the same amount of time.
The Legacy nature of the game also changes your priorities. In regular Pandemic, especially as it looks like you’re nearing success, it’s easy to just let an outbreak or two happen because you’ll win before it has any major impact. But in Legacy, that can be devastating. Sure, those outbreaks may not hurt you in this game, but those cities become more unstable and it could be disastrous for future games. And outbreaking chains? Those are the worst. In my playthrough, we had a few really unfortunate epidemic draws that caused Paris, Madrid, and New York to outbreak multiple times. By the end of the game, all three cities had Fallen and we had a heck of a time clearing those cities.
Unlike some other Legacy games, it’s also not a huge deal to jump players in or out of Pandemic Legacy. Sure, having a consistent group is ideal. But if a player misses out, or a new guy shows up, there’s no mechanical reason why they can’t join in. You have to catch them up on the backstory and explain why the world is the way it is, but that can be easily accomplished. This makes Pandemic one of the most forgiving Legacy games in terms of logistics.
I also found myself looking forward to the next play every week. And we would play multiple times every game night. It took us sixteen total games to get through the campaign and we largely found success. But then something interesting happened. It finished.
Of course the game was going to finish. That’s what it is designed to do. But it was almost like finishing a really good book. On the one hand, I was sad that it was over. On another, I was very satisfied with the experience. So satisfied, in fact, that I have next to no desire to return to it. Which is a weird spot to be in.
Usually, I get tired of a game because I’ve overplayed it. Or I find something better. That’s not the case here. But, having made some very permanent changes to my copy of the game, I no longer have the desire to play it. I’d rather just play normal Pandemic. Which makes it a hard game to rate. It’s absolutely fantastic while the story line continues. But when you finish it, it really feels done. It is essentially either saved as a memento or simply tossed.
Components: 4.5 of 5. The bits are great. I like the clean look of Pandemic Legacy. The cubes are also just a touch smaller than the original so they fit better in the cities. The way that items are introduced into the game is also great. The boxes effectively hide their contents and rules stickers make sure you don’t forget what has been added as time goes on. My only (minor) complaint is that the rulebook isn’t super clear in a few spots. The main offender is a spoiler, though, so I’ll move along.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. This largely carries over from the original Pandemic. The randomness keeps you guessing about what cities will outbreak next and whether you should concentrate on them or move toward objectives. But the fact that the cards go back on top of the infection pile after an epidemic means you have some idea of what is likely to occur. This strikes a wonderful balance and makes you feel like you have control over you fate, but still allows for surprises.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. Pandemic was already brilliant in this respect. But layering on the Legacy aspects definitely improved it. In the original, you just have to find cures. Even if the world is ravaged by disease, you can high five and go home when that last cure is found. Here, the incentives were a little tweaked so that you wanted to watch out for outbreaks even as you approached a final cure. Plus, other objectives on the board mean that you need to have more than one focus.
Replayability: 0.5 of 5. This is the one legitimate knock on Pandemic: Legacy – you can really only play it once. Of course, in that “one” play, you’ll actually have between 12 and 24 sessions. And I was always eager to come back while it lasted. But at the conclusion, I had been fully sated. While I suppose I could go back and play it again with a different group, all of the twists and turns are lost now.
Spite: 0 of 5. As a cooperative game, there is no spite.
Overall: 4 of 5. Pandemic Legacy is a fantastic experience. Although I’m a little wary of Legacy style games, I eagerly jumped into Pandemic and loved it. After a few games, I was even enthusiastically placing stickers and ripping up components. Pandemic Legacy is more of an experience than a game – something you play through once and then finish. But that experience is highly satisfying.
(Originally posted at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)