Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 takes the basics of Pandemic (co-op game where you move around the globe removing disease cubes and collecting cards to cure the diseases) and adds a 12-part campaign filled with twists and turns as you put stickers on the board, write on your characters, rip up cards, and more. As you might suspect from that description, after the 12-part campaign is done, the game is not really replayable.
COMPONENTS IN BRIEF
Big map board, plastic bits for diseases, research stations, player pawns, etc.; cards for player deck, infection deck, and legacy deck; character cards, player aids. Also a sheet of stickers, many sheets of secret things, and 8 small boxed packages of secret things.
GAMEPLAY IN BRIEF
Each player receives a character with a special ability. The board starts with 18 disease cubes on it, and all characters start in Atlanta, where there is a Research Station. On your turn, you have four actions to use however you like from these options:
*Move to Adjacent Space
*Remove disease cube in current city
*Discard city card to move between named city and any other location
*Hand current city card to teammate in same city
*Discard current city card to build Research station in same city
*Move between two cities with Research stations
*Discard 5 city cards of same color, at Research station, to cure that color disease
After your four actions, you draw two cards from the player deck, then reveal 2+ cards from the Infection deck and put cubes on each named city. Cities which would get a fourth cube Outbreak, adding cubes to all adjacent cities. (A drawn Epidemic from player deck puts 3 cubes on a city, then shuffles all revealed Infection cards to put them on top of the Infection deck to be drawn again.)
If players cure all four diseases without losing, they win. Players may lose by running out of disease cubes of any color, running out of cards in the player deck, or having 8 Outbreaks.
A large Legacy deck is filled with cards which are revealed at various points throughout the game, always some at the beginning of a new month, but also some mid-way through a game when certain conditions have been met. These cards change the game drastically, adding new characters, objectives, actions, mechanics, benefits, challenges, etc. During the game and after the game, stickers will be added to the board, characters, and even cards, offering permanent changes both good and bad which will persist throughout the 12-month campaign.
*Brings the compelling nature of RPG campaigns to a tabletop boardgame
I've played various RPGs from D&D to Mage to GURPS, but eventually in college I gave them up because I found I wasn't enjoying the sessions. I liked the overarching idea of the campaign -- participating in a vast epic story arc that stretched across multple months, getting together with the same group of friends each week to work together against unknown challenges, etc. -- but the actual mechanics of e.g. sit and discuss combat bored me. Pandemic Legacy manages to capture all the majesty of a campaign arc and foment that investment in world and characters, but the base-level mechanics are still an enjoyable strategic boardgame rather than just discussion of combat. The best parts of two genres brought together, and it works.
*Eliminates artificial planning barrier
The base game of Pandemic allows players to say what is in their hands, but not to reveal the actual cards in their hands. I always found this to be an annoying waffle. S1 simply has all players play with open hands. You are co-operating, and so you may as well be able to plan together. And you'll need to because S1 is...
*Filled with twists and turns
I'm not going to spoil anything in this review, not even in spoiler tags or photos (avoid the image gallery!), because anyone who hasn't played shouldn't ruin the experience for themselves by being spoiled, and anyone who has played has no need for a review. But I can speak generally about the game and say that each month brought a new and interesting challenge. The game added a significant challenge mid-way through the first month, and subsequent months dialed up the challenges, added new objectives, and changed the way we had to approach the game.
By the midpoint of the campaign, our strategic approach had necessarily shifted. And every time we got into the groove and had figured out how we might go about dealing with the latest development, a new development occurred. Objectives shifted again, new mechanics were introduced, and we had to think together how we might accomplish the latest set of goals on an ever-shifting playscape. By adding new rules midway through each game that no player has ever seen or conceived of, the game remains fresh for everyone. (This also helps mitigate the "Alpha Player" problem; no matter how many times Bob may have played Pandemic, if everyone's in their first S1 playthrough then nobody has dealt with that big April revelation before, so there are no experts on how to deal with it.)
*Endgame upgrades are exciting
At the end of each game of S1, win or lose, you get to pick two Upgrade stickers to add to the appropriate places (board, character, card) which permanently improve your odds. These range from new character abilities to additional starting research stations to easier-to-cure diseases to transforming random city cards into optional events. These upgrades add a nice feeling of progress to the game, so even if you lose, you're gaining some benefits that you can select that will keep on giving for the rest of the campaign.
*Somewhat adjusts difficulty to your group's level
Whenever you lose a game, two bonus helpful event cards are added to the player deck for your following game. Whenever you win a game, two events are removed. The result is that to some degree, the game balances itself to the level of your group. Winning with no events in the deck is tough. And a deck padded with 10 beneficial events (which are not only handy abilities in themselves, but also extend the game clock by their presence) can give a less skilled group much better odds of victory. In addition, there's a special box of assistance to open if you ever lose four games in a row, to further boost your odds.
*A Deeply Satisfying Experience
In one sense, it could be argue that Pandemic Legacy "cheats" its way into satisfaction, by strongly encouraging you to play with the same group of your friends week after week -- a setup that could make many mediocre games enjoyable. But in another sense, a game is as good as your experience of it, and if it is designed to encourage you to have an enjoyable experience, that isn't a cheat but just good design.
Regardless, S1's enjoyment does not rest solely on the good company in which you are likely to play it. By the end of December, you have a board festooned with stickers, diseases sequenced to be easier to cure, some research stations you've made permanent, some fallen cities thanks to that stupid game in March where you drew an Epidemic on the first turn, a super-powered character with two bonus abilities, some characters with scars from getting stuck in Outbreaks, city cards upgraded with various special abilities, a player aid with twice again as many action options as you had in January, a pile of torn-up cardboard, and most importantly, a shared experience and story of how that all happened.
*Requires a good, dedicated group
While I suppose technically you could play this with a rotating cast, it's clearly designed to be played by one group over the full run -- not only to enjoy the campaign arc, but also because rules and objectives and abilities are drip-fed into the game month by month, so joining for a random game in November would require... a lot of rules explanation frontloading. This also means that if one of your four players has a busy schedule, your campaign can stall.
Because you'll be playing a campaign, a good group is even more important than usual. Whatever annoyances you have with your group are going to be magnified over more than a dozen games, whether it's an Alpha Player trying to make all the decisions or someone on their cellphone who never pays attention.
*Only good for one playthrough
The game itself, certainly, is expended after one playthrough, thanks to shredded cards, used stickers, etc. As for the players, while you again technically could play through a second Season 1, a lot of the charm and all the surprise would be removed from the game since you know what happens later. You'd also have an unfair advantage of foreknowledge and be hard-pressed to avoid ruining it for other players.
Still, while this makes Pandemic: Legacy a sub-optimal choice for those who only own one or two boardgames and need something evergreen, for many boardgamers with collections in the double and triple digits the fact that the game will be played 20 times or so is not so much a limitation below most games, but a guarantee above most games.
*Negative spiraling is possible
Due to the Legacy nature of the game, your mistakes can haunt you for the whole campaign. So if, hypothetically speaking, you have a terrible game in March where three cities become Collapsing and two of your characters get their third scar, those two characters (and any upgrades you put into them) are torn up and lost for the remainder of your campaign, and those three cities will be much more difficult to enter for the rest of the whole campaign. This, as you might suspect, will put you at a severe disadvantage since the game is balanced for players not suffering that, which means you'll probably take more extra damage, &c, &c.
That being said, there's at least some mitigation as mentioned under good points.
I honestly did not expect to enjoy Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 nearly as much as I did. But the fact that someone who would describe Pandemic as merely "fine" would love S1 is a testament to the Legacy game's design. I'm perhaps biased due to my RPG background, but this really pushed my buttons with a campaign that let me play out my part in a larger story. I got to help save the world with a plucky team of specialists, fighting through a series of challenges and obstacles just like a playable movie. On the more mechanical RPG side, I also got to see tangible progress as we pasted upgrades onto the board and character sheets. New rules every month kept the game fresh, and I began looking forward to our Tuesday night Pandemic night more than my regular Sunday game night. Finally finishing Season 1 was one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I've had in years, and while I don't think I'll ever play S1 again, I'm very glad to have gotten to play through it once... and next week we start S2.
IS IT FOR YOU?
If you dislike the very co-op nature of Pandemic, S1 won't change your mind. And if you don't think you can get a good group (even 2 people is a group!) together to play it, you probably won't enjoy it as much.
But if you *can* get a regular group to play it with, even if you're only lukewarm on basic Pandemic, the Legacy Season 1 is a captivating experience that combines the best features of tabletop RPG campaigns with a cromulent modern boardgame, adjusting difficulty to your team's skills while rewarding you with permanent upgrades, and consantly offering up a buffet of twists, turns, and rule changes that combine into a beautiful little story that's certainly worth experiencing.