reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

Z-Man Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 45 minutes; $69.99


NOTE:   A familiarity with Pandemic is assumed in this review. 

The threat of horrifying diseases for which we have no known treatment ravaging the Earth remains an all-too-real possibility. Indeed, the recent outbreak of Ebola raised public consciousness of this possibility.  Numerous such outbreaks have occurred in the past, with the most deadliest in the 20th century being the Spanish Flu epidemic, which infected an estimated 40% of the world’s population in the wake of World War I. The deadliest pandemiclegboxplague in human history was the infamous “Black Death”, which is estimated to have killed 75 million people in 1347 – 1351.  The thought of the devastation such a disease could cause in today’s world with the ease of global travel is sobering.

This scary possibility is the theme of Matt Leacock’s addicting boardgame Pandemic, which was originally released in 2008.  Four diseases are spreading rapidly across the globe, and players must cooperate in treating these diseases and finding cures before the world succumbs to their horrors.  Pandemic is always a tense, exciting affair wherein doom is persistently knocking—and sometimes pounding—on the door.  The game has been a massive success and has found its way into mainstream stores such as Target and Barnes & Noble.  Of course, numerous expansions have been spawned, so the game continues to remain fresh.

The latest in the series is a standalone collaboration between Leacock and long-time Hasbro designer Rob Daviau. Daviau has brought the concepts he pioneered in Risk: Legacy to the Pandemic world.  Legacy’s unique concept transforms the Pandemic system (as it did Risk) into a series of games wherein situations change and progress (or deteriorate) from game-to-game.  It is a continuous series that introduces new characters and challenges, and even forces players to destroy cards, place stickers onto the board and otherwise physically alter the board and components that would normally cause gamers to panic and revolt, as once all scenarios are played, the game is no longer playable. My advice is to overcome this aversion to defacing the game’s board and components, as the result is an unfolding story that is incredibly exciting, tense, nerve-wracking and addicting.

Pandemic: Legacy closely mirrors the systems and mechanisms of its progenitor. The game begins with four diseases infecting various areas of the world.  Players represent various specialists, each with their own ability or power, all of which are helpful in combating the threatening diseases. Players will take actions racing across the board, treating diseases, and assembling the necessary resources (cards) to eventually cure and perhaps eradicate them.  This requires assembling five cards of the same color, which is not necessarily easy as cards can normally only be passed between players if they both occupy the same city depicted on the card they wish to exchange.  The ultimate objective is to cure all four diseases before too many outbreaks occur or too much time passes. 

All of this initially remains the same in Legacy.  However, matters quickly change, both during and after a game. A deck of Legacy cards prompt new additions and alterations to the game, forcing players to open dossier doors and packages, thereby introducing new rules, components, characters and other items to the ongoing situation. The cards in the deck are arranged in a specific order that must be followed (no shuffling!), which causes the series to unfold in a pre-determined order. However, this isn’t necessarily a Calvinistic pre-destination affair, as player accomplishments or failures can result in different results and paths.

Another difference from the original game is the introduction of “Panic Levels” in the cities. As outbreaks occur, the panic level of a city increases.  This will eventually cause the destruction of research stations located there as the panicked population riots.  Further, it will also make it more difficult for players to enter these cities as law and order has completely broken down.  These panic levels do not improve from game-to-game, so a major goal is to prevent cities from rioting and the situation from escalating.

Each game players receive increased or decreased funding based on how they performed in the just completed game.  Success results in less funding as the powers-that-be assume the team has the situation under control.  Failure results in more funding lest the situation deteriorates.  Funding is represented by cards inserted into the player deck.  These cards give the players additional abilities and powers.  Players choose which cards to use each game, based, of course, on their current funding level.

Since Legacy is an ongoing series, characters can and will be affected.  Being present in a city when it outbreaks causes a scar, which handicaps that character for the duration.  Too many scars and the character is lost.  However, characters can improve as the games progress, and new characters are introduced, each with their own abilities that can assist in the overall task.  Before each game, players choose the characters to form their team, a process reminiscent of Jim Phelps’ selection process in the old Mission: Impossible television series.  This can often be a nerve-wracking process, as all characters add important abilities, so choosing the final four is usually extremely tough.

The game is played over the course of 12 game months, but that would be a perfect scenario in which players triumphed in every game.  That is highly improbable, as the diseases often outbreak at alarming levels, overwhelming the players and the globe.  Players are given two opportunities each month to triumph, after which they move on to the next month regardless of their success or failure.  Each game can take from 30 minutes to an hour or so, so completely finishing all 12 months is a multi-day affair.  This presents one of the game’s challenges:  assembling the same group of players who can be gathered for each session.  This is the ideal situation, as attempting to insert different players while the series is in progress will lose some of the developing group cohesion and dynamics.

As with Pandemic, there is a considerable “luck-of-the-draw” element, as infection cards can often appear in quick succession and in clusters, thereby causing multiple chain-reaction outbreaks.  Sometimes players simply have no chance at success, despite their best efforts.  Even when this occurs, however, the game always evokes the “what if” reaction as players debate the different courses of actions they could have taken to have prevented such a catastrophic outcome.

The brilliance of the Legacy system is the evolving story it creates.  It is akin to watching a riveting television or cinematic mini-series, or reading a series of on-going novels.  The story doesn’t end or wrap-up nicely at the conclusion of the first installment.  Rather, it continues to develop and evolve … or devolve.  Situations change, forcing players to rethink their strategies and formulate new plans of action.  Players quickly get immersed in the story and it becomes personal and real.  Players become invested; they care.  This is brilliance.

Pandemic: Legacy is an amazing game system that will grab hold of the players and won’t let go.  It is addicting, but in a good sort of way.  The marriage between Matt Leacock’s excellent Pandemic and Rob Daviau’s pioneering Legacy system is a perfect union, one that is certain to be celebrated and revered by gamers around the globe.  Indeed, in just a few short months, the game has risen to gaming’s recognized pinnacle, achieving Top Game status on the BoardGameGeek website.  That is rarified air, and a perch from which the game is unlikely to be ousted any time soon.  It is a testament to the game’s universal acceptance and greatness. – Greg J. Schloesser

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