Saturday 25 June 2016

Pandemic: Legacy

Plays: 4P x 17.

I need to use a different format to write about Pandemic: Legacy, because there will be spoilers, and I don't want to spoil the game for those who have not yet played it, or have not yet completed it. I will split my post into two halves. The first half will describe the game to those who have not played it and include what I think about it. In the second half I will share my story with those who have also completed the game. If you have not finished the game, I recommend skipping the second half.

Part 1

The Game

Let's start with talking about the original Pandemic, a cooperative game first released in 2008. At the time there weren't many cooperative games, and it was well received. The idea is that four diseases are rampaging around the world, and the players need to work together to treat the sick, to prevent outbreaks, and ultimately to find cures to all four diseases. Pandemic: Legacy is based on the same premise, with the addition of the Legacy concept and story. The Legacy concept first appeared in Risk: Legacy (2011), the idea being that each time you play, the game board, the game components and the game rules may change, and these changes are permanent. You play an evolving game. Your decisions, or events that occur in the game, have permanent effects which apply to all future games you play. You discover the story bit by bit.

When you open up Pandemic: Legacy, one of the first things you'll see is a stack of large cardboards with many little windows. These are your top secret documents. You only open specific windows when explicitly instructed to do so. There is a thick deck of Legacy cards which drive the game. There are 8 sealed boxes which contain additional game components. Pandemic: Legacy is a long campaign to be played over 12 in-game months. You play at most two games per month. Whenever you win a game, you proceed to the next month the next time you play. If you lose both attempts at a particular month, next time you proceed to the next month. Each month there are new Legacy cards you have to read. They are the next installment of the story, and they introduce new rules and new components. If you win every single time, you'll be playing 12 times. If you really suck, you'll get to play 24 times. After you complete December, you won't be able to play again, since the story has ended, and the gameboard and game rules will have changed to a point that it won't be balanced to try to continue from there. You can still play the basic Pandemic game, ignoring whatever changes you've made throughout the campaign, but I think having gone through the Legacy experience, the basic game will feel bland.

You can play basic Pandemic using the Legacy version. I did this with my children before I played the Legacy rules.

The artwork and components have changed. My copy of Pandemic is the very old first edition. Compared to that version, the new components are much smaller and less obstructive. It's easier to read city names on the board. I'm not sure how they compare with the newer versions of Pandemic though.

Those boxes in the lower right are the objective boxes. Unlike basic Pandemic, you will have multiple objectives. You need to complete a certain number of objectives to win the game, depending on which month you are playing. Finding cures is just one of them. Sometimes you may have more objective cards than the number required to win. Then you can choose which ones to do. You can pick your characters and the government funding cards (event cards) to support your strategy.

Your HQ is still the CDC in Atlanta, but this may change as you play. You may choose to build new permanent research labs. In future games, the cities with such permanent research labs will get a lab at the start, you can you choose such a lab to be your starting location.

In this photo Hong Kong has a white house-shaped sticker next to it. This is your permanent research lab.

Those stickers with numbers (1's in white circles, 2's in yellow explosions) indicate cities which have had outbreaks. Upon each outbreak, the panic level increases, and you paste a sticker next to the city. This is permanent. In future months the city starts with this panic level. At Level 1, there is no impact. From Level 2 onwards, the people start rioting. Any research lab is destroyed and you can't build any new one. The airport is closed so you can't take a direct flight in or a chartered flight out. You have to get in or out by land, from or to a neighbouring city. At Levels 4 and 5, the situation gets so bad that to get in, you need to discard cards of the same colour as the city. Due to this escalating panic level where there is no turning back, you need to be extra careful with outbreaks. It is quite scary. Every game you play will be tougher than before because the panic level can only worsen. However, to balance things out, at the end of every game, regardless of win or lose, you get to pick two upgrades which will help you in all future games. Upgrades include additional abilities for characters, breakthroughs which make diseases easier to cure, new permanent buildings on the board and additional powers for player cards.

On the character card on the left, the white stickers are relationship stickers. You can establish such relationships between characters, e.g. they become colleagues, family members or even rivals. Such relationships give additional abilities to both characters involved. This is another area to make use of.

Outbreaks increase the panic level of a city. They also harm characters who are on site, leaving scars. Scars are disabilities which reduce the efficiency of the characters permanently. The character cards only have spaces for two scars. If you need to take a third scar, your character dies. You are supposed to tear up the character card, so that you will never be able to use that character again in future games. The friends who played with me tended to stick to the same characters, while I preferred to experiment with different characters. I usually check the objectives of the current game and the board situation, and agree on a general strategy with my teammates, before picking my character. My friends were much more attached to their characters than me. We had a big shock in one game when Ruby's character Kawasaki died due to getting a third scar. He died in Lagos, and we were truly pained to lose him. After he died, whenever we passed by Lagos we would say we were visiting his grave. Whenever we were lucky with our card draws, we said he was watching over us from above. Whenever we ran into a situation where his abilities would have been handy, we were reminded how much we missed our fallen comrade.

As the in-game months went by, more and more rules and new gameplay elements were added. Individually none of them were complex, but as these additions piled up, there were quite many details to remember. We often had to remind one another.

I played all my 17 games with the same bunch of friends. Throughout our games we established our quirks and in-jokes. One of these was how we renamed some of the cities (e.g. due to misreading when it's upside down). Montreal became Monorail. St Petersburg became Sri Petaling, a suburb near our office. Essen became Eason (the Hong Kong singer). Sometimes when a player took a wrong route, taking a longer way than necessary and thus wasting actions, the others would start teasing him about his malfunctioning Waze (navigation system). This happened the most with Xiao Zhu, and I was the one who nagged him the most for poor navigation.

The Thoughts

If I consider Pandemic: Legacy from a traditional, game mechanism angle, I don't find it particularly clever or awe-inspiring. It works well enough, but it doesn't give me that masterpiece wow factor feeling. However if I am to measure how good the design is by how much fun I had with it, then this is a top grade design. Pandemic: Legacy is a truly memorable game. It doesn't just tell you a story, it makes you live the story. You are part of that story, and you are doing your best to give it a happy ending. Playing this long campaign is like following a good TV series. You keep looking forward to what is in store for you next.

This is a play-once game. You do get to play multiple games, but once you complete the campaign, you are done with the game. This is much like TIME Stories and Tragedy Looper. You can't unknow what you already know. This is not a problem, just a statement. I got 17 plays out of the game, so I say it was well worth it.

This game should be played with the same group of friends from beginning to end, January to December. Rules are added from time to time, so if someone joins halfway, it can be a pain for him to catch up. More importantly, this game is all about a shared experience. It is much more meaningful if everyone goes through the whole story together. You share all the surprises, the pains, the glory, the elation, and all sorts of emotions. You build a strong comradeship. If you keep swapping players from one game to the next, much of the pleasure of a shared experience will be lost. I was lucky to have a group of loyal players. We were five (the game supports at most four). Benz usually played support, helping us with managing some of the game elements and participating in our discussions on strategy. When one of the others couldn't play, he stepped in. We spent two and a half months playing through the campaign. It felt like we had gone on a long trip together. We brought back many shared memories, shared jokes, anecdotes which only we would appreciate, and of course - group photos!

One childish pleasure I get from the game is stickering. There are many stickers in the game. When an outbreak occurs, you need to add a sticker to increase the panic level. All of the upgrades in the game are stickers. New rules come in the form of stickers to be pasted into the rulebook.

The surprises that come with the game are fun. We were always eager to start a new month and see what was going to happen. There were new legacy cards to read, new secret document windows to open, new game components and rules to be introduced.

One advice: take note that the legacy cards will only tell you to open windows on the secret document sheets, and not the sealed boxes. When I played, I accidentally opened a box too early, because it had the same number as a window. That confused us quite a bit until we realised our mistake.

I also made a mistake with the disease research upgrades. They must be upgraded in a particular order. You can't have a level 2 upgrade without the level 1 upgrade. I missed the numbering system and jumped straight to the stronger upgrades. That gave us an unfair advantage. This was offset somewhat later due to a situation which occurred in one particular game. Thankfully the mistakes we made did not unbalance the game too much. We still had great fun. That's what's important.

I heartily recommend Pandemic: Legacy.

Part 2

If you have not played the game, or have not completed the game, I recommend stopping here. Proceed at your own risk. Spoilers ahead!

The Play

I played Pandemic: Legacy with a fixed group - Benz, Ruby, Xiao Zhu and Edwin. I have taught them basic Pandemic before, and they liked it. Pandemic: Legacy supports up to four players. Usually Benz was the one who played support while the rest of us were the official players. Since this is a cooperative game, he could participate and enjoy despite not controlling any character. Sometimes when one of us could not play, he stepped in to play. We played at the office, on Fridays at the end of the day. It had become an unspoken arrangement. We all tried to get our work done quickly so that we could sit down to play. Sometimes other colleagues came to watch us play.

The mutating disease in our game was the black disease. When the first Faded appeared (patients with transparent skin and violent behaviour) and I announced it to my teammates, their first reaction to this name was "you mean they're fat?" We speak Mandarin, and "Faded" sounds like "the fat ones" in Mandarin (肥的). Since then all our encounters with and discussions about the Faded became discussions about the fat ones. Silly fat jokes abounded. "No way I'm not going there I don't want to get fat", "Who says I'm fat?", "You're already fat so you don't need to fear them anymore."

Xiao Zhu's favourite character was Shirley Jones the scientist. She played a very important role in our games because she was almost always the one finding cures. Her ability allowed us to find cures using one card less. We also made upgrades to two of the diseases so that they required one card less. That means for two of the diseases Xiao Zhu only needed three cards to find a cure. He kept calling her the doctor though (because of her white robe), and I kept telling him no she's a scientist dammit.

Ruby's favourite character was Kawasaki, the dispatcher. His ability was very handy too. We used it frequently to allow one player to meet up with another. Sometimes it was to allow them to pass cards. Sometimes it was to simply to help them move about more efficiently. When Kawasaki died in Lagos, my teammates were very tempted to just pretend he hadn't died, so that we could continue using him. However I was quite insistent on following rules and playing according to the spirit of the game. So Kawasaki stayed dead. It was painful, but that was what made the experience so memorable.

I didn't have a favourite character. I played whomever I thought would help the current game the most. I named this character Jon Sanders, because he was a colonel, and I thought it would be funny to have KFC in the game.

Edwin's favourite character was Ellie the generalist. She was the most used character. After Ruby's Kawasaki (the dispatcher) died, she was forced to pick other characters. Xiao Zhu used Shirley the scientist a lot, but he had picked other characters too. Ellie gained some scars quite early in our games, so we gave her an upgrade which prevented her from taking more scars. This meant she became invincible. Since she had entered god mode, the rest of us kept encouraging Edwin to pick her. He was more than happy to oblige. When the Faded crisis erupted, she was often the one expected to go deep into Faded territory, because she was not afraid of getting injured. She could live with the fat ones. Once, she came very close to being lost. When the traitor incident happened, if I hadn't picked the quarantine expert that game, we would have found her to be the traitor. Instead, we lost the quarantine expert. That was painful too, because her power was very handy. She was one of the characters I liked better.

We called these semi-transparent patients the fat ones. Thankfully we managed to seal off the Faded (black) region from the rest of the world using permanent road blocks. We didn't have any Faded outside of the originally black cities.

In this photo you can see that all the black cities have become green Faded cities. We were lucky to have kept Karachi stable. It never reached panic level 2, so our research lab cum airport remained safe. It was our gateway to Faded territory throughout the campaign.

This was the situation at the end of August (in-game August). The cure for the Faded had not yet been found, so we could only control it as best we could using quarantines. Riyadh in the Middle East had fallen - panic level 5. It was a pain to get into fallen cities, so we closed it off using permanent road blocks and completely gave up on it. At least if an outbreak occurred there, the road blocks would prevent the outbreak from spreading out.

When the cure for the Faded appeared, and drug factories and pills came into play, we all exclaimed "How cute!"

When we played, our preference was always to push the story forward as quickly as possible. Whenever a new search mission came up, we put our focus on it. Most of the time we completed the search in the same month it came up. We were keen to see what we would find.

Once the cure for the Faded was found, our games became very smooth. In fact, it felt easy. The pills were produced quickly. We were able to vaccinate the Faded cities quickly. From then on, black cards from the infection deck became a welcome sight. Most Faded cities were vaccinated so most black cards had no effect. Only two of the Faded cities which had fallen took us longer to vaccinate.

We built the drug factories in North America, near our new HQ Mexico City. We had rioting in Atlanta so our original research lab was destroyed and we had to move base. Sometimes when someone forgot and returned to Atlanta, we'd make fun of him and say "the office has moved, we're no longer in Puchong!" We are colleagues and our office in real life used to be in Puchong.

This was the situation in October. Chennai, Riyadh and Delhi had fallen (big red cross). However we were already vaccinating cities (orange stickers with a syringe).

This photo was taken before we started playing December. Eventually we had four fallen cities. The fourth one was Sao Paolo in South America. In this photo you can see only two Faded cities were left unvaccinated, Riyadh and Chennai. In December, all previous objective cards had to be destroyed, to be replaced with two new ones. (1) We had to vaccinate all remaining Faded cities, and (2) we had to hunt for a stash of new viruses hidden in Atlanta. December was very exciting. We decided up front that we would give up on finding cures, since it was not an objective anymore, and it would cost us cards which we needed for the other objectives. We should try to focus on at least getting one objective completed, even if we were going to lose the first game in December. That would help us win at the second attempt, assuming the worst case that we failed the first attempt. We had only two more cities to vaccinate, but it was quite difficult to do due to them being fallen and cordoned off by road blocks. We did manage to do it eventually, and then we were down to one last objective. Time was running out, because there weren't many cards left in the player deck. We forged onward. At one point, we counted the remaining cards in the player deck, and found that we still had one round plus one turn left. There were 9 cards left in the deck. Ruby would take the next turn, and by her following turn, we must complete the objective. Else she would draw the last card, and we would lose. We checked the cards we had in hand, and we did have enough, and in the hands of the right players, to complete the search for the new batch of viruses. However there was one big problem. We still had one Epidemic card in the player deck. Once we drew it, the search target would move to the cold trail position, and our search would fail immediately. That meant we could only win if the 5th Epidemic card happened to be the very last card in the deck. Our hopes sank as we came to this realisation. With heavy hearts we continued to play. Every time we had to draw a player card, it was like waiting for the death sentence. We were very nervous. When we drew a card, we did it quickly and cast it on the board. Every card draw was a nail-biting moment. Card after card was drawn, but the Epidemic card still didn't come. The feelings of both dread and hope intensified. When it was Edwin's turn to draw cards, there were only three left in the deck. Now throughout this game he had had very bad luck. Many of the previous Epidemic cards were drawn by him. We all said to him that he was going to be the one to lose the game for us (what horrible teammates we were!). To our surprise, both the cards he drew were not Epidemic cards! We screamed and we cheered. We laughed and we jumped. It was a 1 in 9 chance! We couldn't believe our luck. After we settled down, I noticed something on the map - we had four yellow cities connected to one another which were all on the verge of outbreaks. Edwin still had to draw infection cards. If any of these four cities got a new infection, it would trigger a chain reaction of outbreaks, and we would exceed the outbreak threshold and lose the game. In the end, Edwin lost us the game afterall. One of his infection card draws was one of those four cities. We had gone from hopelessness to exhilaration and then back to agony. What a rollercoaster ride! It was a spectacular loss.

Sao Paolo was what caused us to lose. It was right in the centre of the four cities on the verge of outbreak. If only it had one disease cube less...

For our second game in December, we only had one objective to complete - finding the stash of new viruses in Atlanta. Again, we ignored finding cures so that we could conserve cards for the search. We managed to find the stash, which brought the campaign to a perfect happy ending.

Feeling very blessed to have a group of friends to share this journey with me - me, Edwin, Benz, Ruby and Xiao Zhu.


Paul Owen said...

Thanks so much for sharing. I read only the first part because I look forward to trying Pandemic Legacy at some point myself. My problem is establishing a regular group. I'd love to play it with my family, but my sons are very difficult to recruit into a boardgame. :-(

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I had intended to play the game with my daughters when I bought it, but they were not very keen, so I decided to play with a group of colleagues who liked the basic Pandemic. Hope you get a regular group together soon and try out this game.