Pandemic Legacy

Before I go back to posting about videogames, I’d like to talk a little about a board game I’ve been playing that has relevance to this blog, because it draws so much from videogame design. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here.

First, the basics: Pandemic is a cooperative board game about disease control. Four diseases have cropped up in different parts of the world, and the players, a team of specialists with different abilities, jet around the globe trying to limit the damage and ultimately find cures. Finding cures is how you win the game, but failing to limit the damage is how you lose it, so the greater part of the strategy is in finding the right balance between these two things. Pandemic Legacy takes Pandemic as its basis, but adds an ongoing campaign mode, where each session has lasting consequences for future sessions. For example, Legacy adds rules about “unrest”: neglecting a problem city can lead to riots, which impede travel. The level of unrest in a city is indicated by a sticker permanently affixed to the board. A player character who’s in a city during an Outbreak can receive “scars” — permanent disabilities that last from game to game — or even be killed, in which case you rip up the character sheet.

The very existence of a campaign mode is something of a videogamism, although it has precedent in tabletop wargames as well. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s this whole very videogamey system of upgrades: after every session, win or lose, you get your choice of two, which can give minor enhancements to a character’s abilities, make a specific disease easier to cure, make a research station you built during that session permanent, or various other effects. Now, the overall structure of the campaign is that it proceeds in a sequence of months, the full campaign representing a year of game-time. If you win a game, you go on to the next month. If you lose, you get one do-over: your next game is the same month, but after that, you go on to the next month regardless of the outcome. Consequently, the more you lose, the more upgrades you get. This is a sort of self-balancing of difficulty that I mostly associate with single-player videogames; it resembles the way that the Ratchet & Clank games, for example, let you keep all the money that you accumulate over repeated failed attempts at a mission. There’s an even more obvious self-balancing in the “funding level”, which determines the number of helpful Event Cards you shuffle into the deck: it increases every time you lose, and decreases every time you win.

The game’s biggest novelty, though, is something that’s fundamental to videogame campaigns, but virtually unseen in board games: it continually introduces new elements that you have no way of anticipating and have to adjust to on the fly. New rules, new characters, new objectives, new actions you can perform. Some make the game easier, some make it harder, but all make it more complex. Their introduction is managed through a special deck of cards, the “Legacy Deck”, which you work your way through over the course of the campaign, each Legacy card stating on its back the conditions under which you draw it. The instructions on the face of the Legacy cards frequently involve opening sealed boxes containing new game tokens, or punching concealed stickers out of a special sheet and pasting them into the rulebook. There’s generally a Legacy card for the beginning of each month, so that you never quite know what the next month is going to bring. Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about uncertainty in games, titled Uncertainty in Games, arguing that it’s an essential feature of games and analyzing the various forms it takes: randomness, analytical complexity, unpredictability of your opponent’s decisions, etc. The Legacy Deck brings uncertainty through hidden information into a portion of the game were it’s usually absent, and even bleeds it into the negative space between the games. For me, at least, the revelation of the next month’s Legacy card is the part that I find myself most anticipating between sessions.

Since this game draws so much from videogame sensibilities, would a videogame adaptation be a good thing? I’ll say this: It does fit my critera for a good asynchronous online multiplayer game pretty well. The turns are longish and self-sufficient, and you don’t get to do a lot of forward planning because it’s hard to predict where the next emergency will be. It even puts the “draw cards” step at the end of your turn rather than the beginning, so that you have something to stew on between your turns. However, being cooperative, it involves coordination between players in a way that works against asynchronous play. Players may need to arrange to meet in a particular city in order to exchange cards, for example. And when they meet, the rules require both players to agree to the exchange, which means out-of-turn confirmations.

Moreover, there’s a charm to the board-game-ness that I think would be lost in any electronic adaptation. As I said about the Solitaire Hangman puzzles in Games Interactive, part of the enjoyment of the game is in the analog component, the exercise of hidden information via player participation in punching out stickers and unpacking boxes. Hidden information in a videogame is facile by comparison, and leaves the player out of the process. Even when you have to click or drag or swipe to reveal something, it doesn’t feel the same.

No Comments

Leave a reply