Pandemic Legacy: Campaign Report

Last November, I mentioned a Pandemic Legacy campaign I was participating in. We finished back in January. I want to say a few more words about how that went before the release of Pandemic Legacy Season 2, expected sometime soon. There will be spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, just take my word for it that it’s an amazing game and well worth playing.

One of the first things you do in Pandemic Legacy is give names to your characters. Vanilla Pandemic doesn’t have this step; it doesn’t have characters, really, just jobs, each with their own special power: the Medic’s efficiency at treating infections, the Dispatcher’s ability to move other player’s pawns, and so on. If you play two games of Pandemic using the Researcher role, there’s no particular reason, apart perhaps from the art on the card, to think of the Researcher as the same person in both games. Whereas Pandemic Legacy demands it. This is an ongoing story that persists from session to session, with continuity at the mechanical level, and your team of disease-fighters are the characters in that story. But it’s with the act of naming the characters that the game communicates: This is your story.

And that was enough to get us to spontaneously invent extraneous details. The Dispatcher’s portrait, declares one player, makes him look like a K-pop idol — and so that’s what he was, before he gave up his career to fight diseases. His stage name is LUSH, and that’s the only name we know him by. It’s easy to imagine the scene: conservatively-dressed WHO officers waiting for him backstage at a concert. “The world needs you,” they tell him. “You have this incredible ability to get people moving.” In addition, he’s secret boyfriends with the medic, Lt. Jeremy. In February — recall that the campaign is divided into months — the game introduces a “relationship” mechanic, which is no surprise, as the character cards have a space specifically reserved for relationship stickers. LUSH and Jeremy don’t get a relationship that’s acknowledged in this sense, but our story is flexible enough to accommodate that: clearly it’s because it’s a secret relationship.

Still, the game has its own story, too, told through the Legacy deck, which has some variability through player decisions or random factors, but which is pre-established in all but the particulars, and told mainly through rule changes. Halfway through the very first session, one of the diseases mutates and becomes incurable. This disease is named “COdA”. (The other diseases, you get to name yourself. This provided some amusement, but didn’t inspire as much fabulation as the character names.) In a way, having an uncurable disease makes things easier, because if you can’t cure it, you don’t have to. You have three diseases to cure instead of four. However, COdA gets more troublesome and dangerous as the game advances, and the problems of managing it and limiting its spread become the focus of your efforts.

Probably the single moment that has the most effect on a campaign is the determination of which disease mutates into COdA. This is semi-randomized: COdA is whatever disease has the greatest presence on the board when the mutation occurs. In our campaign, it was the blue disease, which is native to North America and Western Europe. Your default starting location is Atlanta, home of the CDC, right in the heart of blue territory. Fortunately, once you’ve established a permanent research station somewhere else (where “permanent” means “persisting between sessions”), you can start there instead. Karachi was our home base for most of the campaign, and the First World was largely left to rot once we managed to wall it off with permanent roadblocks, including a dense wall down the middle of Europe that we nicknamed the “iron curtain”. By the end, New York and Chicago had been completely destroyed. Miami, which is far enough south to be yellow rather than blue, stayed miraculously untouched for most of the campaign, even though COdA spread to South America early on. It became a point of pride for us to keep Miami pristine, a shining beacon of hope in a ravaged landscape. That it did finally receive some damage toward the very end of the campaign was a source of some frustration for us.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the evolution of COdA ends up where it does, but I found it disappointing nonetheless. I refer to its ultimate mutation into the zombie virus. Oh, sure, they’re not zombie zombies. The “Faded”, as they’re called, are living people with a disease, and the in-game text describes them as developing transparent skin and musculature, like a living anatomical model. That’s clever and thematic, at least, but it’s not fooling anyone. They’re obviously zombies, and Faded presence in a city is represented by little plastic zombie figurines instead of the abstract colored cubes of other infections. Partly I find this disappointing because it’s an unwelcome intrusion of gaming cliché into a hitherto fairly original milieu. Partly because it adds an element of violence to what had previously been entirely about cooperating to save lives. And that’s violence in both directions. Faded attack you if you stay in a city with them. And since the Faded figurines aren’t infection cubes, you can’t remove them with the “treat infection” action, but instead, shortly after the Faded are introduced, you get a new character, the Colonel, who has the power to remove Faded figures. The one thing I like about this is that it doesn’t go into detail about how he does this. It doesn’t need to. This is storytelling through game mechanics. It’s probably worth mentioning that the player on my team who was most eager to play the Colonel was the one who had previously mostly played the Medic. Opposites, yes, but both geared towards clearing things off the board.

Once you’ve got a zombie plague in a game, the obvious place for the plot to go next is the revelation that it was deliberately engineered. In fact, this is such an obvious development that we had already worked it into our personal side-storytelling before the zombies even appeared. In our first session, we used the Scientist character, Dr. Pang, whose special power is that she uses one fewer card than normal to find cures. We didn’t use her for several sessions after that, though — you get to choose whatever characters you want at the start of each session, and we had more pressing needs. Our joke explanation for her absence that she was secretly an agent of the organization that engineered COdA. She had infiltrated our group in order to oversee its successful deployment, and once that was done, she had no reason to stick around. We started using her again about halfway through the year, because we had given one of the four diseases enough beneficial mutations that it could be cured with four cards instead of five — which meant that Dr. Pang could cure it with a mere three, a very significant improvement. Since this coincided with the Faded appearing, our in-fiction explanation was that she only then understood the extent of what her secret masters had been planning, and came back to us to atone for her crimes.

At any rate, the upshot is that when we got to the point in the game’s story where the truth comes out about COdA’s origins, it wasn’t as impressive as it was probably supposed to be. Some of my teammates were amazed that our prediction had come true, but like I said, I thought it was a fairly obvious direction for the story to go. There’s something of a text dump on the cards that reveal it all. The villains are apparently a secretive group within the military called “Zodiac”, with members taking on various zodiac signs as aliases. But these details are so inconsequential to the game that by the time we reached the second mention of Zodiac, several sessions later, I had forgotten who they were. If you want me to remember something, make a rule about it! The one mechanical effect of the Zodiac revelation was that one of your characters is suddenly killed, and can’t be used in future sessions. In our case, it was Dr. Nikki, the Quarantine Specialist. Not the best person to lose, but it could have been worse.

Much of the second half of the campaign revolves around a “search” mechanic. Basically, once you’ve got zombies, COdA stops getting worse, but the players still keep getting upgrades and other incremental benefits. So they throw in searches as a new way to keep you distracted and short on resources. And here, an interesting thing happened: the Soldier, who we had originally ignored as useless, gradually became our MVP. The Soldier has two powers: he can’t be hurt by zombies, and he can pick up Equipment cards from the discard pile as an action. He also has one significant disadvantage: he can’t discover a cure. This is a pretty big disadvantage — you mainly cure diseases with whoever’s lucky enough to draw the right cards, so playing with the Soldier means losing about 1/4 of your cure opportunities. The thing is, Equipment cards are just cards that have had an Equipment sticker stuck on them over the course of the campaign. Usually this is done as an action; when you’re at a Research Center or Military Base, and have an action to spare, you can “equip” an unused equipment sticker by attaching it permanently to a card in your hand, which then counts as both a piece of equipment and as what it was before. When the Soldier first becomes available for use, there simply isn’t a whole lot of equipment in the deck yet. By the end of the campaign, though, there’s a lot. And that means there tends to be a lot of whatever cards are needed to conduct a search sitting in the discard pile with equipment stickers on them.

The game ends very pleasingly: after spending so many sessions struggling to contain COdA, you finally get the means to eradicate it. It’s a more involved process than finding cures for the other diseases, involving picking up limited quantities of vaccine from vaccine factories, but once you’ve vaccinated a city, COdA is gone from there for good. That’s more than you can do for the other diseases; even if you eradicate a non-CoDA disease in one session, it comes back in the next. Being able to make permanent improvements for the better is no small thing in a game that’s generally about things getting worse and worse.

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.