Pandemic Legacy: Boardgame as RPG


If you play board games at all, you may have heard of Pandemic Legacy. Based on the co-op game engine from the original Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy offers a new take on board games: the board game as story. (Note: you may find very light spoilers about the game, but nothing substantial is revealed).

The game itself has generated considerable controversy in the hobby game community. It’s one of the new generation of “consumable” games. Once you play through 12-24 times (the number of games depend on how well you’re doing), you’ve completed the game. There’s no point to playing again, unless you want to buy a new copy and start over.

Some board gamers have decried this, suggesting that it’s all just a money grab. In fact, consumable games have existed for years. One example is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which has existed in various versions since the 1980s. Once you finished all the cases, you “knew” the game, and wouldn’t want to play it again. However, unless you wrote notes in the margins of the included booklets, you could pass it on to other players.

The Legacy games amp this up by making permanent modifications to the board, the rule book, and components, which has attracted the wrath of a certain cadre of board gamers. I’m not one of them, however. I’d much prefer to judge a game on its merits: is it good, did I and my fellow players have a good time, and did I get my perceived value from the game?

But I don’t want to debate the merits of consumable board games. I want to talk about the unique way in which Pandemic Legacy tells a story.

The best board games have always enabled players to tell stories, but those stories are often user-generated. Some current generation board games force-fit a story into the game. Good examples of these include dungeon crawlers such as Descente 2.0 and Star Wars: Imperial Assault. While these can be great fun, these games resemble “RPGs on rails”, where you follow a pretty heavily scripted campaign to its climax.

Pandemic Legacy is a little different. It combines the best aspects of a scripted story with the joys of emergent discovery. Unlike dungeon crawler’s, Pandemic Legacy’s story is very lightly scripted, and branches pretty heavily — and those branches are entirely dependent on the players success from game to game. We’re currently eight games into a playthrough, and the world has changed in unpredictable ways. A story of how these diseases spread, retreat, evolve, and come to life again is unfolding in front of us.

And the responses of players in different games to these events will be different, depending on how these events unfold and their success levels. Strategies shift from game to game, heavily biased by the events that unfolded in previous games, and by the secrets revealed to you as you play the game.

And there are characters. The roles from the original Pandemic: researcher, dispatcher, medic, and so on, are in Legacy, but now you give them names. They can pick up special abilities or gain scars along the way. And they can die. The game never says the “die”; characters are “lost” instead. Lost or dead, they’re permanently removed from the game. So permadeath is another element of Pandemic Legacy.

Pandemic Legacy roles are now characters, with relationships and abilities which can change over time.

All of these combine to create a unique board gaming experience that’s a blend of traditional co-op games and light roleplaying games. That’s why Pandemic Legacy is best played with the same group, if you can possibly swing it. As for the arguments about consumable games: I suggest people opposed to the idea give this one a whirl. There’s a reason Pandemic Legacy climbed to the top of the Board Game Geek charts. It’s a excellent game and a wonderful social experience.¬†You’ll tell great stories about the games; what more would you want from a game?


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