Tuesday, November 12

Gamer’s Guidebook: Board game removes consistency, changes with player input


Games have always been a huge part of the entertainment industry, but what makes them entertaining? Game makers expend significant effort making design decisions people often don’t think about when they’re playing each game. Each week, columnist Evan Charfauros will examine the pros and cons of different game mechanics as seen in the modern gaming industry.

Crowds riot in Europe, an insanity-inducing contagion ravages South America and a deadly disease known as Hérrpè Z threatens Asia.

Such is the current state of the world in my play through of “Pandemic Legacy: Season 1.” With the release of “Pandemic Legacy: Season 2” last year, I decided to gather a group of friends to experience the board game’s influential predecessor, which revolutionized tabletop gaming in 2015 by popularizing the Legacy format.

In most board games, players take for granted that the board automatically resets at the beginning of a new game. A Legacy board game does away with the consistency convention and instead records the circumstances and decision-making of each play through, permanently changing the game based on player input – sometimes requiring writing on the game board or ripping up cards. The genre, in which rewards and consequences for previous actions reverberate indefinitely, makes for an unprecedented level of emotional commitment in board games.

Pandemic Legacy starts off as a slightly modified version of the original Pandemic – players work together to find cures for four deadly contagions before society collapses. However, it quickly progresses into an intricate, customized strategy game that eclipses the original. The game contains 12 sequential scenarios each denoted by a different month, and each month introduces new mechanics. Starting in February, players can quarantine cities, but roadblocks don’t arrive until May. The rulebook is actually missing whole pages of information at the beginning which gradually fill in as players are instructed to retrieve stickers hidden in the game box and place them on the cards, board and rules.

The game’s customization options are simple but endearing, and lead to a surprising level of emotional attachment to the game. Though regular Pandemic features generic characters with special abilities, like the medic’s enhanced healing power or the researcher’s capability to easily share cards from her hand, Pandemic Legacy has players write names for the characters and equip them with upgraded abilities between games. After several rounds, my playgroup had developed backstories for many of our characters.

One friend named a character Janice and vocalized her disappointment and suspicion towards Janice multiple times during our January play through. It quickly became part of our game’s lore that Janice had achieved her high-ranking position through a combination of luck and nepotism rather than hard work, and that she behaved rudely and condescendingly toward other characters. Janice’s ability allows her to take an extra action each turn, and whenever that quirk managed to save the day it would be accompanied by exaggerated complaints from around the table.

We also got to name the diseases threatening the world as we eradicated them for the first time, hence the aforementioned Hérrpè Z. One of the other players remarked to me that she hadn’t been able to sleep between play sessions because she kept thinking about what to name the diseases.

She ended up naming one “Peppercorn Smash,” while we referred to our third and final named disease by a gutteral throat noise that roughly transcribes to “Bleugh.”

Despite my group’s lighthearted customizations, the gameplay poses a tense, engaging challenge. Every win seems like a narrow victory as the player deck dwindles away or disease breakouts chain together. Twists introduced in later months threaten to topple the strategic foundations we built early on, and dangerous circumstances can permanently inhibit or even kill our beloved characters by means of a shredded profile card. Our Operations Expert, “Mobile” Jack, received the first scar of our campaign, handicapping his ability to cure diseases. A staple of our team for three months, his misfortune caused audible gasps.

Most significant of all, mistakes from earlier games can come back to haunt players later on. Our group accidentally allowed riots to break out in Europe in January, and much later in May those same riots, still marked on the board, cost us a victory. In one game, we briefly considered sabotaging the round because, though it was possible to win, the required actions would cause irreparable damage to several cities on the board.

Nine weeks ago, I criticized the original Pandemic for being too achievable by a single player. While a leading player can still dominate the decision-making of Pandemic Legacy, the constant introduction of new rules makes each new play through a learning experience for everyone, including the veterans who would overshadow everyone else in the original.

It’s no surprise the extraordinary game launched the Legacy format to such popularity, creating a level of emotional and strategic depth hard-pressed to find in other genres. Though we’re not done with our current campaign, my playgroup already knows we’re going to head straight to Season 2 once we finish December.

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