Pandemic Legacy: Season 2—The world’s “best board game” gets better

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Pandemic Legacy: Season 2—The world’s “best board game” gets better

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

How do you follow the most popular board game ever made?

In a world where three separate versions of Smurfs Monopoly exist, Pandemic Legacy: Season One (PL:S1) isn’t the biggest-selling game of all time—but it has topped the popularity charts at Board Game Geek since it was released. It’s as close to “universally loved” as it’s possible to get in this contrarian world.

But because this is a “legacy” game, with permanent changes made to the board and to characters during play, you can only play 24 times before you arrive at the end of the story—and that’s only if you’re terrible (wins advance you through the story’s “months” more quickly). The game was released more than two years ago now, and the growing legions of board gamers have been baying for more ever since.

Enter Pandemic Legacy: Season Two, the second in an apparent trilogy about the lives and loves of globe-trotting super-medics battling to save the world from a frustratingly incurable disease.

It’s great. Greater, in some ways, than the original (though less good in others). Like all sequels, it suffers somewhat from familiarity, but the innovations it brings to the legacy gaming format provide real moments of genius. This is board gaming as event rather than simple pastime. But before we delve into what makes PL:S2 work, we need to look at its history.

Once upon a time, there was a game called Pandemic, by an American designer called Matt Leacock. It’s a collaborative game that takes no more than an hour and in which two to four players attempt to save the world in the face of four deadly diseases (represented by coloured cubes). The vagaries of fate—and thus the spread of disease across the map—are represented by two decks of utter bastards in card form. It’s a brilliant introduction to the hobby of board gaming, a great way to show eager new gamers that there’s a lot more to life than Uno, and that cooperative games can be just as compelling as any others. Pandemic sold well, as the number of expansions and variations testify.

Not long after Pandemic, another American designer named Rob Daviau went to his then-employer, the toy maker Hasbro—a company that prints, lest ye forget, roughly four million copies of Monopoly every year. Daviau asked the company to let him riff on one of its big, basic board game properties: Risk. Hasbro said yes. Daviau’s great breakthrough was to wonder about continuity between gaming sessions; what would happen if rounds of Risk persisted between one evening and the next, for instance? He wondered why every game simply reset its state after play, and how things would differ if changes were cumulative. In the end, Daviau made his idea work with Risk: Legacy, in which the same group of people played on the same board 15 times—but made small changes each round that persist. At the game’s start, each faction had a choice of two powers, which allowed for minor rule tweaks (the other, unchosen power was literally destroyed—ripped up). From there, every time players won a round, they got to change the board by, say, naming a city or improving a region. As the play count mounted, players would open envelopes matching certain conditions, and these added new rules for everyone. The game sold in modest amounts, but it founded a movement that altered the hobby.

That movement really took off when Daviau and Leacock got in touch and worked on bringing the same “legacy” treatment to Pandemic.

Without giving too much away, PL:S1 absolutely deserves to be considered the best game of all time. Its trick is to take Pandemic’s solid mechanics—a web of 48 interconnected cities which keep getting infected and occasionally burst out in epidemics, spawning ominous plastic cubes that players need to scrub even as they collect cards to research “cures” for each disease. Each player takes on the role of a scientist, a field medic, a dispatcher, or a quarantine specialist, each of whom has a special power. It’s a tight game that rewards careful use of your limited actions and resources. But as Daviau noted, there’s no real jeopardy to it: save the world or not, the slate is wiped clean and you can have another go each time.

Not in PL:S1. With the very first game, players familiar with the original had their breath taken away by a subtle, game-changing difference, a consequence that informs every single other game they will play. As the game developed, there were numerous wonderful (and horrifying) shocks, new rules, new characters, new everything, all of which emerged from eight cardboard boxes and six perforated sheets of cards. It was an intense joy, but as the game went on, the seams did begin to show. Pandemic had been designed to be played once, and the system felt a bit overloaded by new rules introduced to keep the plot zipping along.

There is no such flaw in PL:S2, which has been designed from its very core to produce a tightly-plotted game in which some player groups will be very good—but others not so much. Where the first game could feel like it was being played on rails, with bombshells coming at regular intervals along the way, the second game blossoms in a much more player-driven fashion. It feels fresh throughout, but the approach introduces balance problems. Competent players—those who know the mechanics well—can end up with much more “stuff” than newbies who aren’t playing efficiently enough to unlock all the goodies.

The new game will be at once extremely familiar to veterans of the first campaign—yet different enough to confuse the hell out of you if you start without a few practice rounds (as recommended in the manual).

Season 2 is set 71 years after the first game—which you don’t need to have played, but which you damn well should—in a world ravaged by disease. The first thing that strikes you out of the box is that the board is, well, mostly blank. Instead of Pandemic’s jaunty world map, you can see the east coast of the US, parts of north Africa, the maritime parts of Europe, and three mid-sea “havens” where some lucky souls have sheltered from the chaos. Nothing else exists, not even the outlines of the landmasses; there are simply four little boxes that imply you need to do reconnaissance to see what else is out there. The heady scent of discovery is overpowering, even if you do actually know what the world looks like already.

The next great treat is the artwork. As with the first game, you get a couple of sheets of the stickers that you use to modify the board as you save (or screw) the world, and you can modify your characters through game-end upgrades. But this time you can customise everything about your characters: there are 10 cards with spaces for names, ages, havens of birth, job titles, and mugshots. The mugshots are gloriously post-apocalyptic, with manes of hair and feathers and facepaint. The art in the manual and on the dossiers is similarly evocative. It really is a grim, dying world.

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