Pandemic Legacy: Season 2
Teaching Time: 30 mins
Playing Time: 60 mins
Setup Time: 20 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Given that Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 dominated the Board Game Geek rankings for quite some time and remains at the number 2 spot, it is significant that its more recent sibling Season 2 is at the time of writing at the number 31 spot. Now, cracking the top one hundred at BGG is a big deal and nothing to be sniffed at, but after its first season the second season of Pandemic Legacy was surely a lock for top ten status, so what, to a certain given definition of wrong, went wrong?
Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 owes more in its basic gameplay to later Pandemic spin offs such as Iberia or Rising Tide. In Season 2, rather than racing around the board to remove and fight back diseases as they spread players have to place resources representing medicine supplies that will be removed when the disease strikes, if no resources remain the disease itself is largely incurable. Additionally Season 2 is set in an apocalypse caused by your apparent failure in Season 1 where players must investigate a lost grid of cities and lands for clues to the final curing of the disease while trying to fight it off.
Two of the possible reasons for the game being less successful are contained in that description. Firstly, players fell in love with Season 1, to find that they wouldn’t be able to continue on directly in Season 2 was for some a bitter pill. Due to the massive range of game states available at the end of Season 1 a direct continuation was always going to be impossible, but not allowing players to keep the characters or even the general story line was a pity. At the end of Season 1 our gaming group had left the world in a pretty fine state, we scored the top possible result such that everything had been sorted out, to be told that we had failed and that the world had collapsed into chaos was disappointing. It felt a little like being told that the great romance of your life never happened, by the very person you fell in love with.
The second of those possible reasons is that while Legacy: Season 1 is at the start of the campaign a full set of basic Pandemic, Season 2 is essentially only a partial game when the campaign begins. Although it is entirely playable at set-up and possibly comparable to the other spin off versions (Iberia ranks a very impressive 85 on BGG) it feels like it’s a part made game when the box opens up. Aside from the fact that this undermines the set’s replay value its bigger issue is that it can make it feel like you’re not playing the game the way it was meant to be played until three or four games in, or far worse it can feel like you never get to play the game as it was intended. To put it another way, when you open Season 1 you get a game that is essentially basic Pandemic, the game that Z-Man chose to put on the shelf and sell. When you open Season 2 you get an unformed version of a game and you can never be totally sure which month would be the version that would be sold if it was not a legacy game, the version that is how the game is 'meant' to be. That slightly off kilter feeling never totally settles throughout the campaign. Many people I talk to who are against Legacy games are against them due to a slightly OCD tendency to worry that once they’ve written on their game or torn up a card it will never again be the way it was intended, never be factory fresh. The issue here is that with Season 2 the sense is that the game is both never quite the way its meant to be, nor factory fresh.
The third reason that Season 2 is less successful leans towards one of the things I try to avoid in my Legacy reviews in that it refers to the post game-one direction of the game. I won’t spoiler anything, suffice to say that Season 2 lacks the unique end campaign feeling that Season 1 had. In my play of Season 1 Ho Chi Minh assumed a legendary status that I can be pretty certain is totally absent from every single other Season 1 set. With Season 2 I can be pretty certain that all of the major story beats and moments are shared with most other Season 2 sets. While in Season 2 some players will miss minor story beats that others get, the central thrust is far less emergent and so feels significantly less unique and personal.
I will try to standardize my Legacy reviews by using several categories: Legacy Presentation, how does it physically present its Legacy aspects during the game; Legacy access, what level of elements can players reasonably expect to unlock through play and what will be lost; Life length, specifically re-play value before, after and during the campaign mode; Advancement satisfaction, whether the upgrades given to players during campaign mode come at a rate that feels worthwhile; Rules Progression, whether added rules slot in naturally or come and go at such a rate that players never manage to settle into play; Group consistency, how necessary it is to keep the same gaming group from game start to end and Storyline, Legacy games generally present an overarching story which can be successful or not.
Legacy Presentation: Season 2 uses exactly the same Legacy presentation as Season 1, a set of boxes, peel off stickers and sticker windows driven by a Legacy deck including scratch off foil cards. Its pretty much the system used in Betrayal: Legacy and to a greater or lesser degree in Seafall. The presentation is excellent but the sense of value is average at best and there is a real feeling like this is the standardized Legacy format now rather than something truly innovative.
Legacy Access: It feels like a real effort has been made to ensure that the content offered to groups from the most dull witted to the most skilled is more levelled here than in previous games and everyone will unlock all of the boxes and the bigger peel out windows. There are still twelve reward scratch off cards that most players will miss some of. The bigger loss is that the game has a certain re-exploration element to it and the game often forces you to choose between this and winning. As such there will almost certainly be areas not investigated, some with peel out windows attached and so not opened. This is a real pity because investigating those areas are where the game has its strongest moments of individuality and emergent story telling, so there is a real sense of regret to seeing some of them stay closed at the end of the campaign. Since this element is both where the fun and individuality of a given set lies its a genuine issue how much of it will remain locked.
Life Length: In this area Season 2 is one of the worst Legacy games available. It’s initial set is a less than satisfying game, setting it behind Season 1 and its final set is not intended for ongoing play, putting it behind Charterstone or Risk: Legacy. Furthermore, the set cannot be easily re-set to play its initial game state, unlike Season 1. As with Season 1 it has between 12 and 24 games, usually 15-18 games actually being played.
Advancement Satisfaction: Advancement is based on progress within the game, giving an almost constant sense that you might not have advanced as well as you possibly could have and making even highly successful games slightly unsatisfying. While rewarding better play is a satisfying idea, the fact that the rewards are given by achieving goals not exactly connected to direct victory and that they come with their own inherent drains, means that there’s not a direct sense of reward so much as an leveling out against an oncoming problem. As such advancement here is not strongly satisfying.
Rules Progression: The starting set of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 never feels like a totally settled game, as such through out the campaign there is a constant sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The rules never quite feel like a connected together whole the way they do at the end of Season 1 where at the end of the season there is a strong sense that you could play a second year right off the first. Rather the final set of Season 2 feels cobbled together, as though if there were one or two games in the campaign the whole thing would just fall apart. Many of the extra rules end up feeling thrown in and slightly left field problems rather than progressions of where players started from.
Group Consistency: Since Pandemic is co-op players can drop in and out at any time, because individuals are not building up their side more than any other there’s no attachment between human player and side. In fact players are encouraged to switch characters from month to month as one character’s special abilities will better fit the challenges presented. There is a little more attachment to the scratch built characters of Season 2 than the largely pre-fabricated ones of Season 1 but still players can come and go freely between sessions.
Storyline: Depending on your perspective this is probably the strongest part of Season 2. From my perspective sadly, it’s the weakest part. Season 2 has a certain set story to tell, and it will tell it, whatever player’s efforts, by the beats, in the places and order that it intends. It’s a good story and its well told, but it never feels like my story, its Pandemic Legacy: Season 2’s story, or Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau’s story. While I respect their right to tell it, the feel is that they’re telling it to me, rather than sharing it with me. If you found Season 1 too loose and wished you’d had more guidance to its story, and I know some people did, Season 2 is probably made for you. If you have a tendency to go left when told to go right and are more proud of a city that never got infected in the heart of your red-zone than interested in the answer to the conspiracy, then Season 2 might not delight you as much as you’d wish.
In conclusion, my biggest wish is that there had been some form of ongoing system for Season 2, I wanted to open those last peel out doors and search those last few cities. There is no inherent reason that players could not be given an ongoing free play mode of re-building the world outside of story mode other than that Pandemic Legacy lasts for 12 months and is driven by a Legacy deck. It would have allowed access to that additional content and solved the game’s very poor life length issue. As for the slightly on-rails story mode I don’t really understand why it was written the way it was. Every player of Season 1 I’ve spoken to has been excited to tell stories of their game, but not one of those stories has been about the pre-set stories of the Legacy deck, so building Season 2 to be more about the pre-set story and less about the building of unique sets was a strange choice to say the least. Still, Season 2 has a solid and well told story, whether it’s the best way of telling such a story and whether it satisfies in the telling is ultimately a question of personal preference. That aside it has significant flaws over Season 1 and may disappoint those who simply want a second Season of their favourite show. Expect less of an overarching series arc and more of a guided anthology.