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The Legacy of Legacy games

This is probably best described as an opinion piece rather than a specific set of advice, so I apologise if you’re looking for Kickstarter or game design advice, but I’m sure we’ll get back to it next week. For now, I want to express some opinions on what I’ve thought for a while to be one of the most interesting developments in boxed tabletop games in some time, the Legacy format of games.

For those who are unaware, ‘Legacy’ is a catch all category of game genre used to describe games that are in some way permanently altered during campaign play, originating with the release of Risk: Legacy and largely centring on the output of Rob Daviau and coming to prominence when Pandemic Legacy Season 1 claimed the coveted top spot of Board Game Geek’s overall ranking. They feature three general systems:

1) Change by unlocking, where not all of the game’s features are available to players during games when the game is initially opened and instead have to be unlocked during repeated play-throughs of the game.

2) Change by alteration, where game elements are retained but altered in some manner during play, either significantly or in an entirely cosmetic fashion.

3) Change by destruction, where game elements are removed or destroyed in some way during play.

This system leads to players having a game that is ultimately totally unique to them, that tells a story differently from that of all other players. However, they are controversial with players who dislike the idea of elements 2 and 3, generally due to a dislike of the idea of paying for elements that never get used, or do not get used an infinite number of times. Interestingly, of the Legacy games currently on the market, the majority allow repeated playthroughs post completion of the campaign games. In fact, only the games that broke the concept to wider popularity, Pandemic Seasons 1 and 2 result in a game that cannot be played repeatedly with Risk, Seafall and Machi Koro all allowing perpetual playthroughs.

The perceived dislike of elements 2 and 3 and the backlash against campaigns that result in an unplayable game has created what I suspect to be the Legacy format of the future in Machi Koro, a lovely game, but one that totally lacks element 3 and even element 2 in any but a cosmetic fashion. In essence what is in fact provided is a game which is not fully assembled and the unpacking process has been gamified to an extreme degree.

Ultimately, a campaign process or a building game system is by no means original, the 1985 Spiel Des Jahres winner Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective unlocked newspaper prints that were added to and referred back to by later cases, and would require severe amnesia to play through more than once. It is only the permanent alteration and destruction of game elements in a fashion that makes one game different from another that defines Legacy games, in my opinion, as interesting and worthwhile as a game format. Anyone who has played Pandemic Legacy Season 1 will have a story, and a story unlike anyone else’s story, about which city fell when, who died and who betrayed. My set of Risk Legacy will differ from every other set of Risk Legacy in the world, and I will know exactly who made that the case, who dropped which planet scarring nukes and founded which cities. My copy of Machi Koro Legacy will look just like yours, my copy of Betrayal Legacy will differ, but it will take a few playthroughs to spot how and even my copy of Pandemic Season 2 will only divert from yours on relatively small points.

It seems that the Legacy format is moving towards decisions intended to mollify the people who never made it a successful format in the first place, and because of it new Legacy games are lacking the value of their earlier progenitors, rather than building on them they seem to be devolving. I’ve play tested a few Legacy games now (which may or may not see full release) and one thing ties them together is that few or none of them require elements to be destroyed, instead simply parcelling out the building of the game over the length of a campaign.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be in the position to be able to financially create a legacy game (I’ve got an idea for one, but that doesn’t mean much), but if you are working on one, can I please implore you to have players shred something at some point. There is a seal on the Risk Legacy that must be ripped open to get into the game, it has a phrase that could, and I would argue should be seen as the motto for Legacy games. It says ‘What’s done can never undone’. That phrase is the best gatekeeper to a game that I’ve ever seen in my life. There are two sorts of people reading that phrase, the ones that feel parts of their bodies clench at it, and the ones that feel a thrill run up their spines. Not every game is for every person, and if every game could have a one sentence label that would tell you if it was for you or not the world would probably be a better place. Trying to make Legacy games for everyone makes as much sense as making any other sort of game for everyone. Legacy is a worthwhile format experiment, and I’m increasingly disappointed when I see those allowed to make the experiment giving up on it, despite its successes rather than because of its failures.

Do you enjoy the Legacy format? If so, how do you feel about the increasing watering down of the idea, if you agree that its occurring? If not, do you see yourself being tempted into the fold by the less and less destructive recent entries?


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