At the start of this year I had the idea to start playing some legacy games to keep us occupied during lockdown. My fiancée and I have since played all three Pandemic Legacy games (it’s a false sense of control during an actual pandemic). I didn’t have the foresight to take photographs of the first two before we started playing, so this review is for the most recent game – Pandemic Legacy Season 0.
All pictures are from a box fresh copy of the game so this is nothing you won’t see the moment you open the box from new, additionally I think I’ve kept this review as spoiler free as possible.
When you first open the box, you’ll be greeted with the usual dossiers (like the world’s most intimidating advent calendar), manual, legacy deck (actually two in this game, plus an operations deck that you will have to fish cards out of periodically), player pieces, board, cards, and 8 sealed boxes. There’s also a debrief book which uses paragraph numbers to feed you plot according to whether you pass or fail certain challenges in the game.
If you’ve never played a legacy game, some of this may need explaining. The legacy deck is basically your automated game/dungeon master. You unwrap the deck and start drawing from the start end. It will provide you with your objectives, plot beats, new cards to be put in other decks, and potentially whole new gameplay elements. Once you’re done with an objective for the month, you tear it up and throw it out. Your game is now changed forever. At various points you’ll add stickers to your passports, the manual, and even the board. These games are typically only able to be played through once and then all you have are (hopefully) wonderful memories of this experience you’ve shared.
Season 0 takes place back in the 60s, in the midst of the cold war. You’re a group of fresh-faced, newly qualified medical professionals, pulled into the CIA in order to stop a deadly bioweapon (apparently it’s easier to make a medic into a spy than to send a spy to medical school). You’ll get a cute little passport where you’ll hold your three identities (one for each affiliation – allied, soviet, and neutral), a card with a long list of possible actions (with space on the back to add more as the game progresses), a player pawn in your choice of colour, and off you go into the world.
Your first big choice will be picking a character head to represent you. You’ll be adding your choice of hair, hats, scarves, dresses, shirts, facial hair, and more later, but first you get a profile picture for all of your alises. There’s been some attempt to have some variety in skin tone, but I found when it came to hair, there was only one option for natural hair for a black character. Pretty shoddy when you have potentially two people playing black characters and each having three alises (come on Z-Man, you can do better than this).
Much like base Pandemic, you have a player deck containing cities of the world (accurate for the time period) which will also include any funded events (single use bonuses). You may recognise the threat level, which increases as you pull escalations out of the player deck, and a big map of the world as your board.
The first noticeable difference is in the threat deck. Like Pandemic classic you’ll be drawing from this deck and adding pieces to the board in the city that they show. However, as agents aren’t single-celled organisms given to mitosis when they have enough friends around, they don’t outbreak quite like diseases when you have to place a fourth one. Instead, you place an incident marker on that city, draw a card from the bottom of the threat deck and read the little text box for instructions. This could be nothing in a game that’s going well, an effect that doesn’t apply. On the flipside though, you might end up causing a chain reaction that will lose you the game.
I’ll give you an example: The game is going badly, you’re on your sixth outbreak (they’re called incidents in PL0). You draw a card from the bottom of the deck and it tells you to put an agent on every city with an incident marker in Asia. You have one, but it already has three agents. So you add another incident marker to that city and pull another card. Joy, this time you have to add an agent to a city in North America with an incident token. That city would also get an incident token, but there’s none left, so it’s an immediate game over. Now, that didn’t actually happen in any of our games (we had some really bad combos, but not that bad), but it’s entirely possible for things to badly snowball.
I should clarify that not all of the threat cards say to add agents, some say to remove safehouses from a region, some say to remove cover from players in a region.
On top of all this, during the game end phase, you’ll be adding surveillance to any city with an incident token. If you start your turn in a city with surveillance you will lose that much cover on your current alias (unless there’s a safehouse).
Losing cover is like taking scars in PL1 & 2. You scratch off panels under your current alias to reveal a symbol. It could be nothing, it might be the loss of a card from your hand, it might be that you take a liability (permanent downgrade on that alias), or you may just have to burn that alias entirely. No more Ms Definitlynotaspyovic, she’s gone. You’ll have to go on using those you have left. This could leave a player unable to complete certain types of mission at all, putting more pressure on the others.
Another big change is that you can’t just fly between safehouses as you could with research stations. This immediately limits your board coverage, especially in a two player game. There are visas which can be bought with game end upgrade points, but this will only get you to the city you name on the visa.
To fill in the gaps in your ability to get around so easily, you can trade in 5 cards of a matching affiliation at a safehouse in order to build a team (they’re these adorable little vans (you’ll have to imagine they have “perfectly innocent florist van” painted on the side)) these teams can be moved around using player actions. End your turn with one in a city matching its affinity and your team will clear all the agents out during the mop up step. It can be really helpful to get a van rolled out in an area that keeps popping up agents like espionage whack-a-mole. Just drive it around the problem cities and you won’t have to go there personally for a while. It’s very satisfying when it all starts working.
As with previous PL games, there are objectives each month. While these will have completely new cards each time, they fall into a few basic categories.
First up acquiring unknown targets. During setup you’ll need to go through the player deck, take out all the cities of a given region, shuffle them up, remove 1-3 of them and put them face down under the objective card. The rest are shuffled into the player deck before you start getting it ready to deal out. In regions like South America, this may not be so bad. 3 cities you need to target, there’s only 5 total and you get one in your starting hand, so you know most of the information you need. However, you will need a team in each city in order to acquire all of the targets.
With known targets, it’s a bit different, the city is printed on the objective card, get a team there, do the thing.
There are a couple of other mission types later on, but these two will turn up again and again, in various forms. With the consequences for complete or even partial failure being more or less catastrophic.
Speaking of partial failure, that is totally an option now. Whereas previous games in the series had you either fail and retry a month or succeed and move on. Season 0 lets you experience partial success. Complete one objective, but fail the others. That’s a partial failure. Try not to worry, off you go to next month. “But the horrific potential of what we failed to do last month?!” “The world is tough kid, you can’t always save everybody”. It’s really harsh and on at least one occasion had us asking if we shouldn’t just play to lose entirely so we could try again, rather than risk doing some of a thing and having to move on.
It’s not just complete missions either. Sometimes you might be asked to acquire targets in two cities, but only have the vans to get to one with the player deck about to run out. If you acquire the single target with the van you do have and the other one isn’t completed in the same turn, it’s gone. Sorry about that, but mission completed (technically).
There’s something about partial successes that make the game feel incredibly stressful some months. You’ve potentially got three missions, involving at least 5 different cities and some other goal, you were unlucky and got an escalation on the very first draw of the game and the incidents only spiral from there. Everything is on fire and you have to make some very tough decisions about what you can and cannot achieve. Hopefully you can live with the consequences.
While I agree with the designers that you could play this without playing the others, I feel that a lot will be lost as it makes frequent, off-hand references to events from the other games in the series.
One thing that I was asked a lot when I started playing was “is it uncritical of the CIA”. A reasonable question for a game set during the cold war. Since spy fiction set in that period is full of “aren’t the US great and those soviets are the most one-dimensional, dastardly, evil, mustache-twirling villains” tropes. Without going into any detail or spoilers, I can confirm that there is potential criticism of all factions (I won’t clarify the “potential” in that sentence because spoilers).
Overall, this was a great wrap-up to the Pandemic Legacy series. It’s still recognisably Pandemic, while being very much its own game. The plot of our story was great, and we looked through the rest of the material postgame to see how else it could have gone. We were really happy with how the plot expanded in other directions. Furthermore, it’s also the first in the series that we’ve felt like you could actually keep playing some of the objective types once the game is over (YMMV, if you’ve ended up with surveillance everywhere that may not be an option for you).
- Familiar yet unique gameplay.
- Great story.
- A fitting end to the trilogy.
- Not enough natural hair options for black characters.
- The colours are very muted and it can look very bland before you get a lot of agents on the board.
- Incidents have the potential to snowball.