Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 – The Coronavirus as Board Game



A couple weeks ago, Z-Man Games, a subsidiary of board gaming behemoth/venture capital shell company Asmodee, announced the indefinite delay of any future Pandemic games, saying that, “Out of respect for those affected by the current situation, we are choosing to wait for a more appropriate time to share details.” And by future Pandemic games, they pretty much meant one in particular, Pandemic Legacy: Season 3, the long-awaited culmination of quite possibly the best series of board games ever created. This comes as little surprise and makes perfect sense, but I would like to argue that for the same reason that many have been reading Albert Camus’ The Plague or adding Postal Service’s “We Will Become Silhouettes” to playlists, I want to recommend that these same people, even/especially those not normally inclined toward board games, try Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, a seminal title that feels like one of the more depressingly prescient texts for the current era. Everyone else can keep playing Animal Crossing.

For those unfamiliar with the original Pandemic, the game attempts to simulate the response of a cooperative (i.e. unrealistic) world toward confronting a complete global pandemic. In terms of being a simulation, it… doesn’t do a good job. Let’s be honest, very few board games do, and those that focus on the simulation aspect of things are often the type of multi-month long wargames that few of us have the remotest interest in playing. Instead, players take control of roles such as medic, virologist, researcher, dispatcher, etc. and shows  how this small cadre of individuals tries to contain pandemics. These roles are intentionally vague and obtuse, refractions of reality chosen with game mechanics in mind first, theme second. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but at the same time Pandemic is not really my type of game and not something I’d be keen to play more than once after seeing its limitations. Its excitement exists purely in the realm of games rather than reality, and while its thematic overlays add to this experience a bit (pure abstract games lie on the other end of the simulation spectrum and fail to interest me almost as much), but only that little bit. I doubt anyone plays it and thinks about how the red plastic cubes you move around the board are supposed to represent the flu, rather you think about them as red plastic cubes that threaten to make you lose. This point, while small, is incredibly important.


Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 reframes this entire game apparatus around a storyline. Each game represents a month, or half a month (don’t ask), and though the world resets at the end of each playthrough, some parts don’t. This is the “legacy” aspect of the title, derived from co-creator Rob Daviau’s nearly-as-interesting Risk: Legacy experiment in which events that happened in previous game sessions affect how you play in the future. Place a research center somewhere and you can make it permanent. Have a city begin rioting due to its outbreaks and in the future it will still be rioting. Sure, much of the game still resets between sessions, but much of it doesn’t, such that the world itself gets shaped by how you manage its diseases. This, coupled with naming and customizing characters, means that soon the game’s nonsensical representation of the world begins feeling, well, real. The red cubes begin acting in a certain pattern, and as you name them you start to think about how it spreads similarly in game after game. After naming the disease represented by blue cubes, you start to observe that in the United States the west coast’s response to Hepatitis Q has been vastly better than the east coast’s and wonder why that part of the country can’t get its shit together. Personification and emergent narrative happen so organically it’s almost startling.

This power, in which the abstract becomes increasingly real, comes partially from the intelligently sparse narrative laid out by the game’s designers, but also from the magic of our imaginations. As such, your mileage will of course vary, and I suspect few will be like one well-known critic, Rahdo, and nearly break down in tears over the tough decisions the game forces them to make. It’s very easy to play the game, at least at first, as simply a series of abstract challenges, and in fact this is how a certain type of person will likely approach it. My wife is, surprisingly for a person who devoted much of her life to studying narratives, someone who wants to ignore the metaphors of games and know how to win. She wants to reduce things to mechanics, and was baffled that I insisted on reading the game’s narrative explanations for why rules change between every game session of PL:S1 out loud. But despite this, she still found herself gradually becoming enmeshed with some of the game’s metaphors. When military bases became an option, she insisted we pursue other goals instead, even if winning through them was easier. Likewise, she wouldn’t allow us to include military characters in our squadron and eschewed possible upgrades like drones. Despite her insistence that this was just a game, that naming our characters was dumb, she found herself changing the way we played based upon the game’s narrative elements—human imagination took over regardless of her desires. 

Now that I’ve introduced my wife to this review, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that she had to be persuaded to playin the first case because she didn’t like the theme. She’s always feared disease, and spending many hours futilely fighting against them wasn’t her idea of a good time. When I asked her today whether she would play it post COVID-19, her answer was a simple, “Hell no!” After hours of playing through the campaign with me, the game has gone from an abstract toy to almost a cursed item, filled with a disquieting sense of prescience and cynical-yet-accurate politics despite its focus on placing stickers and flipping cards.

Up until now, I’ve been largely avoiding spoilers (well, HUGE spoilers, though I sure haven’t avoided them entirely) for PL:S1 because despite my intermittent nagging (to the point that I bought him a copy of the game), the other half of Exposition Break still hasn’t played it. But in order to talk about why it feels so powerful now requires talking about elements that, if known beforehand, would lessen some of the impact of the game. The fact is, PL:S1 is plotted like a thriller, with four distinct acts, and knowing their ups and downs changes both how you play and how you respond to them. And while I am largely irritated by the Internet’s insistence that spoilers in criticism are the devil’s work, in some cases not knowing does really create sublime experiences, and this is definitely one of them. So with that in mind, tread lightly about the information below. 

There are tons of lovely photos people have taken of their copies post-campaign, but those are so ridiculously spoiler-y that the only safe option is to use these press images.

While basic Pandemic is about curing and possibly even eliminating four diseases wreaking havoc on the world, soon into your first session of PL:S1 you learn that one of these diseases isn’t treatable. That disease, COdA-403a, is what the rest of the game will focus on, and while you still need to put out small fires concerning other diseases throughout the rest of the simulated year, it’s COdA-403a that’s your real enemy. And once you’ve dived deeply into PL:S1, it’s impossible to think of your experiences with COdA-403a, or as we thought of it COdA, without also thinking about Covid-19. 


COdA mutates into a zombie-creating—though for thematic reasons these go by a different name, the faded—horror that proves to be incurable until at the very least the end of the year, if not forever. In this way, though, it feels much more true to both the real pandemic we’re facing now, and all pandemics in general, than how diseases are usually treated in these games. The normal rules of Pandemic are a fantasy, and as such it’s possible to travel across the globe treating and curing these diseases as if it’s, well, child’s play. But PL:S1 makes the fight seem unbeatable in a way that’s both more realistic and apt for the moment. Even aside from the conspiratorial final plot twist, it never feels like the government is fully behind you, or at least that governments across the world aren’t fully behind their populations. Oftentimes, the game does this by giving mechanics and allowing the implications of them to simply sit with you. There is a military officer whose ability is to simply remove the faded. It’s clear that he, unlike previous characters, can kill infected individuals and get away with it. His ability, then, is to commit war crimes and go unpunished. None of this is spelled out explicitly, but it’s all there, and what you make of this development is left to the players. Likewise, one way of permanently removing a truly problematic city’s infected population from the game is to, well, nuke it. The card representing this city is removed from the game, and while you can move through that location, it is a black hole within PL:S1‘s map devoid of any buildings or population that might have existed there before. Once you nuke, you can’t go back.


I’ve read online that very few people choose to ever use the nuclear option card, that in fact this is frequently the card that tips players into reconsidering what it is they’ve been doing the whole time, but many strategies that might seem less harmful are equally destructive. Within my own first PL:S1 campaign, one city became such a problem that we decided the best way of dealing with it was to place roadblocks around every route into the city and then, at the end of the game, make them permanent. We trapped a population with the infected and offered them no way out, yet were able to tell ourselves “at least we didn’t nuke them” as if that would’ve somehow been worse. The fact of the matter is that in PL:S1 your enemy is the population itself. While at times it’s possible to cure the sick, more frequently your only way of solving problems is to use those military powers against the infected population. The pandemic’s gradual road to fascism happens with such a subtlety that by the time you notice it, it’s likely too late to reverse course. Daviau in particular tends to make political statements with his games, and this is among his most chilling.

The fact that ultimately even the faded can be cured, it’s just that it takes a lot longer than you’d wish for a cure to become available, feels particularly apt. The game’s faded are dehumanized by the game’s narrative because that’s being controlled by the government in the same way that options are simply presented to you without any context towards their ramifications. The game’s flat, unjudging tone is ultimately shown to be its greatest evil, and what I love the most about this is that ultimately it doesn’t let the player off the hook. You can solve problems any way that you wish, but don’t expect the game not to point out that you’re a monster for solving them the way you did, even if every step along the way seemed like the best way of mitigating damage. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is not a difficult game to beat… but it is an incredibly difficult game if you decide to treat its metaphors as real, if you choose to consider what’s actually happening in these locations that are only represented to you as markers on a map. Up until the current crisis, Pandemic was never considered a dark game in the same way that, for instance, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is, but that’s because it’s only in its legacy version that the game’s metaphors have any punch to them. 


And post-COVID-19, even seemingly innocuous parts of the game feel different. One of the more important roles, at least within both of my playthroughs, is that of the quarantine specialist, who locks cities down preventing the spread of disease. Now, though, being quarantined for even a month feels not like a casual decision but a huge undertaking affecting millions, though while playing it often felt like an action we took because why not. Those metaphors feel much more real now, loaded with depressing implications as you imagine economies spiraling out of control and an upending of the structured world order that existed before COdA first appeared.

 Hopefully Blake will still eventually be up for playing through PL:S1 with me after I’ve arrived in Albuquerque and this whole pandemic has loosened its grip on the world, at least somewhat, though I say this with complete selfishness. I do understand not wanting to touch it for a while, and to instead pick up board games that allow us to think about something else for once. But at the same time, I really want to continue the series and finally get to play Pandemic Legacy: Season 2. I’ve done my best not to spoil myself about its storyline, but I do know enough to say that it takes place in a world that was decimated by PL:S1, which is to say that it’s post-apocalyptic. No matter how well you do in the first season, there is no way of dealing with COdA that doesn’t irrevocably destroy the world. And while this makes sense to me for narrative reasons, as the weeks of COVID-19 stretch onward without any end in sight I keep hoping that the game’s realism isn’t as predictive in this manner as it has seemed for so much else.

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