David (critically) Plays Pandemic

This week, I played one game of regular Pandemic and two months of Pandemic Legacy with two friends. We’d all previously played Pandemic before, but not for a number of years.

The regular game started out smoothly: I was the dispatcher, and my friends were the medic and researcher. We cured the first three diseases while managing to contain their spread. However, we largely ignored the fourth, and ended up winning one turn before it spread too far and we would have lost. We saw it coming two turns in advance, and trying to orchestrate our individual moves (and pray that our draws went alright) was tense and exciting.

The legacy games similarly had ups and downs. Although we eventually won both, they were marred somewhat by confusion over the rules. At one point we’d thought we lost the first game, and were about to open up the ‘bad’ packets before realizing we’d misunderstood the instructions. Probably the break of a couple years after playing the first month was largely to blame for this.




Maybe the biggest change, of course, is the shared objective paired with the shared win condition. To me, this felt very different even from ‘coopetition’ games, where everyone is working together but you’re ranked at the end. In those games, like strictly competitive games, a lot of the challenge is generated by the other players, and you’re still in conflict with one another. Here, your conflict is strictly with the game itself (ideally, at least). I think it really lends itself to a shared sense of fellowship, and makes for a great dynamic. Moment-to-moment, although it was still challenging, it felt like there was a cap on how difficult it would get, limited by the game itself. In contrast, in competitive games it can sometimes feel like you have to match whatever investment the other players are putting in to stay competitive, which can be exhausting. 

One pitfall, which we avoided, but that I could see coming up is ‘quarterbacking’. Since everyone has equal information about everyone else’s situation, and possible moves, the only barrier to people trying to dictate others’ moves is their consent, and whatever norms people put into place rather than specific procedures. This could definitely dovetail into ‘one player, three observers’, which wouldn’t be great – some way to obscure information, like making players only discuss their turns vaguely beforehand and move in parallel – might help. In our case, however, we ended up going the other direction: rather than one player taking over everything, we all collaborated to figure out everyone’s move.

We treated each character as a collective resource: whoever was playing them would usually come up with an initial plan, but each turn we would decide what everyone would do – often with a lot of specificity – together before anyone moved. In practice, this dynamic worked well: it was a lot easier to make decisions together than to try and figure out how our character would fit in midway through a turn. However, it did dampen the sense of a building narrative – although we were the ones fighting the diseases, it was harder to really feel a sense of ownership for the story even though it was fun to participate in.


Legacy Version


The Legacy version added an interesting wrinkle to this issue in particular. Since our characters persisted between games, and we got to develop them a little more each time, I, at least, definitely felt more connected to them. In particular, characters could get scarred if they were on a city with an outbreak, and if that happened to often they could become lost entirely – you had to rip up the character card, and could never play it again. In our game, it was genuinely kind of sad to send in my friend’s dispatcher, ‘speedy boy’, to go sacrifice themselves to stop the epidemic from spreading out of New York.

Whereas in the regular game, there were – substantively, at least – only collective stakes, but here there were individual ones. Our discussions about how to play out turns became more of negotiations and made the process of cooperating more fraught but also, I think, more meaningful. It actually felt like ‘speedy boy’ had made a sacrifice for the team, rather than simply followed our shared plan. This cooperation with individual stakes ultimately made the feeling of fellowship more pronounced.

We ended up winning both of the months we played – although in the first game the blue disease which almost took out ‘speedy boy’ nearly cost us the win. Being able to open the new boxes afterwards, and draw new characters, was pretty much as Matt described in his talk – a highlight. Whereas there’s some discovery in the regular game, as you encounter new situations, and learn how to deal with different permutations, it absolutely paled in comparison to these little gifts. Although we didn’t lose, I think it would also lessen the blow somewhat to still get to see something new.

Being able to physically track the changes game over game, and have permanent mementos recording the events game to game, also added a sense of overarching narrative, which really complemented the specific experiences of the individual games. Another type of fun also showed up here that didn’t in the original version – expression. Having the opportunity to build out a character around the way you played made it feel much more engaging, especially when combined with the greater sense of ownership over our actions.

Although it was a bit grim to play this during an actual pandemic, I still really enjoyed it, and the exercise opened my eyes to all the varieties of fun that the added legacy mechanic allowed for, despite the core rules being largely the same.

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  1. Really strong critical play! I loved how you compared and contrasted the two games. Also terrific job of picking out the design choices that created the experience. Well done and a joy to read.

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