31st Oct2017

‘Pandemic Legacy: Season 2′ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Unusually, I’d like to begin this review with a quick note on spoilers. Pandemic Legacy: Season Two is (unsurprisingly) a legacy game that features various different possibilities contained within secret dossiers and chambers inside the box. Within this review, the pictures I have shown include ONLY what you will see upon first opening the box and the only overt descriptions I will provide about events and components of the game will relate to what you will see by the end of a single Prologue game. I will NOT be spoiling any story feature or component of the game that you would otherwise encounter during the legacy elements of the game. I hope you enjoy the review.

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The first Pandemic Legacy was released in late 2015 and by the time 2016 rolled to a close, it was probably considered to be one of the best two games of the year. The only fly in the ointment? Stonemaier Games’ incredible Scythe. This year has been another exceptional period for board gaming with exceptional new titles like Gloomhaven and Terraforming Mars appearing, but with its mix of simple gameplay, compelling legacy mechanic and incredible following, Pandemic Legacy: Season Two has a very good chance of being the standout hit of the year. After what seems like an eternity, I’ve finally got my hands on a copy, so let’s see if it lives up to expectations.

As you’ll no doubt have seen from the pictures, the first thing that struck me upon opening Season Two is that map. Just look at it – there are only twelve cities and what appear to be three anchors in the sea, whilst the rest of the world is completely obscured by blue fog. The reason for this quickly becomes apparent through the story. Season Two is set some 71 years after the original and is based on the concept that humanity failed to stop the spreading plagues in Season One and has consequently been ravaged to leave only a handful of struggling settlements. As civilisation began to fail, three “Havens” were established on sea platforms that were untouched by disease. Now, with the remaining cities also struggling, it’s time for the Haven survivors to strike out and make a difference.

Aside from the board, another feature you’ll see as soon as you open the box is the range of stickers, dossiers and secret boxes. The format of the dossiers and boxes will be familiar to anyone who has played the first game, as will many of the stickers. For the uninitiated, you should only open the numbered boxes and windows when instructed to do so by a card in the Legacy Deck (which is another feature carried over from Season One) or some other rule. In a very interesting twist that differs from Season One and other versions of Pandemic, you won’t find pre-set character class cards here. Instead, you’ll find blank sheets that enable you to create five characters of your own design, including stickers for their image, a space for their name and a range of job stickers to choose from to provide a starting bonus.

Aside from being a cool mechanic in its own right, each blank sheet has some “scratch panels” that represent the consequences of being exposed to plague cubes once the game begins. The twist? You won’t know which consequences are on each card until your character is exposed, so you’ll never know who among your created characters are more or less hardy than others until its too late. This is just an early clue about what Season Two has in store and I really liked the use of a scratch mechanic to reinforce the feeling of consequence and permanence.

In Season Two, the objective of the game is to maintain the cities of the known world by keeping them supplied and avoiding accruing enough outbreaks to result in a game end scenario, whilst at the same time, achieving whatever objective (or objectives) have been set by the Legacy Deck. In the prologue, players must simply build three Supply Centres, which requires a player in a city to discard five city cards that match the cities colour (there are three colours of city.) Rather than travelling around and reducing the infection cubes from the board as in other versions of Pandemic, players must actively produce supplies and place them on cities.

Whenever an infection card is drawn for a given city, then a supply cube must be removed from that city. In the event that a city has no supplies, a plague cube must be added instead. Reach three plague cubes, and an outbreak occurs that has the chance of infecting adjoining cities. In Season Two, as soon as a plague cube is on the board, there is no way to remove it. If you want to resupply that city and avoid further infection, you must consider the risk of placing one of your characters in a place where they may be exposed (causing you to scratch off one of those unknown panels on the character sheet.)

Another new feature in Season Two (and one of my favourite things about it) is the Recon action. I’m not going to say any more about this than is shown on the board and in the manual, but basically it is intimated that if you pay the recon cost in a given location, you may be able to expand your knowledge about the lost parts of the world. This is often a very direct way of opening a numbered component, so if you are feeling curious about what’s in those boxes, you now have a clear way to do get at what you want. I have to say, this was one of the most exciting features about the game for me and I wanted to start reconnoitring locations as soon as I began the game. Please note, there is no Recon action in the Prologue game!

What these mechanics boil down to is only a subtle change from the core Pandemic game at a mechanical level, but thematically, Season Two plays completely differently. Although there are rationed events (which act like funded events in Season One) that help the player, I felt like I was always on the back foot in Season Two. The fact that overall ration levels drop each month and more often than not you’ll have to balance that reduced amount of resource with an increase in overall responsibility on the board make things feel like a truly desperate struggle. Sure, other features show up to help and new actions and rules appear, but even so, the game remains more closely aligned towards providing a challenging experience that is as tough as it is thematic.

Losing characters that you’ve created yourself and nurtured from the beginning is an iteration of the scars mechanic that carries over from Season One and it makes so much sense here, especially given the fact that medics and dispatchers no longer exist in the post apocalyptic future. The exposure mechanic is superb and works perfectly in deadly harmony with the way cities become infected, meaning that every campaign will feature several nail-biting decisions about risking character X or having an outbreak in City Y.

There are few downsides to Pandemic Legacy: Season Two. If anything, I found the rulebook and player cards were a little too full of stickers by the end, meaning that players (especially the host) have to keep track of a myriad of interlocking rules. This can lead to alpha gaming because sometimes only one person will understand all of the rules that have been introduced in previous games, but as long as that person is capable of laying out options for other players and then letting them decide (rather than driving towards a single one) then it’s not a major issue.

Pandemic Legacy: Season Two is not my favourite game of 2017, but it is right up among them. It somehow manages to capture the essence of everything that I love about Pandemic, whilst at the same time flipping it on its head and introducing a few new ideas into the generally pretty tired post-apocalyptic setting. It’s the kind of game that has players shaking with anticipation, excitement and even fear if they become fully immersed and if you can keep the same core group playing (which isn’t necessary) people will fall into favourite characters and gain a lot from the shared experience.

One thing I will say is that Pandemic Legacy: Season Two is probably one of the best Christmas gifts you could buy for a board gamer this year. It has such universal appeal and yet such depth that it has the potential to really unite families during the holiday period. It’s so simple even your grandma could play, but the decisions you’ll need to make are tough and engaging. As a result of all of the above, Pandemic Legacy: Season Two is highly recommended and well worth your hard earned brass.

****½  4.5/5

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