Permanence: The surging popularity of legacy style board games

There is nothing more permanent in board games than a torn up card.

It’s Sunday night, and your favorite character was just killed off as a city fell into chaos. The outlook of the world is grim, as populations are overwhelmed with outbreaks of disease. Researchers are working in a lab across the globe to cure this plague once and for all.  But a sudden plot twist shocks the room, and the shining light of a possible cure now seems impossible.

No, I am not talking about the latest episode of The Walking Dead, but a game night with Pandemic Legacy. In the new sensation to board games, Legacy games change permanently each time you play them. They also evolve as you play, and  are filled with boxes, envelopes and pop-out cardboard sheets that unlock new rules and components as the game progresses and certain conditions are met. Much like a season of a tv show, once the story is told, the game is complete.

RiskLegacyBut let’s back up a step. The craziness all started back in 2011. Hasbro, looking to do something different with it’s classic Risk franchise tasked in house designer Rob Daviau with creating a new iteration of the game. The resulting creation, Risk Legacy, shocked everyone in the hobby. Here was a game that took the replayability and consistency people had come to expect from gaming, and threw it out the window. Players were asked to tear up cards permanently, add stickers to the board, and brandish a permanent marker to write on the board. To any board game collector, who sleeved their cards and made sure a single drop of soda never touched their precious game boards, this was not only sacrilege, it was madness.

New aspects of gameplay are revealed with each envelope
New aspects of gameplay are revealed with each envelope

However, the game gave players something that they could not find in any other traditional board game: permanence. Decisions made in a single game would last for all future games. No two games were alike, a notion the designers were keenly aware of when they numbered each game board produced. In addition to the permanence of decisions made from game to game, there was also the joy of surprise as mysterious boxes filled with new cards, stickers and components were opened as players reached certain milestones. Game five would be different not only on how the dice rolled, and where players started, but may have new rules, new goals and consequently a very different feel from game one. This was truly an evolution in board games.

Much of the game is still hidden in numbered boxes, yet to be opened
Much of the game is still hidden in numbered boxes, yet to be opened

A few years later Daviau brought his talents to another great design. Pandemic Legacy takes the classic cooperative gameplay of Pandemic by Matt Leacok and adds a similar layer of evolution and permanence to mix. The original Pandemic tasked players with taking on various roles (Medic, Research etc) and fighting the spread of infectious diseases around the globe. The diseases, represented by various colored cubes, would spread each turn based on a deck of infection cards that would specify the locations where cubes would be added. The game is a classic for the tension it created as players raced from continent to continent trying to keep ahead of the latest epidemic, with the threat of being overwhelmed and defeated by the game ever present.

Even the rules are not complete at the start, with slots to fill in as new rules are revealed.
Even the rules are not complete at the start, with slots to fill in as new rules are revealed.

Pandemic Legacy takes this core design and adds the concept of time. Each game represents a month of a single year. A legacy deck instructs players on which packet or box to open for each month, and just like in Risk Legacy, nothing stays the same. The legacy deck itself is an evolution of the format over the envelopes in Risk Legacy. The envelope format specified specific gameplay conditions that the players could skew towards, simply to meet the condition and open the new goodies. With the Legacy Deck, players draw cards until the hit a Stop card that specifies the next condition. Since there is only ever one condition in play at a time, and since they are revealed sequentially, the progression feel much more natural and maintains a better narrative arc. Here things are more personal than Risk Legacy, as players name characters and invest in them with player abilities and relationships. And there are conditions where a character can die, which would prove to be devastating with a character that had a lot of gameplay investment and was key to players’ strategy.  Much like a TV show, the game is just Season 1 of what is sure to be many more, and over the course of the 12-24 games a story unfolds that is unique based on the decisions the players have made, and whether they’ve won or lost each month.

Time stories is a modular game with new packs of cards that tell different stories.
Time stories is a modular game with new packs of cards that tell different stories.

Another game that has capitalized on this new idea of a consumable board games is Time Stories. Unlike the legacy style games I have described so far that emphasize permanent alteration, Time Stories acts as a game system with different modules that you plug into it. The board, dice, and pieces are the same, and each module is a self contained story with its own cards to plug into the system. Unlike the Legacy games, each module is one adventure that can take 3-6 hours.

Saving progress for the next game. A little bit more involved than clicking a save button.
Saving progress for the next game. A little bit more involved than clicking a save button.

There is even a special insert to “save” the game between plays, much like one saves in a video game. The gameplay is modeled after the popular PC adventure games of years past, where a panorama of cards set up the “scene” of a location, and players interact with the scene to solve puzzles and resolve the story. The basic concept has players time traveling to solve these different cases, giving both a narrative and gameplay justification for repeating certain parts of the story, each time armed with new knowledge from the previous play.

However,  there are definitely downsides to this new kind of gaming. For one thing, who plays from game to game suddenly matters in a different way than before. When I walk into the gaming store on Friday night and plop down my latest favorite, it doesn’t matter who joins other than the number of players the game allows. All are welcome, and from game to game the group sitting around the table changes. With a legacy or consumable game like this, you’ll often want to play with the same players to really get the full experience of how the game changes from one play to the next. After all, few people jump right into the middle of season 3 of a TV show. Here too, they might be a bit lost, or at the very least a bit less invested in the state of the game if they have not played before.

There is also the concern of what you get out of your investment. Both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy provide many games worth of fun, but unlike other board games, the game has a limited lifespan. And with Time Stories that lifespan is even shorter. While its model provides a fantastic story telling experience, and endless variety with its modular nature, many fans are not thrilled with the pricing of the system. The basic game is sixty dollars and comes with just one module. Additional modules cost thirty dollars each. While board games still hold up well for entertainment costs versus a night out at the movies, many in the hobby want to get the most value out of each purchase, and such a one-off consumable game

Still, even with these negatives, Legacy games are a fantastic innovation. Both Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy borrow from the narrative tension of the latest TV dramas, and are all the better for it. I haven’t even finished season 1 of Pandemic Legacy, and I am already excited for season 2. And later this year Daviau’s next design Seafall launches, promising to take the Legacy design concept to another level. It is the first such design without a traditional board game predecessor. If you have not tried these games, I absolutely recommend them. Risk Legacy is perfect for a group that likes confrontation and conflict, and Pandemic is perfect for families or couples that would prefer to work together. Breaking out the permanent marker, and tearing up cards can be quite liberating, even if it still feels a bit strange.

Gaming evolution: Risk

The classic game of Risk, set up for play.

Throughout this blog I would like to focus on how gaming has evolved over the past few decades, and what makes games of today more fun and approachable than in decades past. To this end, these gaming evolution posts will talk about games you may know, and how newer games have refined these ideas.  

Risk is one such classic. A world conquest game that is a household name and has made players feel like strategic generals for nearly 60 years. As a recap, Risk has players battling each other in order to control territory, which in turn allows them to command larger armies and consequently control more territory. However, players must be careful not to spread their armies too thin as their opponents are always eager to exploit a weakness in enemy lines.  While it had some great ideas for its time, Risk fell into a trap like many other early board games of providing something that was fun at first, but that stretched on for far too long given the lack of depth or interesting decision making. I recall one game of Lord of the Rings Risk that was set up at my first job out of college, with players pledging to take turns between tasks at work. The game stood mostly as a monument, as no one actually took their turns, and some players actually left the job before the game was completed.

Game of Thrones: The Board Game has a bit more secrecy and betrayal than Risk, hence the card board screens for each player.

The good news is that several designers took the core tenants of Risk, and reduced the more negative aspects of the game. The first of these games is A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. This game captures a similar feeling to Risk, as you use naval and ground units combined with clever strategy and card play to conquer your opponents castles. However, it immediately fixes one of the problems that plagued Risk: play length. As games have evolved over the last few decades, designers are focusing more and more on making sure the game ends before the enjoyment does. So, while Risk has the ultimate goal of eliminating your opponents, Game of Thrones has a more attainable victory condition. If any player controls 7 castles at the end of the round, they win the game. If no player reaches this goal, within ten turns the game ends, and whoever controls the most castles wins. This simple change of adjusting the goal of the game results in a play experience that is both shorter and more engaging.  Of course, there is also plenty here for a fan of books and show. Each player controls a major house from the series, complemented by a unique set of cards and abilities representing the house’s most well known characters.

Small World is colorful and family friendly, but also has a lot of strategic depth.

Another game that has improved upon the Risk formula is Small World. Much like Risk, the game is about controlling territory and conquering foes with a a bit of a fantasy flair. Each player controls a rotating cast of creatures with unique special abilities that will help you wrest control of the board from your opponents. However, unlike Risk, conquering territories doesn’t require any dice.  Everyone can enjoy the roller coaster ride of dice from time to time. Whether its the thrill of a great roll, or the despair of snake eyes, dice are inherently fun. But constant dice rolls in a game increase how random it is, and can prove frustrating when a brilliant strategic move is undermined by a couple poor rolls. Small World solves this by having combat be deterministic. If you have two more units than  your target, you take over that territory. No attack rolls or defense rolls, just simple math. In this way the game becomes more about how you use your units and various special powers versus how your dice rolls went at any given key moment. 

Risk is a perennial classic that defined a genre of conquest style games. Its influence cannot be denied. But it was also introduced to a world before video games, the internet, and a bounty of movies and media were commonplace. For modern board games to bring people to the table with so many other entertainment options available they need to provide a play experience that does not outstay its welcome, or relentlessly punish an unlucky player. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game and Small World both streamline the experience Risk introduced while simultaneously adding depth and variety to the genre. However, even these examples are not standing still. The world of designer games is ever evolving. A Game of Thrones: The Board Game is actually the second edition of the popular title having adjusted and improved from the original printing in 2003. Small World has expanded by adding more fantasy races to play and ways to build the map anew every game. After all, if games don’t evolve, they end up like that ill fated office game of Risk unplayed and ultimately forgotten.