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Lipstick and a Pig - Pandemic Legacy Review

ES Updated January 30, 2019
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Lipstick and a Pig - Pandemic Legacy Review

Game Information

There Will Be Games

The end of the year is approaching with the same inevitable certainty as death and taxes. That means we're going to see a smorgasbord of "Top Ten" lists, "Year's Best" lists and other opinion pieces. It's generally a fun time to look back at the year and assess everyone's favorite things. This is not going to be one of those lists. No, this is going to be a torpedo of truth about a game that is destined to rest atop many people's lists. That game is Pandemic Legacy.

Pandemic Legacy is already being heralded by many as the best game of the year. Some are arguing it's the greatest game ever designed. This is something I cannot accept to be true. I know this because the game is based on vanilla Pandemic. Pandemic is a game that is held in high regard, but it is not a terribly fun experience. In fact, sitting down to a game of Pandemic is about as exciting as watching a sloth try and cross a street. So when you take a pedestrian game and then slap on the mother of all boargaming gimmicks, it doesn't scream, "greatest game of all time" to me.

So this begs the question, "Why is Pandemic Legacy so amazing?" Folks are talking about the "story" and the "experience" the game generates. The fervor surrounding this game tells me that all of these Euro lovers have secretly ALWAYS wanted a taste of what Ameritrash games provide. There is no other explanation right? The game is just Pandemic with some story about the diseases mutating along with some new-ish rules that occasionally pop up. So those additions take an average co-op game and suddenly it becomes this legendary design? Pandemic lovers must have been yearning for cinematic moments, scripted twists, constantly updated rules and stickers. All that stuff really blows the lid off the, "Hey I've got four red cards, can you move me to Hong Kong on your turn?" gameplay. If that's the case then all of your wildest dreams have come true because these superficial things have been tacked onto one of the world's most boring co-op games.

Pandemic Legacy isn't the only culprit either. Red Raven Games' latest, Above and Below, mixes Tales of the Arabian Nights style storytelling with worker placement of all things. The game has been getting rave reviews thanks to its unlikely marriage of Euro mechanics and storytelling experience. The success of these games isn't quite the same as hybrid games of years past. These are more straight-laced Euro games tossing copious amounts of narrative right into the middle of their designs.

The problem I have with these games is that these supposed "storytelling" elements are only skin deep. The gimmick of adding new rules/features in a Legacy game, or reading story blurbs is an incredibly shallow way to generate theatrics in a game. Most great boardgame narrative/experiences aren't about flavor text. Actually PLAYING the game is what generates the stories. The game does its job of putting the players on the stage and it's up to the individuals at the table to figure out what kind of story emerges. These dramatic moments occur naturally in the best games. They feel organic and the impression they leave you with is addictive. The taste of the experience washes over your pallet like a perfectly cooked meal. For many of us, it's why we play games in the first place.

Boardgames creating memorable sessions shouldn't be about how something story related occurs that players read and then react to. Sure that happens, but gosh, how utterly boring! It shouldn't be about opening up an envelope for new tokens or scribbling something on the board. I'm more interested in the unscripted moments that you'll NEVER expect. This comes from the human element. The game itself can only do so much. Go play a game of Intrigue to see what a tense, cutthroat, and unforgettable experience really feels like. Or play Fury of Dracula with a blood thirsty, ultra aggressive, Dracula. The unpredictability of human behavior completely blows away anything artificially discovered on a sticker or a card. Ultimately, the game merely provides a loose structure to build an experience on. It really comes down to the people at the table to create the magic.

I believe that games are most memorable when something unlikely and exhilarating happens. A big problem with Pandemic for me is that most of the unexpected stuff is not controlled by the players. Flipping over cards to see the diseases spread/epidemics occur provides tension, but isn't something the players control. Winning a game and getting a new character to play or an upgrade to an existing character is neat, but again nothing the players in the game did. Pandemic, by design, is a sterile and controlled game. That is what people like about it. You essentially try to use your cards and actions in the most efficient way possible while leaving the least amount of chances for an Outbreak to occur. That is the experience every time you set it up to play. When I'm playing a game there is no better feeling than having a player surprise you with something you've never witnessed before. It might have been a risky gambit that paid off or an unlikely strategy that just crashed and burned. Following a script, no matter how good, is merely window dressing. I can't help but feel like it's a trick. It's a façade that when removed exposes the heart and soul of the game: the gameplay. Pandemic Legacy is like going to a Michelin star rated restaurant only to discover that the chef is re-purposing food from Applebees. A game's narrative can only be as good as its primary ingredients. If the basic rules do not allow for exciting play then it's hard to care about the story happening.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not some Scrooge-like Euro hater. If a game is good, I'll play it. Also, I don't care about Ameritrash games vs Euros or any nonsense like that. I like fun games and I merely call it like I see it. For me, the way Pandemic Legacy uses story and gimmicks to facilitate the experience is little more than tasteless fluff. It's difficult to be impressed by it. So when I see people/reviewers losing their mind over this game it really makes me wonder, because it still boils down to playing a game of Pandemic. No amount of flavor text or fluctuating rules are going to change that. So, as the saying about lipstick and a pig goes, the end result is only a slightly sexier swine... or something.



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Da Bid Dabid's Avatar
Da Bid Dabid replied the topic: #217422 15 Dec 2015 21:56
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #217423 15 Dec 2015 22:01
Nice job. Entertaining read that also had a ring of truth to it. Much appreciated.
chouzar's Avatar
chouzar replied the topic: #217424 15 Dec 2015 22:14
This was just spot on.

Played pandemic a couple of months ago... the experience was completely dry for me. I don't think the Legacy aspect will make me change my mind if all I'm sill doing is hand managment with complete out of place abstractions.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #217426 15 Dec 2015 22:28
Huge fan of Pandemic here. But even I will admit it's "dry". It's not something I pull out, but I'll gladly play when someone requests it. It just provided the co-op experience I enjoy, unlike most co ops. It's got smooth AI, re-program itself each game, and a meaningful map play. No need to deal with ifs, buts and thens. The AI part is a fraction of your gameplay time. The pace is excellent with highs and lows, not just constant pounding from the AI.

It's a really solid game for me.

And the comparison to Fury of Dracula is... baffling. Not sure what are you trying to do by comparing an AI controlled opposition with human controlled one...
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #217433 15 Dec 2015 23:25
It would be good if you could edit the piece to make it clearer as to when you are talking about Pandemic and when you are talking about Pandemic Legacy because there are quite a few times when you say "Pandemic" and I think you are referring to "Pandemic Legacy". Because of this it leaves me unclear as to whether you have actually played Pandemic Legacy or are just extrapolating from Pandemic.

Apart from that I disagree. I have had just as much fun playing Pandemic Legacy as I have had playing other Ameritrash games, but then I don't mind a game of standard Pandemic every now and then.
Jarvis's Avatar
Jarvis replied the topic: #217436 16 Dec 2015 00:01
I got the impression from the article that he never played Pandemic: Legacy and just inferred his thoughts of the basic game onto it.

I really enjoyed both the vanilla game and the legacy version of it (after 4 plays). So far the legacy version has done a really good job of developing the missions between sessions. Each has felt unique with the status of the diseases on the board. Sure it's drier than other games, but it is still one of the best designed coops out there.

My friends, family and I will still regularly play Pandemic and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #217439 16 Dec 2015 01:50
I've played Pandemic: Legacy and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. In fact I think it's the game Pandemic should have been, but obviously at a cost (essentially becoming a disposable/consumable game). I enjoy the new material and change-ups that unlock as a consequence of actions in the game, the fact that outbreaks have long term repercussions, that my characters can get fucked up in different ways and/or eventually die, causing my interactions with the other players to change. I don't see any of this as "aping" Ameritrash narrative. Sure it's adopting a narrative modality, but it's doing this in a competent, integrated manner because it's a competent legacy design. I don't think it's slapping on the veneer of Ameritrash quite as lazily or affectedly as one would think, though disliking the core game is obviously not going to make one prone to investigate this design further (it enhances the core game but doesn't redeem some of the flaws). I also think this particular design is much less prone to the problem I faced in Risk: Legacy of players purposefully playing in fucked up ways to unlock content.
scissors's Avatar
scissors replied the topic: #217440 16 Dec 2015 04:22
I don't want to slight you, but I am curious have you played Pandemic Legacy or Above and Below? Because the tone strangely sounds like you actually haven't, like Jarvis suggests, or not much. (or maybe you are limited so as not to reveal spoilers? in which case, thanks).

The way the article is written, a lot of this sounds like conjecture to make a broader philosophical point abut games and narrative.

somehow the points you made aren't very convincing to me, it comes across as not very specific and shallow, even if I understand and agree in essence with what you are saying.

Otherwise, I am not a huge vanilla Pandemic fan, either, but I am pretty sure I could have fun with this game based on what I have heard. And if not, I'm out the cost of one game. not that big a deal.
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #217441 16 Dec 2015 05:26
Rereading the article, I think Jarvis is correct and he is slandering the game without playing it because he hates Pandemic. Which is definitely interesting because Pandemic Legacy does do more with story and narrative than many Ameritrash games do. I have played numerous Board game campaigns and they always felt lacking until Pandemic Legacy because the consequences of success and failure were always irrelevant.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #217442 16 Dec 2015 06:04
Man, thank you for writing this. I was throwing around the idea of doing a preemptive strike against the inevitable GOTY lists we'll be seeing soon. 2015 has been a great year for gaming, but the games that will be most talked about are entirely overrated. Cthulhu Wars is the poster child for mediocrity, Blood Rage offers nothing for me to give two shits about, and then there's this, Febreeze spayed on the turd that is Pandemic.

Great job, Egg.
scissors's Avatar
scissors replied the topic: #217443 16 Dec 2015 06:11
Oh those terrible GotY lists. if only I could avoid them somehow.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #217445 16 Dec 2015 08:25
I don't think you necessarily need to play the game to make this kind of observation. Pandemic is a truly terrible game, a nexus of everything wrong with co-ops in one easy to avoid package. Forcing a storyline which, from all indications is built around the players rather than coming from the players and what they do, is enough for me to say that it isn't enough to justify the reaction it's gotten. I've played Pandemic. I know how it works. I know that much of the game rides on being in the right place at the right time with the right resources and the threats coming out in an order that doesn't entirely screw you over. The heart of that poorly designed experience is still present, a story is supposed to fix that? Please.

I know, I know, "Pandemic is so popular! You're the minority, fun is subjective!" Yeah, maybe, but you know what else is true? Surivor is still on the air, Michael Bay and Zack Snyder movies still make bank, and Coldplay sells shit tons of records. That doesn't paint a pretty picture for "popular opinion" and the intelligence of those who hold it.

And the Fury of Dracula thing isn't really a comparison, it's an example of story that stems from actual gameplay, not poorly written words on a card.
Legomancer's Avatar
Legomancer replied the topic: #217446 16 Dec 2015 08:44
I like Pandemic Classic, even though I don't play it very often. Legacy was something I was eager to try, as I hadn't played a legacy game before. Our first two games of PL we lost, and I wasn't sure if this was an improvement on the design, not because we lost but because (a) we lost in the familiar Pandemic way - poorly timed Epidemics that we couldn't get to in time. I worried that PL was assuming we were better at Pandemic than we actually were, and we were just going to continue to suffer.

Last night, though, we played two more games and won both. And the reason why was due to the things that later came out, which gave us not just a leg up, but more options to utilize. We went from having four fairly obvious roles to play to having to really agonize over that choice. The choices opened up and became a lot more interesting and less obvious.

I haven't really played with any classic Pandemic expansions, so maybe the stuff we're seeing is still old hat to Pandemic fans, but it's made for an exciting narrative to us in PL.

I like narrative in games. I'd say it's one of my top three goals in playing a game. And I like it to be player-driven, not "here's a card with some text on it, now we're 'dripping with theme'." I think Dead of Winter is a load of crap, and I have never ever understood the appeal of Tales of the Arabian Nights. PL is guilty of a lot of that; the criticism that the narrative is driven by in-game devices instead of the players is valid. If you don't like Classic Pandemic on top of that, then no, there really isn't anything for you here, and that's fine.

However, if you're already friendly towards regular Pandemic, then there is still something here. The game controls how these mechanisms are doled out, but the decisions involved in using or not using them, and the crafting of the board and roles to fit a group-decided strategy are still there for players.

PL will certainly be on my Top Ten list for the year. There's a lot there for me personally to be excited about. Will it be #1? Probably not, as I don't see it unseating the current most likely contender for that spot, Caylus (kidding.) But just as I think there's a lot of hyperbole surrounding its rocket rise, there's also a lot of it on the other side (apparently over on BGG there's been a campaign of 1s to overcome the 10s because you can only insta-10 a game if it's another goddamn Uwe Rosenberg farm game).
Black Barney's Avatar
Black Barney replied the topic: #217451 16 Dec 2015 09:01
I really hate Pandemic but Legacy is my most wanted board game right now. I don't know why that is
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #217452 16 Dec 2015 09:18
Scrooge-like Euro hater here. I tried Pandemic, and found it to be a themeless piece of crap waste of my time. I thought that this Legacy version might have been a chance to attach actual theme and narrative to the boring mechanics and transcend into actual entertainment, but it sounds like that isn't the case. Actually the worst knock that I've heard against Pandemic Legacy is that it doesn't really matter if you win or lose individual games, the story continues on track either way.
Disgustipater's Avatar
Disgustipater replied the topic: #217454 16 Dec 2015 09:36
Not that BGG ratings are a meaningful metric in any way, but I find it amusing that Pandemic Legacy is the #1 game in the Strategy Board Game ranking, recently usurping Twilight Struggle's spot.
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #217460 16 Dec 2015 10:27
With all the fuss over on BGG about this game the one thing I will say about it is that I'm happy to see Rob have such success and I'm happy that the legacy idea is really clicking with gamers because I do think that is some pretty fucking awesome lipstick.
Unicron's Avatar
Unicron replied the topic: #217466 16 Dec 2015 11:58
Unlike many here, I’m not opposed to cooperative designs, but I think the caveat is always going to be that the game in question needs to grant individual players a fair amount of agency. Because Pandemic only grants limited agency to the collective, it doesn’t spare much to the individual. I think original recipe Pandemic is a fine solitaire game where one can control multiple pawns/hands of cards to beat the system, but as a play experience, it’s just about optimizing activity/barking orders at your fellow players until a random card draw foils your strategy. I think the players that are desperate for a narrative and great anecdotal gaming experiences should just play better games. If you’re looking for a rich 60-minute-or-less game that you’ll be talking of for years to come, you probably won’t find it. If you’re looking to play 12 sessions of something over the next year for that experience, there are still a ton of better RPG’s or board games worth exploring.

As for the “legacy” component, many times I’m playing games, someone spills their beer. From now on, I’ll shout “LEGACY!” when this occurs
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #217472 16 Dec 2015 12:25
I really enjoyed Risk Legacy. I've been playing Pandemic with my girlfriend (and occasionally her parents) over the last couple months. We're looking forward to playing P:L.

But when I was in middle and early high school I preferred the linear JRPGs to the aimless bioware/bethesda games. I like there to be a story defined by an author. There can still be interesting player-driven moments in games like this in addition to the scripted revelations. Rob looks at these legacy titles almost like he's writing a TV show over 13 episodes that happens to have a game attached to it.

Really, it brings campaigns to the masses without making people get afraid of the idea of roleplaying as a half goblin prostitute.
Ska_baron's Avatar
Ska_baron replied the topic: #217493 16 Dec 2015 14:48
Jexik nailed the appeal - so if that doesnt sound fun to you, then of course you won't like it. Having only played Risk: Legacy and Classic Pandemic, and loving both, I'd be all over this if I had dedicated folks/time.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #217500 16 Dec 2015 15:06
Great article Egg. Good read. Please keep writing.
scissors's Avatar
scissors replied the topic: #217514 16 Dec 2015 16:45
the game may very well may suffer from the shortcomings listed, but I intend to actually play the game before I make up my mind.
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #217519 16 Dec 2015 17:17
There is one important difference between Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy that many may be underestimating. The nature of the Legacy system means that there is no longer one true path to victory. In Pandemic you can overlook a few things that make the situation worse as long as they won't stop you winning. Having a few extra outbreaks is irrelevant if you know there can't be enough to stop you winning, but now you have to weigh up the consequences of all those minor losses, as they can come to be much more important in the context of the bigger picture. So the alpha dog problem is reduced down to a more Arkham Horror like level from the extreme situation that is present in base Pandemic.

There are a few reasons why most people rate Pandemic Legacy 2 to 3 ratings points out of 10 higher than Pandemic:
1) Alpha Dog problem reduced
2) More theme
3) More complexity
4) Very solid campaign system

Unless your main reason that you don't want to try Pandemic Legacy is that you fundamentally don't like Co-ops because you have to crush someone else to enjoy life it is worth considering playing, if only to see how well implemented the game is as a campaign compared to every other board game campaign. There are a lot of people who hate Pandemic and love Pandemic Legacy.
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #217521 16 Dec 2015 17:22

Ancient_of_MuMu wrote: Unless your main reason that you don't want to try Pandemic Legacy is that you fundamentally don't like Co-ops because you have to crush someone else to enjoy life...

I keep seeing this idea being bandied about on the Fort... I don't know why people feel the need to assume that anyone who doesn't like co-ops is such a monstrous asshole but it is entirely unfair and completely ignores several very valid reasons that have nothing to do with this.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #217523 16 Dec 2015 17:23
I agree