As I have recounted here on Strange Assembly, one of my best gaming experiences ever was playing through Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. So I was pretty primed to be excited for the conclusion of the Pandemic Legacy trilogy with Pandemic Legacy: Season 0. Having completed a playthrough, I can tell you that excitement was fully paid off.
Note that, as the name says, Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is a legacy game – there’s a campaign, you will destroy/alter/etc. components during the course of the campaign, and then your experience is done. Personally, I’ve quite happy to play a legacy game when the designer really pays off the mechanic. But, from a review perspective, one of the tricky aspects of a legacy game is spoilers. This review is spoiler-free – I’m not going to disclose anything that you don’t already know at the start of the first game of the campaign. This means that some of my opinions will be poorly supported by examples, but such is life.
Season 0 is indeed a prequel to the other two Pandemic Legacy games. Season 0 is less like base Pandemic than Season 1, but more like base Pandemic than Season 2. So the game hews to the bones of Pandemic, but with significant variance in the nuances. This review assumes that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the basic Pandemic mechanics.
Season 0 is set in 1962, at the height of the cold war. The players are not CDC doctors, but medically-trained CIA agents. Little nods to this are apparent from the visible components (what are these empty intelligence and personnel files?) Although they have been assigned to look into a Soviet bioweapon, the Season 0 equivalent of disease cubes are Soviet agents – a certain number of them are seeded on the board at the start of the game, the threat deck puts out more every turn, and the players have to keep too many from gathering in a city or else bad things happen. While agents share similarities with disease cubes, however, they are not the same – trying to put a fourth agent in the same city does not, for example, cause them to reproduce and spread into neighboring cities.
But it does cause an incident. When there’s an incident, the players must draw the bottom card of the threat deck and see what the special incident text on that card is. Incidents can have a number of immediate effects, but tend to be fairly swingy. Many times incidents won’t have any effect, based on the configuration of the board at that time. Other times incidents will cause a cascade of more incidents (and, like traditional Pandemic outbreaks, too many incidents means you lose the game). Incidents also have a permanent effect on the board, increasing the amount of surveillance on a city. Surveillance is bad for the players, because every turn that a player pawn starts in a city that’s under surveillance, their alias’s cover is damaged.
You see, in the world of international spies, the characters don’t just run around the board as themselves. Instead, each player has a “passport” with several aliases. These are constructed by taking three copies of the same face sticker, placing them on the Allied, Neutral, and Soviet alias pages in the passport, and then disguising them with various stickers. Each alias has its own spots for customizable upgrades (although only one alias is available at the start of the campaign, it is known at the start of the campaign that the other aliases will be used). Each of those aliases has a certain amount of cover. When an alias’s cover is damaged, you scratch off one of the boxes, possibly revealing a negative effect underneath. Eventually, if an alias loses enough cover, it is burned.
Another significant difference is the ability to create teams. You aren’t the only CIA agents out there, and teams can can be used to eliminate Soviet agents and accomplish mission objectives. Like your aliases, the teams have cover that’s either Soviet, Neutral, or Allied, and teams can only be used in a matching city. Teams are created by discarding cards of cities of the appropriate affiliation, which is one of the new uses for cards (given that there’s no vaccine for Soviet infiltrators). Another use is to “identify target city” – some objectives you won’t know where the objective is, and you’ll need to accumulate enough cards for the applicable continent to figure it out.
Each campaign takes place over 12 months (plus the prologue), and in each month the players have 2-3 objectives (you can see in advance how many objectives each month has by looking at the board). Complete at least two objectives, and the players advance to the next month with an adequate or succeeding rating (depending on whether they let a third objective fail). The players get a second try at a month if they fail the first time, but will regardless progress after two games in a month – the plot moves on, despite the character’s failure in that month. Level of success in prior months is used as something of a balancing factor – if you beat everything, the bureaucracy decides that you’re clearly over-resourced, and cuts your funding for the next month (i.e., you get fewer event cards in the player deck). If you’re doing poorly, your funding will be inreased.
And that’s really what you know at the start of the campaign. Of course, there’s more – you can tell right from the start that there are the (now expected) boxes of components to later be unlocked, along with multiple “dossiers” with doors to unlock. Overall, Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is excellent. With two prior offering under their belt, the mechanical design really hums. It’s still amazing how the appropriate addition of legacy elements is able to take the core Pandemic mechanics to new heights. There’s a real extra thrill whenever something goes wrong (and permanently changes the rest of your games) or when you manage to avert it – and every new game brings reminder of glory (or ignominy) past. The story is interesting and, because it’s a prequel, has the ability to give shout-outs to Pandemic Legacy: Season One. The different setting and varied mechanics make sure you don’t just feel like you’re playing Season 1 again. The more nuanced levels of success allow the game to unfold in a distinctive way, with later happening more subtly affected by past events. Not all is perfect; there’s a bit more randomness introduced that I would like. There’s obviously present in any game of Pandemic, of course – as always, every time there’s an escalation, you’ll be hoping that the newly added city doesn’t immediately come up again. But the resolution of the incidents adds an additional element of randomness – a lot of the time they don’t have any effect in the current game (which makes the game both easier and more random). Additionally, there are objectives of various types that come up during the game, and one of them was very dependent on early card draws – it was possible to fail those objectives very quickly without there being much of anything you can do about it.
I would heartily recommend any Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 to pretty much any board gamer (unless you’re just allergic to the whole legacy concept). I do still prefer Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 out of the three – the plot twists there are unrivaled. But that doesn’t really feel fair; like comparing a new movie to Star Wars. Even if base Pandemic isn’t your jam, the execution of the legacy concepts in Season 0 (and it’s predecessors) is unparalleled.
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