Friday, August 7, 2020

Pandemic Legacy, the Board-Game Series for the Age of the Coronavirus

Pandemic Legacy, the Board-Game Series for the Age of the Coronavirus

In a list of retail shortages from early March, plague historians will include toilet paper, baking yeast, and, at some stores, every kind of meat except shrimp and ribs. They should also mention a coöperative board game called Pandemic. In 2004, not long after the SARS virus wound a deadly path through China, Singapore, and Canada, Matt Leacock, then a designer at Yahoo, started working on the game during his off hours. Pandemic came out four years later, and made its way from classrooms to medical schools—it was a staple of the short-lived gift shop at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—eventually jostling for shelf space among Hasbro stalwarts like Monopoly and Clue in Walmarts across the country. A favorite among doctors battling the coronavirus, Pandemic has grown from curiosity to cathartic release, offering, in miniature, a finite version of our stricken world.

In the past decade, board games have exploded in popularity and variety, and thousands of new games come out every year. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter have encouraged the emergence of a lucrative publishing system: veteran designers like Eric M. Lang, who crafts games set in ancient Egypt and feudal Japan, have been able to raise millions of dollars before they’ve even finished making their promised sets. Across North America, board game cafés and bars have popped up, from Game Knight Lounge, in Portland, Oregon, to the Uncommons, in Manhattan, to capitalize on a new generation’s interest.

Modern board-games fans, bored with Life and Scrabble, pursue novelty, drawn by themes that reflect their esoteric interests. In Terraforming Mars, which was released in 2016, players control corporations and institutions, vying to erect domed cities and fill the dusty ocean beds of Mars with fish and water. It’s ranked the fourth-best game of all time on the Web site BoardGameGeek. Humbler conceits have proven just as popular. Elizabeth Hargrave’s Wingspan, about nurturing birds in a nature preserve, relies on data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The game has sold out every one of its print runs since it came out last year; Hargrave’s next project, set to appear in August, revolves around migrating monarch butterflies.

Pandemic resembles the Parker Brothers classic Risk—there’s a world map and continents associated with different colors—but the goal is reversed. Instead of seeking world domination, as you raise and spread armies against your friends, you must work with other players to stop the march of multiple diseases that threaten to devastate the Earth. Each player controls a character who is uniquely suited to the game’s tasks. The dispatcher can shuttle another character between continents. The medic can treat more cases of a disease than his colleagues. The scientist can find a cure a little quicker. Players take in the totality of the board and advise one another, wincing together when the results are grim, cheering together when they eradicate a disease. Leacock began devising Pandemic after the bad blood resulting from a particularly acrimonious board-game experience—his wife was among the unhappy players—spilled into real life. Enter the attractive spell cast by coöperative game play: the people around you remain your friends; your enemy is the unfolding of events on the board.

Coöperative board games have been gaining popularity, and, in the decade since Pandemic was released, new versions of the game, like novel strains of the flu, have cropped up every year or so. Sometimes the changes are mostly cosmetic: the tenth-anniversary edition comes in a handsome blue case meant to resemble a first-aid kit. Recently, Pandemic’s publisher, Z-Man Games, announced that Leacock would collaborate once again with Rob Daviau, a veteran Hasbro game designer, to create the third and final installment to their more complex Pandemic Legacy saga, which was begun in 2015.

In a legacy-style game, every time you play, the board might be permanently altered, leaving behind traces of previous decisions and their consequences. Daviau has said that the idea occurred to him while he was tinkering with a new version of Clue. He wondered why Mr. Boddy, apparently untraumatized, kept inviting the same murderous guests to his manor, over and over. What would it be like if the ghost of games past could haunt the present? In an ordinary round of Pandemic, when disease overwhelms a city, an outbreak occurs, and the infection spreads to other states or countries. In the first season of Pandemic Legacy, each game takes place in a given month of a single year. A city pummelled by infection begins to destabilize, and distress simmers among its people. Characters can be scarred and perish. Further outbreaks blossom into riots. Buildings descend into a heap of ashes. As the infected become increasingly restive, you have the option to lob grenades at them. When the players begin the game again, weeks have passed, and they must confront the same web of cities, now wrecked by disease and unrest. Half a decade after the release of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, the series has revealed itself to be an uncanny fit for the age of COVID-19.

“It starts simply. A virus tougher than the rest,” the unfortunately prophetic Season 1 teaser reads. “But as January turns to February, things take a turn for the worse. This is no ordinary virus. What results is a year that will never be forgotten.” The story is also more than a sum of the players’ past missteps and misfortunes. As the game progresses, a stack of cards directs players to specific panels attached to a set of “top secret” dossiers, along with cardboard containers that conceal game pieces. (Designers appreciate the delight players take in handling thick tokens and small cubes; Pandemic’s ninety-six “disease” cubes, in four colors, mix a satisfying object with a stressful conceit, and more game pieces lie hidden in cardboard containers, like chocolates in an advent calendar.)

The first thing you learn in this meticulous unboxing is that one of the four diseases has mutated into an untreatable form that scientists call C0dA. The name seems to reflect the way in which the game unfolds. As you play, the story develops and new characters emerge: a quarantine specialist in a leather jacket shields the populace from new infections; an operations expert with a walkie-talkie and a hard hat quickly erects research stations. The world changes and yet you return again and again to the beginning of the game. C0dA, incurable, still looms.

Many of the top-secret panels hide stickers to fill in blank spaces in the rule book, leading to more—and more complex—decisions. “A minute to learn… a lifetime to master,” the motto of the black-and-white-disk-flipping game Othello, is not always taken to heart by game designers. Like vintage-car collectors marvelling at shifters and carburetors, indie-board-game enthusiasts revel in elaborate systems of dos and don’ts. But such structures often overwhelm casual players. Gloomhaven, a fantasy-themed role-playing game—Dungeons & Dragons, without the improvised storytelling—is the highest-rated game of all time on BoardGameGeek; it’s also discouragingly complex for the uninitiated. In this respect, Pandemic Legacy performs a magic trick: as part of the story, the player must earn the rules, tying each new dictum to the suspense of the narrative. You learn about how to deploy roadblocks only after you absorb the fact that C0dA outbreaks might necessitate the drastic step of blockading a city rife with infection. The rules don’t just constrict the world—they construct it, too.

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