All photography by the author, with the utmost care taken to not spoil how the game unfolds
Johannesburg was gone.
The city had been ravaged by disease, rioting mobs had taken to the streets, and now the contagion was threatening to spread.
The sensible thing would be to pull out, join my team back in the comparative safety of Europe. But damn it, I wasn't ready to give up on the entire African continent. If I could hold out just a little bit longer, maybe I could get to Kinshasa, Lagos, Khartoum. If I could only isolate the infection, perhaps I could stop them all going the same way as South Africa.
If not, well, I'd probably end up dead—but so would a lot of other people.
That's not the kind of situation I'd ever want to face in real life, but it's one that a lot of people seem to find intriguing judging by the success of Pandemic Legacy—a board game released in late 2015 that many are calling the best ever created.
That might not mean very much to you if you get your gaming fix from consoles and computers, but as I wrote on VICE a few months ago, analogue games are in the middle of a massive surge in popularity. Incredible new releases are coming out on an almost weekly basis, and sales have gone through the roof as more and more people discover just how much fun you can have with a few pals, a couple of beers, and a well-crafted stack of cardboard and plastic.
Innovative games like Pandemic Legacy are a big part of the reason for this resurgence. Co-designed by industry veterans Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, it hands you and your friends the role of a team of medics battling diseases around the globe. As part of a group of characters, each with their own set of special abilities, you'll jet around the world treating the infected, researching cures, and struggling with the knowledge that a single fuck-up on your part could doom all humanity.
This will all sound pretty familiar to anyone who's played the 2008 "vanilla" version of Pandemic, and this new twist on the original has the same cerebral gameplay and mounting sense of panic that made its predecessor one of the board game industry's most enduring bestsellers. But it also adds something new: a deep, rich, and immersive ongoing plot.
Where most board games can be played as many times as you like before you get bored of them, Pandemic Legacy is based around a narrative campaign that unfolds over a limited number of play sessions. Each game represents one month in a yearlong saga of sickness, and along the way you'll encounter all sorts of unforeseen twists and turns, encountering new threats and challenges every time you play.
Of course, video games have had story modes for decades, and at first glance it might seem that their cardboard cousins are a bit late to the narrative-driven party. But Pandemic Legacy does some novel and impressive things with its own fundamentally physical format that would be impossible for even its most sophisticated electronic counterparts to emulate.
The game comes with a couple of components that are key to its storyline. One, a dossier stamped with the words "TOP SECRET," looks like the kind of thing Tony Blair or George W. Bush would have commissioned to justify an ill-advised invasion of a Middle-Eastern state. It's filled with stickers you'll affix to the game's instructions, adding new rules, overwriting others, and fundamentally changing the way you play as you progress through the campaign.
There's also a set of eight ominous-looking sealed black boxes, which you'll be instructed to open at specific points in the plot. Some hand you new tools to fight runaway infections, while others make your situation unfathomably worse, adding a host of new dangers for you to deal with. You'll never know what a box contains until you crack it open, a process that feels like a weird combination of childhood Christmas mornings and a game of Russian roulette.
These major developments happen at predetermined intervals, but they're just one side of the constantly unfolding plot. The game also reacts to the players' actions, with the world changing as a result.
Let a city suffer multiple disease outbreaks, and it'll descend into chaos with rampaging mobs burning down your buildings and blocking your attempts to travel through the region. And when a city loses its shit, it's permanent. You'll add stickers to the board to indicate rioting locations, and they'll haunt you from one game to the next, a constant reminder of every bad decision you've made.
All of this means that after a couple of playthroughs, the world starts to look pretty screwed up. It also means the situation your group faces will be completely different from anyone else's. Entire continents will fall to anarchy. Your characters will form relationships and suffer psychological scars, growing into rounded, complex human beings. You'll become deeply invested in their individual stories. You'll mourn them when they die. And nobody, anywhere, will have quite the same experience.
As you play through the campaign, you'll hit a bewildering succession of triumphs, disasters and moments of flat-out holy shit incredulity. You'll curse your bad luck, second-guess your decisions, and perhaps even ask some fundamental questions about your own morality. I'm still not sure whether my group's strategy of protecting Europe and the US while Africa and South America were overrun was a pragmatic response to an insurmountable threat, or evidence of latent first-world insularism, and if a game can absolutely captivate me even after making me feel like a closet racist, it must have something going for it.
Pandemic Legacy works flawlessly on just about every level and has had a rapturous response from fans and critics. But it's also sparked a strong reaction from a small but vocal minority of gamers who seem to object to the idea of a game with a limited lifespan. Some have taken it upon themselves to mount a mass down-voting campaign that temporarily prevented the game hitting the number one spot on the rankings at analogue gaming's online epicenter, BoardGameGeek. A few, in a mind-blowing display of utter childishness, have posted plot spoilers for the game online.
But maybe it's not surprising that some people feel threatened by this game. It does bold, new things, and it challenges long-established expectations about what a board game should be. It's a genuine leap forward, and when do those ever come without somebody getting their nose out of joint?
This is a phenomenal achievement of game design. If you've yet to take the plunge into tabletop gaming, you now have the most compelling reason you could ever ask for to give it a shot. People are calling this the greatest game of all time. It's hard to find a reason to disagree.
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