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.