Legacy Games – Part 1

Risk Legacy

Back in 2011, a game called Risk Legacy came out.  It was a campaign version of Risk with a rather significant twist.  Just in case you’re not familiar with Risk, it’s a fairly basic wargame from 1959.  You get a bunch of troops each turn, stick them on the map, roll dice to fight people in adjacent territories and try to conquer the world.

Virtually every man and his dog have played Risk at some point in their life.  I certainly played it a lot as a child.  It’s one of the top 10 best-selling games ever.  The idea with Risk Legacy though, was that the same group of players would play through a Risk campaign together and the game would change after each game.

These are not just different missions within the same game however.  Depending on players’ actions during the game, they might add stickers to the board or the faction sheets, they might write on cards or parts of the board, cards might be ripped up and thrown away, and boxes with extra components and rules might be opened and added to the game.

Amidst much controversy (“Rip up the cards?! Inconceivable!”), Risk Legacy started a new genre of games known, appropriately, as Legacy games.  The genre has had mixed success since its inception though.  Let’s take a look…

It’s actually remarkably difficult to talk about Legacy games.  People are very concerned that you may give away some spoilers (intentionally or otherwise) while discussing the game and “ruin” it for them.  Well, I will endeavour to discuss the topic without ruining it and I certainly won’t be talking about any specific events in specific games, but I will be talking about the mechanisms involved in a general sense so stop reading now if that’s too much!

It’s very much like watching a film at the cinema.  A Legacy game is attempting to provide an overarching narrative to the campaign with unexpected twists and turns like the plot of a film.  Some people don’t like to watch trailers because they don’t want to know anything that happens in the film before they watch it.  “What?!  The latest Star Wars film has a lightsabre fight in it?  It’s ruined!”

Risk Legacy was interesting, but wasn’t as successful as it could have been for a couple of reasons.  The first boils down to replayability.  A lot of people seemed to be concerned that once you had finished the campaign, you could never play the game again.

Each game in the campaign permanently changes the game in some way.

This is true to a certain extent.  Each game in the campaign permanently changes the game in some way so that when you’ve finished, you have a completely different game from the one you started playing (and possibly completely different from anyone else’s copy once they have finished the campaign, which is pretty cool).

Now you can theoretically play the game again once you’ve finished, but you will just be playing the game in the state it ended up in at the end of the last game.  It’s never going to change again.  You certainly can’t reset the whole thing and start again (although Charterstone, a more recent Legacy game, does allow you to do this – for a cost).

So personally, once I’ve finished a Legacy campaign, I’ve never played the game again.  The interest comes about from seeing how it changes, how your characters evolve, how you react to the unexpected events.  If nothing’s going to change again, it’s nowhere near as interesting.  In fact, I’ve never known anyone to play a Legacy game again after they’ve finished the campaign.  I’m sure someone somewhere has, but I think it’s rare.

However, most Legacy games require a significant time commitment.  You’re looking at 15-20 games for most Legacy campaigns.  Despite the fact that they will probably have a finite life, I still think Legacy games are tremendous value for money.  So I don’t think the ultimate lack of replayability is an issue personally, but I suspect it puts some people off.

The issue hampering Risk Legacy though, was that it was Risk.

The other issue hampering Risk Legacy though, was that it was Risk.  Despite the improvements that they made, it’s still essentially playing Risk over and over again, and some people (myself included!) are not going to get very excited by that prospect.

You could see Rob Daviau (one of the designers of Risk Legacy and the most prolific of the Legacy designers) thinking to himself, “This Legacy idea has gone over quite well.  What if I tried to do a Legacy version of a modern game that’s really popular?  That would be much more successful!”

And so Pandemic Legacy was born.  Pandemic has been the People’s Choice number 1 game (as recorded by the Dice Tower) for years.  It’s incredibly popular.  Pandemic has a simple ruleset (like Risk), but it’s co-operative and the theme is one that most people engage with readily: saving the world from an outbreak of deadly diseases.

It was a match made in heaven.  It was like Pandemic: The Film where you get to play a starring role.  Everybody loved it.  It managed to do what no one thought was possible: it displaced Twilight Struggle as the number 1 game on BoardGameGeek.

I didn’t seem to enjoy it quite as much as everyone else – you were essentially playing Pandemic over and over again.  Don’t get me wrong, I think Pandemic is a very good game, but it’s a bit simple for my tastes and I’ve played it a lot.  The Legacy elements were great though.  There were significant changes throughout the campaign and you were regularly opening new boxes of content to add to the game.

Since then there have actually been remarkably few Legacy games.  Many people expected lots of designers to jump on the band wagon, but it seems that Legacy games are difficult and time consuming to develop.

SeaFall was Rob Daviau’s next venture into Legacy territory, but it wasn’t well received.  It was billed as the first Euro Legacy game, but most people found it rather long and slow with a lack of plot development (which Pandemic Legacy did so well).

Legacy games are great value for money.

It’s tricky.  Legacy games are great value for money if you enjoy them and play through the whole campaign, but with all the extra hidden components that they supply, they are expensive for a boardgame.  You don’t really want to splash out on a Legacy game unless you’re sure you’re going to like it and have the time to play a whole campaign with like-minded people.

Splitting the cost between the other players is a great idea though and massively reduces the cost per person.  Even then, I think you need to treat it like a trip to the cinema rather than a game that will last a lifetime.  You’re paying for a finite piece of entertainment at the end of the day.

After SeaFall, things went quiet again.  Unless you count games like Gloomhaven and First Martians.  While these games claimed to have Legacy elements though, the changes introduced weren’t anywhere near as significant as those introduced in Risk Legacy or Pandemic Legacy.

However, Essen 2017 saw the release of two more highly anticipated Legacy games: Charterstone and Pandemic Legacy Season 2.  Charterstone was Jamey Stegmaier’s foray in the Legacy world.  This is Jamey Stegmeier of Scythe fame (a tremendous game) so everyone was expecting great things.

And Pandemic Legacy Season 2?  Season 1 was the big Legacy hit so lots of people thought Season 2 would be just as good, if not better.  Prior to playing it though, I was somewhat ambivalent.  The thought of playing another 15-20 games of Pandemic didn’t grab me.

Did these games live up to their expectations?  Find out in Part 2…

Have you played any Legacy games?  Which is your favourite?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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