Be warned: this article has minor spoilers about Pandemic Legacy.
Legacy games have become hot property in the tabletop gaming world. A legacy game is a board game that is played over multiple sessions and changes the physicality of the game depending on player action, successes and failures – be it destroying game cards or making permanent changes to the game board – to create an overarching story that the players share regardless of whether the game is co-operative or combative. While Risk Legacy was the forefather of this movement, it’s easy to argue that Pandemic Legacy Season 1 – an adaptation of the incredibly popular Pandemic board game – has become the posterchild for legacy gaming, which is saying something considering the abundance of games available: now you can play a legacy game about going out to sea, creating a village, and soon, you’ll be able to play a legacy game about exploring a haunted house!
Before Pandemic and Risk, there was another legacy game that most people will have played, either with one other player, or with two or more others. This legacy game has the ultimate storytelling potential, while remaining a singular experience, of which only a small group are privy to the finer details. Obviously, this legacy game is dating.
During the first half of 2017, relationship and Pandemic Legacy collided for me when I suggested to my new boyfriend that we play the game together. I had owned the game for a while at this point, and try as I might, was unable to get together a group of people to play it on the regular. During the first month of dating, me and this man, who I shall call Joe, because that’s his name, had been discussing our hobbies, and he mentioned how he wanted to get into tabletop gaming more. While we had played a few games together, it was a couple of months into the relationship when I broached the subject of starting Pandemic Legacy with him, and him alone. Due to the nature of Legacy games, if our relationship was to end before we actually completed the campaign, I would be the proud owner of an expensive and unplayable monument to failed romance – as a person who is naturally anxious, but who also dives into relationships headfirst, I thought this would be an exciting opportunity. Present Ash looking back now knows that Past Ash was an idiot.
It is at this point that – in a more heartbreaking piece – I would go on to discuss how the apocalyptic theming of the game mirrored the slow decline of our relationship, and how ultimately I learned to cherish my half-complete copy of Pandemic Legacy as a token of a beautiful moment of two flawed people connecting in a troubled world.
This is not that article.
This is the story of how Joe and I absolutely destroyed Pandemic Legacy, becoming a cohesive unit that learned to recognise each other’s flaws and make the most of each other’s positive character traits to do our best work, while also discussing our shared ethics and seeing the ways in which our relationship could thrive on teamwork and communication.
Yes, we may not have saved the world to the best of our abilities, but we left the experience knowing each other much better than we may have done if we hadn’t played this game, and also feeling much more confident in the future of our relationship.
In the year and a bit since we started dating, my partner and I have only been at each other’s throats a couple of times, each time because of co-operative board games. As a couple we have frequented several escape rooms, and even when we lost, we had fun. This teamwork did not translate to games that set out to replicate the escape room experience in a deck of cards. What these experiences taught me was that Joe is a perfectionist who can’t abide losing, or being stumped by a puzzle. The abstract, and sometimes unclear, nature of the puzzles in these deck of cards led to a level of frustration that I haven’t seen my partner express in any other situation.
While in the above situation, Joe’s perfectionism got the better of both of us – I would find it difficult to empathise with his frustration at trying to parse these obscure puzzles – during our time playing Pandemic Legacy it became a boon. Learning more about my boyfriend, I’ve discovered that he has been able to succeed at anything he’s ever attempted, which I have of course couch-psychoanalysed, to conclude that he is someone who doesn’t handle defeat because it’s not something that has come up often in his day-to-day life.
On the other hand, I have become a dab hand at pre-empting and planning for failure. While this means I tend to take a more laidback approach to competition, it also means I often see loss several steps before it’s assured, and I frequently give up before I should. However,this pessimism can translate to a more shrewd mindset where I’m able to see that a game is just a game.
Our journey through the world of Pandemic Legacy became an exciting push and pull where I would continually despair at the state of the world (both in this fictitious setting and in its real-world counterpart), while my partner would be there reassuring me, pointing out all the systemic ways that we could still win a game for our team. In this way, the story of our relationship became the story of Pandemic Legacy. The game itself allows you to play as pre-created characters with their own classes and skills, and we took advantage of these systems to create a strategy that almost always worked. This involved our player characters being rivals, which was at odds with the wider story that Joe and I were telling of two queer men slowly falling in love during a situation that often seems hopeless, but can be rectified with support and communication, and it was beautiful.
And then we nuked Karachi.
After stumbling our way through the first couple of games, we began to find our groove: we were the disease-eradicating team to beat. We got complacent. We thought we’d never encounter a problem ever again, and then all heck broke loose.
During one session, the cards weren’t working in our favour, alongside a disastrous early game, and general tiredness meant that this particular game was going extremely poorly. I had conceded – as I do – that we had lost this game, we had put up a good fight, but we were through, and we should just try again next time. This was not acceptable to Joe, who believed we could pull it out of the bag, we just had to take advantage of an option that had become available to us during the game. We could nuke Karachi. Dear reader, we nuked Karachi. We still lost that game, but moving forward, Karachi would be a radiated wasteland on our board, reminding us of how far we were both willing to go to achieve success. We were both willing to make a difficult sacrifice in this context.
I’d like to think neither of us would be able to nuke a country for personal gain – after all, I’ve never been able to blow up the Megaton nuke in Fallout 3 – but it was at this point I realised how infrequently I had questioned my own ethics, let alone the ethics of this person I was dating. In conversations since that point, I feel more confident that I am a “good” person, and I am dating a “good” person, but we both still have that moment where we dropped an atomic bomb on Karachi. Despite how abstract that decision was, it still makes me wonder how deep my ideals actually go, as an ally to marginalised groups, to my own queer community, and my general core belief system, but that’s an anxiety-riddled piece for another day.
Of course, our relationship wasn’t entirely made up of playing Pandemic Legacy, and I’ve learned that Joe is a kind – while editing this piece I notice I had written king instead of kind, so take that as you will – and caring person, with a competitive streak that borders on scary. We have now entered the second year of our relationship, and we are about to begin playing Season 2 of Pandemic Legacy, and I feel confident that when we finish this Legacy game, we will still be a couple; perhaps the rules of our relationship will have evolved and changed, because we won’t be the same people we were when we started dating. All I know is that this game has shown me that we can be communicative and we’re willing to rework our tactics on the fly. Sometimes our decisions will lead us to saving the world, and other times we’ll nuke Karachi, but the important part is that we made our decisions together and we saw them through, and win or lose, we will have made a memorable story.