Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 Review — A Flawless Finale
Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 sets a new bar for quality for legacy board games and easily surpasses its predecessors as the best in the trilogy.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is the best legacy-style board game I’ve ever played and one of the very best games the hobby has to offer in general. There are several reasons why–which we’ll get into very soon–but it’s worth noting at the top that if you have the means, you should absolutely play Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock’s latest masterpiece.
Now before digging into why this game is so good, it’s probably helpful to define and explain a few things, starting with what a “legacy” game exactly is. A legacy board game is essentially one in which the game changes as you play. So, the decisions you make in one game will affect the next. This can take several forms; you might find yourself adding new stickers to the game board, opening secret boxes to introduce new components, or even being forced to literally rip up cards and destroy them forever.
When it was first introduced in 2011’s Risk Legacy, the mechanic was a revelation. However, it wasn’t until 2015’s Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 that the game type became a full-fledged phenomenon. Quickly, people realized that legacy-style games offer new ways for designers to provide real progression and tell intriguing stories through tabletop games. In short, it gave the industry a massive shot in the arm.
If you’ve never played the base game, Pandemic is a relatively simple cooperative game about clearing the world of deadly viruses for two to four players. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 took that same gameplay and layered on so much more. Season 2 took the core gameplay and tweaked it in some major ways. For my money, it wasn’t as successful as the first game, but was still a fun experience. The newest release, which serves as a prequel, is Season 0. It does quite a bit to bring it back to basics, while also pushing the genre even further in several areas.
Before you worry, I’m going to split this review into two distinct sections. First, I’ll provide an almost entirely spoiler-free review. Essentially, everything you see when you first open the box is fair game. Everything that starts out hidden is off-limits.
Then, we’ll dig a little into spoilers at the end, though I’ll still keep some of the best secrets hidden. So if you want to go in completely spoiler-free, make sure to jump out of this review once you see the clear warning.
Non-Spoiler Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 Review
With that out of the way, let’s talk about what Season 0 does differently to make it stand above the other games in the series and genre. The second you open the box, you can tell this game is special. The game is set in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War. You play as scientists turned CIA operatives, and the game nails that vibe out of the gate.
The game board features coffee stains that make it look like a map some cigar-munching big-wig has been poring over for weeks. The secret compartments look exactly like you’d imagine classified documents would look in that era. And the actual components are absolutely gorgeous and fit the time period to a “T.”
In base Pandemic, the diseases are represented by simple, colored cubes. Because Season 0 is all about stopping the Soviets, they’ve replaced those cubes with red secret agent miniatures, which make it all feel much more thematic than other iterations. But the cherry on top are the new character cards that each player gets.
Because you’re playing CIA agents, you have access to three different aliases per character. This lets you better infiltrate Allied, Neutral, and Soviet strongholds respectively. So, the game gives every player their own beautiful passport to keep track of each alias. Smartly, they’ve included stickers that feature all kinds of disguises for you to use on your different aliases. These don’t have any in-game ramifications, but it’s an awesome thematic touch that blew my socks off. It’s not that stickers in legacy games are anything new; it’s the implementation that made me fall in love.
So, the game looks great; that much is certain. I’ve described tabletop games as a visual showpiece before, but it’s hard to remember one that so perfectly implements its theme across the components and art like Pandemic Legacy: Season 0. However, just because it looks good doesn’t mean it’s a great game. Thankfully, Z-Man Games’ latest more than brings the goods.
As mentioned above, at its core, base Pandemic is a game about a team of scientists coming together to rid the world of disease. You do this by slowly building up a collection of cards that match the color of the cubes for each disease. Along the way, you’ll run into Epidemic cards, which make the diseases even more deadly. Dealing with these while also trying to get enough of the correct cards into one players’ hand is part of what makes Pandemic such a classic game.
Once you have five cards, you can go to a safe house and make a cure. When all four diseases are cured, you win. As you’d expect, all this time you’re also drawing cards from the Threat deck, which is slowly infecting cities around the world. Again, finding that balance between hoarding cards and dealing with infections is incredibly tough. If you can’t manage it properly, your team will quickly find itself on the losing side. Each of the Pandemic Legacy titles takes this formula and changes it up in interesting ways. That said, I think Season 0 does it the best.
The first big change is how the game handles Outbreaks (or in Season 0’s case, Incidents). In other versions of the game, an Outbreak occurs when more than three cubes have to be placed in a city. The base game’s rules don’t allow that to happen. Instead, it results in placing a disease cube in each connected city. If the city is connected to another city that already has three cubes in it, an Outbreak chain occurs. These can quickly dovetail into a loss for your team, making them something you have to avoid at all costs.
With Season 0, Outbreaks are a thing of the past. Or, I guess technically the future? Instead, when you have to place more than three agents in a city, an Incident occurs. When this happens, you draw a card from the bottom of the Threat deck and read the bottom of the card. Here you’ll be told to do all sorts of actions, almost none of which are good.
In some cases, you might have to add agents around the board. Others will force you to lose safehouses you’ve built on different continents. There’s even a few that force the teams you’ve built (more on these in a minute) back to HQ. Not only does it keep chain reactions from killing your current game, but it also makes everything more interesting. You never know exactly what’s going to happen when an incident occurs, making it even tougher to “solve” the puzzle that is Pandemic Legacy: Season 0.
Another change are the teams I just mentioned. Instead of simply curing a disease, you’ll use the cards you find to build teams from one of the three factions. These are represented by little cars that you can move around the board as you like. When they’re in a city that matches their faction, they can remove the agents, making them a powerful asset. However, they mostly come into play with the objectives you have to complete.
And here is the change I like the most with Season 0. In combination with the classic Pandemic gameplay, the new objectives ensure that almost every game has you on the edge of your seat. See, Season 0 introduces the concept of Unknown Targets. Basically, some objectives have you shuffle all the city cards from a region and then randomly choose one. No one gets to see what it is, but you have to figure it out and get a team there to complete the objective.
There are a few ways to do this. You can discard cards to just look at the secret card, but that uses valuable resources. Another requires you to just wait until all the other cards from that region come out. Thus, confirming the location through the process of elimination. The final way is just a blind guess.
More often than not, my group went with a mixture of the latter two. We’d wait as long as we could to get pieces of information and then just hope we got it right. Once you make your choice, you put a team with the right faction on that city and reveal the card. You can give yourself more chances by putting different teams in several cities, which is another tactic we used often.
No matter how you chose to proceed though, these objectives mean you’re always sitting on that knife’s edge between success and defeat. Never did a game feel completely out of hand or too easy. Sure, we lost a few games, but the beauty of it all was that you always felt one move or choice away from either victory or defeat. It’s hard to capture that in a board game, but Daviau and Leacock have mastered it with Season 0.
The game even takes it one step further and doesn’t force you to complete every object to proceed. Of course, all of the Pandemic Legacy games push you along whether you succeed or fail, but Season 0 adds a third option. If you can complete most of your objectives, you can move to the next month of content with an “adequate” ranking. This leads to situations where your team has to make the tough choice to completely abandon one objective in the hopes of pushing forward on others. As with everything else, it strikes an incredible balance that makes you constantly assess and reassess your team’s plan of attack. The drama these moments build is almost better than the crafted narrative that Season 0 is trying to tell you.
The combination of captivating gameplay and truly exceptional theming is only two-thirds of what earns this game a perfect score. The final piece of the puzzle is how well the team has incorporated its many secrets. However, to speak about those would be drifting firmly into spoiler territory. Again I won’t spoil everything, but if you want to go in mostly blind, here’s your exit ramp.
Before you leave, just know that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is an absolute must-play, with the only caveat being that it is a little complicated. Newer game groups might consider starting with something simpler before hopping in. That said, this game has set an incredibly high bar that’s going to be hard to clear. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Now then, let’s talk spoilers. I’m not going to say much about the story; you should learn all of that on your own. Instead, I just want to talk about the masterclass Daviau and Leacock have put together in terms of legacy components and rules with Season 0.
Essentially, they’ve taken just about everything great from past legacy games and escape-the-room games and implemented them in devilishly smart ways. For example, most legacy-style games have ways to upgrade your characters as you play. However, Season 0 has some of the most inventive mechanics that I’ve seen. Plus, having three separate aliases you can switch between at safe houses makes each player so versatile.
It doesn’t end there though. Early in the campaign, the game forces you to answer some questions, record them, and then stash them away. As you play, your answers give you different restrictions that counter all of the new options you uncover through gameplay. So while you’re consistently getting stronger, the game is always forcing you to adapt based on your own choices. In some ways, it’s kind of similar to an RPG that levels its enemies with you. Until those restriction handcuffs come off, you never feel more powerful than the board. It’s an exceptional design.
And the crowning touch of Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is one of the best surprises I’ve ever seen in a board game. I’m very hesitant to spoil it for you. Let’s just say that my wife who played 16 games with me over 5 days asked at the start, “what if they somehow have a second board or something?”, and was proven to be something of a Nostradamus. Look, I’ve played tons of legacy games and escape-the-room games, and the implementation still left my jaw on the floor. It’s not that this surprise brings something completely new to the table, it just implements it so perfectly and thematically that you almost have to stand up and cheer.
*End of Spoilers*
All of these secrets and more combine with an already stellar base game to make something that easily surpasses its predecessors. Not only that, but I think Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is the best legacy game I’ve ever played. For reference, I’ve yet to play The King’s Dilemma and consider Gloomhaven so far beyond the idea of a legacy game that I wouldn’t include it. Otherwise, I’ve tried or completed almost everything else on the market. So, I don’t take my praise lightly; this is a fantastic board game that stands among the very best in the industry.
Safely said, if you have the means, Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is something you must get your hands on. It is two expert designers at their absolute best, capping their trilogy off in the best way possible. The quality of the components speaks for itself. Season 0‘s gameplay is my personal favorite variant of Pandemic that I’ve ever played, and the legacy aspects are a perfect implementation of all the fun tricks the genre has come up with to date. I would hesitate to go so far as to say it’s my favorite board game ever. However, I think when the dice settles, it will firmly be in my top five of all-time.