A Legion of Legacies, Part One: Legacy Play

Six years ago, Rob Daviau come up with an interesting new idea that would form the basis of RIsk Legacy (2011). Imagine a game that can be played multiple times, forming a campaign; but also imagine that game changing over time, with secrets being revealed from game to game, while the game itself is irrevocably changing. Cards are destroyed and stickers are applied to various components; the board, the cards, and the player roles all mutate, both improving and degenerating over multiple plays. It turns out that this second element, of dramatically changing game elements, bolsters the first element, of multiple plays, creating a real gaming innovation.

Risk Legacy was immediately a hit, but it took several years (and a few more outings) for the “Legacy” idea to catch on more broadly. It’s only recently that it’s blossomed, with multiple Legacy games coming out in 2017-2018.

The Controversy of Legacy

There’s been one major controversy with the Legacy games: you can only play them through for one campaign. When you’re done, because you’re destroying some components and stickering up your board and cards, there’s no way to start over.

And some folks really don’t like that.

I do hate the wastefulness of having a game that probably needs to be destroyed at the end. Oh, Risk Legacy indicates that you could keep playing on the final board, and Pandemic Legacy Season One says that you could use it as a regular Pandemic set when you’re done, but I just don’t see that happening. The joy of these games is in the evolving play, not in some static final version that may (or may not) be useful.

However, I think the cost-benefit analysis suggests that Legacy games are worth their retail price. Risk Legacy runs 15 games, while Pandemic Legacy: Season One (2015) runs 12-24 and Pandemic: Legacy: Season Two (2017) runs 13-25, or more if you repeat the initial non-Legacy prologue. In my book, that’s a lot of games: more than anything but the one or two most successful games each year can possibly aspire to. In fact, looking at my 14 years of game playing records, I find only 36 games that have totalled 15 plays or more. If a Legacy game manages to edge its way into that elite company, I can’t fault it for requiring a repurchase afterward.

And I also think that Legacy games actually encourage that sort of replay, making them more likely to reach that high level of success …

The Advantages of Legacy

The Legacy games have a number of unique gameplay elements, most of which are straight-out “wins”. Some of these arise from their campaign-length play and some from the ability to widely vary their components. 

Campaign Length. One of the most obvious advantages of Legacy games is that they actively encourage a high number of replays. That’s in large part because of what I’ve called “catch them all” design. Players want to play through the game in all of its variations. Daviau recognizes this strength saying: “And when people say to me ‘but you can only play it 15 times’, I like to turn that on its head and say ‘I’ve given you a reason to play it 15 times.’”

Variability. That high number of replays is possible in part because of another strength of Legacy games: variability. They change over time, often quite dramatically, creating interest in that elongated campaign. The player role you’re using can change, making the game feel different for you; while the the game rules and the game components can change too, making the game different for everyone. The end result is dramatically variable play, from start to end.

Experience & Growth. The fact that the player roles (whether they be characters, countries, or ships) change is one of element of that variability, but it also gives players real goals to shoot for. Improving your character role, or creating other benefits for future games, is a fun and fulfilling end to each session’s play.

Learn as You Go. That variability also offers another advantage. A Legacy game can build up its full ruleset, starting with a simplified version of the game in the first session, then expanding on that game over game. The result is something that’s much easier to learn, in a way that’s almost unthinkable for single-session games.

Metaplay. Finally, Legacy games have something that’s all but unknown in traditional board games: metaplay. Players have to carefully consider the repercussions of game events not just in their current game, but in the overall campaign. The Pandemic Legacy games probably show this best in their population systems, where players can take certain actions in the game to try and preserve their populations for future plays.

The Chronicles of Legacy

To date there have been just a few Legacies of note, with Daviau having a hand in all of them.

Risk Legacy (2011) was the first. It introduced the Legacy concept with variously sized boxes of secret stuff to add to your game over time — and even a super-secret box that the players were supposed to never open (but everyone did). One of the interesting things about RIsk Legacy was that different sets actually had different contents! Daviau describes Risk Legacy as a “really light, sandbox” and admits that it was a “crazy mishmash of ideas”.

Pandemic Legacy: Season One (2015) was the game that put the Legacy concept into the spotlight. The big change was obviously the move from a competitive game to a cooperative game; Daviau (and coauthor Matt Leacock) helped to manage this with a “funding” system that made things more difficult in future games when players were winning and easier when they were losing, preventing “snowballing” over the course of the campaign. Season One also introduces the idea of players deciding which improvements they need to buy from game to game. Finally, it has a stronger narrative than Risk Legacy. The core game system is also probably the most elegant and polished of the Legacy games, with the end result being a top seller and a top BGG game.

SeaFall (2016) is the least well-known of Daviau’s four Legacy games, despite the fact that he spent over three years developing it, as he created a totally new game system from the ground up (rather than adapting a classic for Legacy play). Shockingly, after all that work, Daviau acknowledges that it still “needed another round of development”. The core play of SeaFall came out of Daviau’s realization that in Risk Legacy “people liked opening things and liked finding things”. So he created a game that centered on exploration, starting from with a nearly blank map. That’s supplemented by a choose-your-own-adventure-like “Captain’s Booke” that offers up unique stories for the various places being explored. It’s an interesting focus for a Legacy game, but tied with a dense medium-heavy game system that was a hybrid between American and European design, it didn’t take off.

Pandemic Legacy: Season Two (2017) just appeared a few weeks ago. It combines the tight design and narrative of Season One with a bit of exploration ala SeaFall. It also has a game system that is a surprising step away from Pandemic, but appropriate for the 71-years-later timeframe.

The Future of Legacy

Following the release of Pandemic Season Two, the times may be changing: other designers are becoming willing to step up and test the Legacy waters. Daviau is OK with this, saying “What I hope is that its just like another genre that some people can think about. Its another way you can make a game.”

The first serious Legacy-like game, Gloomhaven (2017), didn’t label itself as Legacy — but there are stickers that can be applied to change the game over a long-term campaign. However, these changes don’t have to be permanent! Removable stickers are now available, to allow players to reset their game at the end — which shows that the Legacy play in Gloomhaven is relatively minor, compared to the huge secrets and changes of Daviau’s releases. The upcoming city-building game of Charterstone (2017) seems more comfortable calling itself Legacy, and there are a few more of this type scheduled for the next year.

Meanwhile, Daviau himself continues the category, with his next announced release being Chronicles 1: Origins (2019?), where the players will develop historical tribes over eight games, then “echo” that into the next game, Chronicles 2. This “echoing” play is a new even more expansive take on Legacy gameplay — but even the first game has already been delayed for a while, so it’s not entirely clear when we’ll get to see it.

The Evolution of Legacy

Though Legacy games are an innovation new sort of game that seems on the verge of taking off and becoming a new category of play (just like Daviau imagines), they’re also part of an evolutionary stream of game development that involves a number of other games. I’ll be talking about those and how Legacy crosses into several other types of gameplay in a follow-up article, in four weeks time (or so).

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