Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Legacy Apology

Destroying boardgame components is a stunning new trend adopted by thousands of enthusiasts who, not that long ago, frowned over a dog-eared card and scowled at a Pepsi-stained board.
How the hell did this happen?
Boardgames have a come a long way since the turn of the millennium. Where they mainly used to exist as unsophisticated wargames (like Risk or Axis & Allies) or variations on the roll-and-move model (such as Candyland, Chutes & Ladders or Monopoly), they are now so varied in concept and execution that it’s getting difficult to keep track of it all.
Nowadays, boardgames cover a myriad of themes and employ a dazzling array of mechanisms to create fun and excitement at the gaming table. Some of the best-selling titles of the past decade involve establishing railroad networks in various parts of the world (the Ticket to Ride series), running a 17th-century farm and trying not to starve (Agricola), working together to stop deadly viruses from spreading all over the globe (Pandemic), and producing and shipping goods during colonial times in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico).
(For the uninitiated, it’s worth mentioning that none of the above games use dice in any way, shape or form. New boardgames definitely don’t play the way they did 20 years ago—but that’s a topic for a different blog post…)

However, for all their newfangled twists and original backdrops, today’s games share one crucial characteristic with their ancestors: they reset at the end of each and every session. You set up the game, play it to its conclusion, and then break it down and put it back in the box, where it’ll wait in that inert state until someone begins the cycle anew. Sessions will unfold differently depending on random set up elements and decisions taken by the players, but the game always starts with an empty board, in a sort of virginal state. Unsoiled.
But all that is slowly changing, thanks to an unassuming game released in 2011.

Ironically, the game that shook up the established order came from Hasbro, a toy maker not known for innovative gameplay (thanks to tired games—Clue, Risk, Operation, etc.—endlessly refitted with the hot intellectual property of the moment). But that is where designer Rob Daviau conceived of a game that would NOT reset at the end of every session. A world that would evolve with each run-through and offer players an ever-changing landscape.
Of course, the idea of “campaigns” wasn’t a new one in the boardgame world. You would play one session and the results of said session would influence the next one, and so on (usually through changes in set up to reflect, for instance, lost combat units or gained resources). But what Daviau was proposing went way beyond some inter-session bookkeeping: he wanted to physically alter the components of the game. Forever.

And so was born Risk Legacy, another entry in an ocean of Risk variations. But that one was different; that one was crazy. Sure, the game used the basic Risk mechanisms and offered yet another setting (sci-fi warlords vie for Earth domination) but it came in a box with sealed packages and envelopes, together with strict instructions as to when to open them. Players were invited to select a faction that they would play throughout the entire 15-session campaign, and then write their names on the faction cards. Using a permanent marker.

That first act of desecration was already too much for many gamers, who simply refused to take part in such atrocities. But the madness was only getting started. The game, among other things, allowed for cities to be conquered, burned to the ground or fortified. And so the conquering, burning or fortifying player was required to use one of the many stickers provided with the game, and apply it to the board to denote the city’s new status. We’re not talking Post-It notes, here: those are stickers that never, ever come off. That city got destroyed? Well it’s destroyed. For all eternity.
… in your copy of the game, that is. Because the group next door, who’s also playing its own campaign of Risk Legacy, will most probably not go through the same motions your group did. So different cities will get different treatments. Different factions will acquire different technologies (note it on your faction card!). Sealed events will happen at different moments and affect different elements of the game, and so on. In the end, each group winds up with a completely personalized copy of the game, an extreme level of customization achieved through 15 sessions of pure exploration. Not only do you not have access to the full roster of game components when you first start out, but even the rules evolve over time, with holes in the rulebook being filled with stickers that modify the way the game is played.

Risk Legacy quickly found its audience, and it was only a matter of time before other legacy-style games saw the light of day. Daviau himself designed a sequel of sorts, once again picking up an existing design—the aforementioned Pandemic—and giving it the legacy treatment. In Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 (which strongly hints at a possible continuation of the storyline), two to four players get together to fight the spread of deadly viruses. And it feels pretty much like your good old Pandemic—well, perhaps apart from naming the characters you decide to play and logging the date of each session on their cards—until the shit hits the fan. Things spiral out of control, characters die (yes, rip that card to shreds and throw it away), heroes emerge from the wreckage (new characters to choose from!), a new, deadly virus makes a dramatic entrance (time to alter that rulebook), special missions become priorities (it almost feels like we’re playing a different game!) and so on, for a campaign experience that spans 12 to 24 sessions, depending on your level of success at the end of each run.

Was it fun? You bet. The experience ranks among the highlights of my long and distinguished career as a boardgaming geek, and it showed me that boardgames can tell gripping, edge-of-your-seat interactive stories to rival movies, videogames and those page-turners that keep you awake all night.
(Come on: I remember my group finishing a session of Pandemic Legacy past midnight and immediately launching into the next one, even though we all had to get up and go to work just a few hours down the line.)
Will we play with our Season 1 box again? No. While the game does permit further sessions—you just keep playing with your customized game, even though your actions no longer contribute to an ongoing storyline—it has essentially run its course. We keep it archived and look at the resulting board from time to time, like a worn out diary that speaks to turbulent times and obstacles now overcome.
Will we buy Season 2 if it ever comes out? Only death would prevent us from doing so. Maybe.

Many of my gamer friends have shied away from the legacy experience. They can’t begin to imagine altering and even destroying game components, nor can they accept the fact that after the campaign is over, you don’t really want to play the game again, and you can’t sell it or trade it. It’s done.
But it’s all worth it. Not a single doubt about that.

Your typical, serious boardgamer will have a collection numbering in the hundreds, and will play each game in that collection, on average, a dozen times over their lifetime. (And I’m being generous here. A handful of titles will get played to death—I have racked up more than 300 sessions of Combat Commander—while others will sit on the shelf, unplayed for years.)
That’s fine: say you paid $50 for a new boardgame and play it 10 times with two of your friends before you move on to other, shinier titles. Assuming that each session lasts about an hour, the cost of the game breaks down to $5 an hour. For each person, that becomes $1.67 per hour, which is about as cheap as you can possibly get when it comes to entertainment.
So what if you play Pandemic Legacy only 12 times? (That’s the bare minimum of sessions required to finish the story, if you and your friends are the best players in the universe.) The game will still compare favorably to the rest of your collection. (My trio—composed or hardened boardgamers already very familiar with Pandemic—had to struggle through 17 sessions to get to the end, loving every second of it.)

I understand the initial aversion to physically altering game components. But trust me, it’s part of the fun. Knowing you can’t go back and use that character again no matter what the rules say (because he’s in the trash now!) really ratchets up the tension and makes the experience all the more tasty.
And memorable.

Of course, more legacy games are coming out now, but not as quickly as one might imagine. They are massively complex to design, especially if they’re not adapted from an existing game: you first have to design a fun and solid game, and then throw in a story arc that offers exciting twists and turns without derailing the gameplay you spent so much time fine-tuning.
And once again, Rob Daviau is leading the way, with his completely original Seafall releasing this month. No need to ask the question: yes, I’ll be tearing cards and putting stickers in my rulebook and writing stuff on my board like a maniac as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I wouldn’t want all of my games to be legacy contraptions. But going through one of those babies each year?
I could live with that.

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