Andy's Musings Episode 1: Legacy Games

Legacy Games - Cover

Regular readers of this site or listeners to our podcast may have gotten the impression that my imagination is a dangerous and scary place. An accurate, if somewhat understated description. I find myself on many occasions mulling over a whole range of ideas from the size of the plastic baggies we use to store game components through explaining to colleagues why using well-defined business processes is to everyone’s advantage, all the way to convincing my other half why getting an Oculus Rift is clearly a good idea; not just a glorified way of kicking the cats.

Needless to say, my thoughts are many and varied and instead of letting them decay like sponge cake in an airing cupboard, I would like to introduce a new occasional series of articles where I put quill to parchment to vocalise some of the more gaming-relevant items floating around the vast wilderness that is my mind. These articles are not intended to incite riots, cause (much) contention or indeed annoy anyone, but they are simply the thoughts and opinions of one chap with an overactive thought process. With luck they’ll stimulate some interesting discussion, which I welcome, over some of the hotter potatoes in the gaming community.

Legacy Games - Charterstone

The topic to kick off this series is that of Legacy games. 

(Some images may contain spoilers and one of the aforementioned cats)

For those of you living under rocks or disconnected from civilisation for the last few years, Legacy games are editions of (usually pre-existing) games that can only be played once. “Er…” I hear you say. Well, ok, not just once. They chart a campaign of several games (12 seems to be a common number) and each time you play, the game is changed, permanently. 


Yes, permanently. As in, you physically alter the game by destroying components, change the board, add cards and so on. 

Legacy Games - Gloomhaven

That noise you just heard is the sound of every gaming geek on Earth recoiling in horror at the thought of damaging their precious cardboard. And to be honest, it’s not an unfair reaction. After all, you’ve spent a pile of dosh on your new game so destroying it is probably so far down your list of “things to do with the game” you’re more likely to encounter the mole people before you get to that point.

So every time you play, the game is different, but once you get to the end of that campaign, your game is either fixed at that point (Charterstone) or utterly unplayable due to the state you left it in (Pandemic).

Thing is, there are pros and cons to this lark like most things in life. Something we’ve been mulling over in the ivory towers of Polyhedron Collider is that whilst being a firm part of the Cult of the New, we don’t get the chance to really get into a couple of games properly and play the hell out of them. Understanding their nuances. Getting to the point where we aren’t actually dogshit on a crusty roll at them, getting beaten by inexperienced gamers. That sort of thing.

Legacy Games - Pandemic Legacy

Legacy gaming does provide a reasonable solution to this issue as you do play (broadly) the same game quite a few times. Depending on your point of view, this could be seen as a deep and thorough learning curve where you do become “not that bad” at the game in question. However, it could also mean that you get so utterly sick of the sight of it that the novelty quickly wears off and you never play it again.

And this poses another problem. Since there’s a thread of continuity throughout the campaign, it’s probably best to maintain the same group of players throughout, which is easier said than done a lot of the time. “My gaming group is quite consistent…” Well, lucky you. Those of us with real lives are never, ever going to make every session, no matter how hard we try. Life, it seems, is determined to get in the way. So if even one member of the player set is missing, the game is off for another week. 

Oh sure, we all start out with the best of intentions. “Yeah, I’ll make it every week,” you all say. Then great-aunty Mabel breaks her hip and needs to be taken to hospital and you’re the only one close by. John chooses to insert his car into a lamp post and there’s no bus to his house in bumfuck nowhere. Trevor’s been drinking out of wet glasses and catches some kind of galloping nob rot for a couple of weeks. Steve moves house and takes the copy of the game with him (it’s funny cos it’s true).

Legacy Games - SeaFall

I can give you two examples of these exact situations in fact;

Charterstone. Played the entire 6-player campaign with my group in Worcester. The 12 game campaign took us about six months. Why? Because we have jobs. Kids. Illnesses etc. And this is a group that met every week at the same time in the same place.

Pandemic Legacy Season 1. Played by us here at Polyhedron Collider. Started well enough, but then Steve decided to move house. So weeks became months. Jon got too stressed during the games (to be fair, it’s very absorbing) to play more than one in a session and months became years. We started in 2016 and still haven’t finished in 2019. I shit you not. We’re only in October in the game (and we’re shite at it too so we’re playing it twice for each month of game time).

You see the problem. “What problem?” you ask. “Just pick up where you left off”. That’s the problem right there. The problem that’s just whooshed over your tiny little mind.

Well, two problems actually. The first is that since the games have a continuing thread running through them; leaving a gap longer than an Ice Age between games loses some of the drama and effect. You lose the flavour and it takes the next game to get back into it. But by the following session in several millennia, you begin again. And again. And so on.

Legacy Games - Gloomhaven

The second problem is slightly more subtle and it stems from the first in a way. Picture the scene. You’ve just spent upwards of £60 (unless it’s SeaFall in which case you’ve probably picked it up for £15 on a whim) on a shiny new game that needs to be played 12 or more times. So you’re filled with excitement and determination to play it to the bitter end. You rope in five other mates and you all vow to play it regularly. Except you’re dogged by the aforementioned life issues and you get six games in when things start to become less convenient. But you must play it because you said you’d all get to the end and, like a low-rent Magnus Magnussen, you’ve started so you’re going to finish.

And that’s the second problem right there. The point where a game becomes a chore. It takes determination and dedication to finish it rather than enjoyment and fun. But you’re sacrificing 100 other games in your collection to let them gather dust just so you can finish this bloody game and get it over with.
Fuck. That.

Legacy Games - Pandemic Legacy

Which leads me onto another consequence. What if you’re shit? What if you screw something up to start with because you didn’t “get” the game in the first play? What if the rulebook is bollocks and you’ve irreparably changed the game because of a genuine misunderstanding? Well, you get to eat shit, space cowboy, because this is a legacy game and all changes are permanent (don’t bring Gloomhaven’s removable stickers into this) so you have to soldier on regardless. Thankfully we’re a pragmatic bunch and we can usually think of a way to mitigate it, but it’s a pain in the arse to have to do so. You can’t begin afresh like, you know, a normal game. 

And then there’s the finality of it. Once it’s done, that’s it. You can’t do it again. “I’m not paying a pile of cash for something I can only play a few times” you boldly proclaim. Well, junior, I’ve got news for you. Whilst having a nicely printed doorstop at the end of the proceedings isn’t entirely desirable, try comparing that to other forms of entertainment. Cinema; £15 a head for 2 hours of brain-at-the-door CGI. Video games; £60 for 8 hours of brightly coloured dross with the depth of a spoon. All of a sudden, £60 for 24 hours or more of actually pretty involved, attention keeping, socially engaging, dare I say it: “fun” is starting to look like pretty good value.

Legacy Games - Charterstone

So pipe down, it’s not all bad. The ongoing story in these things is actually one of their biggest draws. If you like a good narrative and want to progress a story based on decisions you make, then you could do a lot worse than get stuck into Pandemic, Gloomhaven or Charterstone. They have life, vibrancy, tension and retention which keep you coming back for more (assuming you can play them often enough). And without fail, there’s been surprises along the way. Curveballs that slap you round the face to keep your attention. Things you have to deal with that you wouldn’t have in a normal board game. All of these things can’t exist in your regular, run-of-the-mill board game.

Which makes me wonder, where can Legacy go from here? To be honest, they’re popular, but not very prevalent. You can (almost) count on one hand the number of (major) Legacy games on the market at this point:

  • Pandemic Legacy
  • Risk Legacy
  • Charterstone
  • Gloomhaven
  • SeaFall
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill Legacy
So there’s plenty of scope for more. 

Legacy Games - Gloomhaven

Is there any call for them though? Well, if you look at my buying behaviour recently and taking into account the fact that I've just slated Legacy gaming for about 3 pages, the answer is a fairly resounding "yes". I’ve got Gloomhaven, Pandemic Legacy Season 1 and 2 and Charterstone, which speaks volumes, surely?

Now, I do have a habit of simply buying games (I know I'm not the only one) so we need to take this with a pinch of salt, but I don't just buy any old crap. I leave that to Jon. I buy games that I have to think about, consider and ultimately enjoy spending 2-3 hours at a time getting properly stuck in. Which is one of the reasons I tend to shy away from lighter games; simply that they're less enthralling.

My point is that Legacy games do keep me engrossed. They have that all-important story element; and not just the nice link between theme and mechanics, but the thread running through all the games you play is a serious plus point. I want to find out what happens next. I want to know if the cure we've just found for a disease actually helps the world or if the smouldering ruin that used to be New York hampers us in any way. Did stealing that gold in the last scenario allow me to buy some more kit that I can use and is the Forever King going to punish us for pissing him off and ignoring his ruling?

Legacy Games - Pandemic Legacy

And that is the greatest power Legacy games have: you really do feel like part of the story (aforementioned gaming session latency notwithstanding) and that gives the players the drive to want to play again, which can't be a bad thing. I mentioned earlier that Jon gets stressed playing Pandemic Legacy. Other than him being demonstrably a soaking wet nancy for getting stressed playing a game, it does illustrate a point. The situation where a game gets you properly engrossed to the point where it invokes emotion. The drive to succeed takes over and you ignore the outside world for the duration and get drawn into the universe before you. Nothing beyond video gaming has ever done that to me (personally) before and for a physical medium to do that is something rather special.

To walk away from a game being totally pumped that you as a team beat the crap out of a horde of cut-throats lying in wait (after getting twatted by them three times until now) or sitting in shock with nerves jangly after seeing the world consumed by weapons-grade herpes following your monumental failure is worth the hefty price tag alone. In a world where bland, over-produced media and playing nice with everyone so we can't even fart without causing offence is the norm, it's refreshing to experience something that actually causes emotional response. And the occasional heart palpitation.

Legacy Games - Charterstone

So are they worth all the hype and coverage? Well, it depends on your point of view. I’m a little torn over the concept if I’m honest. I love the idea of them, but they fall completely foul of real life. If you could, somehow, find the time to sit down and be super-duper OCD organised about playing them, then you could do a lot worse than play through a Legacy campaign. You could play Talisman for example, of which a single game takes about the same amount of time to play as an entire Legacy campaign but without the enjoyment of accomplishment. 

But people do manage it. I know of people who have played Gloomhaven right through three or four times. Other than them being utter zombies and possessing no life whatsoever to achieve this feat, it does show that it's possible. For those of us with houses, children, gardening and Game of Thrones in our lives, we may have to stick to Sushi Go and Munchkin.

Which is a terrifying thought.

This article was scrawled by a deranged lunatic who's opinions are regularly questioned by others. If you want to engage with him feel free to get in touch, but we do warn you that he is muzzled and kept under heavy sedation for his own protection.
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