The Politics of ‘Pandemic – Legacy’

It’s October, and the world is ruined. And I’m to blame.

Warning: This article contains massive spoilers for Pandemic Legacy. Yes, spoilers for a board game.

It’s October, and the world is ruined. Zombie-like fallen have taken over all of Europe and are now pushing into Latin America and Asia. Cities around the world are rioting. Some have collapsed or completely fallen. St. Petersburg is a nuclear wasteland. And I’m to blame.

Pandemic: Legacy may be the best board game that I have ever played, in large part due to its clever politically charged narrative. A collaboration between Pandemic creator Matt Leacock and Risk: Legacy designer Rob Daviau, Pandemic: Legacy is a finitely-playable cooperative game in which players attempt to cure four diseases ravaging the earth. The game is played over a course of 12 in-game months, during which time new rules and components are revealed, drastically changing how you play and the board itself, sometimes permanently.

The design space provided by shifting rules and permanence allows Leacock and Daviau to explore interesting political themes with remarkable deftness. Some games incorporate political themes into their aesthetic design (see Android: Netrunner). Others take a political event or concept as a starting point and build a game around it from the ground up (see Churchill). Pandemic: Legacy, on the other hand, surprises you with its politics, revealing its message bit by bit, as the world falls into ruin, month by month.

The rhetoric of Pandemic: Legacy is simple at first. Diseases change the world. As cities experience outbreaks during the game, their panic level increases. As cities collapse, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to navigate through those spaces. Global pandemics are public relations concerns as much as they are biological concerns. If you weren’t already paranoid about the latest threat to your health (at time of publishing, the Zika Virus), then Pandemic: Legacy will move you one step closer to hypochondria.

Fallen invading Europe.

As the game continues, one of your Pandemic: Legacy diseases will mutate into something incurable. You will open a mysterious box to find a bag full of zombie-like Fallen figurines, which completely replaces the virus’ colored disease tokens. Now incurable, these Fallen figures will inevitably cause an outbreak, raising panic levels in cities across the board, which in turn makes it more difficult to place much-needed Research Stations around the board. Characters starting their turn in cities populated by Fallen figures will also receive permanent scars and may even die. Quickly, you’ll feel trapped in a world gripped with fear of the undead.

But hey, that’s okay! You’ve also opened a box that contains green military bases and now have a few military characters who can travel quickly between these locations. Thankfully, military bases also can’t be destroyed by rioting populations. Here too, the politics make sense with the theme. We have seen this before. When unrest rears its ugly head, send in the national guard. Nothing establishes top-down order quite like a state of emergency and martial law.

The government has a role to play in dealing with serious epidemics, Pandemic claims. Sure, that makes sense. And it’s helping you cure diseases. That makes sense. So you set up more military bases, even making them permanent fixtures on the board — after all, they’re incredibly helpful. You also start using more military characters, like the Soldier (who my group named Finn). Finn’s great, since he’s the only character who can remove Fallen figures from the board. He’s essentially neutralizing the zombie threat. What a hero!

Eventually you receive a new mission. Find a missing soldier. When you do, Pandemic: Legacy betrays you. As you learn from a hidden dossier, the disease was manufactured as a plot to “seize control of the cities, the bank, commence martial law, and then a new world order.” In my game, Finn betrayed us. He wasn’t killing zombies, he was executing civilians in need of help. Even the game’s system of doling out event cards is revealed as a ploy to keep your team of CDC employees believing that they can win. Now you have a new goal: “You are going to need to undo the paramilitary apparatus that you’ve set up.”

Time to dismantle the military industrial complex.

When I read this card, I laughed aloud in joyful surprise. This is where the politics of Pandemic: Legacy hits most effectively. There are no rules that say that we must set up a commanding global military presence. Nor is there a rule saying that we have to use military affiliated characters to fight the game’s diseases. Doing so is just… easier.

Pandemic: Legacy, like other great biological horror films, is about the politics of fear. We scare so quickly. We are scared of diseases, yes, but we’re also scared of losing our jobs, our homes, our culture. We’re scared of things that we don’t understand. We know that we are weak and that we are scared of this weakness. So, of course, we leave ourselves vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies. When we succumb to fear, we can create self-protecting institutions, and sometimes, it’s harder to break something down than to build it up.

Pandemic: Legacy is just a board game, but you don’t have to look far to find politicians who exploit fear to forward personal gain. By building a political narrative into its shifting mechanics, Pandemic: Legacy spotlights some of the ways that we allow our fear to shape power politics. I look at my board game, with military bases in every region and a nuclear-ravaged St. Petersburg, and I want to blame Finn. But I don’t. I blame myself. This is a world of my own making.