Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 is good. Better than good, actually. Astonishingly great. Arguably the best chapter in an already outstanding series, and my favourite game of 2020.
You’d be forgiven for feeling a little wary of a new Pandemic game, this year of all years. While Season 0 was designed by creators Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau as the conclusion to the planned trilogy several years ago, the timing of its release - even with a delay - meant it landed at a time when a board game about a disease with a catastrophic global impact was among the last things that many people wanted to play.
It’s also the threequel in the Pandemic Legacy series, and the umpteenthquel in the Pandemic series at large, which has gone beyond its viral namesake to feature the spread of cosmic horrors (Reign of Cthulhu), floods (Rising Tide) and historical clans (Fall of Rome). The Pandemic-verse has never fallen far beyond “perfectly fine” in the quality of its near-annual releases, but even inventive gameplay additions and twists on the formula (the hectic real-time Rapid Response is a highlight) can’t overcome the feeling of the franchise having its cube-shaped cake and eating it.
And true, Season 0 does at first seem like yet another spin-off spilling out of Pandemic’s crowded “global disease” spot onto yet another wildly unexpected - and questionably relevant - setting. This time: 1960s Cold War spy thriller. Happily though, Season 0 goes beyond just swapping a lab coat for a trench coat.
The Cold War period inspires some refreshing gameplay additions, including the affiliation of cities with the Eastern or Western blocs, making it trickier to travel around the divided world using the multiple aliases in your sticker-filled passport. The introduction of teams that players can build and use to locate missing agents and uncover Soviet secrets adds an extra layer of strategy, with the legacy campaign revealing even more inventive espionage-inspired action as it unfolds. The focus on chasing targets, hunting down agents and even dipping into Bond-esque gadgetry also provides a fortuitous sidestepping of Pandemic’s grim disease apocalypse for the most part.
While not as refreshingly original as Season 1 or as boldly experimental as the divisive (and unfairly overlooked) Season 2, the gameplay is the most dynamic and consistent Pandemic Legacy - maybe Pandemic as a whole - has ever been.
But where Season 0 truly stands head and shoulders above its predecessors, and the vast majority of board games, is in the strength of its storytelling. Despite taking place before the rest of the series, Season 0 cleverly weaves sly nods to future events and players’ investment in the world of Pandemic into a genuinely satisfying and often surprising narrative that serves as a fan-pleasing three-game finale or a solid starting place if you’re new. I’m a fan of the series, but I was shocked how much I found myself caring about a game world that started as some generic pawns and cubes on a map.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 wasn’t the most innovative, surprising or groundbreaking game of this year. What it was was the perfect conclusion to one of my favourite board game series of all time, a farewell that demonstrated why I’ve come to love Pandemic Legacy and its troubled world. Along with Season 1 and 2, I won’t forget my time with it anytime soon - it will always be THE game of 2020 for me, in more ways than one.