Note: There are minimal spoilers in this article. You can safely enter and read on.
Season 0 is the third and likely last game in the Pandemic Legacy series. I have played Season 1 and Season 2 and enjoyed them immensely. There was no doubt I was going to buy Season 0 when it was released. This is a prequel, and we are now back in the 1960’s. We are in the middle of the Cold War between USA and USSR. You play newly trained CIA agents. The CIA has found out that the Soviets are developing a bioweapon, so it urgently needs some medically-trained agents to help address this threat.
These are some of the game pieces. Now that the theme is espionage, we no longer have research labs. We get safehouses instead (back row). There are no longer disease cubes in four colours. We get Soviet agents (red figurines). We get a new game mechanism – those vans on the left. They are teams we get to assemble to help us complete missions.
The map has retro art. Look at the mug on the right, and the match sticks at the bottom. The world is divided into 6 regions, and this division is an important part of the game. Similar to previous seasons, Season 0 is played over 12 in-game months. Each month can be played once or twice. If you do well on the first try, you proceed to the next month. If you fare poorly, you get to play the same month a second time. The missions differ every month. You are considered successful if you fail just one mission and complete the rest. There are a few types of missions. The basic type requires assembling a team and sending it to a specific city. Another type is similar but you don’t know which city it is. You need to find out as you play.
This is a legacy game, which means the game rules and game components change as you play through the campaign. The map changes. New game components are added. New player abilities are added. Changes are permanent and carry over to all future games. Some of the changes are decided by the players. Some are caused by events during play. There are eight boxes in the game storing new rules and components. The game evolves. There is a stack of legacy cards which tells the story and introduces new mechanisms as you progress through your campaign. Every month there is something new to look forward to.
To win a game you have to complete missions. To lose a game there are many ways. If the player card deck runs out, it means time has run out, so you lose. This is similar to basic Pandemic. If all the Soviet agents are on the board, it means the CIA has failed to contain the KGB, so you lose too. This is similar to how you run out of disease cubes of a particular colour in basic Pandemic. The third way to lose is when the 8th incident occurs. Incidents occur when you need to place a 4th Soviet agent in a city. The equivalent in basic Pandemic is outbreaks, but here it is handled differently. Soviet agents don’t spread out to adjacent cities. Instead, you draw a card from the bottom of the threat deck (Infection deck in basic Pandemic), and resolve the incident stated on it. These incidents are all bad.
Let’s talk about the teams. You need teams to complete missions. Cities on the map are divided into three types, Allied, Neutral and Soviet. Player cards and teams come in these three types too. To assemble a team of a particular type, you have to spend five cards of that type at a city of that same type which has a safehouse. The equivalent in Pandemic is discovering cures. However assembling a team does not equate completing your mission. You still need to send the team to the city specified by the mission.
Teams have one more important function. They kill enemy spies at the end of every player turn. However they only function in matching cities. In the photo above, the Soviet team can automatically kill all the spies in Pyongyang, which is a Soviet city. However it won’t be able to do the same in Tokyo, a Neutral city.
On your turn you perform 4 actions. Then you draw player cards into your hand, and finally you draw threat cards to be resolved. This will be familiar to those who have played Pandemic. Your strategic goal is to complete the missions. However you are constantly forced to handle tactical issues, i.e. the ever increasing Soviet agents. Threat cards determine where they pop up. You have to go about killing (or deporting, if you prefer a less violent interpretation) them, but you must remember your long-term objective of completing the missions. You have to collect cards and assemble teams. There are escalation cards shuffled into the player deck. Whenever you draw one, the threat card discard pile is reshuffled and placed onto the top of the threat card deck. This means those cities which had Soviet agents deployed recently will get Soviet agents again. This is how the game creates urgency. While you are fighting fire you have to keep reminding yourself not to neglect the missions.
The icon at the top left corner of a city indicates whether it is Allied (blue), Neutral (grey, a.k.a. Wi-Fi in my household) or Soviet (red). The background colour and pattern of a city indicates which region it belongs to. E.g. Africa is green. The red eyes represent Soviet surveillance. If you start a turn in a city with surveillance, you will get exposed. You need to scratch off a seal on your identity card (i.e. passport) and see what happens. Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes you gain a disability. Sometimes your identity is burnt. That means you may never use this identity again in future games.
In Europe at the top left, some cities are marked with a cross. This is to help remind you that these are not the target cities of the mission with an unknown city. Whenever you draw a European city card, you will know that’s not the city beneath the mission card. Process of elimination. Sometimes you can’t eliminate the possibilities down to one. You can still attempt to complete the mission by sending teams to as many possible cities as you can. When the unknown city is revealed, as long as you have an active team there, you complete the mission successfully.
It’s dangerous to have many cities having three Soviet agents. When you need to place a fourth, an incident occurs.
Your characters are represented by passports. The game supports four players so there are four passports. Each passport has three identities. The game comes with many photo stickers and disguise stickers, so you can create your identities. This above was Michelle’s first identity. The grey round seals at the bottom are what you need to scratch off if you get exposed. If there’s an icon beneath the seal, something bad will happen. There is a problem with these seals. We couldn’t scratch them off! We searched the net and found that many others had the same problem. This is disappointing. This isn’t the first time such a mechanism is used in the Pandemic Legacy series. The solution is when you need to look under a seal, use the torchlight function of your phone and put the light behind the seal. You’ll be able to see if there’s an icon. Mark the seal with a pen to indicate it should have been scratched off.
This was my first identity, a housewife who looked like a thug – Lucy Wong.
For my second identity I decided to go for a James Bond look. Since my character was Asian, I named him Lee Kum Kee (famous oyster sauce brand in Malaysia).
My third identity was a Russian one. It wasn’t exactly convincing – Asian guy with a golden moustache. How you look does not impact gameplay at all. It’s all just for fun, but that’s part of the experience.
This was one of the disguise stickers. Can you imagine that on a passport?!
That cylinder with an exclamation mark is an incident token. You place one at the impacted city when an incident occurs. The game ends when the 8th incident occurs.
When an incident occurs, you draw a card from the bottom of the threat deck and resolve the incident stated in the grey box. Sometimes you are asked to add Soviet agents to cities. If those cities already have three agents, you trigger a chain reaction of incidents. Some incidents force teams to return to CIA HQ in Washington. Some incidents even destroy safehouses. An incident normally specifies a particular region and a condition. Something bad happens only if the condition is met. E.g. an incident may say add Soviet agents to cities in Asia with incident tokens. If there are none such cities, nothing happens and everyone is happy. However if there are some such cities, and they already have three Soviet agents, you immediately trigger another incident. Incidents can be very scary. In one of our games, we thought we were doing swimmingly well, only to be crushed by chain reaction incidents within a few turns.
During setup you will pick some event cards to be available for the game you are going to play. These are single-use cards that can be played at any time, on anyone’s turn, and it does not consume the active player’s action. How many event cards you get to pick depends on how successful you have been in previous games. If you always complete all missions with ease, you’ll get fewer. Else you’ll get more, up to a maximum of ten.
That strange block in the centre is a safehouse. Once you have a safehouse in a city, it protects you from Soviet surveillance. Also you can only assemble teams at safehouses. So they are important.
I played Season 0 with my family. My wife Michelle has played other games in the Pandemic series. My daughters have not played many. None of them have played Season 1 or 2. However they do have experience playing legacy games – Machi Koro Legacy and Betrayal Legacy. We played a total of 17 games of Season 0 – 1 prologue and 16 campaign games. We did all 17 within one month. We played many during the Chinese New Year break. It was when the Omicron wave started in Malaysia, and we stayed home most of the time. We didn’t do any New Year visits. Being a gamer, I’m certainly happy to stay home to play games. Okay, happy is an understatement.
Season 0 is somewhat different from standard Pandemic, but it still feels familiar. The balance between being different yet feeling familiar is good. This is a tricky thing. If it were too similar, its existence would be pointless. If it were too different, fans would complain it was no longer Pandemic. I’m glad the designers found a nice balance. Assembling teams replaces finding cures, but teams still need to be sent to specific cities to complete missions. Also teams help in killing Soviet spies. One of my biggest takeaway from playing Season 0 is it is important to assemble teams.
As the story develops, more and more mechanisms are introduced. There will be new types of missions. You get to perform new types of actions. There is a sense of escalation. The missions become harder and harder. The stakes become higher. However your abilities also become stronger. When you succeed in completing the tough missions, you feel smart. It is satisfying. It is fun to develop your character, finding good combinations of new abilities. Your identities will become specialists, and everyone will focus on certain aspects of the game. This is how you play effectively. It is necessary to do so, in order to keep up with the challenges the campaign throws at you.
There is a sense of urgency when you play. Often the missions feel overwhelming and you feel stumped about where you should even begin. Sometimes you struggle to prioritise, not only among the missions but also between the missions and the ever growing Soviet agents on the board. You can’t ignore the Soviet agents for too long. Sometimes we played with a heavy silence hanging in the air. Some missions felt close to impossible. When we were able to make good use of our abilities and some good luck that came our way to swiftly complete some missions, the feeling of elation was fantastic. Even when we knew we got lucky, we couldn’t help feeling pleased with ourselves.
The story is mostly linear. Not really that many forks. The game sometimes asks you to make decisions, and these later lead to some permanent effects. I find these arbitrary. You can’t really plan ahead since you don’t really know the implications of your decisions. It’s fun as a storytelling thing, as in your decision led to this so don’t blame anyone else. It’s more a flavour thing than something you can be strategic about. The linear story is fine by me. It’s an experience to go through, and it’s engrossing enough to keep me entertained. There will be changes to the game board caused by random events and also by player decisions. Few changes are predetermined. That’s a good thing. Different groups playing the game will likely end up with very different boards. This is closer to Season 1. In Season 2, how the board changes is mostly predetermined. I didn’t like that. So I’m happy Season 0 has returned to the same approach as Season 1.
The incidents mechanism makes the game unpredictable and tense. The outcome of an incident can be nothing, and it can also be the end of the world. In basic Pandemic, you can calculate just how bad an outbreak will be if it happens in a particular city. You pray you don’t draw certain cities. In Season 0, details of incidents vary greatly. I’d say two thirds of the time incidents have no effects, other than increasing your incident count. However when a bad incident occurs, it can completely ruin your game. It is nerve-racking.
Comparison against Seasons 1 & 2
Season 1 is closest to standard Pandemic. For me personally it was my favourite Pandemic Legacy experience, mainly because it was my first time. Till now my friends and I who played Season 1 still mourn over Kawasaki (one of our main characters) dying in Lagos. Season 2 is the most different version in terms of game mechanisms. The only thing I don’t like is how it feels scripted. Not the story, but the board. Different groups will end up with more or less similar game boards by the end of the campaign. I prefer Season 0 to Season 2. The experience playing Season 0 was not as powerful as when I did Season 1, but Season 0 gave me many tense and exciting moments. The missions felt impossible, but we were given nifty tools to make the impossible possible.
All four of us played the same characters throughout the campaign. This is the best way to play. You get attached to your characters, and this makes the experience even more immersive. Every time one of your identities get exposed, you suffer a minor heart attack, fearing whether you’d lose the identity forever. Once three of us were caught in Moscow without a safehouse. Moscow is a city with three surveillance icons (the max). We had a safehouse there which protected us from surveillance, but it was destroyed by an incident. Being in Moscow meant we would be exposed three times! I felt a chill run down my spine when that safehouse was destroyed.
If you have played Seasons 1 and 2, I would strongly recommend Season 0. If you have played Season 2, you must have like Season 1. Then I’m sure you’ll like Season 0. If you have not played any game in the series, I would recommend playing in order of publication, i.e. Season 1, 2 then 0. I think this is better than playing in order of timeline. In theory all three games are independent. However the stories are related, and I think playing in order of publication is the best way to experience how the story unfolds.
You’ll get Soviet spies in the USA too.
In our game the KGB even managed to put up surveillance (red eye) in some American cities.
Pandemic Legacy Season 0 is a medium-weight cooperative game. It is a legacy game, and an experience game. It comes with a story and a long campaign, which makes a memorable and unique experience. You get attached. The spy story is a nice-to-have thing for me. What I like the most is how the mechanisms create tension and excitement. These are more powerful than words you read. As the campaign progresses, more rules are added and the game does get more complex. We had some rule misinterpretations. I found that some rules were not made absolutely clear. We usually just decided based on what made the most sense story-wise. The minor rule mistakes didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the game.
It is best to play this with the same group of friends, and to play regularly until you complete the campaign. Don’t drag it too long, or you’d forget rules and story elements in between games. Just imagine watching a TV series. You wouldn’t wait too long between episodes.
I wonder who this blog post is actually for. If you like Seasons 1 and 2, you’d probably have already bought and played Season 0. If you are not into the whole Pandemic Legacy thing, you probably won’t be reading this. What’s left are those who don’t know a lot about the series. If this sounds fun, I’d suggest you start with Season 1. Can you play just Season 0? Yes, that does work. If you have played Pandemic and want a different experience, then Season 0 and Season 2 are both more different compared to Season 1.
To minimise spoilers, I have omitted many details about my experience with Season 0. My next post will be a show-all post. If you are done with Season 0, let’s compare notes. If you have no intention of playing the game, come look at the rest of the it. Just don’t regret it.