I feel like I’m the last board gamer who has not yet finished Pandemic Legacy. I was among the first to get the game when I reviewed it for Miniature Market, but here we are nearly a year later and our group is still roughly 2-3 games from finishing up. (For those wondering we are on our second game in November.) I do like the game a lot, especially the whole legacy mechanic, which feels cutting edge and different from anything else in how it shapes the game itself. That’s pretty cool stuff.
But I confess that the story itself continues to leave me cold. This was especially pronounced in roughly May-September, which ended up being about 8-10 games for us. There are some plot twists in the back half on which I won’t elaborate, but those probably salvaged the experience for me. The thing is that player actions just don’t connect to the story very much. They have long-term consequences in the game, but as I wrote in my original review you see all the same beats no matter what.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because it’s not a problem unique to Pandemic Legacy. The last few years have seen a rush of campaign style games, particular tactical games driven by lots of miniatures. The most obvious example is Imperial Assault, but it was presaged by Descent 2nd edition. There’s also the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game system, which receives new content at such a clip that I’m amazed anyone can get to all of it. These all share that element of a sustained story over a series of games, with some sense of progression over a bunch of sessions, usually centered around a character.
It seems like campaign play is a big deal for a lot of board gamers, and to some extent I understand that. It’s cool to see a long-term progression, especially when it offers you the opportunity to get attached to a specific character. I also especially like the ones that offer some kind of branching narrative. Again I’m thinking of Imperial Assault, which does this quite brilliantly. Wargames have a lot of this too, where success or failure dictates the next scenario.
But even at their best I am just about campaign’d out, and I don’t mean that as a commentary about the 2016 election, though it could function that way. The thing is that a campaign demands that you play a game a lot, and usually with the same people. Maybe it’s just because I’m an adult with children, but this has become more and more difficult. It’s a minor miracle we managed to complete the Imperial Assault core campaign, and that’s just because there were only three of us. I’ve already touched on the struggle of completing Pandemic Legacy, and my attempt at the Pathfinder ACG died on the vine. (I recently reacquired that game, as I’d like to give it a reassessment. I’ll get to it when my life settles down a little bit.) The fact is that most people have enough room in their life for about one ongoing campaign, but most board gamers (myself included) continue to purchase such games because we’d hate to not have them I guess.
Another factor is that I don’t play games I genuinely love as much as some of these campaign games. Every game of Pandemic Legacy, a game I like, is taking a slot that could belong to Cosmic Encounter, a game with which I’m basically obsessed. If I could play Tigris & Euphrates as much as I’ve played Imperial Assault in the last year, that would be a good year indeed. Table time can be a zero-sum game, and it’s easy to start resenting campaigns when they pull you away from things you really want to play.
But for me the biggest factor is that campaigns have certain assumptions about narrative in board games, and those assumptions just don’t hold water to me. Almost all of these games come with a narrative installed, one that is born out in flavor text and narration read from a scenario book. Maybe there are enemies that only show up in certain scenarios. However I find that when board games give memorable stories, they are almost always generated in-game, organically. You see this a lot in games like Duel of Ages II, where I still think about my five-hour session at BGG.Con. Just this past weekend I played Zimby Mojo, the new bit of insanity from Jim Felli, and even though our game was long enough that we couldn’t finish it, just a couple days later we were already laughing about the things that the players had done, and realizing that we had some really strong stories from that game. These games tend to be longer, sure, but they don’t have to be. I harp on Cosmic Encounter all the time, but that game creates some ridiculous bits of narrative based around player actions. My point is that board game narrative is at its most interesting when it is player-driven and emergent, not when it comes from a top-down direction.
A couple of games I’ve been into lately have addressed my campaign blues in different directions. The first is the Warhammer Quest Adventure Card Game. On the surface it looks pretty close to the Pathfinder game, in that it has a dungeon-crawl that and the players take a character through the scenarios. But it makes a couple of really smart moves. The first is that the campaign can probably be completed in roughly 4-5 hours, which is short enough for a couple of sessions. The second is that it contains a delve quest, which is a single scenario where the players stick with the whole arc of a campaign in a 2-3 hour game. There is still the same kind of character progression, proving that the enjoyable part of a campaign can be done without the headache and overhead of an actual campaign. I really wish more games did this one-off session thing, especially Imperial Assualt. The Warhammer Quest card game is soon going the way of the dodo thanks to the split between Games Workshop and Fantasy Flight, so if you spot it on a shelf I highly recommend grabbing a copy.
The other tonic to campaign games has been one that is, ironically, an even bigger commitment: Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve been working through a campaign with some of my best friends using the fifth edition rules, and it has made me a believer. It is still extremely challenging to find the time and energy for everyone to play, but unlike campaign board games, here the effort is absolutely worth it. No matter what anyone says, this is OUR adventure. Our DM has created it for us, but she couldn’t have foreseen us doing some of the things we’ve done, like when I managed to steal a magic mask from a nothic in a dark room without ever having to enter combat. It’s something special that belongs to us. It took a lot of preparation and effort, but it’s so rewarding.
Details like that put to shame anything that can be generated by a board game, because board games are not really designed to tell set stories. They are designed to generate their own narratives on the fly, not to impose one outside of the framework of gameplay. There’s nothing really wrong with campaign games in terms of design, and indeed some have done really well with this. I like how the Pathfinder game basically abstracts the whole thing into a Dominion-level kind of card game, and Pandemic Legacy’s impact has been undeniable. But even the best of the genre still feels like its struggling against the medium to me.