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Legacy Games: A Primer for Players and Designers

In Blog, Game Lingo, Legacy by Mike MihealsickLeave a Comment

This article is courtesy of Mike Mihealsick from Coalition Game Studios.  The Coalition helps take your prototype or game to the next level with logged blind playtesting, quality assurance reports, and rules manual copy editing.  His blog focuses on lessons and thoughts on tabletop design, and can provide an insight into the way we see games.  

Coalition Game Studios

Maybe you’ve heard the buzz.  There’s certainly been plenty of it.  From Ars Technica to NPR, the media can’t stop showering attention on these Legacy games.  Maybe you’ve even seen Pandemic Legacy topping the Boardgamegeek Top 100 Strategy Games by a fairly significant margin.  So, what makes these games so special?

BGG defines Legacy games with the following (grammatically questionable) blurb:

Legacy games are board games that change over time based on the outcome of each game and the various choices made by players. Players will often make physical changes to the board game by marking the board/cards and placing stickers over the board as well as often destroy components. The changes made in a Legacy game are always permanent, so what is done can not be undone.

This trend started with Rob Daviau–the one-time Hasbro developer commonly viewed as the founding father of the Legacy genre.  Tasked with breathing a new life into the Hasbro-owned classics, Daviau ventured into new frontiers of an evolving gameplay experience.  With 2011’s Risk Legacy, players suddenly found that their actions had consequences that extended beyond the game session.  Most importantly, players didn’t always know what those consequences might be at the time they made the choice.

do not open

An actual component in Risk Legacy. I still don’t know what’s in there.

Five years later, Legacy games are still in their infancy, and there is boundless potential in the model.  Even now, Stonemaier Games is working on Charterstone, a village-building Legacy game, and Daviau himself has announced his third Legacy game in Plaid Hat’s September release, Seafall.  There’s no doubt about it: we’ll see more Legacy games in the future.

Are Legacy games for me?

Probably, yes.

But also, possibly no?  In what we’ve seen from the subgenre so far, Legacy games are like a team sport.  If you don’t have a team, or if you don’t think you can commit to making every game of the season, then your Legacy game is likely going to end up with more dust on it than a copy of Jumanji that hasn’t been played since 1969.

In the jungle you must wait, until you make three friends that want to commit to spending fifteen hours together on the same board game…

In the jungle you must wait, until you make three friends that want to commit to spending fifteen hours together on the same board game…

If that scared you off, reconsider.  Chances are, you’re thinking about this like it’s a board game.  It is, of course, but it’s also more than that.  Here’s where it gets a bit tricky to explain if you haven’t played a Legacy game before.

Asking a few buddies to come hang out over the course of several evenings and playing the same game over and over sounds a lot like a hobby.  For those of us that have lived in the adult world for more than a year or two, we know what it’s like trying to turn multiple people on to the same hobby and coordinate your schedules.  For those that haven’t, trust me: it’s a miserable exercise in futility.

Fortunately, Legacy games are on a different wavelength.  It might be a nightmare trying to get all your pals into crossfit or base jumping, but what about trying to get a few friends together for a movie?  Legacy games should be viewed differently because they provide an experience less like a board game or hobby, and more like an interactive multimedia presentation–like a multiplayer choose-your-own-adventure season of a gripping television show.  They offer a platform for a more extended and meaningful game night, and their finite scope still promises players that they won’t have to make any truly long-term commitments.

Upset at the idea of destroying or defacing game components?  The few Legacy games we have on the market are actually trending towards compensating for this, guaranteeing that their games will still be playable in their base form even after you’ve finished the “campaign.”  If that’s not enough for you, consider this: the cash it takes to pick up a copy of Pandemic Legacy would be just enough to get you and your team in to a viewing of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.  Even if Kevin James is your spirit animal, you’re only getting a ninety minute nonstop joyride and/or barrel o’ laughs out of the deal.

Why are Legacy games so popular?

This one’s interesting.  Pull up a chair.

In case you’re not a board game historian, the past ten thousand years sure have been a roller coaster ride.  From the weird ancient abstract games we’ve dug out of musty tombs to the weird Warhammer miniature games we’ve dug out of musty Games Workshops, we’ve seen the tabletop world evolve in a lot of ways.  Legacy games are another step, and we can reverse engineer this appeal by looking at what separates them from other titles.

Now if we could only reverse engineer Warhammer and figure out why people spend so much money on it…

Now if we could only reverse engineer Warhammer and figure out why people spend so much money on it…

Legacy games have meaningful narrative and lasting context at levels for which there is no precedent in tabletop gaming.  Sure, Dungeons and Dragons has been around for thirty years, but Legacy games take that feeling of adventure and narrative and package it for anybody–with 2% of the rules text and 0.05% of the projected wedgies and purple nurples from the varsity team.

This trend suggests that the needs of tabletop gamers have grown, or that Legacy games provide gamers with something they’ve always wanted all along.  It’s likely some combination of both, but that’s immaterial here.  I believe that tabletop enthusiasts have flocked to the hobby in recent years because they crave a medium of human interaction to share with friends and strangers alike, regardless of their differing interests, which they cannot find in other less accessible hobbies.  Legacy games do exactly this, but their added dimensions of mystery and evolution give them the potential to do it bigger and better than standard games.

Design Lesson: The best advice you’ll ever hear about making a Legacy game, from someone who has never tried to make a Legacy game.

The advice is simple: Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time.

In various interviews (and even in his recent AMA on /r/boardgames), Rob Daviau has related his experiences in developing Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy, and Seafall.  By his accounts–and confirmed by the sentiments of co-designer Matt Leacock–developing a Legacy game requires an absolutely absurd amount of playtesting and revision.  In fact, Pandemic Legacy was in development for about two years before it hit shelves in late 2015.

In standard testing, five game sessions is generally more than enough to evaluate a game’s structure and functionality.  If you’re looking to stress-test every element in your game, you should be able to get the answers you’re looking for from a group of experienced testers inside of ten sessions.

Legacy games require playtesting on a dramatically different scale.  Ten sessions gets you around halfway through one campaign of Pandemic Legacy, and even then, there are still entire swaths of unexplored game space.  To definitively playtest a Legacy game, you’ll need hundreds of hours of dedicated testing from different play groups.  Then if it turns out your iteration is flawed and requires an overhaul?  You get to start all over again.

Furthermore, designing a Legacy game involves plotting an adaptive narrative.  This presence of story is critical, even if the players create a fair portion of that story through their actions.  Creative people and writing are like drunk people and fisticuffs: they tend to have absolute faith in their ability to perform, and it often doesn’t end very well.  There’s a reason that most manuscripts don’t survive the first thirty seconds of a publisher’s steely gaze, and the reason is that crafting a gripping story is a surprisingly delicate procedure.  Beyond the basics of writing, creating a good adaptive script is a challenge in and of itself.

In the words of the Bard, let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.  However, you should know the waters in which you’ll be swimming before you dive in.

Design Exercise

Pick a game on your shelf–preferably one that isn’t already a Legacy game–and consider what it would take to make it into a Legacy game.

What narrative would string the game’s sessions together?

What events in gameplay would affect future sessions?

How would you reward victory?

How would you penalize defeat?

What steps would you need to take to ensure that those rewards and penalties don’t “snowball” in future sessions?

How would you end the Legacy “saga”?

About the Author

Mike Mihealsick

Mike is the founder and a senior analyst at his web service, Coalition Game Studios. The Coalition works to provide tabletop designers and small studios with professional playtesting and quality assurance. Apart from that, he is a paramedic and pro-circuit gamer, has an 8-pound dog named Ser Gregor Clegane, and he has been to all six continents that aren't covered with ice all year.

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