What even is the definition of a Legacy game?

The sticker on the Risk: Legacy box that says 'What's done can never be undone'

As some of you know, I have spent the past several years designing a Legacy board game. I started development way back when Risk: Legacy was all there was, and since then, the genre has exploded into like... 10 games or so.

But lately I'm seeing people throwing around the term 'Legacy' without actually having a unified definition of what that word actually means. And what's worse is that most definitions are so vague as to be useless when verifying that a game meets the Legacy criteria.

I'm here to create a definitive definition. I'm not only going to define what a Legacy game is first, but provide examples to support my claim.

The definition of a Legacy Game:

A Legacy game is a campaign tabletop game where

  1. Permanent changes are made to the game state, and carried forward from session to session
  2. Rules/mechanics get permanently added, modified, or removed as play continues
  3. Physical components of the game are permanently modified
  4. Physical components of the game are permanently destroyed

You can argue that point 3 actually contains 4, so 4 is redundant, but I'll explain this in a moment.

What is the key game that defines what a Legacy game is?

A Risk: Legacy box with a pair of scissors, meat cleaver, and flamethrower on top of it.

Everything we know about Legacy games points back to Rob Daviau and the board game Risk: Legacy. The Risk: Legacy story is well documented, and since this game is the originator of the term, it should define the criteria for what a Legacy game should be.

When starting a game of Risk: Legacy (after breaking the sticker on the box warning you that "what's done can never be undone") you are greeted with a choice for your starting army in the form of 2 stickers. You select one and stick it to your army's card, and then the other is destroyed forever.

The Saharan army's card, with the starting power card containing the choice of which power to use and lose.

This single act was revolutionary at the time, and it literally fulfills all 4 criteria above.

  1. This permanent change carries forward from game to game
  2. The game mechanics have permanently changed for this army
  3. The physical army card is permanently changed via a sticker
  4. The physical card containing the other sticker is destroyed

And there are plenty of other things in the game that meet the criteria. The game has a series of unlock packs change the game rules by literally changing the manual and providing more stickers and components to use and play with. You're also given stickers in some games that allow you to permanently change a location on the board mid-game, but the change is forever.

And then there's Seafall

As another Rob Daviau game, Seafall was the first game to be built from the bottom up as an original Legacy game not built on a pre-existing property. It also fulfils the criteria.

  1. During each game, permanent changes are made (discovering islands/locations is common)
  2. Unlocks exist that add and change the rules and mechanics (just like Risk: Legacy)
  3. Cards and the board can be modified with stickers and markers
  4. Cards are regularly destroyed

But what happens when we remove one of the criteria?

If any one of these pieces is removed, the Legacy definition falls apart.

  1. If the permanent changes do not move forward, you're either playing a one-shot disposable game that's completely self-contained, or the mechanic is trying to force destruction when it shouldn't be. Imagine taking the Risk: Legacy army card, destroying it each game, and replacing it next game with an identical card and choice. The decision here isn't truly moved forward.
  2. If the rules and mechanics stay the same but the other 3 points hold, what you're really playing is defined by Rob Daviau as a "consumable game," a perfect example of this being his game Viking Funeral.
  3. If you can't permanently modify the physical components, you lose the psychological impact of permanent change, which is incredibly important to the genre. The act of modification not only builds a sense of ownership in the player, but there is literally no way to go back and undo the action. If the game manages the modifications via a spreadsheet or something similar, you now have the ability to undo the "permanent" modification.
  4. In addition to the point above, the act of physical destruction is in a league of its own. Humans hate losing something. Imagine if there was a version of Uno, where the game told me at some point to take a card from your hand out of you hand, and rip it into pieces. Think about how that would feel. Risk: Legacy set the stage for this, and my argument is that without physical destruction, you've got a game that's floating in some safe middle-ground between a true Legacy game and an everyday board game.

So there you have it

We now have a definition for Legacy that is not only specific, but falls in line with the games that defined the concept, and can be easily applied to all existing and future games.

-Jaime Barriga

P.S. If you're interesting in building your own Legacy games, I've made a quick article to help you get started: So you want to build a Legacy game?

P.P.S. If you enjoyed this article, and want to be notified when I write a new one, sign up for the mailing list below! I'll only email you when I post something new here.

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