This past week I was extremely lucky to speak with board game designer Matt Leacock – the man behind the the hugely successful Pandemic board game franchise. Pandemic Legacy: Season One has been sitting pretty at the top of the BoardGameGeek Top 100 chart since its release and with Season Two now on the way, the excitement is beginning to build.
Alongside the Pandemic series, Matt has also designed other top game such as Forbidden Island and the Thunderbirds board game.
Have a read below to see what Matt had to say to say about Pandemic, future projects and the design process.
I wanted to try designing a co-operative game of my own after playing Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. I was surprised how engaging co-operative games could be – how a “cardboard enemy” could cause us so much excitement and stress. Prior to that, I’d assumed co-op games were harmless educational experiences. I also really liked how, win or lose, my wife and I always had a good experience playing together because the games weren’t confrontational.
Pandemics were in the news at that time and it struck me that viruses would make a great unfeeling, scary enemy for the players to battle against. I was also interested in modelling a game with emergent behaviours: creating a simple rule set that could generate interesting play experiences and wild chain reactions.
I never get tired of seeing it on the shelf at the local Target. My favourite thing, however, is when people tell me that Pandemic introduced them into the hobby and got them hooked.
Rob and I knew we were on to something good when we developed it – we watched as our play-testers would binge play two, three, sometimes four games in a row – but we had no idea that the game would be as popular as it turned out to be.
I can give you a few details at this point: The game takes place 71 years after Season 1. A terrible plague has wiped out much of humanity and the remaining cities are supplied with antivirals by floating “havens” on the sea. As players you must venture out into the world to keep cities in supply, but soon you must venture into the unknown in order to find out what happened to your world and to complete objectives.
I can also tell you that owning or playing Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 isn’t required. (Season 2 is a fully standalone game, linked by its story line.)
I have about a half dozen other games in various stages of development. Now that I’m working full time on games, I’m able to design about four to six products a year, ranging from full-blown games to smaller add-ons or expansions. Expect to see more products in the Pandemic line, as well as a few other surprises.
Start with the fundamentals: have a good development process that involves plenty of prototyping, experimentation, and testing. Test with a diverse set of players. Blind test and iterate to ensure your game is easy to learn.
For co-operative games, I try to come up with a novel antagonist, made up of a simple rule set, that generates complex problems that are easy to understand but hard to resolve in any one “best” way. Coming up with those cardboard bad guys is one of my favourite activities because it’s so challenging. Don’t be afraid of experimenting with weird, crazy ideas when you start out. If you don’t, you run the risk of being derivative.
When you run a play-test session – especially for a co-operative game – watch and listen to your testers carefully. Don’t rely too much on self report, e.g: “that was fun.”
Look to see what engages the players physically and emotionally (are they leaning in? are their conversations animated?) and chase that.
I’m not sure! I think if I could easily identify a new project that I was excited about, I would have started on it by now. And I’ve enjoyed collaborating with people who have been near-complete strangers when we began.
The types of games I enjoy designing most are those that appeal to both casual players and gamers alike – gateway games – so I tend to look for opportunities to design those above others.