Matt Leacock Talks Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, Game Design, and Social Justice
You may have heard of a game called Pandemic, about saving the world from spreading diseases. In 2015, Pandemic designer, Matt Leacock, teamed up with Risk Legacy designer, Rob Daviau, to create Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. This campaign-style game allows players to tear things up, put stickers on the board, and generally have an incredible, crazy, one-time-through experience. You would think such destruction would give board gamers conniption fits, yet the game became the top-rated board game of all time on BoardGameGeek.com. With Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 on the horizon, Matt agreed to talk to us about a wide variety of things. Thanks to him, and enjoy!
Were you surprised by the success of Pandemic Legacy? Can you reflect some on your reactions then, compared to how you felt when Pandemic first blew up?
Yes, Rob and I were surprised by how quickly Pandemic Legacy shot up the charts and by the strong emotional reactions that it generated. We thought we might be onto something good when we watched our playtesters binge-play the game, but we didn’t expect it to resonate so strongly with players.
Pandemic’s success story was more gradual. The initial print run was much smaller and reprints gradually grew in size. I also wasn’t sure what to expect since it was the first time one of my designs was published. I didn’t really have any benchmarks at the time.
Rob’s first attempt at a Legacy game unattached to a prior game, SeaFall, did not fare as well as Pandemic Legacy (though, to be fair, few games have EVER done so well). Do you think the Legacy concept needs to augment existing material to work, or can original Legacy designs reach the same heights as Pandemic Legacy?
Rob had a much harder problem to solve with SeaFall since he was developing both an entirely new game and the legacy campaign to go with it. I think it’s much easier to use an existing system since you don’t have to invent the core game and the players have an easier time since they already know how to play most of it. That’s not to say that a new system couldn’t be done—it’s just going to be a harder design challenge.
You’ve talked before about how you view the design process very iteratively. How do you make iterations work in a Legacy setting—especially when subsequent plays are so interdependent?
We send playtest kits to a handful of groups for the first few games, watch video recordings of their sessions, log them, analyze findings, redesign what we have, and then extend the prototype out a few more games into the arc. We then mail the resulting kits to a subset of the previous groups as well as some new groups. Everyone starts again at the beginning and plays until they run out of content. Then we watch that video and iterate on the design based on the findings. We continue in this way until we have the entire season worked out. This can take about 5–7 iteration cycles, plus perhaps another full cycle on the completed product. It’s very time consuming, but it’s the best way we’ve found to ensure the product works well out of the box and is robust enough to handle all the variation that different groups will throw at it.
What were the biggest challenges facing you in the design of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2? Which did you overcome, and which did you simply avoid or work around?
Season 2 was easier in some ways since we’d figured out a process and a structure for this type of game. Some things were harder, however. Since we didn’t want to simply repeat the last season, we had to do a fair amount of R&D to come up with a fresh story and new mechanisms that were coherent and engaging. We also created a number of production challenges for ourselves due to the way the players “discover” what happened in their world.
Pandemic has somewhat moved from an individual game to a “brand,” and you’ve worked with several designers—Rob Daviau, Chuck D. Yager, Jesús Torres Castro—on various iterations of it. How do you go about working in partnerships? Do you feel a sense of ownership, i.e. “Hey, that’s my baby, be careful with it”?
I’ve been really lucky so far. All my co-designers have been been a delight to work with. I enjoy working with co-designers because they can serve as a sounding board for new ideas, challenge you to do quality work, and bring complementary skills to the table. For example, Rob Daviau is exceptionally good at developing a game’s story arc, Jesús Torres Castro is a relentless playtester, and Tom Lehmann can root out core problems with a design quickly and is a master at balancing games.
I also think it helps to some degree that I used to work with, and design software for, remote teams during my former day job. It extends the reach of who I can work with. In the past three years, I’ve worked with designers all over the US, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Australia. Tom Lehmann is local, but everyone else is a video conference (and a few timezones) away.
I hope to continue developing Pandemic products as long as people are interested in them. I’ve especially enjoyed creating the limited-edition, region-specific versions of the game (Pandemic Iberia being the first) that are set in the host countries for the Pandemic Survival tournament. This year, we’ll be unveiling Pandemic: Rising Tide, set in the Netherlands.
Z-man was recently purchased by Asmodée North America and the new team has been great to work with. They’re fully committed to continuing the Pandemic line and have been great partners.
You’ve been fairly involved with social justice issues—participating in the Women’s March, working to bring games to Uganda, and Doctors Without Borders. Can you talk about what first inspired you to connect board game design with social issues? How can other designers and gamers who want to use their hobby to advocate for good get involved?
I first made the connection with the Pandemic Parties program back in 2015. My wife, Donna, and I have been supporting MSF / Doctors Without Borders for quite some time now, and saw a chance to raise more awareness and do some good with the game. We encouraged people to play games, pass the till, and donate to their efforts to fight Ebola in East Africa. Through the program, we were able to raise $50,000. My favorite part was watching as donations came in from well over a hundred parties across the globe.
Gamechangers (a program that helps kids in East Africa develop social and cognitive skills using board games) just happened to catch my attention shortly after our family took a trip to Uganda. I thought the program was innovative and it was meaningful to me as we’d just connected with people in those very same towns the summer before.
I’m also committed to bringing more diversity to board games. It’s no accident that Pandemic features a triumphant, female scientist on the cover. It’s important to me that people playing games can find themselves in the games they play and work to ensure that the games all have a diverse cast.
I’d encourage gamers to find a cause that’s meaningful to them and make something happen.
Geeks Under Grace is a faith-based site. Do you think faith or worldview has an effect on the way players approach board gaming, or on the way designers approach game design? Should it?
Yes, like anything that involves interacting with other people, I think it should. One of the things I like most about the board gaming hobby is that the players sit across from each other at a common table, make eye contact with each other, communicate, and connect. I also try to design with my eyes open. What am I communicating with a particular design? What types of interactions will this game create? And: why am I designing this game to begin with? I think designers owe it to themselves and the community of players to consider these questions.
Other than Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, what’s next for you in game design?
I currently have about a dozen games in the pipeline in various stages of development, so 2018 should be a fun year. Lately, I’ve been mixing it up a bit, trying my hand at competitive games and dexterity games. It’s been fun to explore games where the physical shapes of the components matter as much as the mechanisms. I’m trying to stretch and keep challenging myself.
What have you been watching/reading/playing/listening to lately?
My nightstand currently has Wonderland by Steven Johnson, which explains how play shaped the modern world and Dave Eggers’ new book, Heroes of the Frontier. I recently finished SPQR by Mary Beard, which is a really accessible history of Rome. I continue to read Moby Dick, very slowly, in airport waiting areas on my phone. One of these days, Ismael will leave Nantucket. I’ve been listening to Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs and recently enjoyed Logan Lucky at the movies and the entire season of GLOW on Netflix.