“Communicable Diseases”: An Interview with Matt Leacock

Jordan Barber speaks with Matt Leacock, creator of the popular board game Pandemic, about designing games and social interaction.

In Pandemic, the players work together to stop the spread of four diseases around the globe. Each player is given a different role, as they jet across the globe to research cures. It’s an unusual board game because of its cooperative gameplay; the players win or lose as a team. The game has garnered considerable praise for its unique design, collaborative mechanics, ease of play, and exceptional visual design. An expansion for the board game called Pandemic: On the Brink, designed by Leacock and Tom Lehmann, is set to release this August.

Last July, Leacock left his job at Yahoo! for a position as head of user experience at Sococo, a new company developing a communication platform for teams to meet in virtual space.

The Bygone Bureau: So how do you start creating a game? Is there a particular mechanic you begin with, and build the rest of the game around?

Matt Leacock: I usually have an idea for a theme, then look for an interesting core mechanic. I do most of the initial work with the mechanics because themes are more malleable and I can adapt them to fit the mechanics that generate the best experiences.

My initial process begins with raw sketches and off-the-shelf components and involves a lot of rapid iterations where I try out all sorts of crazy things. After I’ve got a basic engine working, the rules take shape next and then the long process of balancing the game begins.

I would imagine that there’s a temptation to add too much to a game. Did you ever have to chop out particular ideas for that game?

Constantly. After the initial game engine is found, I need to add the rules that give the game its basic shape. At the same time, I’m searching for any other rules that make the game more fun, easier to understand, or novel. Any rules that don’t add substantially and positively to the experience are torn out. Rules that are difficult to learn or don’t fit well in testing are modified or discarded until the game flows more naturally.

You’ve designed games before, but as far as I know, none have been nearly as popular as Pandemic. Is there a particular aspect of Pandemic that you think has allowed it to enjoy the popularity it has?

I think Pandemic‘s popularity is primarily due to the fact that people feel good while they’re playing it. They get to band together with their family or friends to defeat a game that will likely defeat them.

Since the game is fairly accessible and the other players are there to help, there’s also less fear of being embarrassed about making bad plays. And although the group playing gets to bond together as a team, every player also has their own way to shine given the special powers their roles offer.

Cooperative board games seem to have risen in prominence in the last couple years — Arkham Horror, Descent, Shadows Over Camelot, for example. Is there a reason for this? Did you specifically set out to make a cooperative board game?

Yes, I set out to make a cooperative game. I played [Reiner] Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game and was fascinated with the idea of creating a system that could function much like a human opponent. Diseases (spiraling out of control) seemed like a natural (and dramatic!) fit for an opponent.

I’ve noticed that the cooperative aspects of many board games (treaties in Risk, trading in Settlers of Catan) are always informal. They never have many specific rules about what can and can’t be done. Pandemic is similar. If I remember correctly, the only rule is that in normal and expert mode you can’t show your cards (but of course there are ways around that). Is there a reason social interaction between players is so unguided?

People know how to cooperate — it’s built into the way humans naturally interact as a part of our survival instincts. As a game designer, it’s far easier for me to let the players share information and cooperate than to restrict it, especially in a cooperative game.

Lord of the Rings has the same rule for players not showing their cards to each other. I particularly like this rule as it forces the players to communicate and reduces the effects of a single player leading the team. Of course there are ways around this (as you state quite accurately) but all of them require more communication.

As an interaction designer, I imagine a lot of your ideas about social interaction have played out while watching people play Pandemic. But has anything surprised you? Do people play the game in a manner that surprises you?

I’m consistently underestimate how well a team works as opposed to a single player operating independently. I’ll try to simulate a team playing (by myself) with perfect information, and often find that a team playing with less complete information will perform better because more strategies and points of view are evaluated.

When I play Pandemic, I’ve always noticed that people adopt particular personality archetypes when they play. For instance, there’s the “bossy one” who tells everyone else what to do, the “rogue one” who goes off and decides to do things his way. Do you notice that as well?

I’ve seen some “bosses” but very few “rogues” as you describe them. I think there are many other, more subtle ways of approaching the game, however. I’m sure you could come up with dozens of classifications for these behaviors. To this end, the game could easily be turned into a team dynamics training exercise where the players could record themselves playing a game, then later review the tape to see what types of behaviors they’re exhibiting.

Any new board games you’ve been enjoying a lot recently?

I recently got in a few games of Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue, which I enjoyed.

There’s a Pandemic expansion on the way. Anything else in the works?

I’ve got a fairly large backlog of projects that I’d like to get out the door but it’s tough to find the time while working at the startup and raising my two daughters. Expect to see a new family game in 2010.

Pandemic is published by Z-Man Games. The expansion, Pandemic: On the Brink is due out this August. For those interested in learning more about modern board games, here are a few links to the games Leacock mentioned:

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.