Matt Leacock's Pandemic game poised to infect the world

[Not final image of the Pandemic board]
You seem to have nothing else to do which is why you came here? Well, I know a quality sites to play bingo at that will completely kill your boredom. You know, I have always loved games, though I find I have less time for them as I get older. When I was younger it was board games and card games. Later role playing games and video games. Although card games is still present, but I play it now on the gambling platform at DAISYSLOTS. I used to change five dollars into quarters and squander it all on Major Havoc and Robotron and Pole Position.
In my work and in my attention to online and offline experiences I find that qualities of play can make all the difference between drudgery and delight. I’ve often theorized that Flickr is so successful because it feels more like a game than an asset-management system (and of course Ludicorp made Game Never Ending and built the first rev of Flickr on the GNE engine). Think about it. Given the choice, would you rather “work” or “play”?
At the retreat from which I just returned I had the opportunity to meet and talk to several game designers (Nicole Lazzaro, Bill Dunn, and Jon Blossom), which was enlightening in numerous ways. My old buddy Jeff Green is still editor in chief of Games for Windows (possibly the best job EVAR in that he and his staff are required to play games on the clock). And my colleague Matt Leacock, principal interaction designer for Yahoo’s community platform, has a new boardgame, Pandemic, coming out in November. Is the world trying to tell me something?
I think I need to pay attention to this. Game interfaces (or “PX” as Nicole calls it, to encompass the whole idea of the play experience) are light years ahead of productivity application interfaces and I think those of us working in the more staid spaces would do well to learn from the innovations coming from games. I’ve been mouthing an idea along these lines for years (along with other commonplaces, such as “learn from the children”) but so far I’ve failed to really dig in.
I asked Matt a few questions about his upcoming game:

wake up!: How long have you been designing board games?
Matt Leacock: I’ve been designing board games since I was a kid. When I was nine or ten I designed the first game I can recall named “The Sensation of Boxation.” It was a simple roll-and-move affair where the players were represented by corrugated boxes in an assembly line trying to make their way to a shopping cart. Many of my early games were drawn on the back of other board games that I found lacking. I recall playing games with my uncle and saying, “Is that all there is to this game? I’m sure we could do better.”
Do you design other kinds of games as well?
I focus on board and card games for two reasons: I’m able to handle all of the production tasks and I enjoy the social interaction that results in a good board game. As I experiment with cooperative designs though, I’ve been tempted to work on some computer-moderated designs to lighten up the bookkeeping that players need to do.
What are some of your favorite games?
My favorite game is Tigris and Euphrates by Reiner Knizia because it offers so many interesting tactical and strategic decisions with a fairly straightforward set of rules.
Your influences?
As for influences, I played Tactics, Acquire, and Civilization with my dad and uncle as a kid, roleplaying games in high school, then watched a new world of games open up to me as Mayfair and Rio Grande started importing German board games like Settlers of Catan. I favor games that play in 45-75 minutes, have a lot of player interaction, offer the ability to play intuitively, and provide the means for players to catch up from behind. Many of the “Euro” games offer this mix.
Where did you get the idea for Pandemic?
Hard to say. I wanted to try my hand at a cooperative game and was also interested in a game where chain reactions could occur—where things could rapidly get out of hand. The central mechanism came to me more or less by accident as I was experimenting with a set of cards while working on the first prototype.
How long did it take to design the game?
I started working on Pandemic in January of 2004 and signed off on the final rules in October 2007. I put together a quick-and-dirty paper prototype in about 30 minutes with a couple of sharpies, a standard deck of cards, some wooden cubes, and a few pawns. Unlike many games I’ve worked on, Pandemic showed promise right from the start – I could feel tension in it right away.
What was the process like?
For this design, I wrote down my objectives early which helped keep me focused. The process I used relied on many iterations. In each trial, I’d jot down a rule set and either try it out myself or present it to a group of playtestsers. After playing a game, I’d keep rules that helped make the game more engaging and do what I could to remove any rules that sounded interesting—at the time—but didn’t match up to the core objectives. I also sat out a lot of games and closely observed players to note what behaviors they exhibited during each game. Where did they get confused? Ask questions? Check the rules? I did my best to file off all the sharp, confusing edges by redesigning the game to fit players’ mental models wherever I could.

The two biggest hurdles are finding a novel mechanism that is fun and fine tuning the design for balance and learn-ability. For this game, the mechanism came right away and the bulk of the work was tuning. I’ve been trying to get more methodical about the second part of the process (tuning a balanced, learnable design) because I can get much better results in fewer trials if I’m actively listening and taking notes. I still haven’t found a process for repeatedly discovering fun and novel games, however. I suspect it has a lot to do with loads of fearless experimentation.

Have you got some other game ideas in the works?
I’m currently working on an cooperative game that could be used for training or team building in corporations.

You can pre-order Pandemic now at Funagain Games. Just $23.95! Fun for the whole family!






One response to “Matt Leacock's Pandemic game poised to infect the world”

  1. Dan Avatar

    I love hearing about the hobbies of interaction designers. I’m thoroughly impressed with Matt’s work (as a designer of both games and web sites). Great interview! And “PX” is a gem.