Monday, October 4, 2010

Interview with creator of the board game Pandemic

Pandemic is a board game in which players cooperate to control outbreaks and eradicate disease. It’s played almost on a weekly basis at Vecna by a multi-disciplinary team of employees including software engineers, clinicians, systems administrators, project managers, and attorneys. It’s a unique game in that no single person wins; the team either wins together or loses together.

Board Game Geek: Pandemic Page

I had a chance to interview Pandemic’s creator Matthew Leacock this past Wednesday. Matthew formerly worked as a UI specialist for Yahoo and is now part of a new venture called Sococo. He designs board games on his spare time. He generously gave his time to answer a few questions:

R: What was your inspiration for Pandemic?

M: Classic board games like Monopoly are notorious for allowing an individual player to dominate the entire game while everybody else watches as they get screwed over. “Euro-games” or German board games are shorter and keep players involved and engaged. If you’re eliminated, you don’t have to wait too long to play again. If it’s not your turn, you’re still engaged with the game.

Co-op games like Lord of the Rings really broke it out for me. It wasn’t a kids’ board game where outcomes were randomly determined. Lord of the Rings also introduced the notion of self-sacrifice where you could perform an action that benefitted the team but didn’t necessarily help you out.

R: How did you decide on the theme for Pandemic?

M: The choice of subject matter was a natural fit. In Lord of the Rings, the villain is Sauron who feels un-human and has an emergent behavior like a disease. When you design a game with that kind of opponent, you have to create a paper algorithm that describes how the opponent emerges, how it spreads, and its impact on the players. For Pandemic, I had to define the mechanics of the outbreaks. I also designed a game in my youth about chain reactions from a nuclear reactor with similar mechanics. Disease just naturally fit after that, and it didn’t hurt that SARS was in the news during that time.

R: How much did you rely on historic pandemics or movies about them?

M: I never saw Outbreak. I’m sure 12 Monkeys played into it a little bit. I still remember the scene where the bioterrorist is running through the security gate. I’m familiar with Andromeda Strain but that’s a bit of a stretch. Really, it was mostly because SARS was in the news.

R: What kind of subject matter expertise did you rely upon when designing the game?

M: I’ve done games in two different ways – starting with a theme and then defining the mechanics, or defining the mechanics first and crafting the theme later. It’s better to focus on the mechanics first. Put it together and make it feel right. I did play it with people who were knowledgeable about the subject matter to make sure I didn’t incorporate some huge gaffe. I considered an educational component where facts could be illustrated on cards – information about different diseases, and tips on prevention. I decided against it because it’d be too much information and too many cards.

R: Have you gotten feedback from epidemiologists or other people in public health?

M: I’ve gotten positive feedback from the CDC in Atlanta. They actually sell Pandemic in their gift store. Some epidemiologists, friends of friends mostly, have enjoyed the game. I’ll occasionally see blog posts on Boardgamegeek about somebody who’s in the industry who really enjoys the game.

R: The cooperation in Pandemic is noble. I feel real world cooperation isn’t so pure. In the SARS outbreak, for example, while WHO did a great job facilitating information sharing among researchers, many groups withheld information in the hopes of publishing before others did. Have you considered modeling that element?

M: There are a couple of cards in the Brink expansion that represent that kind of negative behavior. It was easier to design the game in the beginning when it was just the players against the disease. Having different incentives for the different roles just introduced too much complexity.

R: I know this game is making its rounds in the hi-tech community. Start-up founders and software company execs get together to play. Do you have hopes that this will be the next Settlers of Catan?

M: All of my hopes have been exceeded. It’s been translated into 12 languages and has sold over 100,000 copies. I’d be happy if people pointed to it and said that it’s a very fun, collaborative game.

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