Matt Leacock - Board-at-Home Designer Interview Series
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
This week, we're chatting with Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and more than 20 other board games! Given the current climate, Pandemic has surged in popularity around the world, with many of us thrilled to embark on the challenge of saving the world (from our living rooms, of course). Find out what inspired the award-winning game, the changes that he might make after living through an actual pandemic, and what motivates his game design process.
If you need more... also see below for full details of our interview!
Interview with Matt Leacock
What have you been up to during the lockdown?
I’m working on at least a half a dozen games, it’s a pretty busy time right now. My work situation hasn’t changed at all as I usually work out of my house. Pandemic Hot Zone has just come out, that’s a version of Pandemic that’s set in different parts of the world. I’ve also got a dexterity game that I’ve been working on for some time that I’m excited about. There’s also a sequel to Era, a game in which you roll and build a medieval city using beautiful 3D lego like pieces.
What inspired the design of Pandemic?
It’s been out in the market for 12 years, I started working on it in 2004. Inspiration for that was 2 things: 1) I wanted to make a cooperative game because I wanted a game that I could play with my family, that my wife and really enjoy. We had played Lord of the Rings by Reiner Knizia and our eyes were opened by how good a cooperative game it was. So I wanted to make something fun like that, see if I could do it. 'Cos it sounded like a really big challenge trying to make a game that could face the players, all of them together, and still provide a good challenge. 2) At that time, Sars had been in the news quite a bit and that seemed like a natural enemy for the game.
Was it very difficult to pitch it to the publishers at that time?
I pitched it in various forms to the publishers between 2005 to 2007, and it just kept getting better and better. Early on, I had heard (comments like) "cooperative games aren’t popular", but there were some popular ones, Lord of the Rings was one and Shadows of Camelot was another and it was a combination of the disease theme and cooperation that didn’t resonate for some publishers. But in 2007 when I was pitching it, I think I had 4-5 publishers that were interested in it.
How did it get better and better over time?
I remember I pitched it to Days of Wonder, which was not far from where I lived, and the founders there were really really kind, we played a little bit of it. At the time, the players collectively ran 3 grey pawns, but had no roles, you didn’t have your own pawn. The game kinda worked but it was missing something. And in retrospect it seems obvious but they suggested embodying the players as the pawns. And I was like "Oh yeah that’s a great idea!". If you go back even further, I originally ran the game based on 1 deck of cards, so it was both the player deck and the infection deck, but it had 2 different discard piles and when players played it, they continually made mistakes (on where to discard). So I had to work through all that stuff. It took me 3 years to develop the game. But when I was done, I don’t think I really changed anything other than adding one role after I got the game signed (to be published). The dispatcher was the last role I added and it also happens to be my favourite role.
Why is the dispatcher your favourite role?
You can see all sorts of combinations to do. You can put one person over there or fly another person somewhere else and also move another over here, there’s a lot of different fun combinations you can do with it.
Is there anything about the way that the current pandemic has played out that you think might have changed the way you designed the game in any way?
Maybe. So I designed the game with a very high level understanding of how disease works and my aim was to make it a really engaging experience that makes you feel like a hero. It wasn’t based on simulation, it’s not based on a science. I’m working on another game right now that’s really based on science, it’s really hard because you have to take both things and combine them, all the modelling and then all the challenges of making something really engaging and fun and try to make those things work together. And that feels like it's 10 times harder. If I were basing it on the information that everybody knows right now, would politics play a factor, would the way that the countries have worked together played a factor, social distancing, all these different things.
Certainly flying from city to city would not be able to happen!
Yeah! Now it’s actually interesting when something happens and we have something in the game for it. When I designed it, this was all theoretical, I didn’t imagine that I would be experiencing this, to me it was always something that would happen maybe someday, somewhere to someone else. So yeah, I probably would have taken a much different approach to it, just given how much it has changed everyone’s life and how visible it is.
Which is your favourite version of Pandemic?
I really do like the Iberia and Rome ones. I designed Pandemic Iberia with Jesús Torres Castro, It was a joy to work on it with him. I met him in Spain, we had a Pandemic tournament there, and I thought that it would be great to have a version of Pandemic set in Spain. It’s just a great collaboration. I enjoyed playing that one, because I felt like it had even more strategic avenues with the rail network. To be successful at it (the game) you need to plot that out first. And I like Fall of Rome quite a bit as well, that was wonderful and I just loved the way the barbarian hordes come in.
How did you become a full time game designer?
I went full time in 2014 so it took awhile for that to actually build up and have momentum. It’s really difficult to make a living designing board games. I always wanted to try and get a game published, and the game kinda took off. I feel like I got lucky and I had the right product at the right time, it just started to grow, and it became apparent that I was able to do it. I talked over it with my wife, and we decided to just give it a try. It’s scary on one hand because if you’re used to a regular paycheck every month, switching over to a royalty-based income has a lot of uncertainty. You get paid 4 times a year, you don’t have health insurance, you have to work out these kinds of things. But it looked like it was something that could happen, so I just went for it.
Why have you focused more on designing cooperative games?
I really enjoying making them, for me it’s making like a puzzle, trying to come up with a computer program with just paper. I like the puzzle-ly nature of it, trying to work something out that’s novel and exciting. I find it easier to playtest them, I do a lot of playtesting on groups over video, I watch the playtesting and I take notes. You can see everybody talking all the time, so you know what’s going on in their heads, so it makes it easier to understand their emotional state and what they’re thinking about. If you use that method when you’re doing a competitive game, oftentimes you just see people staring at the board. Imagine trying to playtest chess! But that said, the games have been popular and I enjoy working on them so it’s just natural to keep feeding them. Pandemic’s been coming out with something every year, so that keeps me busy. But I do like making competitive games as well, like the dice line that I mentioned (Era).
What is the most exciting thing that has happened in your game design career?
Oh wow, I think winning the special prize at the Spiel de Jahre was a really big thing. Winning that was something I tried not to think about, too crazy, too far off, too impossible. Then I got nominated a bunch of times, and went to Berlin 3 different times. When they gave the special prize to Rob and myself, it was really great, because we just won, we didn’t have to worry about the big reveal and so on. So that was really exciting. But yeah, it’s also fun to meet a lot of people at the conventions and hear stories. Some of these stories can be really powerful. You hear people tell you that Pandemic brought them into the hobby or brought them closer to their spouses, that's really something.
What do your family think about your board games?
My wife Dana likes to play about everything I’ve designed, and is generally the person I’m thinking of most of the time when I’m designing. My eldest is very much into playtesting, my youngest gives lots of critical feedback but I have not yet gotten her to try Pandemic. She plays games, she enjoys Catan with her friends, no problem. But yeah, I think it’s because I designed it. I got her to play Pandemic Hot Zone North America, that was a big breakthrough. You can play it in like 15 minutes and she was like "okay, fine".
So what do you do in your free time when you’re not designing games or when you’re not playing games?
I like hiking when I can get out over the summer. We always go camping every year, our family enjoys some of that. Lately I’ve been doing a lot more cooking, like Indian food, trying to expand (my repertoire). Also a lot of reading.
Apart from your own games, what are some of your favourite board games?
Let’s see, we just play a lot. We play a lot of Yellow Yangtze, it’s sort of like Tigris & Euphrates, which was one of my favourites for a long long time. I also like El Dorado, Magic Maze, and Telestrations. We play a lot of Codenames and Decrypto as well. Some of them are really good just playing online too, you can play them with a camera on Zoom pretty easily. I have also been playing stuff on Boardgame Arena too, a little Seven Wonders and even Puerto Rico.
Tell me something about yourself that we probably wouldn’t know
Oh wow, let’s see what can I share. I’ve got this little guy down here (see cute dog in video). This is a rescue from a couple years ago, my first dog ever. Our daughter talked us into getting a dog, he’s got the cuteness factor. He was terrified when we got him originally, really in bad shape but now he’s the sweetest little guy ever.
Do you have a bunch of regular playtesters that you always go to
I start there, then I go out and try to get a collection of some people that I just have’t tested with before. There are certain requirements for video (for the playtests), sometimes it’s just easier to have a baseline of what kind of feedback I might get so especially in the earlier stages of the game. Later on (in the process) I just get random strangers I have never met to play
How do you work on 12 games at the same time?
They’re all at different stages of development, some of them are pending release and I’ve just waiting to proof the rules. A game might be in that stage for 6-9 months, it's still in development but I’m not doing anything. Before that it might be in development but it’s almost done and I’m tightening some mechanisms, making sure it’s as polished as should be. The design phase takes a long time, and games can be in the design phase sometimes a year, maybe longer. Pandemic took 12 – 15 months to design. The third Pandemic Legacy product took me longer. You do an iteration, you send it for testing, you get feedback, you do another iteration. Prior to that there’s all the ideation that happens, where you’re doing research and trying to come up with ideas and figure out what the game even is, and that’s the scariest time. And that can be a long time as well. You can have games in all the different buckets at the same time all moving forward.