Co-Op Interviews: Matt Leacock

PandemicMatt Leacock is the author of Pandemic — one of the essential games in the cooperative field thanks to its attention to light, quick, well-polished gameplay. He’s also the author of Forbidden Island and the brand-new Forbidden Desert, which is to be released in several languages this quarter.

This interview was conducted in email over the course of April 2013.

Shannon Appelcline: What made you decide to design a cooperative game — and more specifically, what made you decide to design Pandemic?

Matt Leacock: I was introduced to the idea of a cooperative game being genuinely fun (as opposed to a “fun” educational experience) by Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. I found the mechanisms in that game fascinating — how so much tension could be created by pieces of cardboard — and wondered what it would be like to create my own. At the time, pandemics where all over the news and it seemed to me that diseases would make an excellent opponent: they’re unfeeling, scary, can grow out of control, and I figured they could be modeled with fairly simple rules. Those latter two properties were the most attractive. I’m drawn to designing games with emergent systems (where a simple set of rules can result in highly complex and variable results) and the thought of a system spiraling wildly out of control was irresistible to me.

I recall mulling a lot of this over in my head as I took my infant daughter out on walks and then one day I started sketching things out on a notepad and immediately started to test the crude sketches along with a modified deck of cards. Fairly early on, I stumbled on to the rule for re-infecting already infected cities — by putting the discards on top of the draw pile — and I was hooked.

SA: I think the slightly complex system for keeping the same cards active in the game is one of the cleverest design elements, and something that makes the game really work! It’s also interesting to hear that Lord of the Rings was what got you into the co-op field, as I think it was the leanest and tightest cooperative game prior to the release of Pandemic. Were they any specific mechanics (or other elements) from Lord of the Rings that influenced your design of Pandemic? Or from any other early co-op games?

ML: In an effort to encourage communication (and reduce the chances that one of the players would dominate the conversation) I did pick up his rule restricting players from showing each other their cards during the game.

I dropped this restriction for the Introductory game so that experienced players can advise newer players, and then (in the second edition of the game) made it completely optional. I’m not sure if Knizia included the restriction in Lord of the Rings so his traitor rules would work or if he included the traitor rules as a rationalization for the “no showing” rule. (In my experience no one ever considers turning against their fellow hobbits.) I suspect he also found that requiring people to describe their cards — rather than show them — helped reduce alpha-player syndrome and add to player autonomy.

I added the roles after a conversation with Mark Kaufmann and Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder. They tested an early version of the game and encouraged me to find ways to make each player feel special. In hindsight, this is a no-brainer, but for a time, the players jointly controlled three gray, undifferentiated pawns.

SA: A great change, as I think the roles are one of the most interesting parts of the game! Is there anything else in the design of Pandemic that you found particularly important to the cooperative aspects of the game?

ML: The central challenge of melding 5 cards of the same color is difficult to do alone — it usually requires heavy dependence and coordination with the other players. Players must often plan several turns in advance in order to orchestrate complex “meet-ups” across the globe and this is an excellent way to get a group talking and problem-solving together.

The roles (mentioned earlier) provide each player something “uniquely powerful” to contribute. Because the game is so difficult, players must rely on the special powers of their teammates if they want to succeed. The roles also provide a strong sense of purpose which helps players differentiate themselves from the others in the group.

Cooperative games can feel like a group puzzle that could just as easily be solved by one person as by several. (In practice, I find the opposite is true: many minds working together usually do much better than a lone player.) In order to reduce this “group puzzle” feeling, I’ve found it helps to give players a greater sense of autonomy. For example, you are in complete control of your own pawn in the game. While others can move it in certain circumstances, the rules state that they must ask your permission. The “no showing” rules for your hand work under the same principle. You’re in control over the information on the cards: if others want to know what you have, they have to ask you. I’m always on the lookout for other ways to increase this feeling — I think this is a ripe area for development in cooperative games.

Here’s a summary of some of the mechanisms aiding cooperation in Pandemic:

  • The melding needed to find a cure requires interdependence on others.
  • The extreme difficulty requires a reliance on the role powers of others.
  • The role powers provide players a sense of purpose on the team, drawing out wallflowers.
  • Hand and pawn control provide a greater sense of autonomy, helping to set boundaries for who controls what.

SA: You mention a few times the difficulty of the game, and I’d have to agree. I’ve personally recorded 10 plays of Pandemic, and if I’ve won it at all, it’s just been one or two times. How do you thinking winning and losing should balance out in a cooperative game, and why?

ML: The primary challenge is keeping the players in a good state of flow. That is, keeping them in that sweet spot where they’re doing creative problem-solving that is neither boring and tedious (when the game isn’t hard enough) nor overcome with anxiety or helplessness (when the game is too hard). I’ve found that players get the most enjoyment when things are just out of reach — that they can almost, very nearly, taste victory each time. And of course, you’ve got to let them win some from time to time or the game will be declared broken. So that said, I generally hope the players will lose their first round or two of the game but — here’s the important part — they must both blame themselves and have some good ideas for what they’ll try next.

My general rule of thumb is to target a 30% win ratio that gradually increases until the players feel ready to graduate to the next level of difficulty, at which point I hope they only win 30% of the time, and so on. But that’s merely a rough guideline. It’s hard to track given the vast array of variables in the game itself, the individual players’ experience, and the way they work together as a group.

If all goes well with the game then, there’s plenty of replay potential (based on difficulty alone) packed into the game.

One thing that I’ve found fascinating and that I never would have predicted when I started is that many players appear to get more enjoyment out of a game that is just narrowly lost over one that they win. I think some of this may be due to a lack of denouement in Pandemic‘s design — winning can be a bit abrupt — but I do think that people enjoy struggling for something just out of reach.

SA: I think those ten plays are my top count for a cooperative game, so that definitely argues for the game’s replayability!

You’ve recently rereleased Pandemic, and the newest iteration has two new roles, the Contingency Planner and the Quarantine Specialist. What made you decide to increase the core game’s role count, and what do you think they contribute to the cooperation of the game?

ML: I was approached by Z-man with the idea of adding some new roles to the base set and asked Tom Lehmann to take on the task of leading the development of these. I liked the thought of increasing the variety in the base game without increasing complexity and thought it would bring some renewed interest to the base game.

The Contingency Planner brings a very different power to the usual role mix with his ability to manipulate events while the Quarantine Specialist provides a straightforward — but powerful way to help control the infections and outbreaks. They primarily add variety to the mix but the players controlling either power can benefit from the advice of their teammates whether it’s on the selection or timing of an event or the correct place to camp out at the end of a turn.

Forbidden IslandSA: Continuing on with the idea of sequels, I wanted to ask you about Forbidden Island. Some folks describe it as a simplified version of Pandemic, while you’ve said it’s more it’s own game. How did your ideas about cooperative gaming change from Pandemic to Forbidden Island, and what do you think the latter brings to the field?

ML: When I designed Forbidden Island, the folks from Gamewright and I wanted to bottle up all the tension and excitement found in Pandemic in a new (and entirely separate) game that was more accessible to kids and families. A great deal of the development work that went into the game was focused on keeping the rule set as simple and straightforward as possible. Not to dumb it down, mind you — the game is plenty challenging — but to remove any rules that would trip people up and to reduce as much friction in play as we could.

For example, during setup, the draw deck does not need to be primed: players don’t need to intercut Waters Rise cards at pre-determined intervals. They just shuffle the deck. Because this is more chaotic, I needed to ensure the game engine was stable enough that things wouldn’t go off the rails with a bad shuffle. (Players will be quick to point out that it is indeed possible to lose on the first turn — a tradeoff I was happy to make since 1. this is so rare, 2. it’s so fun to talk about, and 3. it allowed me to cut out several minutes of setup and at least one page of rules out of the game.)

I’ll also mention that I think the end game for Forbidden Island works especially well. After players have discovered the four artifacts, they then need to make a mad dash for the helicopter in order to lift off. I think this provides a more cinematic ending. The players don’t end the game at the peak of the story’s climax and have a period of resolution while they make their way to the helicopter.

I also think the game’s overall product design was well executed. The artwork and pieces are gorgeous, the tray insert works well, and the price point can’t be beat. I’m not really sure how they pulled off that price point to be honest. When it’s all put-together (accessibility, artwork, and price) I think it makes for an excellent gateway game for new players to the hobby.

Forbidden DesertSA: Any comments on the upcoming Forbidden Desert, and how that’s going to continue the evolution of your cooperative design?

ML: The challenge for me with Forbidden Desert was to come up with a sequel for people who liked Forbidden Island that continued the story, but didn’t feel like “more of the same.” I’m hoping that these “Forbidden” games will feel like episodes in an old adventure serial — a continuing story, lots of excitement, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Forbidden Desert introduces two primary threats that the players must counterbalance: they’re in the baking sun and will eventually expire from thirst (due to exposure). They camp out in the cool, dark tunnels, but if they do that, they’ll eventually be buried alive under the rapidly accumulating sand. The dueling threats are similar to Pandemic in that you’ve got to balance the need to address local emergencies with the overall objectives of the game, weigh the risks, and come up with gambits to address one without forgetting the other.

I can’t increase the difficulty without giving the players additional tools to cope. This game introduces a deck of equipment cards to help the players out. Like role abilities, equipment cards give the players additional one-shot powers. The cards were designed so that they are only controlled by their owner (increasing autonomy), can be played at any time (which helps with engagement when it’s not your turn), and come out gradually over the course of the game so the players don’t need to understand everything at the beginning of the game. I also designed them so their powers would encourage interdependence between the players when they are used. For example, the Solar Shield will protect anyone on your tile. You can certainly play it when you’re alone, but wouldn’t it be better to put it up after you’ve convinced a few of your colleagues to join you in the shade?

In addition to those mechanisms that bring out cooperation, the game features a different challenge engine and a shifting board. I had a bit of fun inverting Forbidden Island: instead of drowning from too much water, players are desperate for it. Instead of a rapidly disappearing board, players find themselves getting buried under an overabundance of it (as the sand piles up all around them).

SA: Sounds like a fun new experience. I’ll look forward to seeing it in print! Now that you’ve got three cooperative games under your belt, do you feel like you’ve learned any important lessons about cooperative games that you didn’t know when you put together Pandemic?

ML: No doubt. It would be hard to list the many things you pick up along the way in testing — what types of things work and what things don’t. These things often become clearer when you play a game that isn’t working. You begin to consciously recognize the stuff that you learned tacitly.

Here’s a few that come to mind:

Don’t make a game harder by hamstringing a player and limiting their options — that’s incredibly frustrating. Instead, move the goal post out a bit further, and offer the tools necessary to get the job done — but don’t tell the player how to accomplish the task.

It’s hard to overemphasize this: don’t tell the player how to win. I roll my eyes when I see “helpful hints” in rules. You’re stealing the game from the player! That’s a good tip for teaching too. Present an environment where the player or student is able to succeed or learn given the environment you’ve constructed for them. Telling a player how to win a cooperative game is like telling a student how to solve a problem and then telling them to solve it for you. (Is it any wonder why students find math dull given the way it’s taught?)

And, I had no idea how cooperative games can (and will!) open up new avenues for the incorporation of richer stories and story-telling into board games. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface and have so much more to learn in this area.

SA: I’ve been pretty surprised by how closely cooperative games have been allied with storytelling as well! Is that what’s kept drawing you back to cooperative games, is it mainly the success of Pandemic, or is it something else?

ML: All of the above. 🙂

SA: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer these questions!

10 thoughts on “Co-Op Interviews: Matt Leacock

  1. Pingback: » An Interview With Matt Leacock - GameBugle

  2. I really enjoyed reading this interview. My wife and I are new to board gaming and we love both of Matt’s games.

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