The other week I was giving the opportunity to attend a small event at Esclectice Games in Reading, put together by Esdevium Games to meet Matt Leacock, designer of the hit board game Pandemic along with Zev Shlasigner, founder of Z-Man Games.
The event was a great chance to sit down and find out more about the board game world and discuss a range of topics with people who knew first hand what the industry was like. Plus there was an oversized Pandemic board which was rather awesome to play on so I can not complain about that. We were even winning, I think.
Regardless, having the chance to interview both Matt Leacock and Zev Shlasigner was an amazing and fun experience. Now, having had time to compile all the notes together we have the two interviews to share with you. This part, one of two, is with Matt Leacock the creative mind and designer behind Pandemic and Pandmic Legacy. Sitting down with him to ask about the creation process, his views on tablet integration into board games and a quick check up on the state of the industry.
Q: First of all thank you so much for your time, for the benefit of the readers can you tell us who you are what you do?
“I’m Matt Leacock, I design boardgames, I’ve been doing it fulltime now for almost 2 years. Prior to that I did user experience design. I take a lot of the things I learned in software and apply it to board games. But I have dabbling with board games since I was a kid.”
Q: What made you want to go into designing board games?
“I don’t know, I mean I think the earliest I can think of was playing some really crappy games as a kid and wanting to do more. I mean, I have memories of really bad roll and move games and just being so disappointed. *laughs* And trying to improve on them on the back of the game boards with markers and stuff. Ever since I was young I wanted to do this.”
Q: When creating new ideas where do you look for inspiration? Is it predominantly other board games or do you look elsewhere in terms of films, books, etc?
“Yeah, I try to be a sponge and absorb just everything I can. Lately with the Legacy work I’ve been doing on Pandemic I’ve been doing a lot of reading on you know, what makes compelling stories, books like that, screenplays and you know, just reading really compelling stories and about fantastical type of fiction writing just to kind of expand my thinking about that. Done some reading on improv, reading and sketching. I try to look outside you know. One of my big views is just if you play too many board games and try to base your games on the games you’ve played you’re gonna end up with poor combinations and mashups. That’s not what I wanna do. I want to keep stretching.”
Q: So rather than remixing what has already been done essentially you’re trying to improve and bring new elements to the table?
“Yeah, yeah. When I first started out I remember trying to map out this encyclopaedia of pattern language of mechanisms and after awhile it just got so boring. I realized that if all I did was mash those up, I would just be doing the same thing as what other designers have done. I’m trying to look a little at what’s next, trying to stretch and do something new.”
Q: What was the development process when making Pandemic? How long it took the initial spark of inspiration to actually getting a solid product?
“I think it was at least 3 years actually. It was a long process. It’s interesting to me is that i had some ideas bouncing around my head about doing a game with graphic nodes and lines and a card driven experience where, I was inspired by the power where you’ve got cards that do multiple things. And I really really wanted to get a good game with chain reactions going on. As I’ve done some as a kid, where things spiral out of control, you’ve got a nonlinear growth of things. I played Lord of the Rings, Reiner Knizia’s cooperative game. So I think these are all different influences that went into the pot. I did a sketch of it, I’ve actually got it in my hotel room, it’s extremely raw, you’d never guess it was Pandemic. And I played with a standard deck of cards and within, I don’t know, 30 minutes, I stumbled on the mechanism of shuffling this card around and put it back on top. And it immediately hooked me. I kept working on it and I tested it on a ton of people. I took it to the Alan Moon Gathering of friends for 2 years, had a friend bring it a 3rd year and I think the game’s elegance is from fine tuning really with a lot of expert players who have given great suggestions over all that time. I can do them quicker now but I think that’s part of the success of that game, just so many tests from so many different types of people.”
Q: Are you open with your development or do you keep the development a secret?
“It varies on the game, we’re pretty careful with Pandemic Legacy Season 2 because we don’t want any spoilers getting out. We tread very carefully. Other games I’m happy to um…I’ve got one game that’s going into a museum on Monday and it’s unpublished. And it’s because I haven’t been able to finish it, I’ve just been banging my head against the wall almost 18 years on this thing. I pitched it at the same time I pitched Pandemic. So yeah, it varies based on the project. Some games I’m just happy to show to as many people as I can.”
Q: What’s something you’ve always wanted to do, with Pandemic or another idea, but haven’t had the opportunity to?
“I’ve always been interested in a number of different types of things. I enjoy tacill stuff, always want to get a whiteboard into the game, that’s where Knit Wit came from, my upcoming game, because I wanted to do a whiteboard game. It’s funny because we ultimately threw out the whiteboard. *laughs* Really wanted people to be able to draw, develop the board as they play. I’d seen a game called “search for the source of the nile”, never got the chance to play it, but the game where you draw out the board is something I wanted to try out. And I’m also interested in games with kinetic elements. So any kind of dexterity game I’d like to experiment with, but haven’t done anything in that regard. ”
Q: You mentioned about drawing the board as you play. Is that something you like from board games or from role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons?
“Yeah, it’s part of it. Because I’ve played D&D, I was always the DM, in many cases I was just considering the source material and not playing. I like the idea of world building and all the background information. Even more so than the storytelling aspects. I just enjoy that, kind of living in those world in my mind. I think that’s part of it”
Q: Besides Dungeons and Dragons, what are some your favorite board and tabletop games?
“I play a lot of deck builders with my daughter so we play Star Realms, Thunderstone, Trains, that’s sort of things, so there’s quite a bit. I’m a big fan of Splendor. That’s a good game. But yeah, half of the time we go through the back back catalog and playing an old classic and half the time we’re trying something new. ”
Q: So, Pandemic season 2?
“Let me put it this way, a couple of points, you’re not gonna need Season 1, it’s a totally self contained game, we really want to make these games so you can grab it and there’s no worries, you can just get get going. Season 1, when you play, it starts out like basic pandemic, you know, it changes. Season 2, we don’t want to do the same thing again so it will be different. It’s not going to be dramatically, you know like…let me just say, it’s gonna be different ok, it’s gonna be some fresh stuff. I think people will expect that and enjoy the fact that it is different.”
Q: Do you think we will have a flood of legacy games now because of the success of Pandemic?
“I expect to see more because first of all, Pandemic legacy was so successful and because it’s such a rich design space. There are so many things you can do in that area, I mean it’s really an enjoyable space to work in because you can you can bring so much to it and experiment so much. But I think it’s untapped and we will see more.”
Q: What do you think about board games using tablets, like XCOM: The Board Game?
“To me it feels like a solution in search of a problem. I think people are right, eventually people will find a good way to marry those two and you’ll get a great experience, it’s just like peanut butter and chocolate together, it’s great! But right now it just feels like we’re stumbling a bit to find that and they’re trying to come up with excuses to put the two together rather than a natural, this is a natural extension of that where both elements do their job the appropriate way and the result of the union of the two is wonderful, greater than some of it’s parts kind of the experience. I haven’t seen it yet but I think it is right, it will produce something that’s great i just don’t know that what the right combination is.”
Q: So say, replacing a deck of cards with a tablet?
“If you look at the advantages of iPad or android tablet or what have you, it can do a lot of processing for you. But if it’s doing it the players are not so what are the players doing then, you know? If it’s a black box and you can’t analyze it then how is that contributing to the game? But if you’re looking at the user interface as some really great way to engage the senses, well then you’re tearing the sensory attention away from the other people in the game. So again, I’m not really sure where the value is yet but devices have so much capability that there’s gotta be something. Just not sure what it is. ”
Q: So it’s important to keep the players involved?
“Yeah, I mean there’s key things where you’re trying to get them engaged either by, you know, modulating the emotions up and down like a good story would or getting them in a nice flow state where their next challenge is just out of reach, up the mastery ladder, there’s always that but none of them really require liquid crystal display. *laughs*”
Q: So what do you think the next big leap forward will be? What with legacy games and app integration, what could be next big thing we will see?
“I think that’s always the question right? I think I like to say that too because there is so much potential and I don’t think anyone has really cracked the nut yet. So I think we will see a lot of people try and maybe we will see a breakthrough, maybe not. I’m not sure.”
Q: Any advice or tips you could give to someone who is thinking of making their own board game?
“I would say, really understand what your motivations for doing so, first of all. If you really enjoy it, that’s great. If in it to try to make some money well…but if you’re really passionate about it, then go for it. Another common thing is that people are really overprotective over their ideas, thinking it’s the key thing. Really the execution is the key thing. So it’s far better to show your game to as many people as you can and get as much input as you can. First of all to prove that your idea is solid and then to build on it and make it better and better. Because you’re gonna need to iterate on it and the more input you can get, the better. The last thing is, as you’re showing it to people, really listen to them. Rather than defending your design decisions just pay attention to the feedback you’re receiving. Cuz it’s always valid. You may not agree with it but you should take it into account.”
Sometimes it’s much better not to ask questions and just to observe people play it. And observe their behaviours. And so I do a lot of that. Typically I don’t do questionnaires, or ask people how the game was when it’s done, I just watch them as they play. I’m luck, I do a lot of cooperative games where people are talking constantly, it’s like speak loud protocol, you know what’s going on in their head because they have to share it with their teammates. So I think competitive games are harder, but with co-ops it works pretty well.”
Thank you to Matt Leacock for his time and input. A big thank you to Esclectice Games in Reading for being such woundeful hosts and thanks to Esdevium Games for making the event possible. Stay tuned for part two where we sit down with Zev Shalasigner, founder of Z-Man Games and get to know more about production.
Thanks for reading.