I met Matt Leacock at Evvia, a wonderful Greek restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, a veritable melting pot of the techno-elite and hipster-weird. Matt is, of course, synonymous with co-op game design, having created the classic Pandemic in its many and varied forms, both legacy and otherwise.
DTD: Hey Matt! Welcome!
ML: How’s it going?
The waiter approached, exactly what you would picture at a fine restaurant in Athens, and he made us right at home offering drinks and appetizers.
DTD: You live near, right? You didn’t need to travel far?
ML: I live in Sunnyvale, so an hour maybe. Not even.
DTD: I had friends who went to Stanford and I went here ages ago. It’s been so long since I’ve been downtown. It’s a big deal now.
ML: Oh yeah.
DTD: Its such a huge downtown, its very cool. I made a day of it. I arrived early and was playing around and looking at the stores.
ML: So you’re up north of here, is that right?
DTD: Today I came from Sacramento. I’ve got a place in San Jose I might head back to.
Wine was mentioned again by our host, so discussions naturally ensued about glasses or bottles…
DTD: Do you want to get some wine?
ML: I think I might get a glass – I think you’ll probably get a better interview. [laughs]
DTD: That’s cool! Wow, everything looks so good. I’ve got some friends who live in Greece. My parents are actually at their place in Greece now.
ML: Wow. I haven’t been there since 2000. I went on my honeymoon there.
DTD: That’s awesome! Wow!
ML: Yeah, Egypt and Greece.
DTD: That’s very cool. I love the food. I haven’t had good Greek food in a long old time.
The menu at Evvia looks both hand-made and carefully crafted, and offers all of the classic Greek fare, each looking better than the last.
DTD: What do you usually get?
ML: It’s been a long time.
The waiter returned and described the specials, as if the menu alone were not enough to give the strongest of us analysis paralysis. Mayataki mushrooms roasted in a wood oven with kefalotyri cheese and Greek virgin olive oil. Figs and feta, roasted in a skillet with honey, olive oil, tarragon. Pork rotisserie – a whole piglet on the spit.
DTD: We can get an appetizer – something to snack on?
ML: I can do just about anything but dairy; I’m not very good with dairy, as it turns out.
DTD: No worries. Even things like feta, aged cheeses?
ML: Maybe a little bit.
DTD: I don’t know. I’m a freak for dolmathes. Dolmas are so good. And octopus – nobody does octopus like a Greek restaurant.
ML: Any of that.
DTD: Are you feeling adventurous?
DTD: I feel like I’m cheating if I don’t get lamb.
ML: Kokinisto? Is that what you’re saying? Or the Arni Souvlaki?
DTD: Or the lamb chops. But, ooh, the Kokinisto does look great. And mizithra, mizithra is so good. Yeah, I’m going to have to get the Kokinisto.
ML: Those figs sounded really good too.
DTD: Yeah, they did. That was an appetizer, right? We have a fig tree in my yard that never makes good figs. It always makes those mediocre not-so-great figs.
ML: So much to choose from.
DTD: Yeah, this place is amazing. It’s really funny, I brought this up to a lot of different designers, “Let’s go out to eat. Anywhere you want.” And it’s really funny the different ways that different designers have gone. The top so far is Rob Daviau. He wants to hit Napa hard.
ML: I was wondering because you mentioned that. I talk with Rob quite a bit. Alan [Moon] is just completing his tour of the U.S.
DTD: I haven’t spoken to Alan at all. I should know if he is bouncing around the USA; I should nab him if he’s up here somewhere.
ML: Oh, you just missed him. He was up here a few months ago.
DTD: I should have. I didn’t email him because I knew he was so far away. But Rob, I bumped into him at GenCon, and we were talking about it. So, next time he’s in the area.
ML: Yeah, grab him! That way he and I can get together again.
DTD: That sounds great; I am more than happy to do that. So you know, Rob [Daviau] is an absolute food freak.
ML: Oh, yes.
DTD: Which I love. I’m pretty much a foodie myself. I’ve got a place right outside Napa Valley, so it’s nice for food. I just finished up with John D. Clair. We did that at a little hole-in-the-wall Indian place down in LA. That was really fun. That was a blast.
ML: Which one are you getting? The Souvlaki or the Kokinisto?
DTD: I think I’m going to get the Kokinisto.
ML: I know, I’m trying to narrow it down here. It’s tough because they’re all so good.
DTD: I know. Arnisia looked really good too. That was what I was debating about, Kokinisto or the one right under it, the chops. But honestly it was the myzithra that pushed me over the cliff. Actually, when I was in college, my in-laws gave me a block of Myzithra cheese the size of a human head. It was in my freezer for years. I would just grate off some every once in a while.
ML: I think I’m going to go with the Arnisia. Do you want to get any wine or anything?
DTD: I could go either way. If I’m getting lamb then a red wine would be delightful. Unfortunately I have a bit of a snooty streak with some of the Sonoma wines. Did you have one that you were going for?
ML: I thought I would just go for a Zin by the glass.
DTD: That sounds great. So, tell me how you got started into this crazy business. I was looking and I saw a couple games out there that…
After much debate, we made our selections. Kokinisto me Manestra for me, braised lamb shank with orzo and myzithra. Arnisia Paidakia, classic lamb chops, for Matt. A wood fired octopus appetizer rounded everything out wonderfully. With our orders placed, the conversation turned to games.
DTD: I saw a couple of games you did early on that I hadn’t heard of before. So I figured we would go into depth on Lunatix Loop and…
ML: I sort of made games when I was really little.
DTD: A lot of people seem to. But there were two on the list published really early.
ML: I did Borderlands first. I was in college.
DTD: Am I right it looked like a wooden game? Is that right – I saw one picture.
ML: It was a card game, it came with some currency. I bagged up little plastic coins and those little plastic plugs you get to cover up screws. And stands, stands for cards. So you can slot your card in the stand.
DTD: And that was in college?
ML: Yeah, I ran out 200, no, 120 copies of the game. I was a graphic design student, so it was like a project…
DTD: Computer graphic design?
ML: Just general graphic design. Computer communication. Lunatix Loop came a little bit later. It was about the same time I was working on that. But I ran out 200 copies in 2000 to bring to Spiel. I worked on it for like 6 years or something. Just kept iterating on it, didn’t really know what I was doing.
DTD: But that’s the best learning process.
ML: You kind of learn how to learn a little bit.
DTD: Just recently someone brought up a quote that game design is the continued experience of getting better at failing.
ML: Yeah, that’s good. The iteration timing gets smaller and smaller. Iteration after iteration.
DTD: But I noticed there were big time jumps in there. Borderlands was in the 90s, and then Lunatix was 2000 I believe. And then there’s a long time until Pandemic and then Roll [Through the Ages].
ML: Pandemic came out in 2008, and I worked on that for 3 years. It took a year to develop by the publisher. So I think I started on that in 2004. Not a huge jump, 4 years in between them.
DTD: When you were working on that, were you pretty much determined “I’m going to be a designer. This is the path.”
ML: Oh no, no. Absolutely not. It was just a fun thing I was doing on the side.
DTD: What else were you doing, graphic design?
ML: I was a graphic designer in Chicago. I graduated from college, worked in the city for a couple of years. I was there 2 years when I got called out to California to work at Claris by a schoolmate. And I worked there for all of 4 months before I got laid off. Steve Jobs had come back, and decided to blow up Claris, and what happened was we lost our jobs.
DTD: I kind of remember that story. I came from a line of computer people, so I knew a lot of the back and forth going on.
ML: It was always a thing on the side with the ultimate goal of getting something published.
Glasses of red wine and a plate of the most wonderfully prepared octopus hit the table. There is a reverent silence.
DTD: Wonderful, thank you. Thank you very much. Pandemic hit hard. It kind of blew up from the get go. Was Pandemic the decision to go full-time as a designer?
ML: No, no, no. I mean, it did well, but it was kind of a sleeper hit really. It sold out of its first run, then its second run and its third run. But that was the course of 9 months and the runs were very small. The first run was something like 3 or 4 thousand units. It’s not like you can make a career on that. It was after Z-Man was sold to Filosofia Éditions, Sophie Gravel’s company. And then they combined that into F2Z games.
A little bit of relevant history: Filosophia Editions was created in 2001 by Sophie Gravel. In 2011, Filosophia bought Z-Man Games, and begat F2Z Entertainment. F2Z was then bought by Asmodee in 2016. However, during this merger, Sophie Gravel left with several assets, and started Plan B Games, which includes Next Move Games and Pretzel Games.
DTD: I was under the impression that it did really well, and had so much hype from the get-go.
ML: It did well, but if you graph it, there’s a big uptick right after the acquisition.
DTD: I’m going to be mean, and take some pictures. I hope you don’t mind.
ML: About 6 years [later], I started thinking about it [going independent]. It was because of the startup. My wife and I were looking at where income was coming from. She was independent, as a contractor. And if I went independent, we were trying to figure out things.
DTD: So you could localize anywhere.
ML: Well, that was part of the draw, but it was also “what do we do about things like health insurance?” It was just kind of scary thinking about not working for a company; we had done exactly that our entire lives. It took a while to think all that through.
DTD: I’ve definitely been there. Health insurance is an interesting one, when you don’t actually have an employer, when you’re self-employed.
ML: [Eating] The last time I had octopus was with Bruno Faidutti in Paris.
DTD: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s a line for you.
ML: Yeah, I get the name dropping and the location!
DTD: “Bruno… Did I mention Bruno was there?”
ML: Oh yes. He batted his eyes and…
DTD: I always try to get octopus when I’m at a Greek restaurant. It’s just so good. It just makes me happy. So did Roll [Through the Ages] come first or did Pandemic come first?
DTD: Pandemic definitely came first. Because they were very close to each other.
ML: They were published a year apart.
DTD: I think on BGG they had the same year.
ML: Yeah, for a while, Pandemic had the wrong year on BGG. Or maybe it’s Roll that had the wrong year.
DTD: I thought that’s what it was. Were you working on both of them at the same time? Or did one lead to the other?
ML: I think they did overlap. It’s all a bit of a blur. A lot of the development was at the Gathering of Friends. Roll went really quickly. I had a challenge from a friend of mine – it was either Chris Farrell or Kim Farrell. They were really into NaNoWriMo, the idea of writing a novel in a month, and thought “Well, let’s take that concept and do it for games. Let’s design a civilization-building dice game in a month.”
DTD: Wow. How much did it change from that?
ML: Not a tremendous amount. I had the bones of it kind of figured out. We all went off and did our own games, then came back and compared them. This one seemed to go pretty well, so I brought it to the Gathering, and started to pass it around quite a bit. I’m trying to think if it got played multiple years at the Gathering; I think it may have. At a certain point it got pitched, and it got picked up by FRED [Eagle-Gryphon Games].
DTD: It’s a great game. I had so much fun playing it. I played the newer version, but I’m not sure I played the original.
ML: You played Iron Age or Bronze Age?
DTD: I played the newer Bronze Age.
ML: The Bronze Age is the first one that was published, that I designed. Tom Lehmann did the Iron Age.
DTD: There’s a second edition to the Bronze Age, isn’t there?
ML: The second edition had slightly darker dice, but…
DTD: I’m mistaken, I thought there were some other changes in it. So that’s the one that I played – I didn’t play The Iron Age. I really enjoyed it. The planning on it is brutal.
ML: [laughing] There’s planning?
DTD: When playing it, the planning with the skulls and putting everything together had a brutal feel to it. I enjoyed it immensely. So what are your thoughts on the big explosion in Pandemic – all the different versions, all the different announcement about it? Now there’s tournament Pandemic with set decks. And the confusing announcement that the Pandemic games were actually limited edition games, but nobody knew they were limited edition. But now, beware they are limited edition.
ML: [laughing] They’re not limited edition anymore.
DTD: And now they’re not. That announcement, I have to tell you, was really confusing. I had to write a news story on it, and it really confused me what they were trying to announce.
ML: Well, maybe its really no news. Sort of like handling those games that are in print, that we said were not going to be in print, are actually in print.