Matt Leacock and I get to continue talking about game development, Pandemic, and Era: Medieval Age in the most amazing Greek restaurant ever. And people bring us food. What could be better?
DTD: I was just curious what your thoughts are on the million different versions of Pandemic. Have you been intimately involved in every version that’s come down?
ML: I think with the exception of…
DTD: Rapid Response?
ML: No, I saw Rapid Response a number of times as people played it, gave feedback on it.
DTD: I only said that one because I don’t think your name was on Rapid Response.
ML: It’s not, because I didn’t develop it or anything like that. Kane [Klenko] did a great job on that. The only one that came out of the blue is the one that Carey did. I can’t remember what it’s called now… This is embarrassing [laughs]
DTD: There’s so many of them!
ML: The competitive version, small box.
DTD: I apologize, I can’t help you. I’m drawing a blank as well. I know what you are talking about, but I can’t remember the exact title of it.
For those playing along at home, the mystery game is Pandemic Contagion (2014) by Carey Grayson.
ML: So that was published, and I kind of got a heads up, but I never played it before. That kind of bugged me a bit. I wanted to be more of a shepherd of my brand. I met with the publisher and we worked out a system where I’m involved. So I have been involved in one way or another in all of the releases. And that’s been working out really really well for me.
DTD: Well good. Do you have a favorite among them? Is there one that just really was amazing, that just blew you away with how deviant, or how strange, or how far it could take that Pandemic core?
ML: I enjoy them all for different reasons. I really enjoyed Iberia because it was my first time working with another designer from another country [Jesús Torres Castro]. And I just enjoyed that experience so much. Jesus Torres Castro and I. I met him in Spain. My wife and I got to spend time with him and his partner, and we really hit it off. So there was this opportunity to design a game, so I called him up. He was just amazing, amazing to work with. He really did tons and tons of playtesting, and brought so much to the table.
DTD: That’s really cool.
ML: So that was sort of the spark of this idea that we are going to be traveling to different countries to do these other games. We try to find local designers to work with.
DTD: I got that impression from Iberia, Rising Tide, Fall of Rome. It all felt really cool, it felt natural that they were flowing into each other.
ML: Well, working with someone from that country also leant some authenticity to it, made you feel closer to it. So when I worked with Paolo Mori on Fall of Rome, I mean, he grew up with all that stuff.
DTD: And he’s such an amazing designer. Libertalia has been one of my favorites for ages. It is just such a simple neat idea. So how was it working with the Splotter guys?
ML: Jeroen Doumen? Great. He playtested Pandemic Legacy Season 1 and Pandemic Legacy Season 2. So I spent hours with him at the Gathering of Friends kind of watching him play. When it came time to come up with a game designer for the Dutch version set in the Netherlands, I swear I must have spent a few minutes before I’m like “Oh, of course!”
DTD: This is the guy!
ML: Yeah, that was great.
DTD: I have to admit with his name on it I was a little apprehensive that it was just going to be an intense, no forgiveness, ‘do it wrong and you die’ Pandemic.
ML: What’s funny about that game is that in early versions you could lose during set-up.
DTD: That sounds like Splotter. That just means that you didn’t study up, you set it up wrong.
ML: It took a little while to figure out how to make sure that the dikes wouldn’t spill out of control when setting up the game.
DTD: It’s such a cool design. And Iberia gets such praise now, such critical acclaim. Everybody just absolutely loves it. People talk about all the different versions of Pandemic. People like this one and people like that one, but Iberia comes up above the crop as “But the really good one is…”
ML: It all kind of came together. The artwork is really phenomenal in that one as well.
DTD: That one is beautiful. So, Legacy. How was it doing the Legacy games? Were you deeply involved in the Legacy element of it as well? The iterations and figuring out all the possibilities? I know that is kind of Rob’s forte.
ML: The genesis of the idea came from talking with Sophie Gravel. We were talking about all the different things we could do with Pandemic; “We could do a card game. We could do a dice game. We could do a Legacy game.” We said that and we just kind of laughed. So I did the dice game, Pandemic: The Cure. One day I was just thinking about all the things I could do with a Legacy game, and I just started writing, and I filled…I have this giant notebook, and I filled a couple pages of it. I still have them. And after an hour of writing down tons and tons ideas, I felt “I’ve got to make this.”
DTD: So were you working on this just by yourself?
ML: Well, just for a few hours. Basically I had a pitch and some ideas. So I asked around. Rob and I finally connected over email, or Twitter. Somehow we got in touch with each other. And I asked him “hey, what do you think about doing a Pandemic Legacy game?” He just replied back “YES”. 72 point type.
DTD: [laughs] I love it.
ML: He wrote something like “It will be really fun for a while, then it won’t be very fun, then it will be fun again.” You know, the way development often goes.
DTD: That sounds right.
Our waiter visits. We praise our food. The waiter’s knowing nod suggests only better things are to come.
DTD: Everybody who plays games thinks, “What would I design? What would I do?” But legacy seems like a horrible torture to design. So many elements, so much to worry about. So many ways it could go wrong.
ML: Well that’s where the testing comes in. And that’s where a lot of the time comes in too. Season One took 14 months to design. Season Two took us 18 months. Season Three – honestly, I think I just wrapped on it today.
DTD: So you’re going to tell me every detail on Season 3, right? So I can publish every single spoiler. “Matt Leacock says, in Season 3, never do…blah.”
ML: It was challenging, the third one. I mean, we have so much already, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves.
DTD: I was impressed by how different Season Two was from One. I think a lot of people when they heard Two was coming were thinking “OK, more Pandemic. It’ll be good.” But it was so different. I think it deserved all the praise that it got. Both games, One and Two were amazing, they were wonderful.
ML: They were a lot of fun. I mean, it’s quite a toy box you can open up.
DTD: Season One ended up having a lot of the elements that were in the Pandemic expansions. But they came before. Right, the Pandemic expansions were already done?
DTD: Was that a conscious decision, to say, “Oh, it would be cool if at this point in time if THIS came into it.”
ML: Yeah, we had a lot of ideas to explore. Some we explored that didn’t make it into the product, from previous products. You know, you have this big set of tools, it’s a matter of, how do you integrate that together with stories that were memorable and smooth and impactful.
DTD: I had played a lot of the expansions to Pandemic already. And even so, Legacy surprised me. It was interesting, and it was only after playing I said “Oooh.”
ML: Connected the dots?
DTD: I connected the dots and said “Oh, this is like that.”
ML: Rob was a tremendously great partner to work with. We have very complementary skill sets. We have been working together for over 5 years now.
DTD: He seems like a super nice guy. I have only spoken to him at meetings and in passing, but he’s always been spectacularly nice. I watched him a little bit when I was playtesting Dark Tower. So I saw him going back and forth and bouncing ideas off and working on the playtesting, which was really interesting. Nice guy. So what is the future holding for non-legacy Pandemic?
ML: There’s more to come. I’m not sure how much I can say, other than “Stay tuned, there’s more coming.”
DTD: I will say that all the cool designers have spilled all sorts of beans. So you can say whatever you want, but…
ML: But I won’t be in the cool club…I’m trying to think if there’s any way to tease it a bit. It’s a tricky thing.
DTD: Well, there is more. You haven’t said “Pandemic is done.” More collaboration?
ML: The third Legacy product is coming out. That’s with Rob. And then we haven’t closed the door on the Survival stuff at all. I hope to do more collaborations there. And then there’s opportunities – they just unrolled out the “Pandemic System” label, so there are future games that use that system.
DTD: Are you going to be involved in all of the future Pandemic System games?
ML: Either I will be checking it out, making sure it fits the brand for the system, or I will be developing it, or I will be a co-designer. Basically I wear one of those three hats. I didn’t want to be the gatekeeper or the only person who had to be part of the brand.
DTD: There’s lots of examples of very similar games coming out with very different designers taking different tacks on it. Vast led to Root, and they were two different designers.
ML: I just think it’s really good for the, well, I think its good for Pandemic.
DTD: I think it’s a great little sandbox for building things up. I always look forward to seeing what could pop out of the box next. After Cthulhu, I don’t know what could surprise me anymore. That was an odd announcement.
DTD: So now, Era: Medieval Age! I got to playtest it a little bit at GenCon. It was very cool, essentially Roll and Build. Roll and Write elements, definitely has a lot of that smell and flavor of Roll Through the Ages.
ML: We are basically calling it the spiritual successor.
DTD: And you can see that. The tactile elements are so wonderful, to be able to pick up big chunky pieces and just build with them. Was it originally developed as a big chunky building game?
ML: No, it’s funny. It was originally a roll-and-write. So I moved Roll Through the Ages over to Plan B and we were trying to figure out how to re-imagine it. The plan was to come up with three independent games. The original plan was 3 independent roll and write games. And the thing was, when you look at them on the table, it kind of looks like you’re filling out a form. And it doesn’t have a table presence that it might. One of the things that’s really great about board games is that they are tactile experiences.
DTD: Those games that you walk by, and they just look unbelievable and jump out at you.
ML: We were ready to go, ready to go to print with it and we just kind of took a step back and said “Well, umm…”
DTD: It was that far along?
ML: Oh yeah, it was completely done. And they asked me “What would happen if it was a 3D game?” And it just so happened that year, actually just that week, I had received my laser cutter. I got a Glowforge.
DTD: Ah new toys…
ML: And I said “Let me see what I can do.” And it meant delaying the release a year. But it seemed like a really interesting opportunity to explore.
DTD: But you are still planning on it being the first of a trilogy?
ML: Yeah, that’s right. So it was tremendously fun to do that. Because I love making things, 3D things. So I spent countless hours gluing these things together and I ended up making probably at least 6 complete prototypes out of illustration board.
DTD: I have to admit, I cheated. I saw a previous thing you had written up where you showed pictures of the cut out pieces, gluing them together. It was amazing. I have thought about getting either a cutter, a laser machine or a 3D printer, something along those lines. They look like the most fun of toys.
ML: So the next one is really about trying to figure out how to take the Bronze Age and turn it into Era: Antiquity. Basically converting the game from 10 years ago, modernizing it both mechanically and turn structure. Keeping the downtime low, keeping interactions high, and figuring out how to integrate additional components in there.
DTD: That’s awesome!
ML: Yea, that’s been really fun, doing that game.
DTD: There have been other games that have taken roll-and-writes and added on pieces, added on chunks. Walls of York, things like that. Could Era work without the pieces?
ML: Yeah, you could imagine a travel version that would be lighter in the rules, lighter in the interaction. You could make the travel version on a pad and paper. But having played both of them, I definitely vote for the bigger one. Not only did it make it more tactile, it improved the play experience.
DTD: Well, you get a feel for it. There’s just something so solid about building the wall.
ML: Roll-and-writes often feel like multiplayer solitaire. When you have got the physical components its really easy for you to look across the table and see what your opponent is doing and how it’s going to affect you. And also integrate more interactive elements. So right now you are competing for the buildings and in the old roll-and-write you weren’t. You could build whatever you wanted. So now there’s this tension behind it. It’s actually like a press-your-luck game now. Am I going to be able to complete my wall, or are you going to buy all the wall pieces and I’m not going to? It added a lot more tension and interaction.
DTD: It looks amazing. And it was really fun, the little bit of play that I did get with it. I’m looking forward to it coming out. And it’s coming out at Essen, is that right?
ML: It should be coming out any day now. I was originally told it was Thursday, but then I got a correction.
DTD: Quote. Any Day Now. Unquote.
ML: By the time you are reading this it is probably out.
DTD: I am slow and lazy, so by the time you are reading this it will definitely be out. The sequel may be out. Can I ask about dexterity games? Because you gave me permission to say “unnamed dexterity game” at KublaCon. I think that exact quote went into my news article.
ML: So I have been working on an “unnamed dexterity game” to be announced with Josh Cappel for a couple of years now. So we are shopping it around. Hoping to find a place to make it land and really take off. It’s another thing where playing with the toy-like nature of the components is one of the awesomely fun things for me. I enjoy it because it is like industrial design, and like the human factor elements. How can you communicate to someone, “Obviously, it works like this.” by the shape of the toy. It’s not something you can necessarily do in the same way with cards and chip board. You have 3D chunks to explain to the player “Of course it works like this.”
DTD: And those are always the best games, when you can just look at it and get an image of “Oh, this is how the game works.” And dexterity games, and a lot of roll-and-writes, have that intuitive nature to them. You just kind of get it. So how many things to you have in the pipe? How many things are being worked on at once?
ML: It’s usually somewhere in the 3-6 range. It bounces around. I have a big white board, and they move from category to category. There’s a nebulous ideation R&D bucket where things might sit for a while until things get going.
DTD: They go from vague idea to workable idea.
ML: Then they jump into design, where I know what’s going on. In development I really know what’s going on. Somewhere in those buckets there’s usually about 6 different projects.
Stay tuned for part 3, wherein Matt and I discuss playtesting, solo games, and the grand daddy of roll and move games, Aggravation!