In this edition of the ongoing Pandemic Chronicles, Matt Leacock and I talk about playtesting and games from our childhood. But not playtesting games from our childhood. Alan Turing and Pandemic tournaments somehow also come into the discussion.
DTD: What things have you looked at, that weren’t your design, that really impressed you lately?
ML: The most played over the past couple years is probably [Reiner] Knizia’s [Quest for] El Dorado. I play a ton of deck-building games. They really resonate with me for some reason. I think it’s because it’s so approachable. I introduce a lot of new people to games. That one has tension, and is accessible, and has great art.
DTD: It’s a nice easy one, and it has a lot of depth to it. You can add a lot of bits. What I love about deck-building games, and I think I’ve said it a lot, is that it started as this great idea – it was really fun, it was really neat. But it is turning into a small mechanic in a lot of other games. So deck building really seems to shine when it’s not the main focus, when it’s driving other things.
ML: Yeah, its tricky to co-opt, I think. We saw a lot of copycat games which were a similar game in a different setting. I shouldn’t say copycat. “Easily understandably derivative.”
DTD: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
ML: What I like about the mechanism is that it enables creativity in a game. All the stuff you like about building a Magic deck, but within the play experience itself.
DTD: El Dorado. It really impressed me when it came out, but honestly, so many deck builders came out that it was lost in the mix. And it is one of the ones I have played with people who are not into a lot of games, and I have had so much fun with it. Are you thinking about doing a deck builder?
ML: No, not really. I don’t try to chase mechanisms, per se. I am driven more by story or experiences.
At this moment, a silenced hush descended upon our table, and true European angels delivered plates of ambrosia, filling the area with a musky fume of delight. The main courses were works of art, and brought Matt and I nearly to tears, saved only by astonished enrapture.
DTD: This is amazing looking. So when you see a really cool mechanism in a game, it doesn’t draw you in, and make you think “What can I use this with?” and “What would I do with it?”
ML: I don’t know. It clearly depends on this [mechanism]. I think it would be disingenuous to say “No”, because I played Lord of the Rings and thought “This cooperative game idea is a good thing.”
DTD: Was that the first cooperative game you had played? Because it is the first one most people had heard of.
ML: No, I played Shadows Over Camelot. I’m trying to think what else I had played. I think I played one other co-op, but they didn’t have the impact.
DTD: Well, there were a lot of obscure wargame co-ops out there, going way back. But it was Shadows and Lord of the Rings that brought it to the forefront.
ML: What stood out with Lord of the Rings for me was emotional. It unlocked all this tension. I mean, you could sacrifice your life for your friends. That’s not something a lot of games do.
DTD: I remember getting it when it first came out, because you know, I’m old.
ML: I did too, as well. 2000.
DTD: But see, you look young and ageless. I’ve got the Santa Claus thing going. But Lord of the Rings was the first time it clicked with me that you could all play together, and all lose, and still have fun with it. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I have ever won Lord of the Rings. Once, maybe. I think we cheated. But I have played it a bunch. It came with that wonderful fill-in sheet, with who played, and how did they do, and all that. But I started adding expansions to it before I ever got good at it.
ML: It’s fun for us to look at… I play with friends who kept the sheet that came with it. The games go back 19 years now.
DTD: That sounds like such a neat experience.
ML: This is my local group. I have been playing with the same group of friends since 1998. 21 years now.
DTD: So had you played games way back, since you were a kid?
ML: I have been playing games since I was a little kid. When I moved out here I got together with the Silicon Valley Board Gamers, a core group to hang out with every Wednesday, now Tuesday.
DTD: That’s awesome. Man, this food is incredible. You picked an amazing place. I need to remember this place. I think I have had some of the same friends I have played games with since the ‘80s. And we still get together pretty regularly. And I have played Lord of the Rings with them. And I’ve played Pandemic with them. Not in the ‘80s; we would have, but you hadn’t made it yet. I remember in the ‘80s and getting into the ‘90s it was still pretty tough to find games. Finding a store that had something beyond Sorry and Monopoly.
ML: It’s changed so much. It used to be at GenCon you would recognize 2 or 3 board games you would want to check out. And one you really wanted to check out. And now there’s hundreds.
At this point, our wonderful waiter, whom I nearly made the godparent to my children, came by to make sure our silence and stupor was within the normal allowances, and that we had not accidentally slipped into Hellenic comas. We assured him all was well, and to leave the extra bread and wine within easy reach.
DTD: I’ll be honest, GenCon is overwhelming.
ML: Oh yea, nowadays, for sure.
DTD: It is so many people and so much chaos. My GenCon experience [still consists of] being upset about what I missed after GenCon was over, because I have no control of myself while it is actually going on. I am going to be going to my first Essen this year. I am not at all thrilled about how big that one is either.
ML: It has a very different feel though.
DTD: That what I keep hearing. It has a much more laid-back, having-fun-with-it feel?
ML: GenCon starts, and then it just keeps going. Because after the show room – the dealer room – closes, everybody moves off to the hotel rooms. It feels like a 24/7 event. At Spiel it feels a little bit less so. There’s the fair, and I’m sure there’s things going on and on, but it’s not all connected. It feels a little more like a mall in a sense.
DTD: Like a mall?
ML: Well, I don’t know, it’s a consumer trade show.
DTD: I’ve heard it feels like shopping.
ML: Yeah, it’s mostly for people shopping for their families, checking out the new stuff. At GenCon that’s just one component of it, and then you’re doing so much playing.
DTD: Are you going this year?
ML: Yeah, I wouldn’t miss it. It’s one of my favorite shows.
DTD: That’s good to hear. I know just enough German to get myself in trouble. So I can probably buy too many things successfully and not know what I have.
ML: You won’t need too much German. It’s pretty international.
DTD: That’s good to hear. But when you go to the shows, its mostly business for you, isn’t it? Meetings and things of that sort.
ML: Meeting up with publishers, doing press events, and doing events; Doing live Twitch streams, or signings, or presiding over the Pandemic Survival tournaments. Or being at large, I should say; I don’t need to run them.
DTD: I love the idea of the [Pandemic] tournaments. It was an epiphany when they announced the tournament and how they’re doing it. Everybody gets the same deck, and this is how it works. All of a sudden it hit – “That is perfect. Why didn’t they do this before?”
ML: It was amazing the first time I had seen it. Motan Duchard, from then F2Z Entertainment, came up with the map, and it blew me away how well it worked. They designed it and produced it. I watched the first one and I was so impressed.
DTD: Everyone would say “How could you possibly do a tournament of a co-op game that uses a random deck of cards?”
ML: What’s fascinating is how gripping it is, because everyone is in the same situation, yet you have got such different results. I would walk from board to board, because I can get behind the velvet rope and see what everyone is doing. Even on turn one there’s so many differences. It made me so pleased to see that you could play the game a lot of different ways.
DTD: There’s a lot of games where everybody starts with the same cards, with the same board. In a lot of the bingo-style games, everybody starts with the same stuff and have to play the same cards. And even there, they just explode out in so many different directions.
ML: There’s so many different possibilities
DTD: I love it. I think it’s a great way to show how good people really are. And it is a game that you get better and better at.
ML: I’m sure a number of the players are much better than I am. I played in an exhibition event with Tom Lehmann, he was my partner, and we did OK. I think we came in fourth.
DTD: Tom is hopefully one of my future interviews.
ML: Yeah, he’s just around the corner.
DTD: I guess he has an awful lot going on right now, scheduling has been tough. He’s bouncing all over the place, but he’s been so nice in the emails back and forth. It will happen.
ML: He’s been really fun to work with.
DTD: So do you play your own games? It’s like asking actors if they watch their own shows.
ML: I play my games when they’re in development, to the almost exclusion. On Tuesdays I play with my gaming group, and we play stuff that is not mine almost exclusively, because I don’t want to burn those people out. Most of the other time, I’m playing my own stuff, or watching my stuff get played. So I would say that most of the games I am watching or playing is my own.
DTD: Do you get tired of playing your own games? Because the playtesting is brutal.
ML: I can’t say its brutal. I can say its extensive, and time consuming, but that’s what really gives me energy more than anything. It’s like you’re developing a computer program and to run it you need human software.
DTD: Well that’s what Turing had. All of Turing’s software was human.
ML: That’s right. When you’re referring to the “computers,” you’re referring to people, right?
DTD: You’ve heard the stories about Turing, right? He basically had a room full of women, who each did one calculation, and he would send a program through the room.
ML: Oh no, I hadn’t heard it to that extent, but I understood that the “computers” were people.
DTD: It’s even better than that. The original term “computer” was that person’s job. They were a “computer.” They were functions – they were AND functions, and ADD functions, and DIVIDE functions. And he would send the program through the room. He had normal stuff he had to send through when he was trying to work on [the] bombe. At one point he actually wrote a program to play chess, on this room of women.
ML: That would explain how some of his theories actually work.
DTD: He was a pretty incredible guy.
ML: So playtesting is the payoff. You do all this theory crafting, play it through in your head, and you have an idea how it works. You form the hypothesis but you need to go run the experiment. That’s what playtesting is for.
DTD: You can model it to a certain extent.
ML: Yeah, but no plan survives engagement with reality.
DTD: When you are playtesting, when you have a group of willing subjects, if they break the game does it thrill you or does it annoy you?
ML: It depends on the state of the game. The playtesting changes as I develop. Initially it is just me, then it is me and someone else helping me along. We might not even know what we are doing. Then it’s a group of colleagues, who are family or friends. By the time I’m involving other people, it’s generally stable enough that [breaking the game] is not going to happen. So if it does completely fall apart then it’s enlightening. I don’t know if it’s ever really frustrating.
DTD: I guess it’s all part of the process.
ML: Yeah, when I’m talking to other people, it’s really just to read their emotions, and understand how they’re comprehending it. Those are the two big things – comprehension and what is their emotional journey through the whole experience.
DTD: So you are trying to figure out things they like, things they don’t?
ML: “Like” is tough. It’s really “Are they engaged? Are they leaning in? Are they leaning out? Are they looking at their phone? Are they confused?” So a lot of it is “Do they understand it? Is it challenging, and do they find the problem worthy of their time?” So much of it is creating interesting problems for people to solve.
DTD: So you are pretty much known as the Pandemic guy. And it is well-deserved; most of your designs are cooperative games. The Island series of games have a definite Pandemic feel to them. Are you continuing along that line? Are you thinking about making more competitive games? I can think of Chariot Race.
ML: Yeah, sure. They are all cooperative games with an action point allowance. I mean, Era.
DTD: Is this a turning point? Are there going to be more competitive games?
ML: No, it has always been like that. I started doing competitive games. The cooperative games just kind of happened, and they took, they found an audience.
DTD: So the perceived overabundance of cooperative games in your ludology, it’s success-based. It’s that the Pandemic games became so successful that they are overwhelming the list.
ML: Yeah, I think that’s right. We built an audience, people enjoy them, and I also really enjoy making them. They are really a fun challenge to come up with an artificial intelligence opponent made out of cardboard. That’s a fun challenge. How can you create something like that?
DTD: I have been super impressed with the new run of automated additions to games. They are just amazingly clever, making the deck do things.
ML: I should look into those more. I don’t play solitaire games.
DTD: I don’t either, but…
Sensing weakness, the waiter returned offering refills of wine. It would have been rude to decline.
DTD: Some of the things people have done with just decks of cards, and instilling an AI into them, are just amazing. There is a solitaire AI hidden movement game, where the deck actually programs a hidden traitor that marches around the board. And you need to find them. It is a solitaire game.
ML: What is the name of the game?
DTD: Black Sonata. And it is so clever the way they did it. It is fun, it is a ‘find the hidden traitor’ game.
ML: How is the complexity on it?
DTD: Simple to medium. It’s not tough. There’s two levels of difficulty. Basically there is a board with paths, and the traitor can either never backtrack on herself, or sometimes backtrack. That’s the difference between a simple game and an advanced game. And it is all based on how the deck is set up. Even the methods they use for querying a space is clever. There’s a unique system of holes, cards with holes punched in them, and if you slip [the query card] in to the next card in the deck it will tell you whether she is there. I just got the Kickstarter for Awkward Guests, which is a delightful clue-style deduction game but the deck programs an AI. It’s really lovely. I don’t know how I got off on that tangent.
ML: We were talking about the challenge of coming up with a cardboard opponent.
DTD: I’ve always been fascinated; there’s a lot of cardboard and plastic computers, circuits, and logic boards and things like this, that drop marbles or play cards. I’ve always found them so fascinating, that you can program these things.
ML: My daughter just got Turing Tumble. She got it last year. She ran through all 40 puzzles in a couple months.
DTD: Yes! I bought it for my father. My father is a computer guy. I actually have his Turing Award in my car, because I’m moving it from place to place.
DTD: Along with Turing Tumble, Dr. Nim from the 1960’s is an amazing, weird one. It’s another marble thing. It’s the old Nim puzzle where you pick 1, 2, or 3 sticks and whoever takes the last one loses.
ML: I remember exploring that puzzle with my uncle.
DTD: That one and Hanoi were the famous puzzles.
ML: Just learning Nim, I don’t know if my uncle knew that if you went first you lost or not, but actually coming up with that hypothesis and proving it with him was an amazing thing in my life.
DTD: I remember as a kid just having so much fun with that. It was kind of the next stage of Tic-Tac-Toe.
ML: Going through the exercise really helped me understand how you could really teach someone deeper mathematical concepts in a tacit way just by manipulating objects and doing experimentation, other than rote learning. And how much potential there is in that.
DTD: I’m such a math nerd and computer nerd; I love all those weird, neat explanations that exist out there. So, what kind of games did you play when you were a kid?
ML: There were a number of phases. In the early phases, we would go to the farm where my Mom grew up. She had 9 siblings. They had a cabinet they called ‘the safe.’ That’s where they put all the games, and they would lock it so that the little kids wouldn’t go in there and trash it.
DTD: I love it!
ML: By the time I came along – I was the first of thirty-something grandkids – we would get in there and get the games. There were usually in some sort of disheveled state. So often we would just make up our own rules, because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was mostly Risk, and the usual fare. I played a lot of games of Aggravation and Rummikub with my grandma.
DTD: Those were my parents’ two favorites!
ML: Aggravation, really?
DTD: Aggravation! We had a set of Aggravation that was missing one marble. It was green.
ML: You remember?
DTD: Of course. I love that game. You balance the marbles in the little holes. No one else I talk to remembers Aggravation.
ML: Yea, my grandmother loved Aggravation and Rummikub. But when I played games with my Dad and my Uncle, on the other side of the family, we played more the 3M stuff, like Acquire and Feudal. I don’t know if I played Feudal more than once or twice. It didn’t really click for me. But Acquire, and the big one for me was Civilization. Avalon Hill’s Civilization. When we cracked that open I was just filled with joy.
DTD: I don’t think I discovered that one until high school. That’s an intense one.
ML: I was probably 14 maybe. Playing that made me want to design games more than anything else. Played some war games with my Dad. He was into them and he played with his brothers. Played Tactics II, Gettysburg and Battle of the Bulge, stuff like that. Kind of fell flat for me; I did not enjoy those at all.
DTD: My father believed that Chess was the only game. Everything else was an interesting but forgettable diversion.
Tune in next time, when Matt and I talk more about older games, Chess, and journey into Space Games (with naked mole rats).