The meal winds down in our augmented reality version of Athens, and Matt Leacock discusses games from childhood, shocks from Sky Island, and naked mole rats, the most evolutionarily perfect living blisters.

ML: My Dad was very much into Chess, still plays chess. He’s playing Grandmasters now, trying to get a draw. He was Minnesota Chess Champion when he was young. At high school level or something.

DTD: So he was playing at very high level.

ML: I don’t know if it was an extremely high level but I remember my Mom dusting off some Chess trophies when I was young, and complaining about it. I don’t know exactly where he is at, but he was definitely into Chess.

DTD: My Dad helped design the scoring system. The new scoring system. And he was the referee for the Deep Blue matches with Kasparov. Kasparov hung out at our house, outside of New York City, during the matches. So he’s into Chess. So my Dad might know him, or know of him, if he’s playing at a high level.

ML: No, no. He’s not at that level, but he’s very much into it.

DTD: I have a funny story. Do you know who Botvinnik is? Does that name ring a bell?

ML: No.

DTD: He was a Russian Grandmaster before Karpov and Kasparov. There was a big line of Russian grandmasters. Anyway, he came to the United States for a tournament in New York City when the wall was still up. This is still very much the Cold War U.S. And my Dad took him out for touristy stuff. And they went through the park in New York City with the Chess hustlers, and my Dad was trying to convince Botvannik to play one of the hustlers. And he was hesitant, wouldn’t do it. And as they are walking away, this absolutely enormous, frightening looking man stood up from his board and screamed at the top of his lungs, “You’re f-ing Botvannik!” And the little old Russian man just shrunk and turned to run. And the guy chased them out of the park demanding an autograph. This is probably in the early 80’s.

ML: [laughs] Chess never stuck for me.

DTD: Me either. I did not like it.

ML: I would play my father and lose.

DTD: I played Gary Kasparov once. I lost. Very soundly. I believe he did laugh at me. But I am not good at it. But I will just put on my resume that I have played Kasparov.

ML: You’re cutting out that he felt that he could laugh at you. That’s amazing.

DTD: I don’t know about that. He was at the house. He was a very nice guy. I am so excited that Aggravation and Rummikub were two of the tops that you listed. Those were the staples at the house when I was really little.

ML: Well that was when I started. The ones where I switched were really Acquire and Civilization. That is where I started thinking “This is really interesting.”

DTD: I went through my Avalon Hill phase. This big ones for me from Avalon Hill were Wizards [Quest] and Freedom in the Galaxy. Which was a huge, awful, play forever, blatant ripoff of Star Wars. No question about it. You could be the bad guys who were all ships and units, or you could be the good guys who were all characters on missions, and there was a princess and there was a big fuzzy dog monster. I mean it was such a ripoff. But Acquire and Feudal were in that pile. They were big. That’s all you could find until, what – the magic year, 1995? When Catan started showing up.

ML: Yeah, Catan was such a game changer. I learned Catan from Jay Tummelson [Founder of Rio Grande Games]. I still remember that first game because I played horribly. I took my 2 initial settlements pointing the roads at each other, thinking “Oh I can move along this road fast.”

DTD: It didn’t click for me when I first played.

ML: Oh no, it opened my eyes for me, “This is amazing!”

DTD: I was blown away by it, and I was so bad at it. There was Catan, Carcassonne, Talisman. The group that I have been playing with since the 80’s, probably the most played we had until recently was Talisman.

ML: Oh no, really?

DTD: We would play all the expansions, spend the whole day. It wasn’t about the game, it was about just goofing around.

ML: It’s a fun activity. It really is. I played that, must have been a freshman in high school. Played it all night long with friends. It got kinda grindy, but it didn’t matter. You were just kind of hanging out. Then you were about to finish the game, and you would fall into the incredible black void, and you say “Why are we playing this?”

DTD: It was slightly better than Dungeon.

ML: Never got a chance to play that one.

DTD: Well, I was a D&D freak as a kid. I was always looking for that board game that gave some hint of Dungeons & Dragons. And it was Dungeon!, it was Dark Tower, it was the D&D Electronic Game. That’s all I could find.

So, more hints about what’s coming in the future from Matt Leacock? Let me guess. Big, story-telling, dice-stacking, legacy game with demonic figures that are 5 inches tall – that’s next, right?

ML: Exactly. Some of the games will be smaller and some of them will be bigger.

DTD: That’s cool. I think there’s a big rebirth going on right now of lighter, filler, elegant games.

ML: I don’t know if that’s the Japanese influence or what. It is fun to see how much game you can pack into a small box.

DTD: I don’t know what really started that trend.

ML: The last one I played was the Karuba card game. It was fantastic. I don’t need the board game anymore. This is better, and it is faster.

DTD: I was given the card game, and I was not excited about trying it. Because Karuba was good, I liked it. I got a little tired of it.

ML: I didn’t like the setup time.

DTD: Making all the piles, yeah. But the card game was really fun. I kept the card game, too. I think there is a move now, that people are trying to recognize the better, few games, rather than the more more more games. And the companies, hopefully, it looks like they are responding, by making less, but better, games.

ML: I think it will definitely be a trend in the next few years.

DTD: Every company is saying that they are doing it. Whether they actually are doing it yet – hard to say. I just love that feeling when a little, simple, elegant game comes by and you just sit there and are enthralled by its simple little mechanism. The most recent one that impressed me was In Front of the Elevators. A little Japanese card game. And it is a simple game of laying cards in front of elevators, but each elevator can only accept a certain number of people. Each person that goes in scores points, but it’s the last person who fits that scores the most points. And every card you play has rules about what other cards it can cut in front of. So you are constantly changing the order in this line, trying not to be the first, but definitely getting in. So you’ve got something like that, you’ve got a nice, simple, small…

ML: I’m not sure its that simple. Let’s say I have been working on a Legacy game for more than 3 years. Doing something that’s lighter…

DTD: You mean you don’t want to go right into a multi-campaign, huge legacy game again?

ML: I didn’t say that [laughs]. Yeah, I’ve got some smaller stuff, and then I am enjoying working on this latest project which is larger than what I typically…

DTD: Well you did Knit Wit.

ML: Yeah. [Makes a face]

DTD: I was really excited. When Knit Wit was described to me I loved the idea of encompassing all the words and trying to get the combining factor. And I had some groups that absolutely just loved it, but I had some groups who just couldn’t play it.

ML: I tell you, it’s a fun story. I came up with that concept, I pitched it, it got green lit, I designed it and it came out all really fast. And I began to learn that is not necessarily a good thing. Because in retrospect… OK, Knit Wit is a game of Venn Diagrams. So if you look at Knit Wit, it is a game for people who like word games, party games, also games where you don’t mind making a bit of a fool…

DTD: Almost like there’s a circle of people who play games, and a circle of people who like party games, …

ML: And within that circle people who like deep spatial stuff, time pressure. It’s a really small subset of people who enjoy that game.

DTD: And I found my group who really liked it.

ML: It’s kind of a niche game. I think going into it, I thought it had more mass appeal. But because the development cycle was so small, I really didn’t get a chance to playtest it with a very wide group of people. If I had really objectively looked at their reactions to it, I might have thought “Yeah, maybe I need to retool this a little bit.” It’s made up for it I think to some extent by the production design is gorgeous.

DTD: Oh the components are amazing. They’re just cool.

ML: So I’m happy with that. So if you are into word games, and Venn diagrams, and party games, go for it.

DTD: I am. These are the sort of things I like. Are there more Island games in the future? Or do you think that trilogy is closed?

ML: I think we are just going to wait and see. Gamewright had never done a sequel ever before Forbidden Desert. It was just not something they did. Because Forbidden Island did so well, they asked me, “Hey do you want to do a followup?”

DTD: From everything I have read and heard, Desert has out surpassed Island. Desert seems to be the critical favorite.

ML: Well, it is interesting, because I think Island is probably the mass market, the gateway game that brings people in.

DTD: Get it without a tin and it would be just perfect. 

ML: Not into the tin?

DTD: Not into the tin.

ML: For the market it is trying to attract, I think it is good. If you look on BoardGameGeek, it is the hobbyist players, they like Desert. It has got deeper decisions. But it sells a fraction of what Island does.

DTD: So Island is still the winner of the 3?

ML: Well, in terms of sales. I can pull Island down and give it to anybody. I can bring it to a kids birthday party, and give it to someone I know. I’ve given it several times.

DTD: But what about Mole Rats that isn’t called Mole Rats anymore?

ML: Space Escape.

DTD: Mole Rats.

ML: Mole Rats in Space.

DTD: I love Mole Rats!

I may have slight negative feelings about the recent decision to rename the perfectly titled “Mole Rats in Space” to “Space Escape”.

ML: Everybody loves Mole Rats but it’s hard to localize, as it turns out. For instance, doing Mole Rats in Space in German is a problem. 

DTD: Really?

ML: I am not exactly sure why, but I trust that they understand their market.

DTD: But naked mole rats are just the most amazing critters in the world.

ML: And they are great astronauts. They are immune to cancer, they live for like 30 years, they can live without oxygen for a long period of time.

DTD: They are the only communal mammals.

ML: They are eusocial, they are amazing. They are the perfect colony ship animal.

DTD: They are so bizarre. I am an ex-veterinarian. I have done a lot of things, but that was the most recent job that I have quit.

ML: Mole Rats are amazing, and I learned a lot of this after the fact. There was an article that came out about how mole rats would make great astronauts.

At this point, our waiter, always looking out for our well-being, noticed our slowness and lethargy, and offered to remove the plates before we hurt ourselves falling into some of the sharper corners.

DTD: My last interview I was agonizing that I didn’t have a picture of the empty plates. I really wanted empty plates. I don’t know why. My brain does weird things.

ML: It’s like a capstone for the end of the dinner. 

DTD: Naked Mole Rats!

ML: Someone had just published this article about how they would make perfect astronauts. I thought that was just so perfect. Right when the game was coming out.

DTD: The goal with that one was to do a children’s cooperative game?

ML: That’s right.

DTD: I think it was a great success. I have watched kids play it enough so I knew how it worked, and I thought it was amazing. And the kids just loved it.

ML: Peaceable Kingdom, the publisher came at me and said “We want you to do a co-op game.” The head of the company at the time was really into co-ops. She had played Forbidden Island. That’s probably the reason why she had created this company, for co-op games. And they are local up in Berkeley. They chased me for years about doing a co-op game; they were like “Tabula rasa, do whatever you want.” And I kept coming back to them with nothing over and over again. So finally they said “We would like to do a cooperative game of Snakes and Ladders on a Mancala shaped board.” And I was like “Wow, that’s oddly specific, and it sounds really tough to make fun. I will definitely try it out.” And that was the result. Because it seemed so difficult I thought I could give it a try.

DTD: I think it was a success. I mean, you have statistics, I just have what I have seen. I think it’s a great game.

ML: Well, thanks. I think a lot of adults dismiss it as a kid’s game, but it is actually quite challenging.

DTD: That happens with a lot of them as soon as they get that labeling.

ML: Not to say that adults would really seek it out too much, but its challenging in a way so that adults will lose, where children who take it seriously will win because they are up to the challenge, and they take it seriously when they play. I found it interesting as a designer.

DTD: I enjoyed it. Touching on another game, Thunderbirds I thought was really cool. But I thought it was so dependent on that IP, and it is a weird niche IP. I remember the show well, it was on every time I would sit down at an odd time of day and turn on the TV in the 1970s. I was always sitting there.

ML: I had absolutely no connection to Thunderbirds. I had never heard of the show.

DTD: Really, you knew nothing of the IP?

ML: I knew nothing about it. But Chris Birch, who runs Modiphius, approached me and gave me one of the best pitches I had ever heard about it at Spiel. And he had such a boyish, joyous twinkle in his eye that I said “OK.”

DTD: I think that is what that show inspires.

ML: Yea, it inspired Peter Jackson to get into movie making. You look at it and you’re like “I can do that. And it looks like fun!” So I watched the show, I told him I would watch the show.

DTD: It is a little hard to watch now.

ML: The secret is 1.5x speed. When you watch at 1.5x speed it is actually not bad. Which is what I did. I watched them all. Because the pacing is so slow.

DTD: I wonder if that would work with all shows. I’m thinking Downton Abbey at 1.5x speed.

ML: I have no problem with Downton Abbey. So anyway, I got into all things Thunderbirds. I was doing that at the same time as Pandemic Legacy Season One. And that’s part of the reason, I couldn’t handle both of those projects and the startup at the same time.

DTD: I was going to say, it was kind of nice to bounce between the two?

ML: It was, but it’s also a little overwhelming to do that and a day job at the same time. That’s sort of where a lot of the evaluation came in around “Should I be doing this full time?”

DTD: Recently, the third Island [series] game, Forbidden Sky came out, and it did not get the same critical response that the other two did. I thought the electricity thing was amazingly clever, that was really cool, very visceral. Are there things you would do differently with that one, hearing what people have said once it came out?

Waiter: May I show you the desserts?

ML: You never know.

Through bleary eyes I looked at the cornucopia of sweet honey, yogurt, and phyllo-laden confections laid before my calorie-addled brain. One thing was clear: if I were to survive this onslaught of delight, I would need coffee. And none are as good as those spelled καφές.

DTD: Oh, I know. Man these look good. I definitely need a coffee. The best coffee in the world is at a Greek festival, if you go up to the meanest, oldest looking person there, who just kind of grumpily puts one together for you. That is the best coffee you will ever drink in your life.

ML: [laughs]

DTD: Oh yeah, look for someone who looks at least 120 years old, and really mad about being there. And that is going to be the coffee you want.

ML: I am trying to think of my experience with Greek coffee.

DTD: Oh, it is sludge.

ML: Right, Ok, good, good.

DTD: You grind the coffee to powder, and boil it in sugar water, then just serve the whole thing.

ML: Do you drink the bottom? Because it feels like it is just sand at the bottom.

DTD: No, no, you don’t drink the bottom.

ML: So I have been doing it right, and my understanding is correct.

DTD: The hard core people might drink the bottom, but it’s perfectly acceptable not to. And much more pleasant. [Perusing dessert menu] I was looking for doughnuts [Loukoumades]. Melomakarona are so good. Back on the East Coast, Greek festivals were everywhere. And that was a whole day – “Well, we are going to the Greek festival, we are not going to eat anything else all day, and maybe tomorrow.” The day after the Greek festival is basically reserved to lie on the couch and moan. My wife and I would seek these out and eat ourselves silly. Man, everything looks good. They must be good desserts, because I have completely forgotten what I was talking about.

ML: [laughs]

Stay tuned for the final part of our story, where intoxicated by confections and Greek coffee, Matt and I discuss the mysteries of the universe. And how simple they are compared to play testing a legacy game.