Welcome to the final installment of “Lunching with Leacock”, or “Matt and the Melomakorona”. Dessert and coffee descends on the table, perfectly balancing postprandial torpor with caffeinated ecstasy, and the topics gets fast and eclectic. In this fitting coda, we discuss Thunderbirds, Sky Islands, and Legacy play testing.
DTD: I was talking about Forbidden Sky, and I was being mean.
ML: [laughs] I think I will get the cookies.
DTD: They are amazing.
ML: I was looking through this, and everything has dairy in it. But, no, the cookies don’t.
DTD: Oh yeah, yogurt is the thing in Greek desserts. There’s Baklava, which is very good. I’m not the biggest phyllo dough guy.
ML: I have had a lot of Baklava lately.
DTD: Actually, the stone fruit tart sounds really good. I think I might go for that.
ML: I think I will go for some cookies and coffee. I could get into that. Yeah, so Sky. Developing that, I got my first burns from a soldering iron. A lot of R&D went into trying to figure out how to actually make that actually work. It was developed as a game for creating a circuit, but on paper. And I pitched it to the publisher: “So what if it actually completed an actual circuit?”
DTD: What if you actually made an electrical circuit?
ML: Yeah, and I was like “Oh my God!”
DTD: And things light up.
ML: And then trying to see if we could actually make it work with physical components was a lot of fun.
DTD: I kind of remember that being a gimmicky thing in the 70s. There were games that would have circuits, and if you put the piece here it would go “Beep!” Things would light up. It really had a nostalgic feel to me, when Sky came out.
ML: Yeah, yeah, it does have kind of a callback to some of those games that we both played growing up. I think I discounted how important visuals are to that. In Forbidden Island, each of those tiles has got a place name, and is lavishly illustrated. I mean, one of my fans has got this really big attachment to Breaker’s Bridge, and had a Breaker’s Bridge birthday cake, made a Breaker’s Bridge model as a kid. I should have learned this from Mr. Daviau, how important storytelling is. I think if I went back, I would create some tiles that show better, put the players into the environment.
DTD: I thought it was interesting that one of the things that people complained about with Sky is they said it was too lucky. And when I looked at it, Sky and the earlier Island games, and Pandemic, seemed to have about the same amount of luck, but it was how the luck was expressed. It was the lightning, where the lightning played into it.
ML: I think it may be that the learning curve may be a little steep immediately. Because if you play the game and you just go happy go lucky out there, you are going to get killed pretty quickly. My thought was, it is really easy to set up, you can play again, and try something else. But there’s less of a game before you get your feet under you.
DTD: But even in Pandemic, you can get nailed really badly if the deck is against you in the beginning.
ML: You can, but the frequency may be a little bit lower. But I encourage those who got Sky to try it again, and basically protect yourself from the lightning, and you will find a midgame in there that is very satisfying.
DTD: I thought it had about the same luck as some of your other cooperative games. And I thought it was a neat example of how different kinds of luck touch people in different ways. Geoff Engelstein talks about this all the time. That’s his area of study. There are people who will very happily go through cards, but won’t roll dice, because that’s too lucky. But the random card is fine. So I felt that Sky touched on an element of luck that didn’t express itself the same as the other games.
ML: Yeah, it could very well be. I think there’s another important factor, which is the externalization of risk, if you want to get all nerdy.
ML: If you are playing Pandemic, you see the cubes build up, and they are stacked up, and they are exposed, and you get good warning. In Sky, your health meter ticks down, and its less visceral. In Desert, you see the sand pile up. Again, in Sky you are looking at a character card across the table, and you might not see that “Oh, the climber has actually been electrocuted like 4 times.” He might have a heart attack here if he gets pelted again.
I hate to admit it, but I considered using the “Forbidden Dessert” pun, and stealing some of Matt’s food. I didn’t do it, pun nor cookie theft, so don’t judge me.
DTD: So it is just a getting used to it thing.
ML: Yeah, I think so. I think once you understand this is how it works, there’s a lot of play value there.
DTD: Well, I was instantly drawn to the circuits. I thought that was really neat, really clever. I like the way that worked a lot.
ML: I enjoyed putting that together so much.
DTD: It sounded like you welded your fingers together, and didn’t enjoy it as much as you say.
ML: My favorite playtesting story from that was watching, because I do a lot of remote playtesting, where I watch people play the game on video.
DTD: You need a room with a one way glass.
ML: No, no, no. That’s where we all started 20 years ago. Now if you have people playtesting in their own environment, you learn so much more.
DTD: With Skype or something?
ML: No, it doesn’t have to be real time. They can record it with their camera phone, or their laptop. So I do a ton of these. And you learn so much about environmental factors, social things, it is amazing what you can pick up. But the most unexpected one was when people played Forbidden Sky on a metal table. They put the rocket down on the table and it immediately took off. It’s got to be one of my favorite anecdotes, because it completes the circuit. As soon as you unpack the box you win, because you are setting it down on a metal table.
DTD: Mental note: Step One – Put a mat on the table.
ML: Just a good example of what you can learn when you are testing people in their natural environment.
DTD: I like that. That’s pretty funny. So Season 3 is in the bag?
ML: Yea, the last step for all these things is reviewing the final art.
DTD: Same artist? Same look, same feel?
ML: Yeah, there will be continuity across the board. I have not talked about a release date here, because it has not been announced. But from a game design perspective I am done, and Rob [Daviau] is done.
DTD: There you go. Those are two important people who have to check off on it. That is awesome. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about? About your games or your designs? We bounced across all sorts of different subjects.
ML: Let’s see. Thunderbirds has just about run its course. And I am taking the design back, so you might see some new games there.
DTD: Like a reskinned Thunderbirds?
ML: More like a reimagination of it.
DTD: That’s cool. Thunderbirds definitely was a “Matt Leacock Game”. It had all of these elements that we have seen before. But the new stuff in there, big bad guys, all that, was really cool.
ML: I was really proud of that design.
The days of staring and drooling at the dessert menu were over. I committed to the stone fruit tart, while Matt felt the siren call of those most magical of honey cookies, Melomakarona.
ML: That was the first IP I ever worked on. So learning how to adapt an IP to a design was one thing. I was really proud of that. Then the underlying way the game works also – I’m really excited about taking that back, figuring out what makes it tick, and turning it into another game.
DTD: You have kind of done the opposite. Your games have become the IP. Other people are making ‘a Pandemic Game.’
ML: [laughs] That’s kind of strange.
DTD: That just occurred to me. You are on the back end of it now. With Thunderbirds, you started with the IP and added to it from scratch? Did you have a design going already?
ML: Yeah, totally from scratch.
DTD: I didn’t realize that.
ML: And it’s one of the few times I get points for something I’m starting from a story, an idea, a concept, or a theme, and not from an absent kind of idea for a little engine attached to a story explaining why the engine works. I never really wanted to do just a mechanism. It’s like a molecule. You need the story to explain, or else it’s not interesting. But that was the first time I started with just the story, and I think it worked.
DTD: But not the last time.
ML: Well, we will see.
DTD: I have to grill you about this stuff. I promised food and interrogation. I really appreciate you coming out to dinner and being so nice about it.
ML: No, it was fun.
DTD: I like this stuff. And if I didn’t say it from the get go, I am a fan. I like all your games, I have had a good time with all of them. I do not currently own Mole Rats, but that might be the only one.
ML: Really? Oh my God.
DTD: Well, the early ones I have not played. Lunatix and Borderlands.
ML: Thank God.
DTD: I didn’t know about them until I did my research.
ML: Lunatix Loop is not horrific. Borderlands is pretty terrible.
DTD: It is talked about on BoardGameGeek with a kind of reverence. I think nobody knows about it.
ML: So I subscribe to the game and I can tell you with all honesty nobody talks about Borderlands. If they did, I would know.
DTD: Well I am going to start talking about it now. I am going to start posting on the Borderlands forums.
ML: Borderlands was a reaction to all of my friends who were playing Magic [the Gathering], and I wasn’t. So I tried to come up with a game that was not collectible, but scratches the same itches. You have to design a bunch of bad games before you can do a good one.
DTD: We don’t talk about the bad ones. If they are published and people are playing them, they are good games. I have had tremendous fun playing Chariot Race. You just get a bunch of people together. I have a group of people who just like nothing more than trying to beat the snot out of each other, and seeing if anyone makes it to the end.
ML: That’s nice to hear. I’m hoping we can see that come out again. As I imagined it, you were running around like a cribbage board. It was a light, parlor, pub game.
DTD: I thought it was a very light roll, or a deviant on a Yahtzee mechanism. And you are just beating the crap out of each other. There are some tactical decisions to try to make it more or less bad for you.
ML: It was all about trying to get the game down to about 7 turns, and a bloody disaster on the final turn. And I think I nailed that. The last round is a complete disaster. Every time you play that game theres like one [left] on the track.
DTD: I think its fun. Its not for every group that comes over my house.
ML: I put that on the shelf for 3 years. I had a fan who just loved the game, and talked me to death about bringing it out. So I said “OK, fine.” And I just hammered at it forever and then realized “You know, this really works.” It’s all about getting a game in in 45 minutes, 7 rounds, with a crazy finish at the end.
DTD: And then my nerdy word group will play Knit Wit, and we will have fun with that. And I have regular groups who are bugging me to do another round of [Pandemic Legacy] Season Two, and another round of Season One. I think I have bought Season One like 3 times now.
ML: Thanks for keeping my lights on!
DTD: I don’t think you need my help! I think you’re doing alright. And all of the different variations on Pandemic are interesting, and some turn me on, and some don’t, but they are all cool. So, Cthulhu was kind of a one play for me, and it was neat, but it just didn’t scratch that itch that I wanted to play. But Rising Tide was really perfect, that one was really cool, I had a lot of fun with that. And plain old Pandemic still hits the table.
ML: I have a good friend, and their go-to is always vanilla Pandemic. “I don’t need the extra complications, thank you very much.”
DTD: Yeah, I don’t usually play with any of the expansions. Honestly, Season One kind of ruined some of the expansions for me. Now I want the expansions to come with story, buildup and all that. I would rather just play it vanilla.
ML: I learned so much about how stories work by working on that game. Mostly, in retrospect, trying to figure out “How did we get so frigging lucky that it actually did so well?” I feel like we stumbled into it.
DTD: It was amazing. It blew everybody away. I loved watching the response. Because on announcement, everybody looked confused, and didn’t know… “This… could be bad.” Then on release, everybody just lost their freaking mind.
ML: I have learned also to pay attention to how much fun we are having while we are developing it. I remember viscerally having Pho soup with Rob, and coming up with some of the twists for Season One. And just laughing our heads off. And how well those went.
DTD: Oh yeah! You get a group of people together who have all played it and everyone starts comparing – “Do you remember when…?”, then “Awww man, I remember that one!”
ML: We are still having some of those experiences.
DTD: I was very happy to see that Two was not at all the same game as One. And I know that sounds dumb.
ML: No, it is very important to me, to Rob as well, that we don’t repeat ourselves. The Survival Series, too. I do not just want to come up with a reskin of X.
DTD: I think you can tell that you guys had fun with it. It just comes through. I don’t think you can make something that good unless you like it.
ML: It’s hard to stick with something for 2 or 3 years unless you do.
DTD: I can’t even imagine the playtesting on it because there’s so many branches and so many what-ifs. I always worry with a legacy game that somewhere in the middle it is just going to crash out. You have got a legacy game that is supposed to last 18 games, what if your audience absolutely despises it on game 6?
ML: The key thing is, ‘despises,’ that’s a pretty strong emotion.
DTD: No, no, I speak in hyperboles.
ML: But seriously, I think a lot of people do playtesting where they send out a feedback form that says ‘I ran into these bugs.’ As opposed to watching people actually play it. Living with these people day after day, hour after hour, I spend so much time with the playtesters. On 2x speed mind you. Like, hanging out with them. They don’t see me but I’m gawking over their shoulder. I think it makes a difference.
DTD: How many times did you watch a full campaign of [Pandemic] Legacy?
ML: I am pausing here because I’m trying to count.
DTD: Well that says worlds – that you’re pausing on it.
ML: I mean we don’t do the whole campaign, we don’t design the whole thing. We design maybe 1 or 2, then we test it, then 1 through 3 then we test it, then 1 through 6 then we test it, 1 through 9 and test it, 1 through 12. We test it a lot.
DTD: If you are testing 1 through 9 do you cheat and make them start at 6?
ML: No. We start at 1. That out of the blocks experience is tested many, many times. You are looking at what could be a 24-36 hour experience, that has been tested many times. It’s a lot of video as you can imagine. 200 or 300 hours of video.
DTD: That is nuts.
ML: And I don’t know anyone else that is doing that.
DTD: Well, Rob. [laughs]
ML: Yea, Rob and I.
DTD: If you look at all the designers that have done legacy, there’s these 20 that were done by Rob, then this guy did one and that guy did one. That is a special obsessive skill that I don’t think I have.
ML: 2x speed is your friend.
DTD: I definitely do my podcasts at 2x speed. Now if there was some way you could watch the playthroughs while you were driving from place to place.
ML: Oh God no, don’t do that. I mean it also really helps that, it would be really impossible to do without Rob. We can break up the videos, we can divide and conquer. And it helps to go off, form your own opinions, come back and share notes.
DTD: Were there twists and bits that you added in that were just disasters?
ML: Oh, God yes! Oh hell yes. We had like a 4 month walk down a blind alley in Season One. We had this thing developed out with a mini board, a side quest kind of thing. Every time we saw it come out, we just saw people’s faces fall. I mean, you can see that when you are watching the videos. All the air came out of the balloon. We had to…it was like cutting the arm off the game, but it was better for it. Kill your darlings, right?
DTD: I have heard designer after designer say that the beginning designer adds more and more to their game, the advanced designer takes away more and more.
ML: There is no greater joy than cutting something out of your game. If you can eliminate two paragraphs from your rules, you’re like “Hallelujah!” I monitor BoardGameGeek, and it is mostly to see if there is an intractable problem on playtest that the player community cannot solve on their own. If so, I will step in. But even that, you need to monitor it, you learn what works, and what doesn’t, and what can get you into trouble. There is a support cost to every game, and there is a learning cost. Before you put the game on the table, you have to decide to pick the game. If you are sighing internally about how you are going to have to explain it, and you don’t take it off the shelf because of it, it’s not going to come off the shelf. All this stuff has costs.
The coffee arrives. I should elaborate – to this day, I consider a carefully crafted and presented cup of coffee one of the most artistic things in the world. The aromatic prelude, the perfectly proportional cup, the hint of steam. And true Greek coffee is a liquid blessing upon a table.
ML: So, yeah, that’s just really important to me, and testing is the best way to get at it.
DTD: Oh yeah, without a doubt. It seems like that’s got to be one of the biggest difficulties to get around when doing Season One or any Legacy game, is getting over the energy barriers. You want the people excited to see what is coming next, and excited to play again, rather than have the people have to build up the energy to get ready to play another game.
ML: Well, that’s like writing a story. Frankly, you can use techniques like Dan Brown uses to write a novel. Have a cliffhanger. You can have a problem that is really difficult, then right before they put the box back, give them some wonderful, new toy to play with that will make them hungry again. Or mitigate it.
DTD: I really want to play again, because I can use this new toy.
ML: Yeah, because now they can really take care of that issue. Or give them some sort of interesting problem to solve. Or show them…it’s really about, so much about, if you look at story analysis – it is about creating tension and release.
DTD: I thought it was played well in Season One and Season Two, there was always a reason to keep going. But at the same time, a lot of heavier games take it out of you. You play a nice long game, and have a wonderful time playing it, a long game of some really heavy euro, and you don’t want to dive in and play that game again right after, even though you had a fantastic time. That’s the energy barrier that I’m talking about. “That was really fun, but I do not want to play that again. I want to take a nap.”
ML: One of the things we learned with the Legacy games was learning how to create complications, but then also retire them over time. Season One kind of built up on itself. You had A, then B, then C, then D. You are always playing with A through Z. Whereas in Season Two, things came and they expired over time. After a certain amount of time, some rules would expunge themselves.
DTD: And that was one of the things that made it interesting and different as well. Aside from the fact that it was a totally different kind of game. The whole exploration nature of it, made it amazing. Made it exciting again. I am hoping Three has another “Aha!” like that. Nod twice if I’m right.
Just to keep the coffee from growing lonely and melancholic, the desserts arrived to keep them company. They were presented without fanfare but with all the gravitas they deserved.
Matt then proceeded to tell me every secret and event within Pandemic Season 3, bringing me to joys and despair I had never yet experienced in my 50 years. Upon conclusion, with nothing left to live for, I slumped in my chair, pining for ignorance lost.
DTD: I thought when I transcribe this interview, I will ask you a question about Season Three, and then I’ll just put a whole big paragraph, and black it out. Put a couple words poking through. And then a little descriptor about how after the interview I lost all will to live, and left to join a monastery.
ML: [laughs] OK.
Yeah, I made up the earlier part about Season 3. He didn’t tell me anything.
DTD: Do you NDA your playtesters?
ML: We actually do for Pandemic Legacy. It is more of a ceremony, it’s really like “hey, we really mean it.” Honestly we do that because we had a protospiel out in California and pictures of the board were put up to Reddit, and it was really that we did not set expectations appropriately. And the organizers did not set expectations appropriately. It is basically a way of saying “Hey look, we are kind of serious. We do not want you to talk about it.” Honestly, neither Rob nor I want to enter litigation against our play testers. So it is a bit of a ritual. We don’t do that for anything else. Because its a lot to ask for someone to go through that.
DTD: I get that. It just came across my mind that it actually would be more important for the legacy stuff. Mostly because there is such a long development period.
ML: Yeah, it’s a long development period, and there’s a lot of attention paid on it. It’s pretty high stakes.
DTD: And you don’t want one of those other legacy developers scooping you on it. Like Rob Daviau.
ML: These are good. Do you want to try a cookie?
FORBIDDEN DESSERT! FORBIDDEN DESSERT! FORBIDDEN DESSERT!
DTD: I have had so many of those cookies.
ML: I’ve never had them before. They are very good. It’s not often I get a plate of 4 cookies.
DTD: They are so good. They sell them by the bag at most of the Greek festivals. They are so amazing. Never get more than 1 bag. It seems like a good idea, but it is not.
ML: Do these even keep, with all the honey in them?
DTD: Not well. They get “weird-stale”. It’s like if you go to an Indian food buffet, the second plate is always a mistake. I love the California Protospiel Community. Everything I’ve seen of it, and I haven’t submitted any designs or anything, but I have just been around it as news, or curiosity, or stuff like that. It seems like such a nice open atmosphere.
ML: Oh, it’s amazing! I wish it was in place 20 years ago, when I was starting. You get the comradery, input from each other, willing play testers.
DTD: I was really impressed by it the first time.
ML: The last time, where was it – at KublaCon? They had little sheets that set expectations. It has come so far. I just want to shout out a thank you to all the people who are doing it.
DTD: I did a little news thing about KublaCon and Protospiel. I was really impressed. I think it was Scott Rogers who introduced me to it, and was taking me around. It was really cool.
ML: When I started with Protospiels, it was in people’s backyards. We called it “Protospiel” as well. 20 years ago. Ken Tidwell who ran the Game Cabinet, one of the first websites on the internet, he used to run it. I remember my infant daughter Coleen on my shoulder for 8 hours as I ran playtests in his back yard. So it is not a new concept, but it has really come a long way.
DTD: The support, the community of it. And at KublaCon they have the contest, and I was looking at the finalists of the contest. They are really good, really interesting.
ML: I think the best thing is just having a community of people you can talk to.
And with that, the dinner was ended with the presentation of the bill. Worth every drachma.
ML: Thank you again for dinner!
DTD: I think you have paid for it just in tolerating all the interview and grilling. Tell your friends, any hungry designers out there.
ML: Hey, you give me wine and coffee, and I get to talk about myself. It sounds like some sort of fever dream.
DTD: It sounds just awful. I tell you, I am the best first date ever. If you bump into any designers that are hungry and want to talk, I will do it. And I will travel just about anywhere. I am retired, eccentric and comfortable, so I can do just about anything.
ML: Now I have a new life goal.
DTD: The benefits are terrible, they don’t cover dental, but the hours are great.