Table-Top Pandemic – An Interview With the Creator of the “Pandemic” Board Game

Finally take action against a Pandemic by playing this award-winning game. I had a chance to ask the game designer/creator some questions this month.

1. How would you summarize the Pandemic game for someone who hasn’t played it before?

In Pandemic, players work together as a team to contain four deadly diseases that have broken out across the globe. Players travel around the world, trying to keep the spread of infection in check long enough to discover the four cures needed to win the game. Players each have a special role (including Medic, Researcher, Scientist, Operations Expert, and Dispatcher) granting special abilities to contribute to the team. If the players cooperate, play to their strengths, and manage their time well, they can hope to rescue humanity. If not, the world will be overrun by disease and the players will all lose the game.

2. What triggered the idea to come up with the Pandemic game?

I was interested to see if I could design a cooperative game where the players would have to fight against the game instead of each other. Diseases seemed like an ideal candidate for a frightening and seemingly sentient opponent for the players to battle. I came up with the seeds of the idea while out on a walk with my daughter. When I returned home, I cobbled together a rough prototype with a few sharpies and a standard deck of cards. In the earliest versions, players could use cards to travel around the world or could collect and meld cards to discover cures. Through experimentation, I discovered the rules for creating hotspots on the map and was hooked: I knew I had the seeds of a good game.

3. Did you study any real Pandemic plans to get any ideas?

I didn’t. In previous games I’ve done research to inform the game play and thematic elements. For Pandemic, I primarily concentrated on what was fun and what felt right. I then played it with hundreds of players who helped contribute ideas which helped me shape the game to fit common mental models of how diseases and players in a game like this should operate. This was more important to me than having a technically correct simulation that didn’t inspire play.

My primary goals were to create a game that was easy to learn, approachable by non-gamers, that fostered cooperation and discussion amongst the players-something lacking from a lot of games today. I did try to include educational aspects where I could: the cities in the game all come with population statistics and the flags of their countries, for example. I was delighted to hear afterwards that friends of friends at the CDC loved the game and that they started to offer it in the CDC gift shop. Although clearly it’s not a cut-and-dry simulation, it works well enough for these folks.

4. What was your reasoning behind making it a co-operative game?

Since I’m an independent game designer, I can design the games that I find the most interesting and select the target audiences myself. In this case, my muse was my wife Donna. I set out to design a game that I could play with her and our friends where I wouldn’t feel the need to apologize when explaining it (due to its complexity) and one in which we’d all feel good about after playing, win-or-lose. Cooperative games are great in that regard: if the team wins, there’s high-fives all around but if the team loses, they can always play again. No egos are on the line and if a player is having trouble with the rules or with a strategy, the others can help him or her out since it’s part of the game.

The feedback on the game in this regard has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have reported having really positive bonding experiences playing with their spouse, family, and friends.

5. Do you find that sales or general game awareness is increasing because of the H1N1 virus outbreak?

Yes, I saw a definite bump in discussions about the game online after all the press over H1N1 and I have to imagine that sales increased as a result.

6. What kind of response has your game had within the Business Continuity/Pandemic Planning community?

I’ve been encouraged by reports from friends and read session reports online about people in the Pandemic Planning community enjoying the game. In fact, I based the artwork for a new card (the “Epidemiologist”) on a photo of a CDC employee who is a particular fan. The card will be in the game’s expansion, “Pandemic: On the Brink” that will be out in August of 2009.

Matt Leacock is a user experience designer and game designer. His first widely published game, Pandemic, won Games Magazine’s Family Game of the Year in 2008 and was nominated for Germany’s Game of the Year. He’s also designing a line of dice games under the name Roll Through the Ages. When not designing games, Matt heads User Experience at Sococo (sococo.net). Prior to that he was an interaction designer at Yahoo!, AOL, Netscape, and Apple.

Susan Varty is a writer, editor and secret marketing weapon. Learn more at [http://www.wordtree.ca] or email her at sue@wordtree.ca.

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