25 October 2017 Pandemic

A Q&A with the Designers of Pandemic Legacy

Join us for a chat with Pandemic Legacy designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau

On the eve of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, we sat down with designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau to get their thoughts on the success of Season 1, their favorite games, and their thoughts on game design.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was a massive hit. Did you anticipate that level of success when you were developing it?

Rob Daviau: No, no, I would hope no one anticipates “I’m going to make the highest rated game ever made.”  I guess some people set out to. I guess at some level everyone likes to think “I think this game is good and is going to do well,” but with so many games coming out, what does “well” mean, right? Who’s the audience and how do they rate it and how many sales, but no, we never expected it to do this. Although I will say while we were playing it and playtesting it, I at least was like “wow, this is coming together very nicely, I think this could be successful.” Like it just had the feeling of something where it was all making sense and coming together – not easily, because I don’t think any game comes together easily, but smoothly, like it kept getting better. It didn’t have huge setbacks or wasn’t stuck for five months or something.

Matt Leacock: We knew the game was fun. We watched playtesters binge it, so they would play three games in a row and when we did it in person at cons they just went “let’s go again! Let’s go again!” And you don’t see that usually. That kind of intensity. So, we had high hopes for it, but not that high.

You bring up people binging through the game. A lot of people compare Season 1 to binging through a TV show. Is that something you had in mind when you were designing the game?

ML: When we were developing it, I think we started to learn that the story took on a structure like a series, like a season. I think we mentioned that to Sophie [the former owner of F2Z] and she put it on the box. We weren’t even expecting that it would say “Season 1” on there. It made us both scratch our heads and go “I guess there’s going to be another one.”

I think part of it was due to the way the story structure is set up. So that it just kind of leaves wanting to use the tools that we just gave you from the previous game to address the problems that you were just suffering through. So, you’re like “OK, well now that we have this great set of tools let’s go and see where the story is going, as well.” And I think TV episodes do something similar where they leave you hanging and wanting to know more. It’s a similar kind of thing.

Speaking of TV, did you draw inspiration from any other serial media during the development process?

ML: We both read a lot of genre fiction for both Season 1 and Season 2. And for Season…well, I’m not going to talk about that. We did a lot of reading. Rob always cites Captain America: Winter Soldier as an inspiration. Some comparisons are obvious there. I read a lot of (Margaret) Atwood, Oryx and Crake. There’s a bunch of other novels that I picked up that were recommended. Various genres for the various seasons. I don’t know how much to say, though, without being too on the nose or too oblique.

What are some games for you that you enjoy or that have influenced you?

RD: Well, it’s interesting. My favorite game is first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, played with my brother and my friends at age twelve. So, no game is as good as that, and if I play it now at forty-seven it’s not as good because I’m not twelve. And it’s not inherently a good system, but it was the perfect game at the perfect time in my life and everything kind of flows from there. I have a feeling if you looked at a lot of game designers or professionals in the game industry whether they’re designers or not from age forty-two to fifty-five almost all of them have as their source Dungeons & Dragons.

...it was the perfect game at the perfect time in my life and everything kind of flows from there

It kind of changed in 1998 when I became a professional game designer because I then went from just playing a game and it was fun to thinking about what made it fun, what didn’t make it fun, how much did this cost, how did that piece get molded? So, in some ways, I appreciate games, but I don’t have the pure joy of just playing a game and saying “that was fun.” It’s a little bit like being a food critic. You’re going out and having these amazing meals, but day after day after day and you’re thinking about them.

ML: We had Pandemic Legacy all wrapped up and then T.I.M.E. Stories came on the market and it was really enjoyable to look at that because I have such an appreciation for all the work that went into that. I mean it’s such a precise product when you look at it. I was just looking at the production design of the beautiful artwork that’s cut just perfectly so all the artwork lines up in a tableau. You can see that they had done some human factors testing on certain aspects because it’s evident to me that they’re using certain psychological techniques in order to move you one way or another, so I just appreciated that as a game designer myself. And it was an enjoyable game, as well.

In addition to being a great game, Pandemic: Legacy also tells a tight story. Tell me a bit about some of the challenges of developing something that tries to accomplish both of those goals.

RD: Well, we had Pandemic, and Matt knows Pandemic, and I had done Risk Legacy, so it really was like a good peanut butter/chocolate combination. So, we had to figure out the structure of how all this comes together. A lot of it was figuring out the hierarchy, how many games? How does the co-op work? How does the game not punish you? But when we actually got that in place and started designing the game, he had an idea of how the story would start. What became Act I. We can’t remember how we came up with the Legacy Deck idea, but just the idea of cards sorted in order, you draw them one at a time, and we can just drip this information in a controlled way. And that became important for us to deliver content both mechanically and thematically.

How is it different designing a legacy game compared to designing an expansion to a game that has already been released?

RD: They’re similar. Cause it’s like what does this want to do and that’s when I talk about having a road map of story. “Now the player should be completely panicked because X is happening.” So, we should give them this ability to stop it. So, we give them problem A and then we’re like “well, solution B would do it” and then we’ll talk about “well, what is Solution B? Is it a quarantine?” And then I might say something, or we might say something, and then Matt would say “oh we actually did an expansion with those rules, so let’s go look at them.” Because if we’re going to do something similar, why reinvent the wheel? We either want to make them very different, or identical.

We didn’t want it to be, if you’ve played an expansion, that you keep using the old rules from the expansion and ours is 90% the same and you’re like “oh I keep forgetting” in this version and misplay it. If we’re like “maybe you’d quarantine right now?” Then we’d go look at it and pull it in. So, a lot of Season 1 has things that were in the expansions, cause they were already there and we didn’t want to confuse people. Season 2 is entirely different from the base game to everything that comes after it.

So, was the month structure with one or two games per month there from the beginning?

RD: We didn’t want to make it that you were just going to play X games, whether X was 12 or 15 or 18 because it felt like you were strapped into a ride and you had no control. The question at every point was “how’d you do? How’d you do?” It would be a series of tests. But we didn’t want to make it like a video game where you were going to go until you won a game before you get to go on, because if you were very bad you’d give up after like two months because you just couldn’t get past it.

So, we ended up in this sense of we would give you a try with the new material, and then if you failed we’d give you one more try because now there was nothing new to integrate. It was like giving people a make-up test. And it might have been that they didn’t even do poorly. It might have been a bad card shuffle or something strange. And so it’s like we give you one more chance, but then we’re going to keep going. Assuming a 50% loss comes to about 15 or 18 games and then we sort of backed into 12 and then 12 led to months and then it led to a year and then it was thematically anchored. One thing we also didn’t want to do is you’re playing and all of a sudden it’s like “oh game over that was your last month.”  We wanted you to see the framework so you knew where you were going.

What has been the reaction to modifying or destroying components that features so heavily in Pandemic Legacy?

ML: I think in the hobby space Risk Legacy broke the taboo for us to some extent, so it wasn’t this revolutionary idea for a lot of the people who are in the hobby. It probably took a lot of the flak for it. But you still find people who are just not going to do it and want to reuse their set and they’ll write down everything and post all these elaborate plans for doing so. But I think for the most part people kind of embrace it because you get this visceral thrill because there’s no turning back and it raises the stakes and increases the excitement because once it’s done, it’s done. You can’t turn around.

I think for the most part people kind of embrace it because you get this visceral thrill because there's no turning back...once it's done, it's done. You can't turn around.

RD: Ripping up cards is a very, very small part of any Legacy game I’ve done, but it obviously gets the most PR. And I couldn’t have designed or come up with the idea for Legacy until I’d been a game designer for ten years, because regularly you’re working on the prototype and you write on the board or you’re like, “oh, this card is crap” and I’ll throw it away. It just shifts some of the things we do as designers over to the players. So it’s like, “oh we’re going to make this game and we’re gonna make the first 80%, and you’re going to make the last 20% through playing it.” But part of design is taking stuff away. Actually, the most important part of design is figuring out what to take away.

What do you think makes creating and developing a board game unique from other media?

ML: It’s very similar to a lot of the work I did as a user experience designer. Coming up with, you know, when you’re interfacing with a computer application you want it to work for the person using it. There’s just a lot of UI involved and in order to tune it and make the human factors work you need to do a lot of observation. So it’s like that, married with all the skills a screenwriter might have.

So it’s this interesting combination of storytelling and systems design that I find really fascinating. There are so many different facets you look at it from, like at least a hundred different lenses or points of view and you can bring all sorts of value to it from many different disciplines. So it’s this huge synthesis, which I find just fascinating, because you can’t conquer it. It’s too large.

Here’s a box of relatively mundane materials with art and craft in them and a set of instructions how to use them and yet, when it’s done right, you forget all of that and it lives up here as an experience.

RD: It’s the synthesis that feels different to me. Like you talk about screenwriting or writing a novel. There’s no real math in that. I mean there’s structure, but you’re not doing underlying systems and people know how to read a book, you don’t have to write rules that tell them how to use the thing they just got.

I think an interesting analogy is I feel like game design is in some way analogous to probably working at Blue Apron, in the sense like “here’s a bunch of ingredients and a recipe, and then you put it together and have this good experience.” And we have to really think through the whole design cause you’re going to do it once and if we forget a step or we design a recipe that’s bad or something gets forgotten, it’s gonna be a disaster. And so you’re designing a bunch of ingredients, which is a box full of cardboard and plastic. It’s well designed, but it’s not inherently valuable. Here’s a box of relatively mundane materials with art and craft in them and a set of instructions how to use them and yet, when it’s done right, you forget all of that and it lives up here as an experience. Rules are just recipes and recipes are rules, it’s all the ingredients.

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