7 May 2020 Pandemic

The Hot Zone Series

An open letter from Matt Leacock and Steve Kimball

Please read this message from Steve Kimball, Z-Man Games’ Head of Studio, and Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic, regarding our upcoming Pandemic products amid the current global health crisis.

Steve:  I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy during this turbulent time. Back in March, we shared a message explaining that we would give more details about upcoming Pandemic titles at a later date. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the many essential workers keeping our healthcare systems and supply chains intact, and thanks to the social distancing practices of everyday people around the globe, there is evidence that our collective actions to combat the virus are working. While the situation varies from community to community, we’re hopeful that restrictions will ease at the proper time and we can safely bridge that social distance again.

I know many of you are eager to hear more about the final game in the Pandemic Legacy trilogy, which we’ll get to soon. But today were here to discuss a different Pandemic game, one that Matt, my team, and I are all very proud to share with you. One that, just like the original, requires you to work as a team, share your knowledge, and discover cures together.


Steve: Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America was first leaked back in February as COVID-19 had started to become a truly global crisis. That was the first chance that anyone outside the company had heard of Hot Zone’s existence, but the game’s story actually began all the way back in April 2018. Today, Matt and I would like to take you behind the curtain and provide insight into how Hot Zone became a reality.

Just over two years ago, Adrien Martinot, Head of Studio at Days of Wonder, had a brilliant idea to create a Ticket to Ride demo game for stores. With a smaller board, shorter train routes, and a quicker playtime, players could walk up, play a full game, and get a taste for the Ticket to Ride experience. The concept worked, and the demo game gained a lot of traction among retailers.

When I had the opportunity to play it, I was impressed by the way Days of Wonder and Alan R. Moon were able to distill Ticket to Ride to its essence, offering the proven gameplay experience in a smaller, more portable format. At Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends in April 2018, I gave a copy of Ticket to Ride Demo to Matt Leacock, the designer of Pandemic, along with a rough idea of the design goals I had in mind to achieve a similar treatment for our beloved co-op title.


Steve: At the time, Matt told me in very clear terms that he was busy with other projects. I reassured him this was an eventual wish, not an urgent request. But wouldn’t you know, within a month’s time, Matt sent me an email surprising me with a stellar prototype that checked every box.

Matt: I recall sending an excited email to Steve: “I got an itch to try making an express/demo version of Pandemic. I’m happy to report that it’s going well. I even got Anna to play her first-ever game of Pandemic on it!”

Based on what Steve gave me to run with, my goal was to reduce the scale of the game so it could be set up and played faster and with fewer components than the base game, while still retaining all of the tension. To achieve that, I did the following:

  • Focused the game on a single region of the world and reduced the number of cities and size of the board.
  • Reduced the number of disease colors, disease cubes, outbreaks, and epidemics.
  • Reduced the cards required to discover a cure as well as each player’s hand size.
  • Trimmed the number of different actions available to only those that were critical. (For example, since the smaller board couldn’t support an entire network of research stations, I abstracted them all into a single station in Atlanta and dropped the build research station and shuttle flight actions.)

I knew I was onto something when my daughter Anna (who, up until this point, had refused to play any version of Pandemic) was willing to give it a try. I think the smaller overall presentation of the game must have appealed to her or seemed less intimidating on the table.

Later that May, I flew out to visit the Z-Man offices in my home state of Minnesota. During that visit we discussed several topics, including the third installment of Pandemic Legacy, Fall of Rome, and of course this mini version of Pandemic.

Steve: Matt left us with a prototype, which we played with our sales team. That single playthrough was such an elegant distillation of All Things Pandemic. We saw potential for a product that could be even more mainstream. At that point, our design goals became more refined, and we started working toward a 2020 launch.


Steve: When I saw Matt at the next Gathering in April 2019, I showed him our first sample graphics to gauge his reactions. After much lively discussion and copious notes, we developed a clear direction that would bring us to the finish line on this new game. With the end in sight, we sent the files off to our production team and the factory, then started working on our marketing plans for a summer 2020 release.

We had originally planned to make a big splash at New York Toy Fair by announcing Pandemic: Hot Zone – North America there. The catalogs were made, the banners were printed… but as industry trade shows began ramping up in early 2020, the virus continued to escalate beyond a level any of us had anticipated. Amid rising concerns, we shifted our Toy Fair plans, but the brochures let the proverbial cat out of the bag, resulting in a soft announcement to complement the online leaks.

Many of our astute fans who encountered the leaks back in February speculated that this game was Pandemic Mini, some even predicting going down to 3 diseases and other logical adjustments that mirrored what Matt himself did to the game. A few discerning folks even inferred correctly that specifying “North America” as the region alluded to this being the first in a series of fun-size Pandemic games. I’m pleased to confirm that their assumption is correct! We intend to make versions of Hot Zone focused on various regions of the world, so stay tuned for more info on future iterations.

Ultimately, the premise of Pandemic is one of hope: to work together, discover cures, and prevail over dire situations through thoughtful, collective efforts. We’re proud of this fantastic new Pandemic game that Matt designed, and we hope it brings families together, raises awareness, and facilitates many hours of cooperative fun around the table.

We're also working on a way to let our fans try Pandemic: Hot Zone for themselves from the comfort of their own home, so stay tuned for more info on this soon.

Stay well, everyone!