For most of us in 2020, the word “pandemic” refers to the ongoing COVID 19 crisis. But for game designer Matt Leacock, “pandemic” means something much more personal. Pandemic is not only one of the most used words of the year, but also the title of Leacock’s most popular board game: a four-player adventure in which epidemiologists try to eradicate four diseases that are spreading simultaneously around the world.
Although the game has been on store shelves for the past ten years thanks to several spin-offs and expansions, current events have increased interest in the massively popular game in leaps and bounds. In a recent conversation with Washington Newsday, Leacock admitted that the pandemic has reached a new level of popularity, which he reluctantly accepts.
“When I grew up with the original game in 2004, SARS was already widespread, and in my mind pandemics were something that could happen to someone somewhere at some point,” he recalled. “I never really thought I would ever be hit by a pandemic. It’s one thing to foresee it, and another to experience it.
In the midst of my own quarantine because of COVID, I became absorbed in the Leacock pandemic. In addition to the numerous zoom interviews with Leacock, the game designer joined me, my brother and a friend for a fully remote virtual play through of the game. (I made sure to involve my brother, who is a respected licensed pharmacist, to put the core medical concepts of the game to the test) There was one sentence that we all played and kept an eye on with Zoom.
One of the characteristic features of Pandemic as a game is that unlike most salon mainstays, this game is completely cooperative. It is rooted in a concept that Leacock developed from a fairly familiar scenario. “I played some pretty competitive games with my wife and some negotiation games and found that at the end of the game I often felt worse the better I felt,” he said with a laugh. “I found that in cooperative games we really enjoyed our time together, whether we won or lost or not. And so this was part of the inspiration for shaping the pandemic. I wanted to develop a cooperative game that I could play with my wife for the family and that I really enjoyed.
And with this central inspiration in mind, our quartet of epidemiologists was formed after a fifth person, our socially detached game leader, drew four random role cards consisting of a paramedic, a scientist, a dispatcher and a quarantine specialist. These roles are only four of seven possibilities included in the basic game, and each of these roles has a super-strong ability paired with it. My role as a medic has a special place in the heart of Leacock. She is a cleaner who eliminates large swaths of disease in the course of a turn.
“I was playing around and just trying out different effects when I developed it, and I remember coming across the Medic effect and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s super strong, that’ll ruin the game,'” said Leacock. “And so we played and it was just so much fun to do that… I wanted to make the powers so strong that you’d think they would break it to a certain degree.
As for the rest of our roles, the scientist, who was taken over by Leacock himself, has a faster way to cure diseases, while the dispatcher can move players more freely to certain locations to help them find cures or eliminate diseases. The quarantine specialist, who was appropriately assigned to my brother, helped to prevent the spread of the disease in the connected countries.
From the top level it is not difficult to understand how these different skills can complement each other, and these scenarios played out perfectly in our game. When black colored disease cubes began to conquer the eastern part of the map, we kept our quarantine specialist in place to stifle outbreaks as they happened early on. I, on the other hand, was transferred to North and South America, where yellow disease cubes quickly took control of Buenos Aires and the Los Angeles area. On the other side of the globe, our dispatcher and our scientist met at certain locations to exchange maps that would later help Leacock cure our first disease.
When our abilities like