Interview: Pandemic designer Matt Leacock looks to cement his legacy

Interview: Pandemic designer Matt Leacock looks to cement his legacy

With Pandemic Legacy, Matt Leacock co-created the biggest gaming hit of 2015. We caught up with him to talk about his design process, the rise of story-driven games and why his new release Knit Wit is a radical departure from the games that have built his reputation.

Game designer Matt Leacock
Matt Leacock is the designer of games including Pandemic, Forbidden Island and Thunderbirds.

Matt Leacock may be the most successful games designer of the last decade. Already renowned as the creator of the best-selling Pandemic, he struck gaming gold in 2015 with the campaign-based follow-up Pandemic Legacy. Co-designed alongside partner Rob Daviau, it took the tense, cooperative gameplay of the 2007 original and added an ongoing story mode with an unpredictable plot, a complex cast of characters and a world that changed and degenerated based on players’ actions.

The game was a huge critical and commercial hit, with its publisher Z-Man Games struggling to print enough copies to keep up with overwhelming demand.

“Neither Rob or I had any idea that it would climb the charts in the way it has,” said Leacock.

“I think people are drawn to it because there are a lot of irrevocable actions in the game, lots of points of no return. All of your actions have consequences, and a lot of the excitement comes from the emotional impact you get as you play.

“But to see the kind of recognition it’s getting, it just feels fantastic.”

Pandemic Legacy board game
Pandemic Legacy added an unfolding plot that developed from one play session to the next.

That success didn’t come easily. The game took more than a year to develop – a drawn out process of writing, designing, testing, tweaking and repeating until the pair arrived at something close to perfection. The final result has attracted attention even outside of the gaming community, appearing in newspapers and being discussed on radio shows. It’s garnered acclaim not just as a game but as an innovative piece of interactive fiction that can be compared to novels, movies or television series.

At this point you could probably forgive Leacock for resting on his laurels, but he and Daviau are already at work on a sequel, and he suspects that the near future could see a stream of similarly narrative-focused games hit players’ tables.

“I expect to see other games like it,” he said.

“As a designer I think it’s a really rich space, and given the success of this game I would expect other designers to take a crack at it. There’s a whole field of options left untapped; when we were developing our campaign we had a lot of ideas that didn’t make sense for Pandemic Legacy, but that could make sense for another type of game.”

Does that mean he would consider working on a Legacy game outside of the Pandemic setting?

“Possibly,” he said, “but it’s not something I’d take on lightly.

“The design of Season One took about 14 months, and that was continuous development. Compared to other games it took a lot of investment and a lot of time to produce. It’s definitely an interesting design space and something I’m interested in, but not something I’d want to rush into.”

Knit Wit board game
Knit Wit (Image: Z-Man Games)

The complexity of the Legacy design process might go some way towards explaining why Leacock’s latest release, the simple and sociable Knit Wit, is such a departure from everything he’s become most associated with. There’s no cooperative element or elegant mechanism pitting the game against its players. Instead, players find themselves presented with a collection of coloured strings and an assortment of seemingly unconnected words.

“It’s a social game that you can sit down after dinner and play in about 15 minutes,” Leacock said.

“It’s kind of a witty word game. It comes with lengths of yarn, clothes pins and wooden spools that you use to build a sort of Venn diagram. You’re trying to come up with answers that fit each of the overlapping regions, so for example you could be trying to come up with something that’s both transparent and geeky. You have to come up with a certain number in a short space of time, and it leads to people saying some really funny, creative, interesting things.

“After Pandemic Legacy, this was a refreshing change of pace. It was much easier to get to the table, much easier to find playtesters, the rules set was much crisper. One of the challenges was to try and get the complexity down, and when I found over time that the rulebook kept getting shorter and shorter, I knew I was on the right track.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about Knit Wit is its aesthetic appeal. Open its slip-cover case and you’re presented with something that looks a lot like your grandmother’s sewing box. It goes to extraordinary lengths to emphasise its analogue simplicity; its black paper scoring pads and white pencils even give the impression of chalk on a blackboard. It’s a game that’s clearly been designed to be looked at and touched as much as played.

“When I first came up with the idea it used a whiteboard and magnets,” said Leacock.

“It was very two-dimensional, but as we started to play with these different materials we had the opportunity to weave in the theme. Board games are obviously about engaging gameplay, but they’re an object as well, and something that can be shown off.”

Knit Wit isn’t the only new title Leacock has been working on recently. He has a chariot racing game set for release in October 2016, and he’s assisted with the development of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, a horror-themed reimagining of the original game set in the world of author H.P. Lovecraft.

But it’s the prospect of a second season of Pandemic Legacy that has players most excited, and on that subject he remains tight-lipped, confirming only that it’s in development and that players won’t have to have completed the first installment in order to play it.

Given the exacting design and testing required, it seems certain that the game won’t be ready for release until 2017, but for Leacock there’s another big date on the calendar. This October, copies of his games and his design notes will go on display as part of an exhibition covering 500 years of board game history at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London. It’s an achievement he doesn’t quite seem to believe.

“It’s really gratifying, being able to tell someone that your stuff’s in a museum,” he laughed.

“I mean, when you sit down and make those first sketches of a design, that’s something you never even think could happen. And oh my God, it happened!”

This post was made possible by Eclectic Games of Reading, England, who hosted Matt Leacock as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. Many thanks!

  • Full disclosure: My travel expenses for this interview were paid by Esdevium Games, part of the Asmodee publishing group. The company had no editorial influence on this article.