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Interview with Matt Leacock (Forbidden Desert and Pandemic: In The Lab)

Mike P
United States
New York
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From gallery of fanaka66

I'm very excited about this entry. Matt Leacock has designed some of my family's favorite games. Pandemic is one of my favorite games of all time. Forbidden Island was probably my daughter's favorite games before Mice and Mystics came out. Matt has a couple of new projects coming out soon that I'm really looking forward to. Forbidden Desert is a stand-alone sequel to Forbidden Island and Pandemic: In the Lab is the second expansion to Pandemic. Look for full previews of these games soon, but for now Matt was nice enough to answer some questions for an interview:

Board Game Designer: Matt Leacock


Matt, most people know about you from Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages and Forbidden Island. I see that you have a couple of designs listed on BGG before Pandemic. How long have you been designing games?
I've been designing games since I was a kid. My first designs were simple roll-and-move affairs but then I moved on to more complex designs as a teenager. I first tried my hand at self-publishing while I was in college and put out small runs of the card game Borderlands (120 sets) and the board game Lunatix Loop (200 sets). I enjoyed the process, but it just wasn't cost-effective in such small runs so I made a conscious choice to focus only on design.

You were nominated for 3 straight Spiel de Jahres awards. What was that like? Did you attend any of the ceremonies?
Fantastic. Great fun. I think every designer secretly wants to win this award so being nominated three times in a row was a dream. I attended the ceremonies for Roll Through the Ages and for Forbidden Island in Berlin. The Pegasus and Schmidt teams were both wonderful hosts. I enjoyed hanging out with the Dixit team (in 2010) and with Susan Mckinley Ross and her husband Chris (in 2011) when Qwirkle took the prize. For the Pandemic announcement in 2009, the whole family woke up at 4:00 am to watch the live chat coverage streaming over the internet. We fed it through the Google translator—it was exciting watching the results come through line-by-line.

Roll Through the Ages is a dice game named after Vlaada Chvatil’s Through the Ages. What games by other designers do you particularly enjoy?
Oh, there's too many to mention. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Reiner Knizia and think he deserves a special call-out. The sheer number and quality of his games is breathtaking.

Forbidden Desert is a sequel to Forbidden Island. How did this come about? Did Gamewright ask you to design a follow-up, or did you approach them with a new design? If it does well, can we look forward to any more ‘Forbidden’ games?
The moment the game was considered for the SdJ prize, Schmidt asked for a sequel. Gamewright was also interested given Forbidden Island's success. We'll have to see how things go with regards to making a trilogy. Nothing to announce yet, but I do find the idea very tempting.

There is not much information out yet about Forbidden Desert. Our heroes are now stranded in a desert looking for pieces to a flying machine. Thirst has replaced flooding and it seems to have a deduction element to figure out where the parts to the machine are. Is this correct? Anything else about the gameplay you would like to divulge?
There are some fun comparisons between the games: in Forbidden Island, you're suffering from "too much" water as it floods in all around you, while in Forbidden Desert, water is very scarce and if you run out, you'll lose the game. In Forbidden Island, your board is disappearing beneath you, while in Forbidden Desert, it's piling up around you, threatening to bury you.

There are two main threats the players need to contend with in Forbidden Desert: they may die of thirst if they move from shelter, but if they don't move out and take some risks they'll eventually get buried by the sand piling up all around them. Players will need to resolve those two opposing forces and take advantage of their role powers and special equipment if they want to have any hope of getting out of the desert intact.

The central mechanism is new. The game features a sand storm that shifts the board underneath the players feet and blows in new sand that the players need to contend with. Deduction isn't actually an element and I designed the game so memory would not be a component. But the players do need to "triangulate" the positions of the flying machine parts and (given the way the storm works) the players will never be certain where the parts are until they are uncovered.

Like Forbidden Island, Pandemic is a cooperative game. What are your feelings on the cooperative genre? Do you prefer them over competitive games? Do you find them easier to design?
I enjoy both and like a good mix. With my family—and especially my kids—I prefer cooperative games since there's less "performance anxiety" suffered by new players and everyone generally has a good time whether they win or lose. I also like the way it models real-world team work behaviors for my kids and they're generally easier to teach.

I do find cooperative games easier to design. When I solo them it's easier to role-play multiple players since I don't have to radically shift my goals or frame of mind as I move from seat to seat.

A second expansion to Pandemic is on its way, In the Lab. This expansion took longer to come out than On the Brink. Was it more difficult to design, or were there other factors that delayed it?
A few factors lead to the current schedule, none of them terribly remarkable. Z-man games was undergoing some changes, we had the new edition to release, and Tom and I have been very busy. I think the expansion will be worth the wait.

Can we expect to see any major shakeups to gameplay when In the Lab comes out? Any chance I can get you to spill some details about the expansion?
Hmmm. Well, I can tell you that (like On The Brink) it will include some new roles, events, and challenges. And it's probably not divulging too much to tell you that in one of the challenges, the players must do things in the lab. :-) That particular challenge presents new opportunities for the players to work together—even more than usual—on cures.

Pandemic was an individual design, but both expansions were designed with Tom Lehmann. How do you like collaborating on a design as opposed to doing it solo?
I've really enjoyed collaborating with Tom. We both have different strengths that complement each other well. I tend to be more visually focused and (given his technical writing background) he brings a lot to the writing.

Are you currently working on any other designs we will hopefully see in the future?

Yes. :-)

Bonus question for purely selfish reasons… I am a pharmacist in a hospital. I once received an emergency phone call from the CDC in Atlanta. Any chance I will ever see an official Pharmacist role in Pandemic?

Perhaps! Sounds like something for the idea file.

I would like to thank Matt again for taking the time to answer my questions! I'll finish with a small gallery showing some of the fun I've had with Pandemic.

Board Game: Pandemic
Board Game: Pandemic
Board Game: Pandemic: On the Brink
Board Game: Pandemic
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