Matt Leacock

Cooperative game design

Matt Leacock is a board game designer and UX expert. His first big hit, Pandemic, is a cooperative board game where you team up with others to save the world from virulent diseases. In his latest game, Pandemic Legacy, Matt extends the core Pandemic gameplay with an overarching narrative structure that delivers an episodic experience where every choice you can has irrevocable impact. Matt’s background as a UX designer shines through in his approach to iterative prototyping and “finding the fun” in his games. Matt Leacock is one of my game design heroes, and I’m thrilled to get to talk with him about his creative process. Listen in and learn how a world-class board game designer brings new ideas to life.

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Matt’s Website: Leacock.com

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Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Matt, to the Getting2Alpha podcast.

[Matt Leacock] Hey, thanks for having me.

Those who don’t you, I think, would be really interested to hear a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you first get started in design and tech and gaming, and what were pivotal moments along the way that led you to what you’re doing now?

I first started out as a graphic designer, studied visual communication and worked as a professional graphic designer in Chicago for a number of years. And then I got the call, a former classmate of mine had gotten a job at Claris and wanted me to come out for an interview.

I jumped at the chance and landed a job at Claris and did visual interaction design. I did a lot of icons and splash screens and that sort of thing, for all of four months before getting laid off. Made the trek from the Mid-West out there and then immediately got laid off. So I started my Silicon Valley journey on the right foot. Set the tone.

But that’s where I met a lot of great people. I ended up getting a job at Netscape, where I moved into interaction design. They had a really great community there. Netscape morphed into AOL and then onto Yahoo!. They had a great community of designers, where I started out to kind of understand what interaction design was and what user experience design was.

That’s my journey out as a user experience designer, but all along I was doing board game design. Board games have been a passion of mine since I was a little kid, so I always wanted to get one published. Even when I was a teenager, I sent out prototypes to try to get some attention, and as I became a graphic designer, the prototypes started looking better and better, but I don’t think the games were very good. I think I made maybe dozens of games, really low-quality games, but I think you need to make a lot of bad games before you can make a good one. But that was sort of a side job for me.

So you had these two threads going in parallel. You had your evolution from graphic design and visual design into interaction design, and then you had a similar evolution from board game lover and wannabe-designer into designer with a few games under your belt and the ability to actually recognize that you had built a crappy game.
It’s a great story because so many people that haven’t designed a game don’t realize how hard it is and don’t realize that in fact yes, you do need to build crappy games on the way to building good games.

Yeah, I think it’s like being a writer. It’s not that difficult to write something, you can just grab a pencil and paper and start writing. You can make a game very quickly and it’s very accessible to lots of people, the barrier of entry is very low. But to get higher quality product requires picking up some techniques, and playing a lot of games, and really learning about what the hobby is all about, and human behavior. There’s so many things you can bring into game design.

Reminds me of playing bass. I’m a bass player, and I changed from being a guitar player. At first it seemed pretty easy, four strings. And it’s really easy to be a crappy bass player. Being a good bass player? Very sophisticated. I’m on the journey, but I’m not there. And it’s, again, that thing where it’s not that hard to get going, but then there’s so much to learn and so much to develop.
So those two threads are fascinating. And there’s a third thread, Matt, which is, how did you get interested in co-op design in particular?

I like to play games with my family and friends quite a bit, and I play a lot of games with my wife. We had played a negotiation game, I think the game’s called “Chinatown”, and it got really nasty. We both finished the game and felt horrible, and wondered why we had done that.

I bring that up because I contrast it with an experience that I had playing a different game, a cooperative game called “Lord of the Rings” by Reiner Knizia, where we played that together and we had a common foe and it was an engaging experience. Even if we lost the game we both felt really, really good. So I had this really great experience with a cooperative game, and I thought the design was really novel and interesting. I wanted to see if I could do something kind of like it.

That was the underpinnings of “Pandemic”, trying to design a game that I would really enjoy playing with my wife, and I think that led right into additional cooperative games after it.

Do you see that dovetailing with your experiences as a UX designer?

Yeah, it’s really difficult for me to separate user experience from game design. There’s so many overlaps.

Seriously!

I’ve been able to use the entire toolkit that I used at work, directly in game design. And you get to wear a few more hats as well, there are some differences in that. I’m lucky enough to be able to define some of my own products, so I get to put a product manager hat on from time to time, at least before I hand the product over to the publisher and then they help with the reins there. But it’s nice being able to do some product definition work in addition to the design.

Then the engineering is really great. One of the things that I love so much about user experience design was paper prototyping and being able to create a design really, really quickly and get it in front of people, get feedback immediately then iterate on it.

Well, when you’re doing board game design, when you’re done you’ve got the paper prototype and it’s engineered right there for you. I can hand off a completed prototype to a publisher and I don’t need to get someone to code it up, because I’m not a coder. Basically I’m tweaking all the variables and it’s as easy as pulling a card out of a card sleeve, or crossing something out and rewriting it, and then running the program is just putting it in front of people again. Those things I really enjoy, the fact that it’s very hands-on and I feel like I’ve got a lot more control over it.

That’s so cool. Your latest game, “Pandemic Legacy”, is a different spin on co-op design.

That game has been really, really fun and challenging to work on, and it’s been fun to see how it’s been received. It basically takes the “Pandemic” game and adds a legacy component to it; that was a system, a style of gaming that Rob Daviau pioneered when he was at Hasbro in a game called “Risk Legacy”.

It essentially means that the game is going to change as you play it, as the players play the game they’re modifying the actual physical components of it the same way you might with a craft project, you’re adding stickers to it, or you’re scratching certain things off, like a lottery ticket, or you’re ripping up components. The whole game is more like an experience, it’s a one-way journey through an epic storyline.

When you’re done, you’ve played typically about sixteen to eighteen different games, and the end result is this world that you and your fellow players have shaped, that will be different than any other people’s sets. Everybody goes through a similar story, but the results of their actions show up in their game in very different ways. Everybody has different stories to share when they’re done with the game.

How is co-op woven into that?

It’s a cooperative game, just like “Pandemic” is. One of the nice things about the game is, you can pull it out of the box and if you know “Pandemic” you can start playing it right away, because it starts out like “Pandemic”, but then it gradually morphs.

It’s very similar in the cooperative nature to the game it’s based on, in that players are basically doing group problem-solving. You might think of it as distributed computing, there’s a very complex logistical puzzle laid out in front of them. How are they going to tackle, keeping all the world’s diseases in check while they look for cures?

The added layer that “Pandemic Legacy” set has is that the enemy is always morphing. The diseases and the situation of the world is always being modified. As you play the game you move from month to month. You start the game in January, sort of like a January game, and if you win that you move out to a February game. Each month the setting of the game and some of the variables and, again, based on the actions that the players have done, have modified the set as well. So you’ve got a dynamic system that all the players need to immerse themselves in and internalize and communicate about. They’re trying to figure out what the best strategy is going forward.

It’s fascinating because there is a lot of discussion in game design circles about forever games, games that you can play over and over and over again, like poker or “Scrabble” or various other games; and then games that you play through and you’re done, which is more like a movie or a book, or solving a puzzle. Once you solve the puzzle you’ve solved the puzzle. It’s fascinating because “Pandemic” is a game you could play over and over again, it’s a forever game, right?

Right. That’s right.

And then on top of it you created essentially a meta-game that gives the forever game a lifetime, but it gives it a whole other level of engagement and enjoyment.

Yeah, we tried to play with the fact that a game is essentially disposable. What that means is there are certain things that you take for granted in a game, like the ability to undo an action or the ability to, the next time you play, you can try it slightly differently.

You don’t really have that, necessarily, in this game. The consequences of your actions have much more gravity. You think twice about certain decisions because they’ll have implications not only for the current session you’re in, but all the future sessions as well. If a city gets degraded or starts to riot, or even fall, there’s things that can happen to the world. You’re going to have to deal with that for the rest of the campaign. It just adds even more emotional impact, I think, to all the different decisions that the players need to make together.

It’s really paralleling the rise of episodic long-form television.

Yeah, actually, we kind of stumbled into that. We noticed that we had these breaks in between games, we had these little rituals where you set the game up, you play the game, you tear it down, you make certain decisions, and it almost felt like the opening and closing of a TV episode. And we looked at the connective tissue between games and it felt like how you might write the end of a chapter in order to get someone to keep turning the pages in a good page-turner.

Also the ability to layer in a larger story arc, we started to look at the way different screenplays were constructed and how act breaks worked, really tried to layer in a lot of those storytelling elements that were really new to me. I had to do a little bit of reading and research there, and I feel like there’s a lot more to learn. But it was fun to be able to take advantage of that in this structure, in the way we set up the system.

What are one or two of the things you learned about good story structure from this recent experience?

I know you don’t want to have … I talk about this a lot, you really want people’s emotions to go up and down, you don’t want a flat line. There’s certain things you can do to get people excited or afraid, and just modulate that emotion throughout the course of play. Also, building up to a certain crescendo and then having some sort of resolution, but with greater stakes as the game progresses up to that climax near the end, some sort of resolution at the end.

We tried to incorporate a lot of those sorts of things, both the scene-to-scene tension and release, to a higher level structure of how an act might play out. The first act is all about this and then there’s some sort of resolution, and then there’s some more complex thing later in the second act, and so on.

While you were doing that, were you also thinking about co-op versus zero-sum game design?

I don’t think about it so much in those terms. When I’m doing a co-op game, I’m generally thinking about myself designing an antagonist, or … I guess it’s like doing a puzzle, where the players all work to try to unwind it. But it’s more complex than that, because you want each player to have some sort of a sense of agency and independence. And there’s lots of different ways you can do that, so that no single player dominates.

But really, for me, I’m just trying to come up with-

A problem to solve.

Yeah. A cardboard opponent basically, that’s worthy of the opponents, that’s going to engage them and they’re going to find challenging and worthwhile to butt their heads against.

That’s actually one of the deepest things about co-op gaming that’s different from competitive gaming. You’re competing against the system, a.k.a. an antagonist, like a zombie, or a zombie horde, or contagions that are going to wipe out the world, or aliens, but they’re all embodied systems.

Yeah, it’s more like you playing a computer opponent as opposed to the computer just providing the context for play, or the rules of engagement between two different opponents.

You said group problem-solving earlier, and I think that’s a great phrase to capture how you’re thinking about this. Not personal problem-solving, group problem-solving. How can we solve this together.

That’s right. In fact, they use “Pandemic” specifically, I just heard from a researcher who’s using it in Leicester, in the UK, for people studying to be in a medical profession. Basically they set up eighty people at one go, all sitting down at tables playing “Pandemic”, with facilitators watching how they collaborate and solve their problems together as teams of professionals in training. Then they have a debrief and they look and see how they’re all interacting, and then they play again and see have they made improvements or what has changed.

It’s interesting that they’re using it there for studying how groups are solving problems.

That’s fantastic. Wow. I would love to share a link to that, if it’s a publicly available thing on the web?

I don’t know if he’s got something yet out on the web for it, but I was really excited to see that they were doing that, and they were working at the methodology of it and found that it was something that groups found compelling and actually useful.

To get a little bit game-nerdy for a moment, can you talk about how you think about resources and managing resources and sharing various kinds of resources as a cooperative game designer? Is that something that you consider when you’re going after a co-op game design? Within a game.

One thing you can do in a cooperative game is to make it so that different players have different amounts of information, and then that can lead to a certain kind of feeling of autonomy where I know something that you don’t, and therefore we need to communicate more because I’m not in charge of all the resources on the board and you’re not in charge of all the resources on the board, therefore we need to cooperate in order to get the job done.

In a lot of my games it’s more around specialization and abilities more than resources or information, but that can be a technique, just giving certain people access to certain stuff and other people access to other stuff. It’s not something I really probe very deeply in, though.

Dan Cook calls that asymmetric information.

Sure. Yeah. And “Hanabi” is a really good example of a card game that does it quite well.

Talk more about your approach to differentiating skills and roles.

I try to present players with a really challenging problem that they wouldn’t be able to do if they were everyman or everypeople, if they’re all generic actors. So I give everybody some sort of superpower in a lot of my games.

So if we’re talking about “Pandemic” or “Forbidden Island” or “Forbidden Desert”, where everybody has this core set of things that they can do, but certain players really excel at very specific things. Then when it comes time to solve a problem, players often have to try to figure out how to play to their strengths and if they don’t, then the problem is too difficult so they are forced to figure out how to take advantage of everybody’s ability. And then everybody gets a chance to shine, they get to feel special because they can move in a certain way that’s much more effective than someone else who, they’re really powerful at for example curing diseases in “Pandemic”.

Wow. Do these superpowers allow them to do things synergistically?

That’s actually one thing I was really trying to design into one of my more recent games, “Forbidden Desert”. That’s a really challenging game and the only way you can play it and win on the harder levels are trying to figure out how the exploits in the game, where … You can have one player who can move another player, who can then pick up another player, who can allow both of those players to move through large piles of sand, for example. In certain games that might feel like cheats or exploits, but at the higher levels of that game you need to figure out all the different ways you could possibly do different super-combos between the different roles.

Do you ever work with or get questions from younger game designers, people that you’re coaching or training or who look up to you, asking you advice for how to start off in game design?

I do get questions from time to time on how to get started and I think the simplest thing I’d say, just start. Start making stuff, don’t worry about how good it is.

Given that, what are the most common mistakes that you see first-time game designers and game creators make in the early stages when they’re bringing their ideas to life? And what’s your best advice for how to supercharge your way through those really common mistakes?

A few come to mind right away. One is, I don’t see this quite as much these days, but often people would be very protective of their ideas, they’d want an NDA or they wouldn’t want to share their project with people for fear that the idea would be stolen or someone would take it and run with it. And I’d tell those people that they shouldn’t worry about it, that the ideas are more or less a dime a dozen and that the execution is really what sets the stuff apart.

I also tell people to really try to share their project or their game to as many people as they can, and a really diverse set of people, to get a diverse input. Often you get a new designer with their game that they’re really passionate about, that they’ve played with their close group of friends and they played it repeatedly, and they’ve been tuning it with a very small group of folks, and you end up with this sort of insular design that has very narrow appeal. I guess the advice I have for those folks is just to share your stuff with as many people as you can in order to get additional feedback.

That’s awesome. Give us a little glimpse into how you approach discovery and play-testing and bringing your ideas to life, on a recent project like “Forbidden Desert” or on that “Legacy” game. I know you talked about the “Legacy” game in a video that we’re going to include along with this episode.
What does that process look like for you, where does play-testing come in? How do you figure out which are the good ideas and which aren’t?

The early phases are a little bit magical to me, in the sense that they’re a little harder to pin down. The process that I refined over time, especially as a user experience designer when you’ve got a working system, a working core engine, and developing that into a playable, accessible, polished game, are much more well known to me. The early stages are a little harder.

When it comes to ideation, when you’re extending an existing product it’s a lot easier. I did a dice version of “Pandemic” called “Pandemic: The Cure” and that was really an exercise in reducing the game into its essence and trying to figure out how to replace certain elements in the board game with dice, and how to eliminate the board and abstract it. Those are a little more straightforward. When you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper and want to come up with a brand new game, it’s more difficult. You need to find that core hook, or the core mechanism, or the core conceit that you want to chase.

Most of the time that comes down to just goofing off. Sometimes it’ll be an itch, like I really want to try to explore this or that. I’ll start with a sketchbook and I’ll sketch out some ideas, but before long, I’m talking about less than an hour, I’ll need to make something to interact with, to see … Sketches are great, they’re a nice way to have a conversation with yourself, to reflect back on what’s on your head, almost like a conversation with yourself. But prototypes are alive, they can give much richer feedback, so I start prototyping almost immediately.

In what form?

Really just scratch the paper. The “Pandemic” prototype was just some scrawls on a really big, oversized piece of newsprint with a Sharpie, and a regular set of playing cards. You want to explore this phase really, really quickly, and you don’t want to get hung up on the tools, necessarily. I really like to have the stuff be as disposable as possible when I’m working early.

Later on, when I got to do a lot of iterations and I don’t want to keep re-drawing the same thing over and over again, I’ll move into software and use Adobe Illustrator or something similar so that I can iterate more effectively, because I can build on my previous iterations. But early on I like something really disposable and cheap.

Awesome. That’s great advice. Then you’re not invested in it, and you give yourself permission to iterate.

It is important also to show prototypes to play-testers that are an appropriate level of fidelity. If you show them a really polished prototype you’re not going to be getting feedback that’s really high level, because people are going to be making the assumption that the game is almost done and any kind of radical ideas will probably be censored or just not even brought up, because I think people find them inappropriate for the level of prototype that you’re sharing with them.

Thank you for saying that. I see that all the time. And there’s this meme going around, especially in the Valley, that if you’re doing a one-week design sprint, the thing you show people at the end is a really polished visual prototype and that it’s an important part of prototyping. Occasionally I understand why you might want to do that, because it “looks real”, but just like you, I find that you get such different feedback if it looks rough.

Right. Yeah. It doesn’t really tell the story, either. What you said sparked an idea; when I was a design manager and did interviews of people, I’d get polished final products coming in the door and people who’d be trying to explain to me how great they were, but what I really wanted to see was the story of the development, and all the rough-and-tumble iterations that designers did on the way really help expose the thinking behind it. If you’ve got really experienced play-testers, if you’re fortunate enough to have people who are also game designers, you can share those rough iterations and get rich feedback.

I think really comes down to who you’re sharing the work with and at what level you’re at. Early on, the prototypes that I develop, I’m the only one who can really understand what’s going on. Because they’re so rough, they’re napkin sketches and they’re using components that don’t really map very well. But as I gradually refine the prototypes, it opens up the audience to a wider set of people who can actually understand what’s going on, so as the circle widens out and I go from myself, to friends and family, to colleagues, to friends of friends, to random people in conventions, to complete strangers, the fidelity typically gets finer and finer.

Exactly. And those concentric rings of play-testers I think is very much a part of how really good games come to life. You don’t just go test with random people right away, you’ve got this early adopter ring around you that’s part of getting there, and you show them earlier stuff.
One of the arguments people come up with was, “Well, I want to test on my target audience and I have to show them something polished.” Well, find people who you don’t have to show something polished to, right? And those people give you that great early feedback.

That’s right. And this is stuff that’s common to all games, if you want to test that core engine you can do it with people that aren’t necessarily in the target, just to see if you’re in the ballpark, and then refine as you go wider and wider.

For you, as a co-op game designer, what’s most challenging about co-op? I know that most people when they think of games, they think of competitive games, and in many ways it’s much more straightforward to design a competitive game.

You know, I design both cooperative games and competitive games.

Oh cool. Okay, good.

I just happened to stumble into cooperative and had a good run so far, but I’ve done competitive games as well, and I don’t find either one of them necessarily a whole lot easier. It’s somewhat easier for me to do cooperative games in that it’s easier for me to play-test early versions of them by myself, because I have an easier time working against the co-op cardboard enemy by playing multiple roles in succession. Because they all sort of have the same point of view, they’re all trying to defeat that common enemy.

Where if you’re playing, in testing, a competitive game by yourself, I have a harder time switching roles. Imagine yourself playing chess with yourself. You sit down on one side, and then when you rotate the chess board and get up and sit on the other seat, you have to rebuild your strategy from scratch at the end of every turn on a turn-based game. So I find the co-op games to be a little bit easier to play-test.

The challenging thing for me, though, is trying to come up with a really novel cardboard antagonist that’s worthy of the players, with a set of rules that’s not too long, and pretty approachable and exciting. Ensuring that each game is novel and not repeating the same thing over and over again, is a bit of a trick when you’re trying to come up with something nasty and challenging and exciting to play against.

Looking back at all the things you’ve built and designed, as UX designer, as a co-op designer, as a competitive game designer, what do you feel is your superpower? As a creator, what’s your sweet spot?

I do a lot of remote testing over video, and I think that format works pretty well for co-op games, because as people are playing a cooperative game they’re sort of doing a think-out-loud process because they need to share what they’re thinking with their fellow players in order to form an effective strategy. So I ask people to play-test the game and set up a mobile phone with a recording feature on it, and record themselves as they play. Then they’ll post the video files up online and we’ll watch them. For example for “Pandemic Legacy”, Rob and I watched hundreds of hours of video.

What I think I’m fairly good at is being able to pick up on emotional cues between the players, whether they’re engaged, when they’re bored, when they’re interested, when they’re put off by a certain story element, all the different kinds of emotional ups and downs. Are they disinterested, are they confused, that sort of thing. That’s my favorite method for gathering data, is just direct observation. And when you do video you can go back and watch something several times.

There’s certain terms of story in “Pandemic Legacy” specifically, that we modified the story text because the notes were falling flat, and we were able to iterate on that. It was interesting watching the same group hit those story breaks over different iterations of the game and comparing them with other groups, and just seeing what’s resonating and what’s not. I think that’s really difficult to pick up on if you’re just sending out a prototype and asking someone to fill out survey, like, “What did you like the most?”.

I think my superpower there is both in the methodology of doing all this direct observation, and then trying to pick up on all those subtle cues and using that as fodder for the next iteration.

Sounds like you turned yourself into a storyteller through play-testing.

I guess so.

In a way, which is just that great melding of all your various skills and threads. A couple more questions. What do you see that’s interesting and new and stimulating to you these days? What trends or people are you following and who’s inspiring to you?

There’s a lot of innovation happening in board games, because there’s so many games being made now. You can really look around and see all sorts different things being explored.

One of the favorite designers I like to watch is a gentleman named Vlaada Chvatil from Czech Games Edition, a Czech designer, who’s come up with all sorts of different, crazy ideas; whether they’re real-time cooperative games that are sort of reinventing a party game, with his recent game called “Codenames”. He’s just out there. A lot of his games are really complex and I’ll only play them once or twice, but I’m always surprised how he pushes the envelope. I keep an eye on him.

I think people are really trying to figure out how to bring technology into board games, which I think is a little bit like a solution in search of a problem, you know? People trying to bring in tablets or mobile phones into the board game experience, whether it’s to track information or to provide some sort of sensory experience. I haven’t seen anyone really succeed at that. I imagine at some point someone will make a breakthrough and really show how those things add value, but for me board gaming is a social experience, it’s an excuse to sit around a table and connect with people socially, so those really take me out of the experience. But I do see a lot of people really trying to crack into that.

It sounds like that part’s not inspiring to you.

It’s not. I think a lot of people really want it to work or think it’s going to be the next big thing, but I’m not a real believer yet, so we’ll have to see.

That’s interesting. What’s coming up on the horizon? What are you planning or what topics are you interested in? What’s going to be happening that you’d like to let us know about?

“Pandemic Legacy” is subtitled “Season 1”, so it should be no surprise that we’ve got other seasons in the works.

Nice.

Those things are fairly large projects so those keep me very busy. Rob and I meet very frequently working on those.

But I also do smaller projects as well, for example a party game called “Knit Wit” last spring. Just a fifteen minute social gaming experience you can put out after dinner and enjoy over wine or what have you, where basically you collaboratively develop a Venn diagram using yarn, and you put spools in, you build this sort of diagram, and then have to knit it together with witty answers. That’s a little word game. I like to break up larger projects with smaller ones.

Okay, where did you get that idea? That is such a cool idea. How did that evolve, how did you come up with that?

“Knit Wit” came from a burning desire to use a whiteboard in a game. I really wanted to figure out a way that the players could draw something while they’re playing, and the problem was, my daughter kept breaking the game by drawing a big circle around the entire whiteboard. And my other daughter’s handwriting is not great. We were just seeing all these problems with whiteboards, including the fact that the whiteboard markers are always drying out on us.

But that’s where the idea of drawing Venn diagrams came from, we wanted to draw these Venn diagrams on a whiteboard and I had the idea of associating adjectives to them, and then trying to come up with crazy words that would fit the regions. So that was that, that was the central idea, and then it evolved over time.

I met with the publisher, we threw out all sorts of different ideas about making the Venn diagrams out of things like color forms or string or this or that. So I ordered all sorts of different kinds of string, yo-yo string, shoelaces, all sorts of things, and found some that worked. I was using magnets to identify the regions, and those morphed into spools once this whole knitting idea came about.

And tried dozens of different names, from “Venntangle” to some other names I wouldn’t mention. A friend of mine suggested “Knit Wit” and when he said that everything kind of gelled, the game became about knitting witty answers together.

What a great description of the creative process. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and your lessons, and just your time with us today.

It was my pleasure. Thank you.