The designer of Wrath of the Lich King tells us his favourite game

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29 July 2022
Justin Keppainen tells us about getting over Pandemic, and then falling in love again

I have an odd history with Pandemic. It served as one of the four horsemen of my entry into the hobby (the others being Catan, Arkham Horror, and Shadows Over Camelot). Like many people, I was surprised and delighted by complex tabletop (and especially cooperative) gaming, a hobby that that has had a huge impact on my life, both personally and professionally.

Unfortunately, I played so much of the first edition of Pandemic that I was effectively ‘over it’ by the middle of 2009. Even as I started and progressed my career in the industry, I haughtily ignored Pandemic for years until I transferred from Fantasy Flight Games to Z-Man Games. Settling into that new environment, it became clear very quickly that I would have to get over my ‘being over’ Pandemic.

This didn’t prove as challenging as I expected. One of my first acts as part of the Z-Man crew was to binge Pandemic Legacy: Season One over the course of four days. This was to prepare for a visit from the designers (Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau) to discuss the subsequent seasons. It was exhausting, intense, and still very much ‘work’ – but also incredibly fun and thrilling. I count it among one of the best experiences I’ve had both as a gamer and creative professional.

Unsurprisingly, in my years at Z-Man I spent a considerable amount of time working on Pandemic-related ‘stuff’ I had to examine and dissect it as a design and brand from every angle. I managed and developed several Pandemic projects, working with some of the coolest, friendliest, and most talented designers in the industry (Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, again). I even designed and developed several offshoot prototypes, and eventually one of them saw the light of day (Wrath of the Lich King).

Through all of this, it was impossible not to develop a deep respect and even fondness for Pandemic.

Its mechanisms have every hallmark of a true classic. You are asked to learn and perform very simple tasks (move your pawn, remove cubes, collect sets of matching colours). However, its decision-making scales upward in a way that pushes you to consider carefully, find small or large optimizations, and occasionally take a few risks. In addition, Pandemic meshes design with theme very cleanly, using barely a shred of flavour text. Your actions, the threats, the consequences all make sense, even though it’s essentially pushing pawns and cubes on a world map.

Its scalable simplicity allows it to easily shift themes, which is why it functions so well when adapted to other genres and IPs. Not just the Pandemic System offshoots, but dozens of other cooperative games that stood upon Pandemic’s shoulders, creating incredible experiences from its influence.

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Finally, I respect how it presents its subject matter, tying it into the nature of ‘cooperation’ itself. Disease is a grim subject matter, and the game could easily present itself as alarming, unsettling, or gruesome. Instead, it focuses on what really matters in a crisis: coming together, solving problems, and the satisfaction of cooperative triumph. 


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