The Making of Pandemic Legacy

27 June 2021
Owen Duffy speaks to Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau about one of the biggest games of 2016

When gamers look back at 2015, they’ll remember it as the year of Pandemic Legacy. Based on 2008’s best-selling game of medics battling deadly disease outbreaks around the globe, it takes the tense and cerebral gameplay of the original Pandemic and adds a rich story mode. It boasts unpredictable plot twists, a cast of constantly evolving characters and an environment that grows increasingly hostile as the game itself reacts to the choices players make as they fight against overwhelming odds to save humanity. Industry insiders, critics and players have heaped praise on the game, and many retailers have struggled to keep it in stock as demand for copies outstrips supply. With the feverish response to Pandemic Legacy sweeping the world, we spoke to its designers, Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau, to discover how their collaborative project came together, and how they developed what some have already hailed as the greatest board game ever created. 

Initial outbreak 

Pandemic designer Matt Leacock was a keen tabletop gamer from an early age. “I had two avenues into gaming,” he said. “One was my grandmother’s farmhouse, where they had an old safe full of classic games like Monopoly and Sorry and that kind of thing. We used to play them and never really think about what we were doing. “The other was playing some better games like Acquire and Civilization with my dad and my uncle. I played those as a young teen, and they were the games that really got me into the hobby.”

Civilization particularly appealed to the young Leacock. A long, complex empire-building game, it was first released in 1980, over a decade before the influential computer game of the same name. But while he was a keen player, he also recalled taking apart copies of less interesting titles and attempting to piece together better games of his own. This early interest in game design would stay with Leacock, but while Civilization may have been the most influential game of his youth, it was another title - Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings - that inspired his best-known work. A co-operative, card-based game, it cast players as hobbits on a quest to destroy the enchanted ring at the heart of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels.

“Until I played Lord of the Rings, I had always thought of co-operative games as being for kids,” he said. “I was really impressed by the way the game captured emotion, and I really enjoyed playing it with my family, so I wanted to design something similar.” Leacock looked to news headlines for inspiration for his own co-operative design. Media reports on disease epidemics caught his attention, and he quickly hit on an idea for a set of game mechanics that would represent the spread of illnesses across the globe.

“I needed an enemy for my game, and diseases were very much in the news at the time,” he said. “I was also fascinated by the idea of chain reactions and the way things can spiral out of control, and all of those elements came together in a very quick prototype.”

The result of his experimentation was Pandemic, a game that handed players control of a team of medical professionals, each with their own area of expertise, and challenged them to work together to cure diseases spreading rapidly from city to city across a map of the globe. Victory depended on responding to threats as they developed and making the best use of each character’s special abilities to halt outbreaks before they reached apocalyptic scale. Today it’s recognised as one of the analogue gaming industry’s most enduring best-sellers. Distributors say it ranks behind only hit titles Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride in sales charts. But at the time of its release, Leacock had no idea that it might rise to such heights of popularity.

“I think the initial print run was about 4,000 copies,” he said. “I was just hoping it would sell well enough to do another run. But the first printing sold really quickly with no real marketing behind it. It just became this kind of indie sleeper hit.”

Since its release, Pandemic has spawned a succession of expansions and spin-offs including dice game Pandemic: The Cure and designer Carey Greyson’s Pandemic: Contagion, which turns the game’s premise around to hand players control of diseases in an attempt to destroy the human race. But it was a collaboration with another innovative designer that would lead to the most ambitious interpretation of the game to date.


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Taking a Risk

Like Leacock, Rob Daviau grew up around games. “I lived in a board gaming household, which wasn’t unusual for the ‘70s,” he said. “My mom was a big fan, but we really only played the usual mass-market games. That all changed when I was 11 and I went to summer camp where I discovered comic books and Dungeons & Dragons.”

Like millions of kids of his generation, Daviau found himself powerfully drawn D&D, and years later he would find himself working for Hasbro, the parent company of the fantasy roleplaying game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast.

“I’d been working as an advertising copywriter, and they hired me to do the writing for a lot of mass-market titles like Taboo,” he said. “I was writing the text on cards and components for those games. But while I was at Hasbro I also picked up a brainstorming technique that’s about questioning your assumptions, and when you do you start to realise that some things are done a certain way because that’s just the way they’re done.

“I was working on Cluedo, and I wondered why a game resets every time you take it out of the box. What if you had a Cluedo game where you built up your list of suspects over time with repeated plays, where the killer might be more likely to be Colonel Mustard in your game, but it could be Reverend Green in mine?” Daviau’s idea didn’t go anywhere during his time working on Cluedo, but it resurfaced when he moved on to develop battle games as part of the Risk line.

“Risk was one of the most interesting games I could have worked on, because you’ve got the ability to really change the game,” he said. “If I was working on Monopoly I could maybe slip in a special rule here and there, but mostly it was just tweaking graphics and going to meetings. With Risk it felt much more like you could change the rules and make it its own game.

“I did a very passionate pitch to the president of Hasbro, Brian Goldner. I knew they were looking to get further into the hobby gaming market, so I said: ‘We’re going to go something very, very different. We’re going to carve out a new way of designing and playing games.’ 

“I wanted a game that you could wear in like a new leather jacket, where actions would have consequences and everyone’s experience of the game would be different.”

The idea was a radical one, particularly for a company better known for classic mainstream titles than innovative new designs. But Goldner was intrigued by Daviau’s proposal.

“To his credit,” Daviau recalled, “he said he didn’t understand everything I was doing, but that he wanted me to keep doing it. And he told everyone: ‘Don’t Hasbro-ise this.’ They left me alone and I ran off and did it.”

The result was Risk Legacy, a radical reimagining of the 1959 war game that played out not in a single session but over the course of an ongoing campaign. Where previous games had been designed to be static and unchanging, this new title evolved over time, with players writing on the board, revealing new components and even physically destroying cards when instructed to by the game. The concept turned many of the fundamental assumptions about board gaming on their heads, and Daviau was anxious as he waited for the first reactions from players.

“I thought it was going to be a horrible failure,” he said. “I was excited for it, but I thought a few hundred people would get into it and most people would just think it was dumb. “But I was on my honeymoon in Hawaii when the first reviews started to come in. I was at a poolside bar as the sun was going down, and people were getting everything I’d tried to do - actions, consequences, narrative surprises. I was really happy.”


Spreading the disease

Daviau hatched plans to develop new titles adopting the Legacy model, working on a design for a game based around seafaring exploration, but things took an unexpected turn at America’s biggest gaming convention, Gen Con, in 2013.

“I heard from the folks at [Pandemic publisher] Z-Man Games that Matt Leacock was interested in speaking to me,” he said. “I didn’t know Matt at the time, but I liked Pandemic, I’d played it maybe eight or 10 times, and I was hoping he might be interested in working on a Pandemic Legacy game.”

Leacock, it turned out, was intrigued by the concept. “I’d played Risk Legacy with my game group and I loved all the twists and turns and surprises,” he said. “One night I sat down and started sketching out ideas for a Legacy game, and after about an hour I knew that I had to do one. Z-Man got hold of Rob for me at Gen Con, and I sent him an email  asking if he’d like to work together on a game. He sent me back a one-word reply that just said: ‘YES.’”

The two set to work their new project. Collaborating online, they both contributed ideas, developing and tweaking as they went to the extent that neither can remember which elements of the game originated with which designer.

“It’s hard to say which ideas were whose,” said Leacock. “It was very collaborative. We were constantly building up ideas, brainstorming, complimenting some aspects of the design and challenging others. “Rob’s background is in writing, so he did a lot of the final writing in the game. I spent a lot of time developing the kit, thinking about the components, form factor and accessibility. We divided things up based on who had the mental bandwidth and who was better at what, but at its core the game is very much a joint project.”

Their design maintained many elements of the original Pandemic - a map of interconnected cities, four fast-spreading diseases and a team with specialised abilities attempting to gather enough research data to cure them. But as the design process went on, Daviau and Leacock added new elements that would unfold as players delved deeper into the game. Most important was the Legacy Deck - a collection of cards that dictated the pace of the campaign, adding new twists, threats and challenges. 

But while the events of the plot as dictated by the deck unfolded in a linear fashion, many elements of the campaign would be decided by the actions of the players themselves. Cities hit by repeated outbreaks would fall to rioting and anarchy. Research stations built in one game could be carried over into the next. Perhaps most notably, player characters became more fully fleshed-out than they had been in the original Pandemic. Players named each character, and they could gain experience and expertise over time, form relationships with their colleagues or suffer psychological scars from exposure to constant trauma.

“One thing we discovered from Risk Legacy was that if you name something, you form an attachment to it,” Daviau said. “It’s a powerful connection. The more you interact with a character, the more you bond with them and the more you want them to do well.” The design also incorporated the possibility of permanent character death - a blow made all the more devastating by the sense of ownership built up over multiple game sessions.

“We didn’t want it to be quite like A Game of Thrones, where there are so many deaths you end up becoming desensitised,” Daviau said. “But because you have that connection to the characters, you’re like: ‘Man, I can’t believe that guy died.’” 

Test subjects

With the game’s narrative framework in place, the designers set about the painstaking process of playtesting. They had groups of players recorded on video, watching each play-though back to identify elements of that game that did or didn’t work.

“It was a very iterative process,” said Leacock. “We’d design a few months of the year-long campaign, do our testing, get feedback and incorporate it into subsequent months.

“You get a lot from watching video. You see things like common play errors, what names people are giving to things, you even see facial expressions and emotional reactions.”

These emotional responses were just as important as the mechanical aspects of the game, he added. “The great thing about story in a game is that is provides highs and lows,” he said. “It draws people in, gets them excited, raises and dashes their hopes, leaves them terrified. As we were developing the game it became clear to us that it felt very episodic. It was like a TV series, with ups and downs playing out across the backbone of a longer narrative arc.”

That’s a point Daviau enthusiastically agrees with. “We wanted the game to be like a hit Netflix series,” he said. “There are lots of little cliffhangers, and the game sessions are short enough that when you get to the end, you want to play just one more. When the game changes at the end of a session, you want to keep playing and see how things turn out.

“But the other factor is that with a Legacy game, the designers have no idea how any particular group’s game will turn out. There are all sorts of problems you could face, whether it’s cities rioting, your characters getting badly scarred or just not being strong enough to deal with the threats you’re up against. You have tools to deal with all of those situations, but how you approach it is up to you, so while Matt and I designed 90% of the game, that final 10% is up to the players.”


The Next Chapter 

Pandemic Legacy has received a rapturous response from almost all quarters, but a small but vocal minority of gamers has been irked by the idea of a game that isn’t infinitely replayable. In a petty, philistine display of disapproval, some have taken it upon themselves to down-vote the title on internet gaming hub BoardGameGeek, temporarily preventing it from claiming the all-time number one spot long held by cold war simulation Twilight Struggle. Some have even gone so far as to post plot spoilers for the game on online forums.

“Some people don’t like the idea of marking things or destroying things or of choices in a game being permanent,” said Daviau. “I think some people see it as a marketing gimmick, but that permanence is what makes choices in the game meaningful. It’s not like a book or a CD that you can pass on to someone once you’re finished with it, it’s more like buying a ticket for a concert. You’re paying for an experience, and it’s going to end, but if you love it you can buy a ticket for the next night’s show.”

Daviau is already working on more Legacy titles. Seafall, to be released this year, revolves around maritime adventure and exploration, while the upcoming Chronicles series challenges players to lead a small prehistoric tribe through the ages of history to build a mighty empire. But with the gaming community still buzzing about Pandemic Legacy, players are already wondering whether a sequel might be on the cards. “We haven’t officially announced anything,” said Leacock. “But I don’t think it’s much of a secret that we’re working on it.” 


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This feature originally appeared in Issue 4 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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