Designing Pandemic Legacy: An Interview Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau
Get an inside look at the process of designing the bestselling Pandemic Legacy series
During Gen Con 2020, Z-Man Games’ Justin Kemppainen interviewed Pandemic Legacy designers Matt Leacock and Rob Daviau about the process of designing the bestselling trilogy.
There are no spoilers in this conversation of any of the three Pandemic Legacy games. This interview has been adapted from the live conversation and edited for length and clarity. Check out the full video conversation here.
Justin: Why don’t we start with this—Matt and Rob, could you give a brief overview of the soon-to-be-released Pandemic Legacy: Season 0?
Rob: I would be happy to! Season 0 is the last part of the trilogy, and it’s a prequel. Season 1 starts in current times, which when we designed it was 2015. Season 2 starts about 70 years after that, and Season 0 is set in 1962.
Matt: It’s set right in the thick of the Cold War, and the players are medical students who have just graduated and been recruited by the CIA, so it’s quite a different setting. Instead of trying to cure diseases, you’re trying to complete objectives, which can take on all sorts of different forms.
Rob: We knew the series would be a trilogy, so in the middle of designing Season 2, we were like, “What do we do after this?” We’re already in a very bleak, dystopian future. We were like, “How do you do post-post-apocalyptic?” So we said, let’s go back and do a prequel. We knew right away we wanted it to be a Cold War thriller. There was a history—a real ugly history—of bioengineering and biowarfare that was happening on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. We wanted to do an alternate version of history where it takes a different turn than what happened in the real world.
Matt: Each one of these gets progressively harder because we don’t want to repeat ourselves. We went with the prequel idea, and then the question became, “How do we take this concept of Pandemic Legacy set in ’62 and make it interesting?” You play 12 months, just like the other games, where each game is a month long. One thing that’s different from the first two, because you’re working for this government institution, sometimes “good enough is just good enough.” When you play a month, you can succeed and complete all of your objectives, or you can fail and not complete them. Or there’s this “good enough” range where you’ve completed all but one of your objectives, and you still move onto the next month. It keeps the plot moving forward. But it’s a mix of objectives each month, so that helps us build variety into the experience.
Rob: Yeah, this game more than the other two is exploring some new areas. One is the idea that players get a different story from one group to the next—not a completely different story, but a slightly different picture. This is supposed to be a spy movie. We watched some spy movies, and I remember Matt read the history of the CIA.
Matt: There is some grim stuff there.
Rob: We wanted to paint a story that wasn’t good vs evil. We wanted a story where everything has shades of grey, and that goes all the way down to the win conditions. You can win, and you can lose, and you can sort of win and lose at the same time with “good enough.” You might have to decide which objective you’re not going to complete. In a very top-level, comic-book way, you’re exploring what it might be like to be a spy during the Cold War. You’re told to do things, and you do them—but who do you trust? Who do you not trust? I won’t get into it more than that, but we didn’t want it to be black and white.
Justin: So without spoiling anything, what else is new in it? What new mechanics or features?
Matt: One of the things I got really excited about was the covert teams. As a player, you’re just one agent, so you can’t run around the world and take care of all these problems on your own. So, when you meld your cards, instead of finding a cure, you assemble a covert team. They take the form of a little van that you can drive around the map, like an NPC that helps you accomplish your goals. They give you this great feeling of power, but they’re difficult to assemble, because you have to meld five cards. That’s our answer to “curing,” and it’s a brand-new mechanism that we brought into the game.
Rob: You leveled up! Congratulations, everyone, you now are management.
Matt: (Laughs) Right? Exactly.
Rob: Another new thing has to do with the characters. We really liked the idea of having aliases as a spy. Right at the beginning of January—not a spoiler, it’s all in the rulebook—you’ll get a passport, open it up, and get one alias. Let’s say you’re the Medic. You give yourself a cover name and use little stickers to give yourself a mustache, a hat, and a monocle. (The Z-Man team had a lot of fun drawing those.) Later on, if you get a different alias, you might become the Dispatcher, which means the Medic and the Dispatcher can’t be in the game at the same time, because you are both of them. You have to switch aliases, which gives you that feeling of espionage and a different way to think about which powers you can use.
Matt: You get to be a multifaceted character, in a sense, and the roles of course are all associated with cover identities. But we won’t explain those right now, because it’d spoil them.
Rob: Yeah, it’s hard to tease what’s coming in the rulebook. But you have teams, you have aliases. Another new thing is different kinds of cities. In the other Pandemic Legacy games, if you can see a city, then you can usually get to it. Every city is the same. We really wanted to get into the Cold War factional politics, so the cities themselves are divided into Allied cities, the Soviet block, and then what we call Neutral cities, which were sometimes allied with one or the other, or sometimes just wanted to be left alone and maybe weren’t. Each affiliation affects your covert teams and how easy it is for you to travel there. So it isn’t just a map of 48 cities, but three maps put together, which is a different puzzle to solve.
Matt: Speaking of puzzles! Some of the objectives have unknown target cities, meaning you need to capture or acquire a target in a specific city, but you don’t know where that target is. If you’ve played Clue, you know how this works. You’ve got a deck of cards, one of them is pulled out, so over the course of the game, you’re going to narrow it down as you draw cards and eliminate other options. There’s this escalation in tension as you’re playing, because you need to complete an objective in that hidden city and you can guess—at great risk—because you might be about to lose the game and you need to do a Hail Mary. Or you can spend the cards to figure things out and do things more safely, but it requires more time and energy. There are a lot of trade-offs in that. It’s a puzzle we put into the game because it fit thematically with the spy theme.
Justin: When did you start designing Season 0?
Matt: Was that November 2016?
Rob: Yeah, it was the day after the US election, or maybe two days after. At the beginning of 2016 we said, “Let’s do a Cold War spy thriller for the last one.” We finished Season 2, took a 5-month break, and then started what became Season 0 (we called it Season 3 at the time). We had gotten so far ahead of the release cycle that we didn’t have to do it at the same pace, and we finished it sometime between April and June 2019. It wasn’t like one day we just said, “Done!” We started working with Z-Man and Justin started editing some of our writing, and we started working on the story, tightening it up. We were doing it all ourselves, then we were working on it with Z-Man, and then they were doing the art and finishing it up. And that was sometime about 15 months ago.
Matt: I’m glad you have a head for that, Rob. It’s all a bit of a blur. We finished most of the major shots and then it went into post-production, and we were involved in that too.
Rob: And for a game like this, it’s in multiple languages, so there’s localization, and they try to make them all at the same time. And then we all started larping a Pandemic Legacy season and that caused slowdowns.
Justin: Well, here’s a juicy question. Have you been watching current events with Pandemic rules in mind? Matt, has this been like a barometer for your original concept?
Matt: I mean, it’s inescapable, going through this. My wife came down with COVID in February, so it became very personal and very strange right away. I follow the news really closely, but I also have always wanted the game to have a certain distance from both reality and specificity. I designed it back in 2003-2004 after seeing SARS hit, but in the game, I specifically didn’t name the diseases, for example. First, because it’s sort of evergreen to map them to anything you want, but also out of respect for people who have come down with these terrible diseases. I’ve always wanted the game to have a clinical feel, so you don’t feel like you have to wash your hands after you’re playing it. And while I’m certainly getting some ideas for mechanisms for future games, it’s not a preoccupation of mine, if that makes sense.
Rob: Yeah, I always wanted this to be fun fiction, right? And the fact that COVID really hit in January and we’d worked on games that start in January—
Matt: Oh, I didn’t make that connection.
Rob: Yeah! And then April turned out to feel like a high-water mark and usually that’s the big end of Act One in our games and I’m like, “Oh no, I don’t want to be a prophet!” We always wanted this to be like a summer blockbuster, what if? sort of thing and never have any grounding in reality.
Justin: That gets into an interesting discussion about the setting of Season 0. There are some concerns that it could be anti-Russian or promoting American nationalism. What are your thoughts on that?
Rob: I’ve seen some of that, and I do feel bad. That wasn’t our intent. I think when people play the game, they’ll see it isn’t actually how the game rolls out. Without getting into spoilers too much, the CIA recruits you, and basically tells you to go do this or that, and you’re the protagonists. But we don’t know if the CIA are the good guys or the bad guys. That’s up to you to decide.
We had more nuanced stuff in there at some point. We talked about it almost being like James Bond, with a made-up specter organization. We had GRU vs KGB, factionalized stuff in there, but it always proved to be too complex for the story we were trying to tell. People got very confused with the subtlety there, so we ended up paring it back down to be a little bit more trope-y. What we were trying to do was something that was not the real world, but based on it from two generations ago, and say, “What if we go in a different direction?” Matt and I never talked about this as jingoism or propaganda or recruiting people into the CIA. The reason we picked the CIA was because the first two seasons start with the CDC in Atlanta, and so it made sense to us that the story starts and takes place around a US-based headquarters.
Matt: Yeah, it is oversimplified, and as content creators we have this lens we look at the world through, but we weren’t coming at it with that motivation at all. Really, it was that we wanted to put players in the shoes of brand-new CIA recruits. Their objectives are aligned initially, but then you need to figure out as players what the right thing to do is. We don’t tell you what’s right or wrong. But those concerns are valid, even though that wasn’t the intent, and I don’t think the game shows that as you play it. If you played the other seasons, you realize that there’s plenty of nuance and lots of shades of grey. It was actually one of our design goals for players to really be torn about the right thing to do as you’re playing. It’s not black and white.
Rob: What Z-Man has done a good job of marketing is at the start of the Prologue, you’re chipper, young, eager recruits. You just signed up for something and you’re going to save the world somehow. It is very simple. What we do in the game, without spoiling it, is start to question the simplicity of that worldview. What you’re seeing now in some of the marketing is very much supposed to be where you start the journey.
Matt: Right. As new recruits, you have no problem saying, “We have to address this biological threat,” right? At the beginning, it does feel much simpler and it gets more complex from there.
Rob: Yes. And again, that was not our intent. Matt and I have talked about it, and we do feel bad that that’s the intention that’s coming across. It very much was a work of fiction. I think I saw someone asking, “Do we address World War events? Do we try to map January and Febuary of 1962 to what was going on in the real world?” Very very lightly. It is not like a history lesson of that year—
Matt: Oh, God no.
Rob: It’s just a backdrop to tell our story.
Justin: What is it like to design something like Pandemic Legacy? Or a Legacy game in general?
Rob: I’ve done a few of ‘em! They are just a long project. It’s like designing a game and all of its expansions at the same time, and then coming up with a narrative that allows you to open the expansions in either a linear or a non-linear order, just depending on the Legacy game. And then figuring out how to put that in a box and hide it in such a way that it doesn’t cost $250. So it takes the equivalent of… what did we say, Matt? Doing three or four games at once?
Matt: Yeah, that’s about right.
Rob: You’re constantly trying to think of “how does a game play,” but also, “how does the series of games play?” Matt and I often block it out like we’re doing twelve episodes of a TV season.
Matt: Yeah, there’s all the logic of trying to figure out the story branching and how narrative intersects with games. What I find really exciting is figuring out the emotional journey that we want to take players on, and how to bury things from time to time so that you get a nice variety and upswings and downswings, both through each episode and across the whole season.
Justin: Would you say there’s any particular tips or tricks or best practices to approaching this type of design?
Matt: It’s really iterative. You have to nail the first game and have that really solid before you go anywhere with it. Rob and I will put together a first game, put it out to playtesters, and then when we’ve got that solid, we may block out three games. Then we’ll get that back, and maybe then we’ll do five. Every time you do it, you’re bouncing back to the beginning. Those first games get really polished, which is wonderful, because players get a nice ramp in. The method we’ve been using of remote playtesting with video has helped a lot. It’s difficult to sit with people—especially now, right?—and watch them play a game for 36 hours. At a certain point it’s like you’re moving in with someone. (Laughs) So if you can have them record the playtest on video, it makes it much simpler.
Rob: My problem is if I’m in a room with playtesters, I cannot help but go, “No, you’re doing it wrong!” because I want them to have a good time. The only way I cannot get involved is to say, “Just record it,” and when I see things going really horribly in a playtest, which 98% of the time is Matt’s and my fault, I sometimes have to pause it and walk away. Because I’m thinking, “These people are about to have a very bad game and it’s all my fault.” But it’s from two weeks ago and I can’t do anything about it.
Matt: Right, right.
Rob: Thank you once again to our playtesters for finding all these things so that other people don’t.
Justin: The players are asking, what other things do you have in the pipeline for us?
Justin: Answer carefully, Matt.
Matt: I have a lot of stuff on my whiteboard. I’m not sure I can talk about any of it.
Justin: You’re darn right you can’t!
Matt: I can say, I’ve got the Era series which is a roll and build series, where you roll dice and build things with Lego-like components on pegboards. The expansion for that is coming out late summer or fall, I think? Keep an eye out for that.
Rob: I’m doing a lot of time as Restoration Games’ Chief Restoration Officer, so we did our Return to the Dark Tower Kickstarter. We’re working on Unmatched, a line of anyone fights anyone. It’s going pretty well. We did a Blueprints talk that you can find on YouTube that talks about some of the things that we have coming in the next year. I just did a Detective expansion. I probably have other things coming that I can’t remember right now.
Justin: Thank you, Matt and Rob, for taking the time to talk to us. Thank you, everybody, for tuning in. Stay safe out there and have a good night!
Watch the full video interview here.
Learn more and preorder Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 here.