Putting the Fun in Pandemic - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Putting the Fun in Pandemic

Putting the Fun in Pandemic

By Tom Gorman


Because board games are back, and the cooperative ones are picking up steam. 

By Tom Gorman

First Ebola, now measles: Sometimes it feels like we are living in a new era of infections — and powerless against them, even with modern medicine. Good thing we have diversions, right?

The board game Pandemic is not a diversion, it turns out, but it might make you feel a little less powerless. In Pandemic, gamers play roles on a disease rapid-response team, jetting everywhere from Lagos to Los Angeles, eradicating diseases and working together to gather cards that can yield a cure. It’s strange that a game made of cards and cubes can be so immersive. But what makes Pandemic especially compelling is that individuals can’t win it on their own. Rather, they win only by collaborating with their teams. It’s quite kumbaya.


And who knew that kumbaya could be such a hit among tabletop gamers? Certainly not Pandemic’s designer, Matt Leacock, 43, a former user-interface designer for firms like Yahoo and AOL. Leacock had tinkered with games since he was a kid — sometimes he would flip over the board and devise a new one, with new rules — and as an adult, game design became a hobby. He knew he wanted something different. “Confrontational” board games required players “to manipulate” people, and often left a sour feeling around the game table, he said. At the same time, though, Leacock worried that a collaborative board game would lack dramatic stakes. “Like you don’t go to a movie where there’s no ups and down [sic] — you have a flat experience and the story suffers as a result,” he said. 

Pandemic was his first mass-distributed game, and judging by the sales, it’s demonstrated that collaborative games can be compelling, and even addictive. The game sold out in its first printing, in 2007, and is now among the top five “hobby channel” board games in the country, according to ICv2. (The Settlers of Catan comes in first.) Its success enabled Leacock to quit his job last summer and design games full time. 

Meanwhile, the Pandemic wave rolls on, much like the diseases it emulates. The game is on its second (soon to be third) expansion, Pandemic: State of Emergency, coming in March, and gamers are eagerly waiting to get their hands on Pandemic: Legacy, a collaboration with famed game designer Rob Daviau. And let it be known that Leacock isn’t resting on his laurels: Legacy is itself a radical revision of the collaborative board game system, where actions taken in one game affect the rules and scenarios for future games. Entire cities could be abandoned forever, travel bans could be put in effect and new terrifying diseases could emerge. Perhaps a little too much like life imitating art?

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 6, 2015.

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