Pandemic, the game, has become all too real, says its creator

The Pandemic board game was created by Matt Leacock, published by Z-Man Games. Players work together to stop the spread of an infectious disease around the globe. Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

Pandemic is not Chutes and Ladders.

Pandemic is not Candy Land. Or even Risk. The goal, the finish line, is easy to grasp — stop an infectious disease from spreading across continents and killing millions — but hard to reach. And the stakes couldn’t be starker: Everybody wins or everybody loses.

Still, it is just a game.

Albeit, a very popular one. Pandemic, the best-selling board game — currently just behind Monopoly and Clue on Amazon’s board-game sales chart — has sold more than 2 million copies since first published in 2008, becoming a major franchise with a half-dozen Pandemic spin-offs. Players begin in Atlanta at the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then travel across the globe, taking actions to slow disease transmission and save lives. You don’t move plastic pawns or metal thimbles across a board; you deploy field tents and maps on a board, performing various roles — medic, researcher, quarantine specialist.

Any win, though, is strictly zero-sum.

Instead of traditional competition and a single champion, players work together, looking for a cure to halt the spread of a virus. Which has made Pandemic something of a staple in classrooms (and medical schools) eager to foster cooperation among students.

“The way that earlier generations grew up with board games like Monopoly in their closets, Pandemic is becoming that for younger generations,” said J.P. Nery, owner of Chicagoland Games Dice Dojo in Edgewater. “It’s a modern classic. Really, it’s the grandfather of cooperative gaming. Pandemic was not the first game to introduce the idea — you don’t roll the dice then come to a winner — but it did bring the concept of cooperative board games into the mainstream. Now you see these games in Walmart.”

Indeed, the history of board games is not necessarily based in competition.

Battleship is likely a variation of a pencil and pad exercise from World War I; Monopoly started as a way for an Illinois activist named Elizabeth Magie to explain the value of a single-tax system that would be focused on land ownership; Life has its roots in 19th century New England morality lessons; and the buzzy Operation, created in the 1960s, began as a student project in the industrial design department at University of Illinois.

Pandemic is no exception.

It was created by Matt Leacock, a former Chicago graphic designer who grew up partly in Wheaton, Ill., and studied visual communication at Northern Illinois University. He’s unsure of the exact inspiration for Pandemic but notes he developed it between the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009, with warnings about the spread of infectious diseases in the 21st century on his mind. Now 48, he lives with his family in Silicon Valley, and like everyone else, he’s intently following coronavirus news and contemplating the endgame. We spoke the other day about the legacy of his scarily prescient creation. The following has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.

Q:Have you ever heard from the CDC about Pandemic?

A: I was told the game was sold in their gift shop.

Q: The CDC has a gift shop?

A: News to me, too. (The shop closed in 2012.) They are also using it in an exhibition on cultural reactions to the spread of infectious diseases (opening in late May). And there’s been some contact from epidemiologists who worked in West Africa and loved the game. But mostly I hear this stuff just anecdotally. The University of Leicester’s medical school in the U.K. used it for a couple of years to teach communication cooperation and found some good results with it. I was contacted just today by a high school in San Francisco looking to buy copies of Pandemic in bulk, to teach concepts about the spread of infectious disease. It’s not a simulation but it’s great for introducing concepts, which is really what games have always been good at.

Q: Was that your goal?

A: No, I didn’t set out to teach anything. I wanted something that made your heart beat and got people working together. It was a design problem to me — could you create an artificial opponent out of cardboard and paper that engaged kids and adults sitting for an hour around a table? It’s a daunting challenge but I found how to do it by experimenting.

Q: Did developing it give you a window into how we handle actual pandemics?

A: I don’t know. I’m certainly more attuned now to the spread of disease. I’ve had to read a lot of books about it just to work on the products based around Pandemic. I guess I’m not surprised now when something like coronavirus happens? I certainly see how the real world works and think of how those actions might work their way into future versions of the game. The earliest versions didn’t have quarantines. It was one thing too many. We later introduced it. You can kind of see the advantages and disadvantages of real-world quarantines, but we can’t necessarily capture everything in a game. We have three different expansions and it’s hard to add more to the base game without making it too complicated. Early on I was just comforted to realize my modeling of the issue wasn’t far from the real world — I didn’t want to teach something dramatically inaccurate.

Q: Did you interview medical professionals?

A: No, just casual research. I was sort of an indie game designer, doing this game as a hobby on the side. There was no pressure to have a well-researched product. The pressure was, will I ever get a game published? I didn’t even name the diseases in the game because I didn’t want it too clinical — which, actually now, makes it kind of topical.

Q: Cooperative games — and I guess Dungeons & Dragons is an example — have been around a long time in different forms, but the reputation was that, compared to something like Clue, they were hard to learn, byzantine. And yet Pandemic has the reputation for making exactly that kind of game mainstream. Why this game?

A: I chalk it up to timing. But also, the rules aren’t as complicated (as similar cooperative games), and a player’s emotions are manipulated. You’re also playing a reasonable time. You do need a clock. People don’t have patience beyond 60 minutes.

Q: What’s Pandemic’s origin?

A: Well, I had learned I enjoyed playing cooperative games with my family more than playing games based around negotiation. I had played a negotiation game with my wife one night and I won but it became a horrible experience where it crossed over into the real world. It was this game called Chinatown. You’re basically manipulating people, all within the circle of the game. But that can kind of bleed out and you feel like you’ve lost.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make when they play Pandemic?

A: They focus on short-term objectives. They run around the world and try to put out local fires without thinking about a long-term goal, which is the only way they can win.

Q: Do players generally win?

A: Depends who comes to the table. If they have experience making critical decisions and communicating, they have a higher chance. There are difficulty levels but someone new might get beat up. If it’s a close loss, I tend to be happy. Especially if players blame themselves and know what they’d do differently. But real life is infinitely more complex.

Q: Does Pandemic sell better when there is actual pandemic?

A: My suspicion is that it does better because people are trying to understand. There is some aversion — nobody wants to feel that they trivializing human suffering. And I get quarterly statements so I have no idea how it’s doing right now. But I would guess, just from the references I have seen to it on social media lately, it is being played right now.

Q: We play board games when we don’t want to leave the house.

A: You know, I follow some retailers in Hong Kong, and they have been encouraging folks to grab a game and play at home — I suppose if you’re going to be staying home anyway. ...

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