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The game of real life: Matt Leacock discusses his 2008 board game Pandemic, its inspiration, sheltering in place

For those wondering whether the police are pulling over civilians during the novel coronavirus, the answer is yes. While I chatted with Matt Leacock, a highway patrolman stopped the creator of the popular board game Pandemic for using his cellphone while driving.

No ticket was issued.

For the uninitiated, the goal for those who play Pandemic is to stop an infectious disease from spreading across continents, killing thousands. Sound familiar?

Pandemic is just a board game, and the prolific Leacock, 49, who also is the mastermind behind games such as Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, brought the contest with the deadly concept to life.

While calling from Sun Valley, California, Leacock revealed that Pandemic was rejected by several companies, what inspired the 2008 game and what board games he and his family are playing when he’s compliant with California’s shelter-in-place ruling.

What are you doing driving around when your governor issued stay-at-home orders?

It was the only time I was out this week. I was dropping off a prototype (of a potential future game), and I was stopped for talking on the phone with you. It was like, “I’m so busted!”

You could have told him that you’re the creator of Pandemic, not the pandemic but Pandemic the board game. Use your clout.

It all worked out. He let me go.

Did you ever envision a pandemic like Bill Gates did during his pandemic TED talk?

I’m aware of stories about it. I’m not in complete shock that this is happening. However, I’m taken aback by the severity and speed of it.

Most board games are competitive, not cooperative. What inspired you to make a team game?

Years ago, I played a (competitive) game with my wife, and it didn’t go over well. Some of the emotions bled out into the real world. Then we played our first cooperative game, which was “The Lord of the Rings,” and it was a lot of fun. I wanted to see if I could design a game.

What inspired the game?

In 2004, there was an outbreak of SARS. I came up with a crude model and a hook for the game that would become Pandemic.

But it must have been difficult pitching the pandemic concept. How many people said to you, “A pandemic game? Yeah, right!”

The game was rejected by a couple of publishers. I remember being told that the name, Pandemic, wouldn’t work. I changed it to Global Outbreak, which didn’t fit.

How did Pandemic get the green light?

It was at Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends (an annual gaming event organized by Moon, a board game designer) in 2007. People there were really excited about it, and one thing led to another.

Did you conduct extensive research and perhaps talk to infectious disease doctors when putting Pandemic together?

No. I didn’t do a whole lot of research. The cool thing about the game is that we’re the stars. We get to be the scientists. What I like most about the game is that it brings people together. It’s a game that’s about science, not violence.

You should use that line to market the game, but you don’t need to market the game since only toilet paper is in greater demand than Pandemic at Target. Do you have any idea what the sales figures are since we’re in quarantine?

I don’t have any idea, but I do know that it is selling.

What’s the biggest mistake people make when playing Pandemic?

They look at the short term. When you play the game, focus on the big picture.

Were you coming up with gaming concepts as a kid?

Yes. I couldn’t help but think about how to make games better.

Your game standards were obviously high as a kid. What was it like for you receiving and playing a game as a kid?

The high point was getting a board game, and the low point was being disappointed after I played it.

Since you’re stuck at home like the rest of us, what board games are you and your family playing?

Decrypto and Just One.

How many board games do you own?

Not many. Around 200.

That sounds like an insane amount of board games. I take it you have friends with more.

I know people who have a game collection that ranges from 500 to 15,000.

Have you heard from the CDC about Pandemic?

Not during this (the coronavirus outbreak). I heard from them about six months ago. They spoke to me about putting the game in an exhibit.

What’s most surprising is that when I called your phone number from your website, you picked up.

Nobody calls anyone anymore.

Has anyone called you aside from me?

Rarely, but yes. I had someone call me to go over rules clarifications.

And you explained the Pandemic rules to them?

Yes. I’m fine with that. I’m incredibly fortunate. I have my dream job. Even with the coronavirus, my life isn’t that different since I work from home. Everything is fine.