Table-Top Pandemic – An Interview With the Creator of the “Pandemic” Board Game

Finally take action against a Pandemic by playing this award-winning game. I had a chance to ask the game designer/creator some questions this month.

1. How would you summarize the Pandemic game for someone who hasn’t played it before?

In Pandemic, players work together as a team to contain four deadly diseases that have broken out across the globe. Players travel around the world, trying to keep the spread of infection in check long enough to discover the four cures needed to win the game. Players each have a special role (including Medic, Researcher, Scientist, Operations Expert, and Dispatcher) granting special abilities to contribute to the team. If the players cooperate, play to their strengths, and manage their time well, they can hope to rescue humanity. If not, the world will be overrun by disease and the players will all lose the game.

2. What triggered the idea to come up with the Pandemic game?

I was interested to see if I could design a cooperative game where the players would have to fight against the game instead of each other. Diseases seemed like an ideal candidate for a frightening and seemingly sentient opponent for the players to battle. I came up with the seeds of the idea while out on a walk with my daughter. When I returned home, I cobbled together a rough prototype with a few sharpies and a standard deck of cards. In the earliest versions, players could use cards to travel around the world or could collect and meld cards to discover cures. Through experimentation, I discovered the rules for creating hotspots on the map and was hooked: I knew I had the seeds of a good game.

3. Did you study any real Pandemic plans to get any ideas?

I didn’t. In previous games I’ve done research to inform the game play and thematic elements. For Pandemic, I primarily concentrated on what was fun and what felt right. I then played it with hundreds of players who helped contribute ideas which helped me shape the game to fit common mental models of how diseases and players in a game like this should operate. This was more important to me than having a technically correct simulation that didn’t inspire play.

My primary goals were to create a game that was easy to learn, approachable by non-gamers, that fostered cooperation and discussion amongst the players-something lacking from a lot of games today. I did try to include educational aspects where I could: the cities in the game all come with population statistics and the flags of their countries, for example. I was delighted to hear afterwards that friends of friends at the CDC loved the game and that they started to offer it in the CDC gift shop. Although clearly it’s not a cut-and-dry simulation, it works well enough for these folks.

4. What was your reasoning behind making it a co-operative game?

Since I’m an independent game designer, I can design the games that I find the most interesting and select the target audiences myself. In this case, my muse was my wife Donna. I set out to design a game that I could play with her and our friends where I wouldn’t feel the need to apologize when explaining it (due to its complexity) and one in which we’d all feel good about after playing, win-or-lose. Cooperative games are great in that regard: if the team wins, there’s high-fives all around but if the team loses, they can always play again. No egos are on the line and if a player is having trouble with the rules or with a strategy, the others can help him or her out since it’s part of the game.

The feedback on the game in this regard has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people have reported having really positive bonding experiences playing with their spouse, family, and friends.

5. Do you find that sales or general game awareness is increasing because of the H1N1 virus outbreak?

Yes, I saw a definite bump in discussions about the game online after all the press over H1N1 and I have to imagine that sales increased as a result.

6. What kind of response has your game had within the Business Continuity/Pandemic Planning community?

I’ve been encouraged by reports from friends and read session reports online about people in the Pandemic Planning community enjoying the game. In fact, I based the artwork for a new card (the “Epidemiologist”) on a photo of a CDC employee who is a particular fan. The card will be in the game’s expansion, “Pandemic: On the Brink” that will be out in August of 2009.

Matt Leacock is a user experience designer and game designer. His first widely published game, Pandemic, won Games Magazine’s Family Game of the Year in 2008 and was nominated for Germany’s Game of the Year. He’s also designing a line of dice games under the name Roll Through the Ages. When not designing games, Matt heads User Experience at Sococo (sococo.net). Prior to that he was an interaction designer at Yahoo!, AOL, Netscape, and Apple.

Video Game Industry Lessons For Product Managers

So I can only speak for myself, but back in the day I used to be quite good at video games – you know, the big stand alone game units that you could only find in arcades. Since then, I’ve tried to keep up with the home game consoles, but I must confess to having lost my skills.

These days I have to confine myself to an occasional run at Half-Life just to reassure myself that I still have it. Which brings up an interesting point, wouldn’t be be great to be a product manger at a video game company?

The Video Game Industry

If you are the type of person who is easily impressed by big numbers, then try this one out for size. The video game Grand Theft Auto IV brought in over $300M in a single day when it was released. That was double what the most recent Batman movie brought in the day that it opened.

The industry and its product managers do have their challenges – things are getting tougher. The cost and complexity of developing games are rising with every new release. Oh, and you can imagine just how fickle video game customers are – one bad release and your product line could be done for.

What Does It Take To Have A Successful Video Game Product?

Success in the video game industry depends on a combination of solid risk management and savvy research and development. This part of the business will never change. However, the way that video games are sold and how they are being distributed is undergoing a fundamental change that is affecting all product managers.

One new model for video game manufacturers involves subscription online offerings. In this product offering, users can download the game code for free and then they pay a monthly charge to be allowed to connect to servers that generate the game playing environment where all subscribers can play at the same time.

One of the largest video game manufactures, Activision Blizzard, already generates more than $1B in revenue and more than $500M in profit from its World of Warcraft subscription business. Clearly this is the wave of the future.

Another new focus is what gaming experts are calling the “casual” market. This is how video game product managers are trying to expand their potential customer base – they are trying to create products that appeal to game players who don’t have a lot of time to learn complicated rules. One of the better examples of a popular casual game is Guitar Hero.

Another key decision that video game product managers need to make is to pick which game console they will develop games for. For example. games made for the Nintendo DS can be developed more cheaply than those for consoles, manufactures can experiment far more cheaply in ways that they can’t do for the PlayStation or the Wii.

The Future Of Video Game Products

The video game business is a rough business to be a product manger in. Publishers need to sell about one million copies of a game on the PS3 or Xbox 360 just to break even. This constant pressure to be successful is generating creative new ideas for product managers.

One new idea that has only just reciently started to show up in video games is the idea of in-game advertising. Sponsered ads can show up on billboards, on character’s clothing, or even as shopfronts in the environment. Because so many of these games are online, ads can be changed over time – nothing is fixed.

An additional way to make money that is just starting to be implemented is that the game is free for gamers to play, but they must pay for extra items such as new gear for their players. With certain market sectors, e.g. teen girls, this can produce rich rewards.

Final Thoughts

Every product manager yearns for the opportunity to be responsible for a product that is truly popular and video games sure seem to fit that description. However, the video game industry is a rough and tumble battlefield that punishes products that fall behind and insists on constant innovation.

Even if you are not working in the video game industry, you can still learn from what they are doing. Moving as much of your product support and update process online to reduce costs and boost customer interaction is one innovation that we can all explore doing.

If product mangers can find ways to work innovations from the video game into how they are managing their products, then they will have have found yet another way that great product managers make their product(s) fantastically successful.

7-Game Mix Tournament Strategy

Full Tilt has recently released its newest version of mixed poker, 7 game poker – only available on the Full Tilt site. Now, the big question is – will there be 7 game poker tournaments on Full Tilt? Short answer – yes, of course! Full Tilt is no doubt (at this moment) working on the software components to make the 7 game poker tournament a reality. For those who haven’t had a chance to play 7 game poker on Full Tilt – this is a mixed version poker game that consists of seven of your favorite poker games in one exciting lineup. 7 game is also called HORESHA – which stands for the games that make up this wildly popular new version – holdem, seven card stud hi/lo, razz, Omaha hi/lo, seven card stud, Texas holdem no limit and Omaha pot limit. Watch for Full Limit to put these tournaments live anytime; with the buzz about 7 game poker reaching a peak level in recent days – they are likely scrambling to make everything come together in order to give poker fans what they want – tournament action!

Skills Required

To be proficient in a tournament style 7 game poker matchup, you’ll need to throw everything you know about all of the games in the mix together – and consider the individual concepts of the individual games to hone your skills. Being “good” at one game or the other is certainly important, but it is hard to become a master of all of the games that make up a mixed poker game. While it is optimal that you are able to play with some level of proficiency during all of the games, be prepared to be “outdone” in some of the rotations. For this reason, it is best if you can be fairly good at four of the seven games in 7 game poker – if not, you may likely win one game only to turn around and lose those winnings in the next rotation.

Practicing for 7 Game Poker

Because Full Tilt and many of the other online poker sites offer free play as well as cash games, you should get in as much practice time as you can for each of the individual games in the mix in order to hone your skills to the level that you can overcome your opponents in a majority of the games. Pay particular attention to the weaknesses and strengths that you possess as a poker player – and use that to your advantage in your 7 game poker strategy. Practicing before a big 7 game tournament will make the difference between a fat bankroll and a meager one.

Taking Advantage Your Opponent’s Weaknesses in 7 Game Poker

Just as you learn your own weaknesses and strengths, you should also do your best to detect the inadequacies that your opponents will exhibit during 7 game poker. Play off of these weaknesses as much as possible. Just remember – you are no pro player at all seven games in the mix – and neither is anyone else at the table – more than likely. Detecting inadequacies may be as easy as watching for timid play or players who are holding back or checking but not betting for most of the games in a particular rotation. This probably means that they are not very good at that particular game.