“Do you have what it takes to save humanity?”
That may sound like clickbait for an article about the COVID-19 virus scare, but actually it’s a question posed in the rules for the Pandemic board game created by Matt Leacock in 2007. (Yes, you read that right: the Pandemic board game.) The rules go on to say that “you and your fellow players are members of a disease control team. You must work together to develop cures and prevent disease outbreaks, before four deadly diseases . . . contaminate humanity. Pandemic is a cooperative game. The players all win or lose together.”
In a recently published Chicago Tribune Q&A, game developer (and former Chicagoan) Leacock discussed the development of Pandemic. He doesn’t recall an “Aha!” moment of inspiration, but he started working on this game after the SARS epidemic in 2003. Still, he said:
“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. . . . 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.”
I think it’s especially interesting that Leacock’s passion for inventing board games started in childhood (much like many inventors we have interviewed at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center). He told the Chicago Tribune:
“It was this physical need for me as a kid. Most of the games I designed were terrible, but as a teenager, my uncle and I would design games when we were not satisfied. When we hated a game, we would flip over the board and try to draw something better on the back. I think of games as problem-solving opportunities you opt into, but you should need to make interesting decisions while playing. If you’re not making decisions, I think of that game as more of an activity.”
Published by Z-Man Games, Pandemic was named Best Board Game in 2009 by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design. Leacock earned the designer credit for the original game, with his name on the box, but other artists involved included Josh Cappel, Christian Hanisch, Régis Moulun, Chris Quilliams, and Tom Thiel.
The critical and popular success of this board game led to multiple spinoffs developed by Leacock, Rob Daviau, Tom Lehmann, and others, including but not limited to Pandemic: Iberia set in the mid-nineteenth century; Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu for a mythological take on the idea; and a dice-based version, Pandemic: The Cure, with an expansion module, The Cure: Experimental Meds. If only the latter could inspire someone to invent a real-life vaccine for COVID-19!
The Washington Post was onto this topic of disaster games even before COVID-19 became a major worry in the United States, publishing an article on 16 February 2020 titled, “Virus Games Are Going Viral as the Coronavirus Spreads.” Obviously, I wasn’t the only one to think of these kinds of games while watching the news unfold globally. They came to mind because I had been introduced to the Pandemic game years ago by Matt, a scientist friend, who loves board games generally, but seems intrigued especially by medical and natural disaster-related ones. Of course now he and surely many other scientists as well as board game aficionados are horrified to see aspects of these Pandemic games playing out today.
Besides Pandemic, other relatively recent medical-related disaster games include:
- Healthy Heart Hospital, designed by Scott Nelson and Anna-Marie Nelson, where players’ noble impulses to save a hospital’s reputation could turn into a nightmare if mismanagement leads to patient deaths; and
- Infection: Humanity’s Last Gasp, designed by John Gibson, where Patient Zero goes into isolation but not before the mutating “Morbusian virus” leads to rising casualties while a group of scientists are desperately trying to develop a vaccine.
Also on the evil side . . .
- Plague, Inc., designed by James Vaughan, in which “each player is a deadly disease and they must battle against each other to spread their plagues, develop new symptoms and ultimately wipe out humanity.”
Learning about these games triggered a childhood memory of the Mount St. Helens Volcano Game that my aunt, who lived in Washington State, sent to my sister and me shortly after that natural disaster in May 1980. Despite the real life death and destruction, I remember having fun playing the game as I raced along the board trying to avoid mud, lava flows, and ash plumes to reach the crater. That particular board game seems to have been around only briefly and then disappeared.
Thanks to poking around on the BoardGameGeek.com website, I’ve found many other natural and man-made disaster-related board games, including but certainly not limited to:
- CO2, where each player is a CEO of an energy company trying to limit pollution, meet rising demand for energy, and still make a profit;
- Forbidden Island, another game designed by Leacock, in which players have to work together to save their island from sinking while collecting treasures and making difficult sacrifices;
- Tonari, nominated for the 2020 Board Game award from the Academy of Adventure Gaming and the Arts, in which a small, presumably Japanese fishing village is hit by a storm and players have to compete for fish using the only remaining boat;
- Pompeii-related board games, including The Downfall of Pompeii, Pompeii: The Last Days, and my favorite title, Pompeii: Wrath of Vesuvius; and
- A slew of firefighting games on themes ranging from the historic (The Great Fire of London 1666) to the contemporary (Hotshots).
According to my friend Matt, there are also many games with post-apocalyptic themes. I wouldn’t dare go there right now!
What board game would YOU like to invent during these difficult times? If you have ideas, we would love to hear them—use the Facebook comment tool or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read more:
- Borelli, Christopher. “Q&A with the Chicago Creator of Pandemic, the Board Game that Has Become All Too Real.” Chicago Tribune, 5 March 2020, https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-pandemic-board-game-20200305-ujujmxok3zeqnlkrn3c7mp75r4-story.html.
- Elderkin, Beth. “Five ‘Fun’ Board Games about Real Disasters to Remind You We’re Completely Doomed.” Gizmodo, 26 May 2017, https://io9.gizmodo.com/five-fun-board-games-about-real-disasters-to-remind-y-1795586939.
- Meehan, Alex. “’It’s Difficult to Keep Things Fresh’: Pandemic Creator Matt Leacock on Legacy, Co-ops and Lego.” Dicebreaker, 17 February 2020, https://www.dicebreaker.com/categories/board-game/interview/pandemic-creator-matt-leacock.
- Newbury, Elizabeth. “Exploring the Complexity of Pandemics through Play.” Ctrl Forward blog, Wilson Center, 17 March 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/exploring-complexity-pandemics-through-play.
- Noack, Rick, and Stefano Pitrelli. “Virus Games are Going Viral as the Coronavirus Spreads.” The Washington Post, 16 February 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/02/16/virus-games-are-going-viral-coronavirus-spreads/
- Peters, Adele. “These Board Games Play Out How Climate Change Will Reshape Our Cities.” Fast Company, 21 March 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90323110/these-board-games-play-out-how-climate-change-will-reshape-our-cities.· VanDerVerff, Emily Todd. “Pandemic is One of the Best Board Games Ever Made. It Could be Fun to Play Right Now!” Vox, 12 March 2020, https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/3/12/21175738/pandemic-board-game-coronavirus