Q&A with Matt Leacock

This is an archive of the live Q&A with Matt Leacock hosted on the Tabletop Mentorship Program Discord channel after the release of Matt's talk, "Designing From The Inside Out." It has been edited for clarity.

Mike Belsole: Hi, Matt! Thanks for doing this Q&A! To get the ball rolling, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Matt Leacock: Sure! I'm Matt Leacock, a game designer working out of Sunnyvale, California. I'm best known for the cooperative games Pandemic, Pandemic Legacy, and Forbidden Island. I've been designing games full time since July 2014. Prior to that I was a user experience designer working in high tech. Thanks for having me!

Fernando Cunha: Super insightful talk, Matt! Thank you! Glad that I had the chance to watch it. Remote recorded tests are surely an amazing tool. Do you have any tips for us – non-famous designers – on how to encourage people to participate in something like this? Sometimes it’s already too hard to get people together for an online playtest with me explaining the rules... I’m not really confident in asking people for a recorded session. Should I just try it and see if someone is interested? Is there some kind of monetary compensation (or game copies) usually involved?

Matt Leacock: I’ve found it a bit easier to motivate people to play games in a physical format rather than online (in Tabletopia) since it’s many people’s native environment. They can play the games when it best suits them too – there’s less calendar juggling. I’m generally looking for folks that are self-motivated to try something new. In general, I’d look for people who are open to new experiences.

I generally only offer a game if the playtesters have sat in on multiple sessions and don't offer financial compensation.

Fernando Cunha: That makes sense, thanks! Many hobbyists are way more inclined to play games only in the physical format. I'll aim to that crowd!

Raven McKenzie: Hi Matt. Thanks for being here today and giving a great talk! I’ve added Emotions Revealed to my reading list, but I’m wondering if you have any other tips, tools, or suggestions for designers who started with setting and mechanics and want to change or add in the emotional hook to their game?

Matt Leacock: If you’re starting with settings and mechanisms, that’s fine. You’ll just have to be attuned to the emotions your game is already generating. Do a reality check: are they what you’re hoping to generate? If you’re already generating some engagement, can it be amplified by changing the game’s dynamics? But also look for any emotions that you hope to avoid such as frustration. Look to see how you can prune it out of your system. In general: evaluate what you have as a starting point and work out from there.

Sarah: I expect one question to be what you changed in the pandemic, but I'm more curious as to whether you learned anything new during the pandemic that you're going to take into future testing?

Matt Leacock: It’s obviously been harder for me to get together in person with other folks, so those early phases of game design have been different for some of my games. I’m working on a climate-related game for example, and have only been able to meet in person with family to test it. The rest has been on Tabletopia and it’s been more difficult to pick up on emotional cues and to get a good feeling for how cooperation will really play out across a tabletop. But the format has made it easier to iterate more rapidly, so there are other advantages.

Riley: If you could go back to the early days, what advice would you give that you think would of been most helpful?

Matt Leacock: Regarding early days, I’d grab the prototypes from my old self and occasionally toss them in the fire. They became too precious to me too early in many cases.

Riley: Good lesson. Don’t get too attached early on.

Brian Venne: What percentage of ideas do you make prototypes for, and from those how many do you ultimately pitch to publishers?

Matt Leacock: I don’t have a huge backlog of ideas. But I do keep a list of opportunities. I generally don’t make prototypes for them unless I really feel the itch and/or have a publisher asking for something particular. Once those hit the prototype stage, they usually either look promising and I pitch them or they hit the dustbin early. I try not to sink a lot of time into prototypes that don’t seem promising fairly early. I’d say, oh, maybe… 20%? of those that get worked into fully playable games don’t go further. But that’s a pretty squishy number.

Guy Segal: Hi Matt! I'm glad to see us UX designers can make it in this industry. When playtesting, do you ever take into consideration the playtesters experience and preference with other games? For example, someone's distaste for auction mechanisms may skew their enjoyment and feedback.

Matt Leacock: Yes, that’s true, player preferences can play a part. I generally don’t ask for this type of information upfront. Players do sometimes self-report that they are or are not fans of cooperative games when playing (for example). But I generally don’t screen for this sort of thing.

Jason Brisson: Hi Matt. What are your thoughts on the relationship between limited communication mechanisms and cooperative games? Relatedly, certain mechanisms tend to tamp down the "Quarterbacking" or  "Alpha" player issue in co-op games. Do you feel designers have a responsibility to factor this in while designing for Co-op? Thanks!

Matt Leacock: I’m a big fan of fully cooperative games. I just love to chase the high of collaborative problem solving. The cost of that is yeah, sometimes one player can dominate. You can use lots of different mechanisms to combat this (limit communication, time pressure, different incentives or goals, hidden traitors, and so on) but those generally change the nature of play. I think if you introduce those aspects, the game often becomes centered around them. So, unless I want to make a game about a hidden traitor (for example) I generally don’t seek them out as additions to my coops.

Sarah: I really liked the idea of getting people to record themselves playing prototypes, but the reality is: prototypes, and MAILING big boxes of stuff, can be really pricey. Do you have any tips on how to cut costs for games you send out for recorded play?

Matt Leacock: One quick and dirty tip on keeping costs down is to use craft foam for tokens instead of punchboard. It’s very easy to cut and is extremely light which’ll cut down on the overall weight of your prototypes. You can also reuse the card sleeves when you get your prototype back in your next prototype.

John Atwood: Hi Matt. That’s cool your working on a climate game. I have been designing one for a few years and had  thought about contacting you for insights or even collaboration, but that’s great that you’re already doing it. It’s a natural extension of Pandemic.

Matt Leacock: Exactly. The climate game has been quite an experience. Trying to both capture the emotional journey and be faithful to the science makes the project that much more complex.

John Atwood: OMG exactly. I have evolved so many concepts. And my ambition is to be more informative than most related games yet still reach a wide audience.

Sarah: It's a great topic. My "big" game is also climate-related!

Brian Venne: What’s something you think new designers should ask veteran designers and you are surprised they don’t?

Matt Leacock: Searching brain… I’m not sure I’m surprised that people don’t ask. But I will say that over the last few years, I’ve been surprised how much I’ve found simply journaling thoughts and findings around my designs has helped me more fully understand what I’m doing. I think one benefit of having a co-designer is the fact that it forces you to really examine what you’re doing so you can explain it to someone else.

Rob Harper: As you mention co-designers, do you find that there are specific skills/abilities that you particularly value in your collaborators?

Matt Leacock: Most valued are skills that complement my strengths. Rob Daviau’s story-telling powers, Tom Lehmann’s amazing ability to balance things on the head of a pin and his ability to carefully craft rules to eliminate loopholes. But my current co-designer on this climate game shares some strengths that I bring to the table, but doubles down on them: he’s incredibly great at detail, builds really flexible prototyping systems, and takes fantastic notes. It’s like having a better me on my team. I love it.

^^ Matteo Menapace

Jason Brisson: Are there particular technological innovations (printing tech, multilayered boards, transparent cards etc..) to game components that you're hungry to explore in your future designs?

Matt Leacock: I love multi-layered boards and also the “toyetic” feeling of pieces. Pieces that communicate what they do based on how they’re shaped. Ways that a 3rd dimension can be explored to really take advantage of the physical presence of pieces on the table.

Sarah: One slide in your talk was about representation but you seem to work mostly with other men. How do you ensure that your games are truly representative?

Matt Leacock: Sarah – Good and fair point! I try to involve as many people as I can in testing as early as possible and aim for a diverse group of testers and advisors. With this climate game, for example, we’re building an advisory board with people from around the world to help call us on our biases and these folks come in all stripes.

I’ve also worked to start co-designing with other non-male designers. I’m just finishing one up this month in fact.

Diana Crow: When you're working on a science-based topic, do you seek out input from topic experts on the game? Asking because  when I work on science-themed designs, I often think, "Oh, I should go find some microbiologists to play test this," or "I wonder if the academic research on climate communication could inform what I'm doing in this climate game"

Matt Leacock: Yes, we’re pulling together an advisory board for this new game. It’s really important to us that we get the underlying model and framing correct. I didn’t do this with Pandemic so much – I was looking primarily at engagement, not accuracy – but with this one, the topic is pressing and important we really want to get it right.

Note that this is harder! We can't just invent some "fantasy" rationale that explains a dynamic that we want to include in the game. But the real world also has such interesting dynamics in it. You don't have to go out and invent them out of whole cloth – there's so much that can be modeled in interesting ways just waiting to be tapped.

Nicolas Straccia: I really like how it's shaping up and I think that how you deal with the carbon cubes really shows the principle of doing the teaching through the mechanics themselves very well.


Looking forward to playing it eventually for sure!

Brian Venne: What tools/materials do you try to keep handy for prototyping? Also, do you pay attention to trends in the hobby?

Matt Leacock: Materials: paper. Lots of paper off the inkjet printer. This is cut and sleeved for cards. For tokens, I generally print onto sticker sheets and apply it to craft foam (early prototypes) or illustration board, then laser cut it (later prototypes).

Game boards are nearly always tiled paper printouts and usually only survive one playtest before they’re binned.

I keep a big stock of standard wooden bits (pawns, cubes, and tokens) that I can easily grab for a prototype. I think cull those when the prototype is shelved for reuse in the next prototype.

Trends: I keep tabs on what’s coming out. I try not to be a follower, though. By the time you latch onto a trend, by the time your game has come out, people may have moved on.

Raha Wala: Matt, hi! Do you every feel a tension between wanting to achieve advocacy or educational goals with your games and wanting to make a fun and engaging game? If so, how do you resolve this tension? If not, how do you separate your personal activism/politics from your professional design activities?

Matt Leacock: Yes! There’s a lot of tension between advocacy and education and engagement. For me: engagement is more important. Without it, people won’t play your game and it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to advocate for or teach. So the first goal is to make an engaging game that people want to play. Then the trick is to come up with a game that teaches through play – where the players internalize the dynamics and learn through the actions they’re taking: not just via the small print on the cards.

More and more I’m understanding that you really can’t eliminate a game’s message – instead you need to be mindful of it. Understand your goals for the game, ensure your publisher shares those goals, and then make the game that has the best shot at getting that message across.

Robyn Unfred: Hi Matt, sorry I'm late! Haven't read the entire buffer but I hope this hasn't been asked: I want to create a cooperative game someday, but they often feel more like a cooperative puzzle to me. Your co-ops tend to avoid that. What are some good ways to regulate hidden information to make it feel more like a game?

Matt Leacock: I think fundamentally, my games are in fact cooperative puzzles. Perhaps they avoid feeling like that to some degree because they offer emergent complexity and can be solved through multiple pathways. Try to create games that present problems where there isn’t a single, best solution but multiple ways forward that can be discussed and weighed from different points of view.

I'm not sure that hidden information is your ticket out. Hidden information means limited communication. And so often that means no communication since it’s incredibly hard to limit communication around a table. We’re just too good at it.

Robyn Unfred: Well, puzzles are at least an element of gaming, so I guess the game “feel” is the important part. The multiple pathways approach sounds helpful; thank you!

Yes, limiting communication with just a rulebook is hard. It's like trying to create an automatic referee that is anchored in place. I'll think about other ways to vary the game.

Matt Leacock: OK! Thanks all. Hope you found that useful. Good luck with your games!

Nicolas Straccia: Thanks for the Q&A, Matt! Most of my questions were already addressed by other folks but still wanted to thank you for the time and dedication.

Diana Crow: Yes, thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! Looking forward to seeing your climate game when it debuts.

Robyn Unfred: Thank you so much for coming, Matt! I appreciate how much you've done to introduce new ideas to the gaming community through your games.

Brian Venne: Thank you!

Jason Brisson: Thanks Matt! We appreciate your time!

Matt Leacock: My pleasure!