Interview with Kane Klenko of Fuse/Flatline fame, on his newest real-time co-op, Pandemic Rapid Response.
First off, thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Kane. We are here to talk about your new game hitting shelves this summer, a Target exclusive (in the US), Pandemic Rapid Response. Could you tell us a little bit about the game and how is it different from normal Pandemic?
Kane: Yes! It’s very exciting! Mechanically, Rapid Response is very different from any other Pandemic game, mainly because it is a real-time dice game. Those who know my games know I love working in this space, so it was very exciting to be able to bring this style of gameplay to the Pandemic world. The game is set aboard a specially equipped plane that is tasked with preparing and delivering needed supplies all around the world. Players are a specialized team of doctors and scientists who with work together to accomplish this before time runs out.
Rapid Response, unlike most other real-time games, is turn-based. On your turn you’ll roll dice, using them to move around inside the plane, move the plane itself along its flight path, and assign dice in various rooms to activate their effects. City cards will pop up along the edge of the board next to their matching cities, and these cards will show the supplies that are needed in that city. Players must work to produce those supplies, fly to that city and deliver them. The trick is that you’re working on multiple cities at the same time, and new ones pop up every two minutes. While players perform their actions, a two-minute timer is counting down. Every time the timer runs out, a new city card is added around the board, and players lose one of their Time Tokens. If the timer ever runs out and there are no time tokens remaining, the players lose. However, new time tokens are earned every time a city is delivered to successfully. I liked this feeling of constant pressure. It reminded me of racing video games where you must reach a certain checkpoint before the time runs out. If you get there in time, then more time is added to the clock. If you don’t, then it’s game over. Incorporating that feeling into a board game was a lot of fun.
The game seems a little like your FUSE series of games. Did it start out as one of those games or as a Pandemic game, or something else? What’s the story behind the game?
Kane: I designed Rapid Response from the ground up as a Pandemic game from the beginning. While it’s a real-time co-op dice game like Fuse and Flatline, it really is its own game with its own unique feel.
The story is one with lots of twists and turns over a period of about six years. I had originally showed Flatline to Z-Man games back in 2013, before I had designed Fuse, and before Renegade was even a company. They had been talking internally about doing a Pandemic game based in a trauma center, so they were interested in taking a look at it. They played it and loved it, and really liked the idea of a real-time game in the Pandemic line. We signed the game as Pandemic: Trauma Center. About a year later I showed them another game. This one was an action point co-op, and they decided to change gears and stick with the more traditional gameplay, so I got the rights to Flatline back, and we began work on this second game. Over time a couple of things happened. One was that development took the game to where I wasn’t really happy with it anymore. Secondly, Asmodee bought out Z-Man, and the entire staff changed over. When we began talking about the direction they wanted to take things, they agreed that the current game we were working on wasn’t quite up to the Pandemic standard of excellence. Instead of backtracking on that game, they mentioned that they wished they still had Flatline because they really liked the idea of a real-time Pandemic. I told them I’d start from scratch, and that is where Rapid Response was born.
Rapid Response is only the second game out of the 10 stand-alone games in the series without Matt Leacock as one of the designers. Was there any stress or anxiety trying to make sure you lived up to the Pandemic brand?
Kane: Absolutely. Pandemic is one of my all-time favorite games, and the entire line is a model of excellence. As much as I wanted to have a game in the Pandemic line, I wasn’t willing to put out a game that wasn’t up to that standard. The entire team at Z-Man was great to work with, and I’m incredibly honored to be able to have a game join this incredible brand. A ton of thanks to Matt Leacock for his blessing on the game and the entire process.
In this Pandemic, the roles aren’t tied to colors. Was this a decision to keep the price down or for some other reason?
Kane: It was done to keep the price down, but that was a decision I had made before I even tested the game the first time. I knew in my head how I wanted the game to work, and I knew that players would all need their own set of dice. The dice would all be the same, so unlike The Cure, it wasn’t necessary for there to be a dice color for each role. I wanted to have a wide range of 6 or 7 Roles in the game (we ended up with 7 in the box), and I knew that having 7 colors of dice was both unnecessary and would raise the price of the game outside of where it would fit best in the market.
You’re real-time games don’t typically come with different player ability roles, did you find it a challenge to come up with the 7 roles and balance them at all?
Kane: My real-time games haven’t had player abilities, but I have had games with them before (Dead Men Tell No Tales, Flip Ships, as well as some unpublished games). When designing player abilities I like to break the game into its various parts and assign an ability for each. In Rapid Response, for example, players are dealing with waste, moving the plane, rolling dice, moving around a plane, etc. So I think of ways that players would want to break the rules for each of those things and try different things out. I want the players to have a good feeling when they draw their Role card and be excited by how they’ll get to break the rules and use their ability.
One of the key aspects of the game is the push your luck part of the supply crates, as the more dice you can put on them, the more supplies you get – do you go for something small or hope others will help you out to get a bigger pay-off? What inspired this idea and why did you make each room have different supply formula?
Kane: To be honest, the inspiration for how the rooms work wasn’t that exciting. I was sketching out rooms and put dice spaces in a line. I drew an arrow and thought “Maybe you fill up this track and the more dice you place, the more stuff you get. But you need at least 3 before you get anything”. It was the very first thought for the design, and it’s stayed the same since the beginning. Early on though, all of the rooms worked like the First Aid room where all of the spaces were separate. During development, we had talked about ways to make the rooms feel a little different from each other. Having the grouped spaces was the first thing we tried and it felt right immediately. I like that it makes the different resources feel different, but the rooms still work the same so it’s much easier to teach.
How well does the Rapid Response scale? You originally tested it as a 4-player game, correct? Did it need any adjusting to play at smaller player counts?
Kane: My early playtests were all with 4 players, and I was nervous the first time I brought it out for 2. I thought there would be no way it would work, and it would be too difficult. I was wrong. Most of my co-op games have a chart in the rules that change the setup based on the player count. I figured I’d need that here too, but through testing, we found that it wasn’t needed. Scaling the difficulty was enough, and the game felt balanced across all player counts.
For those out there that already have one or multiples of the Pandemic games out there, including the other dice one, Pandemic: The Cure, what makes Rapid Response worth being added to their collection? Also, do you think this one would be a good place to start if you never played a Pandemic game?
Kane: I love Pandemic. It’s one of my favorite games, and it’s a great line. Rapid Response brings something new to the brand, so I think it’s worth picking up whether you have all of the Pandemic games, or you’re new to the series. It will feel fresh and new either way. Rapid Response works well for gamers and non-gamers, so it could be a good intro to the series, which is why having it in Target made sense. Honestly though, I’d say just start with basic Pandemic. It’s still a great game, and it’s the reason the rest of the games exist.
As we wrap this up, do you have any advice about designing a real-time game out there to any designers that may be trying their hands at it?
Kane: There are a lot of ways to design a real-time game, but my favorite real-time games, and the way I like to design them, is to keep the actions and the amount of thought required for those actions simple. The fun of the game comes from making lots of small decisions under the stress of the time pressure. If there’s too much to keep track of in the game, and you’re under that same stress, the game gets bogged down. I like to come up with new dice mechanics for my games, but with Rapid Response I chose to use an old favorite from games like Yahtzee and King of Tokyo. There’s enough to keep track of in the game and think about, that I didn’t want players to have to think about how their dice get rolled. Keeping the core physical mechanic as something they probably already know allows them to focus on the rest of the game.
Thanks again, Kane, for taking time out to do this interview.
Pandemic Rapid Response is now in stores. If you are in the US, you can find it exclusively at Target. For international readers, check your local game store.