Matt Leacock Talks Experimental MedsNovember 7, 2016
Feeling down? Matt Leacock has the cure. Ryan interviewed him about the new super expansion for Pandemic The Cure, Experimental Meds.
The very first Pandemic the Cure expansion (Pandemic: The Cure: Experimental Meds) will soon be reaching stores. It’s not only an expansion but a “super” expansion as it is multiple small expansions in one. Could you tell us what kind of things we will be seeing in this expansion?
Matt: Experimental Meds comes with 8 new roles, 11 new event cards, the Mutation Challenge, and The Hot Zone Challenge. You can mix-and-match the different components. So, for example, for your first game, you could simply mix in the new roles and events, and then gradually explore the two additional challenges. I’d originally envisioned this as two separate expansions (of 4 roles, some events, and a challenge each) but after some consideration, we thought it’d make an even more compelling product if we bundled everything together into a single “super expansion.”
Experimental Meds is coming with quite a bit of new roles – in fact there are more roles in the expansion than the base game (by one), so players can now play with double the roles. Is there are new role that you are personal partial to (and why)?
Matt: I really enjoy playing with the Operations Expert. He can roll “operations centers” on his dice which he can then leave behind in the regions of the world to help his teammates quickly fly around the world. They call back to the research centers of Pandemic and are fun to set up.
This expansion actually introduces a brand new role to the Pandemic universe – perhaps one that no one expected – the Celebrity Activist. How did this role come about and will we see her show up in future Pandemic expansions to the original board game?
Matt: The Celebrity Activist first appeared (in a different form) as a promotional role for the Pandemic Parties fundraiser for the base game of Pandemic. You can find that role in the “Party Kit” that we put together for the program: https://sites.google.com/site/pandemicparties/kit
That card actually featured Larry Page, the CEO of Alphabet and we got permission from him to use his likeness on the card. The celebrity in Experimental Meds is a woman as we’re always striving for gender diversity and many of the other roles showed men.
The two Celebrity Activist cards are similar. Both feature a character that can fly around much more easily (in their private jets) but can’t find a cure to a disease.
Out of all the new roles – which one was the hardest to get right, (to balance)?
The Field Operative took awhile to get right. He can pick up samples without needing to roll a bottle result on his dice. I think Tom and I tried about 2 or 3 other versions before he was fun, interesting, and balanced.
Was there ever any talk about adding the Bio-Terrorist role somehow to the expansion?
Matt: No, it’s funny – I never really considered it.
There are also new Events that can be added to Event Deck – including a new type, one with persistent effects. What do persistent effects do and what do they add to the gameplay that perhaps normal events do not?
Matt: These are similar to the Event cards with persistent effects in Pandemic: On the Brink. Their effects remain in play until the beginning of the next round. They have a larger impact on the game but come at a higher cost.
Outside of the new event cards – there will also be 3 blank event cards coming with the game. For those that may be a little less “creative” – could you perhaps give us a good idea for one of the blank cards?
Matt: Ha! No. I did my job; now it’s time for you all to get creative.
The purple disease finally makes it debut in The Cure with this expansion – and it is very unpredictable in that it introduces the -1 and x2 symbols to dice it affects not only the infection phase, but also finding the Cure stage. Could you tell us a little bit about this?
Matt: The Mutant Strain (purple dice) makes the game both easier and harder. The game is a little easier because there are now 12 more disease cubes in the bag (so you’re less likely to run out of dice there). Also, the likelihood of a single disease getting its fourth cube in a region goes down slightly since there are now 5 colors that you can pull out of the bag. The −1 and ×2 symbols help draw more of the dice out of the bag in order to balance this out a bit. They make the game harder, because, hey, you’ve got another disease to cure.
When you draw the ×2 side, you must draw an additional die out of the infection bag and roll it, along with the x2 die. When you draw the −1 side, you must draw another disease die out of the bag and pitch it into the box (taking it out of play) and then re-roll the −1 die. Of course when you re-roll the purple die you, might get another ×2 or -1 result, so things can sometimes get a bit out of hand.
When rolling for a cure for the purple disease, you add up all the dice, then subtract 1 for each “−1” result and then finally multiply that total by 2 for each “×2” result. This leads to a much larger range of results and gives the purple disease a unique feel.
What is the story behind how this mechanic came about?
Matt: Mostly a lot of playing around, really. I liked the way the two special sides drew more dice out of the bag while at the same time gave them a different feel when rolling for a cure.
Finally we have perhaps the most surprising part of the expansion (as new roles, events and purple disease were most likely the most predictable) – the Hot Zones. These are all new 6 sided dice that are placed in each new infection level of the ring. When you reach the new level – you roll the die. There are 3 positive events and 3 negative ones that can happen. How did this part of the expansion come about?
Matt: There are actually 2 positive sides and 4 negative sides. The idea behind this challenge was to gradually introduce dice that give each region different characteristics and considerations. They also end up providing a of variety from game-to-game. For example, North America might get hit with a few “Travel Ban” results, making it really hard to travel to, while Asia might be the perfect place to begin your turn, if there are “Isolation Ward” dice there, which allow you to re-roll bio-hazard results on your player dice if you spend them.
As, we’ve talked about there is quite a bit in this new expansion. When designing expansions for your games – how much new content is enough?
Matt: It’s a balancing act. I think it’s possible to pack too much content into an expansion. You want there to be good value for the money but you also don’t want to overwhelm the players with too many rules. I like offering a variety of elements – some that you can toss in without learning any rules along with other elements that change the play experience an interesting way.
Much like the three expansion for the normal game of Pandemic, you once again teamed up with Tom Lehmann to do a Pandemic expansion. What does Tom bring to the team that you keep teaming up with him for your game expansions?
Matt: Tom gives fantastic feedback on designs, generates loads of ideas, and is a great quality backstop. He keeps me honest and challenges me to make sure I know the reason why every single element is in a game. He’s also extremely helpful when we’re polishing the rules.
When you were still prototyping Experimental Meds, what was the best piece of feedback you received from a playtester?
Matt: When I was developing The Hot Zone Challenge, one playtester suggested that there was too much information on the board to evaluate at once. That lead to the mechanisms that gradually introduce the dice onto the playing area so players aren’t overwhelmed. The difficulty now increases over the course of play, making the game easier to parse while gradually ramping up the excitement.
What was, in your opinion, the most interesting design choice you had to make when you were designing Experimental Meds?
Matt: I think it was early in the design of the Hot Zone Challenge when Tom came up with the idea that the Hot Zone dice could have positive effects as well as negative effects. That made the entire challenge more interesting as the decision space for the players became much more nuanced. For example, you can spend a positive Hot Zone effect to your benefit, but if you do so, you’ll need to re-roll it – which might result in a negative effect.
What has been your favorite experience in designing this expansion?
Matt: My favorite thing is watching players include everything – the purple dice, the Hot Zone dice, as well as all the new roles together. You can see the pawns peek out from behind mountains of dice in their region as the tension hits the ceiling. Watching players somehow pull a win from what looks like an impossible situation – that’s got to be my favorite thing.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed Experimental Meds?
Matt: I think it’s a really tight package. I sweated over every side of every die in that game – and there are a lot of dice! And I think the quality really shows in the final product.
So, even though Experimental Meds hasn’t hit a lot of store shelves yet – do you have plans to continue to expansion The Cure line – or do you feel like this expansion should be enough and it’s time to move on from the Cure line?
Matt: I’ve got a lot of irons in the Pandemic fire right now, with the special edition games and the upcoming season(s) of Pandemic Legacy. I’m hoping this expansion will keep players of Pandemic: The Cure happy for awhile. That said, I really do love this game and would be happy to return to it if the demand is there.
You also have another Pandemic game coming out this fall – the standalone, Pandemic Iberia. Could you tell us a little bit about it and how it differs from normal Pandemic?
Matt: Pandemic Iberia is set in the 19th century Iberian Peninsula. Players represent members of the Second Royal Philanthropic Expedition, working to research four different diseases that are sweeping the land. Players move by carriage, ship, and train and even help oversee the construction of the railways of the region, creating a different rail network each time they play. The game ships with 7 roles, 15 events, 2 challenges, and gorgeous components. It’ll be a limited release (a single print run) so grab one early if you’re interested. I designed the game with Jesús Torres Castro, who I met at the Festival of Games in Córdoba in 2014.
Will this be the start of something like Carcassonne Around the World titles – a new Pandemic standalone each year but either a different country or time in history with a couple of gameplay twists added in?
Matt: Yes, that’s the idea. We set the game in the Iberian Peninsula since the Pandemic Survival World Championship is in Barcelona this year. Next year, the world championship will be in the Netherlands…
As we wrap this up, first thank you for your time and second is there anything else you would like to add?
Matt: Thanks! I hope players enjoy the expansion as much as I enjoyed designing it.
Thank you, Matt for taking the time out to do this interview.