The Current

No 'us-versus-them mentality': Creator of Pandemic says board game has lessons for how to approach COVID-19

Board game Pandemic requires players to work together, not against each other

Posted: March 18, 2020

Matt Leacock designed the game Pandemic in the 2000s. It was partially inspired by the SARS outbreak in 2003. (Owen Duffy)

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Today on The Current: Our national affairs panel — The Globe and Mail's Andre Picard, CBC's Catherine Cullen, the Toronto Star's Robert Benzie — discuss states of emergency across the country, and the economic impacts of COVID-19. Plus, people who have to go to work are struggling with how to do that safely. Then, Canadians stuck in Morocco are pleading with the Canadian government to provide assistance in getting home. And finally, what the creator of board game Pandemic says his creation can tell us about real-world outbreaks.  74:28

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The creator of Pandemic says the collaborative nature of the board game could offer lessons in fighting the global COVID-19 outbreak.

"Unlike a lot of other games where you're working against each other, in Pandemic all the players work together to try to beat the game, essentially — you're working against the disease," said Matt Leacock, a California-based game designer.

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Pandemic was released as a board game in 2008, and later turned into a video game. Players are assigned characters such as scientists, medics and researchers, and must travel around a world map dealing with outbreaks of diseases, before they grow to overwhelm the globe.

"The game is really all about worldwide community co-operation and working together, it doesn't have an us-versus-them mentality," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The early days of the outbreak saw political divisions slow the response in some countries. In the U.S., Republicans downplayed the threat for weeks. President Donald Trump declared a U.S. state of emergency last week.

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Can a board game teach us how to deal with a global viral pandemic? In the game Pandemic, players are assigned scientists, medics and researchers to deal with outbreaks of diseases around the globe.  1:11

"When you look at a lot of what's talked about and the political situation around the world, people are throwing a lot of blame," Leacock said.

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"When really what we need to be doing is coming together and figuring out how we can work on this big problem together."

Leacock says he initially came up with the game while the 2003 SARS outbreak was in the news, as he thought "viruses seem like a really good antagonist."

But he also wanted to create a collaborative game he could play with his wife.

"We had played negotiation games in the past, and they did not go real well," he said.

But with collaborative games, "we always got along great, and felt good whether we won or lost." 

People play Pandemic at a convention in 2013, in London, U.K. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Game-playing strategy

Leacock says the key to winning the game is balancing strategy, and effective communication.

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"There's pockets of infected populations around the world, and your knee-jerk response is to run around like crazy, trying to take care of every small emergency," he explained.

"But if you do that, you're going to lose."

Instead, the focus should be on co-operation, and managing resources effectively to find a cure, he said.

"It takes a good mix of short-term thinking, and long-term thinking and a lot of communication," he said.

"Everybody has their own unique skill and it takes everybody kind of working together and taking advantage of each player's strengths in order to to win."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Matt Meuse.