GeekDad Interviews ‘Thunderbirds’ Game Designer Matt Leacock

Photo courtesy Matt Leacock
Photo courtesy Matt Leacock

Next week, Matt Leacock’s Thunderbirds game will wrap up its Kickstarter campaign. It’s already over 800% of its funding goal and is burning through stretch goals. I had the opportunity to sit down with Matt in his home in Northern California and talk about Thunderbirds, Kickstarter, the Pandemic series, and his favorite games.

GeekDad: Let’s start with Thunderbirds. What drew you to Thunderbirds? Are you a fan of the show?

Matt Leacock: I’d never heard of the show. I guess I was vaguely aware of it a little bit, but I think I kept getting it confused with Thundercats. When I first met up with [Modiphius publisher] Chris Birch and he arranged a meeting at [German game conference] Spiel in 2013 and it was just sharing his love for the show and how it would make a perfect cooperative game. I kind of had to take his word for it, but he was so excited and he just loves that show. When I got back home I watched a few episodes of the show and saw what he was talking about, and was kind of hooked on it.

GD: So this is your first time working in a licensed property.

ML: Yeah, that’s right. My other games were either working from my own ideas or ideas other publishers had. In that regard it wasn’t all that different. GameWright approached me and said, “Hey, can you create a cooperative game for kids?” So I obviously had some requirements up front. This is obviously a little bit more narrow, with the license, but it was a good fit for a co-op, so it came pretty naturally.

GD: So the game for kids was Forbidden Island?

ML: Yes.

GD: Yeah, my kids love that game. Were there specific challenges working in a licensed property?

ML: Not really, no. I mean, I’ve had challenges in all of my games, but this one didn’t present anything really all that tricky. Some of the early mission cards drew from the movies, because I cast a wide net trying to come up with challenges, but right now the license is restricted to the TV show, so that effected a couple of cards, but that’s a pretty minor kind of thing.

GD: I’m guessing that the timing of the game has something to do with the reboot of the show?

ML: Yeah, you know Chris pitched the game to ITV [the British studio that owns the rights to the show] really early on, before he had even formed his company. So when the company came around and he had done some successful Kickstarters, he pitched it again and the timing just happened to work out really well, so it was kind of coincidence.

GD: I was a little surprised that the visuals in the game were all based on the original series and not the reboot.

ML: That was a licensing thing, and I think they’re trying to target people who were fans of the show as a kid, so I think it makes a lot of sense to do it that way.

GD: When the Kickstarter was first linked to on Reddit, there was some thought–and you know, it was kind of silly, there’s this picture of a map of the world so obviously this is just like Pandemic, but by that logic Risk is just like Pandemic.

ML: Exactly. (Laughs).

GD: But I was really very impressed that it does have a very different feel. I played a couple of games [using the prototype Modiphius sent me] with my family, and we lost… every time… which is standard for your games. But Thunderbirds really requires *a lot* of teamwork. I think much more than Pandemic or the Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert games.

ML: Well, Desert requires a tremendous amount of teamwork too.

GD: True. So was that intentional, because of the Thunderbirds being…

ML: It’s really all about the team. I try to get at the essence, and not just slap the license on top of the same game. It’s all about being on the edge of success all the time, and everybody coming together as a team and the coordination and all of that, and I try to capture as much of that as I could.

GD: You put the rules for Thunderbirds online, to sort of crowdsource the rules. Has that been successful? Are you happy to have done that?

ML: Yeah, yeah. That went really well. I think the trick of it was that I was at a really good stage in development of the rules. If there were a lot of unknowns or uncertainty on my part, I wouldn’t have done it because it just creates a lot of churn where lots of people have lots of ideas. Word processing documents aren’t the best place to do cooperative design, with strangers, but putting them up there and asking people if they had questions, if there were things that were unclear. I got a lot of suggestions, not only on simple things like grammar but phrasing. I was able to take out some awkward phrasing and make things more approachable. So that worked very well, and the number of comments gradually declined over time, and I made a lot of progress editing it, and that’s before it gets to the final editor, so I’ll be able to hand off a pretty polished set of rules.

GD: So this is the first game you’ve done that was Kickstartered?

ML: Yeah, that’s right. Roll Through the Ages: Iron Age was Kickstartered, but that was Tom Lehmann’s design based on my system, so this is the first one I’ve really been involved with from beginning to end.

GD: How has that been?

ML: Well, it’s a very different feel. It’s an accelerated pace. We were lucky enough to get funded in three hours, so things came along very, very quickly–much faster than I thought they would. So while I’m wrapping up the core game, we were unlocking I think three other products that I’m going to be working on, and then [shipping] dates were announced. I worked in conjunction with Modiphius on the timing and such, but yeah that certainly lit a fire under me to get the development done on the first, second, and third expansions. And it’s different to get streaming feedback from lots of different people on the rules or what kinds of components should be in the game. It’s great to get that feedback early, because when the game has already shipped you can’t make those edits. We actually bumped up the number of event cards in the base game because people just really had a strong desire for additional variability and that was inexpensive and pretty straight-forward for me to do so I was happy to do that. And you can make adjustments to miniatures and such, so it’s been pretty positive.

GD: So is that something you think you might repeat?

ML: I’d do it again, assuming that the publisher was really experienced and the project was a good fit for it. So with those caveats in place, yeah I’d be open to it.

GD: So Roll Through the Ages is your only non-cooperative game?

ML: Yeah, to date.

GD: I’ve been gaming basically since I was a teenager, and until I encountered Pandemic or Castle Panic I didn’t even know that cooperative games was a thing. So what draws you to the cooperative games?

ML: I played [Reiner] Knizia’s Lord of the Rings with my wife and family and friends, and first of all we just enjoyed that, at the end of the game, you weren’t at each other’s throats, or feeling bad because you won, or bad because you lost. The other thing was that we had never played a cooperative game, either, and I didn’t think you could actually design one that would be engaging, but that one really had a lot of emotional ups and downs and kind of sucked you in, and I wanted to give that a try because I liked the feelings that engendered and so I designed Pandemic for my wife so that we’d have something to play together and just have a good time at it. I had played negotiation games with her, and it wasn’t a positive thing. I never went so far as to play Diplomacy, but there were others and it just didn’t go down so well, so that’s what really drew me into it. And then specifically I was really into the idea of creating games with chain reactions, and diseases were in the news so I kind of combined those things together. It felt like a really good inhuman enemy that you could program, like a computer program, just using cardboard.

GD: As a game designer, you’re doing the mechanics and the rules. How much of the graphic or visual design side of things are you involved in?

ML: I’m involved in prototyping, so I try to convey the requirements, or the scaffolding as it were, that the visual design will hang on top of. I think it’s far easier to do really good visual design if you’ve got a good structure to hang it on. You don’t want your visual design to be an apology for badly designed components or incoherent rules or what have you, but I’m happy to hand off to other graphic designers. I’m a trained graphic designer myself–I studied visual communication, and then I moved into interaction design for software, and found that more rewarding, and again to hand off the final visuals to people who really adored or loved that part. Also, I found that if I did the visuals, I’d get too attached to them, and if I needed to make a change to the interaction I’d be too married to it and wouldn’t want to throw it out. I usually see the games from the very beginning until we sign off on whatever it going to be sent to the printer, so I help with the art direction.

GD: Pandemic: State of Emergency just came out, or I think it’s finally off the boats.

ML: Yeah, it’s making its way into the US, through the slow ports.

GD: As someone who likes Pandemic, why should I get State of Emergency?

ML: Well, it’s got a bunch of different stuff. Like On the Brink and In the Lab, Tom [Lehmann] and I worked to create a package of things that you can mix and match and we’ve just found that people really enjoy that. There are new roles and events, so you can mix those in. You can add in certain events that have bad effects that make the game harder, or you can add in quarantines and make it easier. Quarantines are kind of fun–they’re actually a set of rules that were in the original base game of Pandemic that didn’t make the cut, and kind of got bumped along until we found the right way to package them. There’s a role, the Colonel, who can drop these quarantines even better than other people, and they allow you to prevent a disease cube from going on, so they save you time.

And you have the Hinterlands Challenge, which instead of making the game harder just makes the game feel a little bit different. Some aspects are harder, some aspects are easier, so if you’re looking for more variety you’re good to go. And then the Superbug Challenge is one of my favorite things. It’s got vaccine factories that pump out vaccines and a really nasty disease variant that needs to be eradicated, so you get that joy of trying to wipe out a certain disease from the board. A lot of people kind of want to clean up the board at the end, so this allows you to scratch that itch. And it’s really hard, but hard in a good way.

GD: And then there’s Pandemic Legacy. I assume it’s kind of the same model as Risk Legacy?

ML: Yes. The game evolves, game after game, and the choices you make in one game affect all the subsequent games. And it’s set up as sort of one horrible year on Earth that you both try to survive and try to save humanity, too. The game is structured so that each time you play a session, it’s like you’re playing out a month of the year, and if you fail you get a chance to replay a month, but if you fail again, well time has passed and you have to move on to the next month. If you’re super-humanly good at Pandemic, you can play the game in 12 sessions, but we have not seen that behavior (laughs).

One of the tricks is trying to adjust the cooperative aspect so that it doesn’t go off the rails. If you do really horribly, you don’t want the rest of the year to be trashed, so we built in some mechanisms to deal with that. So you’ll get a lot of entertainment value out of one of those boxes. It plays 12-24 games, so you’re looking at 16-20 plus hours of fun there.

GD: Did you try Risk Legacy and say, “Pandemic would be great for this”?

ML: Not right away. I played Risk Legacy and thought it was ingenious. I’d been talking to [Pandemic publisher] Z-Man about different ways Pandemic could go in the future, since I first met with them up in Quebec. I thought a dice game would be kind of fun, so we got Pandemic: The Cure, and we’d been bouncing around a legacy idea, and I didn’t give it a ton of thought right away, but one day I just took out a notebook and filled a few pages of it, and thought that this could be really cool, so I wrote off to see if they’d be interested and they wrote back just this one word reply, in like 72 point font, “YES.”

GD: TableTop had an episode where Steve Jackson played Munchkin. Will we ever see you on the show?

ML: If they ask me, I will. I’ll gladly fly down there. I know the scheduling can be very tricky for them, but if they want me to come down that’d be great.

GD: How did you get started with gaming?

ML: I’ve been gaming since I was a kid. I played games with my dad and uncle. We played the usual Parker Brothers type, and games of that kind. My dad was also into the 3M games, so we played Acquire and Twixt, and when Civilization came I was just delighted, I played that with my uncle and dad for many, many hours. That’s what actually led to Roll Through the Ages–I didn’t have time to play a 12 hour game of Civilization, but I could boil it down to 40 minutes and play that. But yeah, I’ve been designing and modifying games since then. I did a couple of very small, print-and-play kind of publications on my own, when I was in college, and did one in 2000 called Lunatics Loop, which I took to Spiel that year. I decided I didn’t want to be a publisher, but I did really enjoy doing the design part.

GD: What are some of your favorite games?

ML: I usually fall back to Tigris & Euphrates, because I really enjoyed that one. I haven’t played it in a while, but I really like a lot of Knizia’s designs because they’re so economical in the rules and they have a lot of interaction and depth with a simple rule set. Mostly classic Euros. I like Splendor a lot from last year, but I also enjoy a thematic game as well. I play a lot of Thunderstone, and my daughter has just started taking to that.

GD: So you have a daughter?

ML: Yes, I have two daughters.

GD: And they enjoy gaming?

ML: Yeah, my youngest really enjoys cooperative games. She really enjoys anything with a 3D component where we can make up the rules as we go along, so we spend a lot of time just, playing. My oldest really loves Euro games, and she’s designing one right now. But they love tinkering and playing with all sorts of little bits.

GD: Well, Matt, thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.

ML: You’re very welcome.

Rob is a geek with a 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. He teaches web and graphic design at the college level, watches a ridiculous number of movies, plays as many board games as he can, and loves the history of the technological age almost as much as he loves Firefly.