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Pandemic creator’s new board game, Daybreak, is about climate change

An exclusive interview with Matt Leacock and Matteo Menapace

Matt Leacock, designer of the hit board game Pandemic, is working on a new project. It’s a cooperative board game called Daybreak, and it will model the real-world fight against climate change. Working together with a new collaborator, Italian game designer Matteo Menapace, the trick will be balancing fun with a desire to normalize the conversation around our warming planet.

The game, which is still in development, will be published by CMYK, the same company behind hits like Monikers and Wavelength. No release date or price has been set.

To fans of Leacock’s previous work, Daybreak should feel familiar. Before it was blown out into an elaborate campaign with Pandemic Legacy, the original Pandemic used a relatively crude model of disease to great effect. A deck of cards corresponds to groups of infected people, and drawing from that deck spreads multiple diseases on a map of the world. Hidden in that deck are multiple epidemics, each of which places lots more cubes of infected people on the board all at once. Cooperation and careful planning are key to winning before the last epidemic card comes into play, and even then victory is not always possible.

Leacock and Menapace tell Polygon that they will use similar mechanics to drive the action in Daybreak.

Cardboard shits and cards litter a table. Lightning bolts are prominently displayed, alongside a giant red thermometer.
A paper prototype of Daybreak showing a two-player game nearing the end of a session.
Photo: Matt Leacock

Players will take on the role of either China, Europe, the United States, or a coalition of other nations that are referred to in-game as The Global South. When a game of Daybreak begins, the Earth’s temperature will be relatively low. Then, in the same way that the disease cubes began to pile up in Pandemic, the temperature will begin to increase around the world. Crises will also begin to crop up — drought will set in, wildfires will break out, and sea levels will rise — and the intensity of those crises will be worsened by higher global temperatures.

“Each one of these powers has different abilities,” Leacock said. “The United States may be very good at research and development. China may have better control over its economy — direct control — and so on. [...] You’ve got this global responsibility to figure out how to contribute in some way. If you don’t, if any one of these players has too many people in crisis, you all collectively lose the game.”

Together, players will need to split their energy between mitigation and adaptation. On the one hand, mitigation prevent carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere, thereby lowering the Earth’s temperature over time. Adaptation, on the other hand, will be more about hardening infrastructure and society itself from the harm that rising global temperatures will cause.

Menapace used the example of a national water purification system as an adaptation. While it won’t make the planet any cooler, it will allow a country to weather a drought and keep more of its population out of crisis. Geoengineering, on the other hand, represents a very drastic form of mitigation. By spraying sulfur into the atmosphere, researchers think that we could significantly lower the planet’s temperature. But geoengineering’s impact on plant and animal life — and the human populations that depend on them — is unknown. Menapace said that risk could be represented in-game by drawing more cards from the crisis deck each turn.

Of course, sitting down to a game of Pandemic feels very different today than it did in 2007. Will Daybreak be capable of the same kind of breakout success when it deals with something so immediate as climate change? Leacock and Menapace are confident that it will.

Matt Leacock in an anchor-patterned shirt sits in a red booth.
Matt Leacock
Photo: Owen Duffy

“I want people to take it seriously,” Leacock said. “But, first and foremost, I want people to play it and enjoy it. I want to be really clear about that. We’re not trying to create a vitamin. This is a tabletop game that we actually want people to play and enjoy. And then, as a knock-on effect, if they understand the climate stuff better, that’s wonderful. I recognize that people aren’t necessarily gonna want to play this thing if all it is is preachy.”

And what about those who outright deny climate change, or who adamantly oppose the research that claims human activity as its cause? What happens if those pundits and politicians choose to attack this game? “We should be lucky to get that much attention,” Leacock said.

Menapace had a slightly more pugnacious response.

“I think that if we get some sort of backlash, it would probably be a good thing initially,” he said, “because it would mean that we’re poking someone or something where it hurts. That would be a sort of endorsement, in a roundabout way.”

Matteo Menapace, Italian game designer, standing in a mustard shirt against a brick and stucco wall.
Matteo Menapace
Photo: Dylan Nolte

Board games aren’t the most ecologically friendly products. There is a certain irony in making a tabletop game about climate change when those games will likely be manufactured out of paper and plastic overseas, and then shipped thousands of miles on giant cargo ships to consumers in the U.S. and Europe. Leacock and Menapace are very aware of that, and they are working hard with their publishing partners at CMYK to come up with solutions. With luck, they hope that Daybreak can be the beginning of a new chapter in greener board game production — and in the public awareness of climate change itself.

In fact, that’s partly where the idea for the game’s name came from.

“There’s so much apocalyptic coverage out there,” Leacock admitted. “We want the game to show how important, how big the problem is. This is not easy, and when you play the game, you can lose. It can look pretty grim. But, there are ways forward, and we want the name to be more of a positive. It’s sort of like this inflection point, this new day, this new way of moving forward. A sunrise, not a sunset.”

You can sign up for an alert when Daybreak launches at the official website.

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