Steph Yiu

Pandemic and The Power of Teamwork

A few weeks ago I was at my friend Kay’s house, where she and her husband taught me how to play Pandemic. Since then, I’ve been playing it pretty obsessively.

What makes this board game different: it’s collaborative. I’ve spent many hours battling friends in Settlers of Catan, actively fighting for sheep, wood, ore… more sheep (it’s always the damn sheep).

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Austin takes sheep a little too seriously. #Catan

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In Pandemic, all players are actively working together to beat the game. The premise is simple: there are diseases breaking out around the world. You and your fellow players are deployed to combat and ultimately cure disease. Each of you is given a character with unique skills and limited resources, which means the only way to beat the game is to work together.

Each turn requires sharing knowledge, negotiation, and team decision-making. What’s funny is that after playing this game, it made me think about how much team work is required in day-to-day life, and how infrequently we celebrate it.

The easiest analogy I can draw of course, is to work. Each teammate is given limited resources (i.e. how many hours they can work, timezones they work), unique skills (i.e. engineer, business, accounts, design, communications), and as a team, we deploy the skills and resources to deliver the best product.

In Pandemic, if you battle the disease alone, you will certainly lose. You don’t have the different skill sets and resources you need to win. What’s funny about this is that the individual is what’s often celebrated in companies. Articles are written about the “crazy smart engineer,” or the “incredible leader,” but at the end of the day, the individual would not be able to achieve anything if not for the support of their team, who may take care of the important but less flashy aspects of their work.

And that doesn’t just mean work. Home life is an incredible balance of teamwork as well. As I watch my friends get married and have kids, or hang out with my friends’ extended families, I see this sort of negotiation and teamwork happen all the time.


Playing Pandemic at Kay’s house. I didn’t know I was going to blog about Pandemic, so I was actually taking a picture of the Tea Man. :)

This is perhaps the most obvious in families needing to provide good childcare. Each couple faces limited resources in hours and money. In some families, both husband and wife split the duties, and each day there’s a balancing act — she needs to work late, so he takes care of dinner and putting the kids to bed. In other families, maybe the wife makes a bigger salary so the husband works part-time and they don’t have to pay for childcare. In yet other families, the grandparents live nearby and provide childcare so both parents can work. Each family balances this differently. It takes a village.

NYTimes has been doing a series of articles on income inequality, and they recently wrote a piece on Power Couples, high-income couples that have plenty of resources at their fingertips. Money can, at times, replace teamwork. Instead of one couple or the other spending time making dinner or doing laundry, they can outsource those items. Or instead of having grandparents help out, there’s expensive daycare.

This also means that for every CEO or celebrity that we glorify as “having it all,” is an enormous village behind her that we never see. Grandparents that are helping take care of the kids. Husband (or wife) providing emotional support. Friends and family providing a rich social network.

Having worked at two companies with founder/CEOs (America’s Test Kitchen and Automattic), this concept has crystalized for me over the last few years. In both companies, the founders are often written up in the press for being visionaries, culture-changers, and incredible leaders. This is all very true, but as their companies have grown, the reliance on teamwork grows as well. While the leader is carving out a path, there’s an incredible team translating that vision into day-to-day operations, maneuvering company logistics, and ensuring customer happiness one person at a time. The best leaders know how shift and shape their team towards success. It’s not an easy thing to do.

It’s funny how a board game can churn up all of these ruminations. For more reading on this, try Derek Siver’s TED talk on How To Start A Movement (it’s all about the first follower), Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights (cities are the ultimate example of teamwork, and LKY shifted a city-state towards success), and Matt Leacock’s fascinating blog on game design (he created Pandemic).



  1. I really appreciate the network this post covers, from games, to family dynamics, to culture, to celebrity, to business – it’s so aptly perfect! Of course, the family parts rings so true for me, and I think your insights are spot on here. It absolutely takes a village.

    Also, I love that there are collaborative games. My kids like a game (Feed the Woozle) that is collaborative – they work together to feed the Woozle the right number of snacks. They can get a little… competitive… with other games (which is fine until it’s not, you know?), and lately I’ve seen them cheering for each other in competitive board games rather than melting down over not winning. It’s a neat process to see in action!

    Automattic is my first company of this ilk, with so much trust placed in each employee, and it still is mind-boggling to me. I find it motivating to be working towards a common goal with so many of my peers, all of us wanting to help each other in whatever way we can.

    Finally, that tea man is adorable. A+.


    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Zandy! I love working at a company that fosters a collaborative environment. There are lots of great companies out there that have competitive work environments — and while some people might really thrive in that setup, I enjoy learning from my co-workers, and the navigating the discussion/negotiations that come out of groupwork.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a thoughtful post. I have the same thoughts, though I could never put them into words like you did. The machine is just a sum of its parts, and as you said, more often than not, the head of operations gets all the credit. As I’ve worked my way up to leadership positions, I’ve been sure to acknowledge the hard work that others put in to get things done, as I had been in their shoes before and know exactly what it feels like. Making others realize that they are a part of something bigger encourages them to step up and grow into leaders themselves. Although I may not be out of college yet, I still think that this can apply in a classroom, in clubs, and in the office.


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