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).

View this post on Instagram

Austin takes sheep a little too seriously. #Catan

A post shared by Steph Yiu (@crushgear) on


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).