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Infection - Game Designer Interview

Dan Sullivan talks about designing a board game formerly known as "Sicko"




Image courtesy of Earwig Enterprises

Dan Sullivan, 34-year-old creator of the game Infection, admits that the first version of the game (then known as "Sicko") looked like a third-grader designed it. After being rejected by Parker Brothers, the game sat in limbo for many years.

During graduate school, Sullivan tinkered with the game enough that the second version could have been credited to a fifth-grader. After he finished graduate school, however, he convinced an uncle -- who happened to be a professional artist -- to help. After looking around for companies to supply playing pieces, dice, boxes, shrink wrap and related materials, Sullivan ordered 4,000 games.

The goal of Infection is to cure all of your diseases. The first player to do so, or the last player living, wins.

Today, having earned his PhD in physical chemistry from the University of California at San Diego -- and with an apartment full of games -- Sullivan is trying to help Infection reach best-seller status. As of June 1999, he had recovered $8,000 of his $44,000 investment.

Sullivan took some time to answer a few questions.

When did you first become interested in board games?

Fifth grade started me with Chess and Checkers at school in Mr. Brown's class. In sixth grade, a friend introduced me to war games and I've been playing since.

What were some of your first favorite board games?

My first games were Chess, Checkers, Old Maid, Hearts and Mastermind. These games were fun because you had to figure out what your opponets were doing, so they made you think. Also, the game interaction let you take on roles that were different, like beating your dad at Chess.

What are some of your current favorites?

I enjoy Infection of course, but I also like Magic: the Gathering, Chess and Squad Leader. These games all have many variables, so each time you play it's totally different.

When did you first think about designing board games?

I always played with army men and built citys of blocks that my Papa made for me. These would be the earliest games. I made map boards for games I already had to play on new areas. A friend of mine made a game when I was in fifth grade, but I don't remember the name of it.

Tell me about the process of designing Infection. When did you come up with the idea?

A friend and I were looking up parasites and other gross things in the library at Hartnell (College in Salinas, California) when he dared me to come up with a million dollar idea. I had always played board games, and the parasite books must have inspired me. I came up with a set of rules and basic outlay the next day.

How long did it take you to develop the first version of the game?

We made the first version in about a week. That was 1983.

How long did it take before you had a finished version ready?

I made the first production Infection on October 6, 1998, my birthday present to myself. That means 15 years from first model, second model made and copyrighted in 1991, to first production model.

What did you enjoy most about designing Infection?

I enjoy watching people play or look at the game for the first time. When someone likes Infection, it makes me very happy.

What did you enjoy least?

Having to ignore the comments, "I think you should have done this or that." I appreciate the help and will use many of the ideas in my next game, but it's still hard to hear.

Did you have the game playtested?

Friends and family helped playtest Infection and several changes were made on their suggestions. ("Intensive care" was the idea of my friend Tom in grad school.)

How important was the playtesting process for this game?

Playtesting was very important in working out the flow of play and finding all the weird "what if" cases you normally don't think about.

Where did you have the game manufactured?

Everything was done in the U.S. I found different places for everything. Linotext printed the cards, board and box; Caulistics made the playing pieces; TPI printed the rules and money; Star sold me the dice; and Performance Packaging made the boards and boxes. I again enlised the help of friends and family to collate all the money and cards. We're still doing the cards! I assemble each game and shrink wrap them myself. I got eleven pounds of rubber bands from a factory in south San Francisco.

What surprised you most about the manufacturing process?

I have since found out that there are places that will do all the manufacering for you. I guess you have to learn these things the hard way. Also to shop around as prices vary widely.

When did you start to sell the game on your own?

The first games went to friends and family. Games and More in the Great Mall in Milpitas (California) bought six in late November and started me out. Acme Comics in Salinas was next. Now Infection is in 15 stores and looking for more. I also got a web site and started selling direct.

How successful would you say the game has been?

I wanted to see Infection up on the shelves at games stores, so I considered the whole venture a success at that point. About 400 Infections have sold so far and I'm confident that more people will contract Infection as the word spreads.

What are your plans for the future of Infection?

I'm working on an addition to Infection: High School Health or Infection 101. A disease and cure card set covering the ailments of concern to young people -- eating disorders, drug- and alcohol-related diseases, STDs, etc. Infection is now in three high schools, used in health and science classes. I think the high school health addition will make Infection a natural for use in the schools. Kids learn better while having fun.

I've also thought of theme sets like diseases of the Middle Ages or diseases of South America.

Do you plan to design any other board games?

My brother and I are starting work on two card games. These deal with religions so we can really get in trouble. Two other board games are on the back burner, for now. Infection is the flagship for Earwig Enterprises and it will have to succeed to make the rest follow.

This article was first posted on July 24, 1999.

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