The State of Cooperative Games

Cooperative games have carved themselves a solid place in the landscape of boardgames. Ever since I spied Battletoads on the NES I’ve liked the idea of working together with other people to beat a game (note I never actually played Battletoads). Nowadays they are still relatively rare as computer/videogames, though most games have a (usually atrophied) multiplayer mode you can team up in. In the world of boardgames, co-ops haven’t quite lived up to my expectations – many of them fall prey to the “bossy leader” syndrome, others seem too tactical or too obvious.

The pioneer is this mechanical genre was Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, a game that caught my eye when it first emerged as part of a mixed media promotion. I didn’t recognise this so-called “famous designer” but nevertheless I was intrigued by he had made of the license. I didn’t get the chance back then, but I can say now that the game was a massive innovation, even within the hobby game community. Knizia flipped the fundamental structure of gaming on its head: rather than struggling against each other, players were allies cooperating against an implacable, inhuman foe. He wove communication, self-sacrifice, and tough decisions into a game that followed the narrative of the story. Significantly, Knizia eschewed portraying combat in any great detail, and had the players take the roles of the weakest and most vulnerable characters: the hobbits.

Cooperative play more recently was revived with the success of Pandemic, a very accessible game about halting the spread of four diseases around the globe. This led to several more cooperative games in the same style. While the issues of group problem solving, bossy players, and obvious/tactical play are fundamental hurdles, co-ops try to address them in different ways.

Knizia’s original Lord of the Rings retained the (much disparaged in Euros) mechanic of player elimination. This gave each player an individual, distinct stake in the game, and allowed theme-fitting self-sacrifice. Pandemic and its successors have personal cards and bonuses, but these seldom feel like more than part of the global resource pool. Perhaps a better example of this “individual state” idea is Arkham Horror, where players control characters with backgrounds, powers and inventory, and become more or less capable during the game. While the theme-derived character-identification is a factor, I believe that the variation in players’ characters’ capabilities is the key driver for players assuming an individual stake.

Arkham Horror is massively random, and much of the time, performing one more rather than another is not directly traceable to success or failure. While optimal play still exists (something many commentators don’t understand), the imprecision of valuation gives players a lot of social leeway to depart from it. Where one move is greatly superior to another, the bossy player or the hive mind will re-emerge.

My favourite is cooperative is Space Alert, a game that includes a real-time element. This stresses coordination, division of responsibilities, delegation and communication rather than group problem-solving, and inhibits bossy players. This mechanic has been incorporated into Wok Star.

Hanabi eliminates the default of unrestricted, costless communication. Players need to spend tokens in order to give very restricted clues. Communication is performed via implication and convention, similar to bidding in Bridge; the few reviews available describe the game as a tense, very different experience. Space Hulk: Death Angel also upsets the default, in a specific circumstances: when an “instinct” card is drawn, the player must make his decision without consultation.

Despite these mechanics, I haven’t been completely satisfied so far, and in a future post will pursue this issue further.

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