Post By Bryan S.
If you are a regular player of cooperative games, you probably already have some sort of answer to the question in the title of this blog post. You have already defeated the ancient god Azathoth or saved the world from being overrun by diseases or put on the greatest fireworks display anyone has ever seen, and you could very easily come up with five or so reasons why you think cooperative board games are fun for you to play. But let’s say you’re a nonbeliever in cooperative board gaming or, perhaps, you haven’t experienced enough of it to come to a conclusion on it. That’s where I step in. I’m here to tell you why I believe cooperation in board games works so well.
On Board Games…
To start off, let’s analyze why any board game works – and prepare yourself, because this is going to be a little bit technical. The basic goal of playing your standard board game is to derive a desirable outcome out of a complex system, which is represented visually and tangibly through physical components. In most competitive games, the player who derives the greatest outcome from the system among all players is deemed the winner. For example, the player who scores the most victory points or the player who is the first to pass some predefined threshold.
The competition from the other players around the table in a traditional competitive game creates an important sense of drama for everyone. As each player tries to outdo the other, nobody knows with certainty what will happen next, yet everyone knows what they want to happen. Each player wants to win, but only one player can, so who’s it going to be? Am I going to be the winner this time? Or is it going to be Joe over here that’s done nothing but build cheese factories all game? It’s the crafting of a classic dramatic struggle. This sense of drama is what makes games fun.
In fact, this sense of drama is what makes most of the media we interact with every day fun. For example, consider the last time you read a book you couldn’t put down. You may have felt excitement as you got invested in the world or the character of the story but still didn’t know what would happen next. You simply had to keep turning page after page until you resolved that tension. Now what if somebody had spoiled the end of that book? It would have sucked all of the fun out of reading it, because now you know what happens. There is nothing of importance left to discover; the dramatic tension is gone.
Co-Op Games: Looking Under the Hood
Preserving the dramatic tension, in my view, is the very core of what makes any board game fun. So then, how do cooperative games create and preserve dramatic tension? It’s simple, actually – instead of the tension arising from the conflict between one player and another, the tension arises chiefly from the conflict between all of the players against the game’s system itself. Most cooperative games feature a tightly tuned system of limited resources wherein players must maximum their outcomes or they all die spectacularly. (Okay, so not every cooperative game ends with a losing team dying, but you get the picture.) This leads to dilemmas, where the group must come to a consensus on how to prioritize dealing with various crises, typically in the face of a massive amount of unknown information. Do I fight the monsters in Tokyo or do I try to pick up the clue in Shanghai? Do I use my card to fly to Sydney or do I save it to try to cure the red disease? The players around the table have to make choice after choice, and then wait with bated breath to see how those choices played out.
This is why “quarterbacking” (a veteran player dictating to novice players what they should be doing) in cooperative board games is so harmful to the game. It drains a lot of the dramatic tension from the game, because the novice players have little agency over what is happening anymore. The outcome of their decisions is of lower importance, because the decisions aren’t really theirs. Low importance of decisions means low dramatic tension which means less fun! Overall, this makes the game far less dramatic and engaging for the players being quarterbacked. The player doing the quarterbacking may be feeling like he or she is having a similar experience though, because the quarterback is still fully involved. So, if you are a veteran cooperative game player, make sure that you are not being a quarterback in your games for the sake of the rest of the table!
Systems in cooperative games also tend to be inherently imbalanced against the players, with many games featuring adjustable imbalance in order to make the game easier or harder. But why does the imbalance matter and why is imbalance fun? Well, imagine a perfectly balanced system, say a game where every turn you earn points by picking between an apple and a banana. Let’s say that each fruit is worth five points at all times. It’s all perfectly balanced. Is that fun? No, because every choice you make is completely irrelevant. Picking five apples is exactly the same as picking two apples and three bananas or even four bananas and one apple. Nothing matters, and choices with no importance are not fun to make. Now let’s say there is some imbalance. Apples are worth six points and bananas are worth one. We’ve created some imbalance – however, is this situation fun yet? No, because the imbalance is overly skewed – one option, picking an apple, is obviously better than picking a banana in every circumstance. The choice has some importance, but the game practically demands you make one choice over the other. Any reasonable player will always pick the apple; so again, there’s no tension inherent in the choice. Let’s scale the imbalance a little bit to see if it can become manageable, that is, so that it can present multiple interesting options which can be followed to a desirable outcome. Let’s say apples are once again five points, but every time you choose a banana, the value of the next banana increases by two. Now we are getting somewhere! Players must decide between taking the flat amount of points or ramping up the smaller amount of points over time. Either way, you could potentially be earning a competitive amount of points, but additional factors could now impact which choice is best. It’s a very small change, but now that the imbalance has been set to a manageable level, your choices now have potential to have a meaningful impact.
Trying to discern the optimal solution in a sea of imbalance is part of the fun of cooperative games and helps players feel that they have some control over what is going on around them.Furthermore, the imbalance in the system leads to almost every decision being of relatively high importance, as each one contributes to state of the system tipping in or out of favour for the players. In a good cooperative game, everyone around the table is fully engaged as they try to reach a consensus on how to solve whatever problem they are faced with. In a bad one, players are led through a series of events that are either impossible to beat or pose no challenge whatsoever, draining the dramatic tension by making the final outcome too obvious.
Of course, by this point you may now be saying, “But, Bryan, playing a game against a system… that seems not fun at all for me! The real fun comes from crushing my friends around the table, not crushing some formulaic jumble of cardboard parts.” To which I say, believe me, my rhetorical friend, when you start playing some of these games, you will absolutely want to crush their cardboard faces in just as much as any person’s.
However, if you really insist that you must play against other people, you are covered there too, as there are also many games that combine cooperative game play with strong competitive aspects as well. For example, there are plenty of asymmetrical games which feature a team of players working together against a single player – Scotland Yard, Letters from Whitechapel, Specter Ops, Fury of Dracula, or even the bioterrorist variant of Pandemic in the On the Brink expansion, just to name a few. If you are like my roommate and like to watch an entire team of players struggle to defeat you and still crush them all anyway entirely by yourself, then this variant of cooperative games may be for you.
You may also be interested in a semi-cooperative game, which is kind of like a cooperative game if everyone playing didn’t trust each other as far as they could throw one another and they also were still trying to beat each other while working together, sort of. (The world of board game definitions can be a little hard to pin down. Sorry, y’all.) Let’s try defining that again. Basically, a semi-cooperative game is a cooperative game where divergent interests are still built into the game. An excellent example of this is Dead of Winter, where players work together but win or lose separately due to a hidden, personal objective mechanic. Cutthroat Caverns is another game that would qualify as players work together to defeat monsters but ultimately have to back stab each other as only the player who scores the final hit on each monster scores points for the kill.
There are also cooperative games with traitor mechanics, where a player or players on the team may secretly be trying to undermine everyone. These games include titles like Dead of Winter (seriously, play Dead of Winter already, it’s fantastic), Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot, and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong to name a few. If you’re interested in spicing up traditional cooperative game play with some traitor-y goodness, then I would recommend chowing down on one of those titles (please don’t literally eat any pieces).
In summary, there are tons of amazing cooperative games out there, just waiting for you to play them and immerse yourself in the dramatic tension that comes from meaningful decision making. If you haven’t given them a try before, I recommend you start with a simpler traditional-style game, like Forbidden Island or its paternal twin, Forbidden Desert or their cousin, Pandemic. If you have tried them before and hate them, maybe consider a new variant of cooperative game, like Specter Ops or Dead of Winter and see if you feel any better about it. (Or not! You are totally allowed to hate things; it’s a free country.) If you are interested in trying something, but you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of these options and don’t know what your next game should be at all, well, a blog post on that may be coming in the future. Until then, I will see you all next time!