Opposing Opinions: Cooperative Games

Time again for our quarrelsome duo, Larry Levy and Tom Rosen, to exchange verbal blows over another gaming topic.  This time, they’re arguing over one of the hot trends in the hobby — cooperative games. Gentlemen, go to your respective corners and come out swinging!

Larry:  Can the Co-ops!

Well, Tom, it looks like our first article in the series was well received and as expected (by me, at least), you were squashed by the court of public opinion.  I fully expect this next debate to go the same way, so stock up on the crying towels.

We’ll be talking about cooperative games this time around and I’m agin ‘em.  But unlike game expansions (the topic of our first tete-a-tete), which I’ve mostly avoided, I’ve played plenty of co-ops.  I was right there when Knizia revitalized the field with Lord of the Rings a decade ago.  I’ve helped King Arthur root out the traitor in Shadows Over Camelot and fought both deadly diseases in Pandemic and mindless monsters in Castle Panic.  Over the years, I’ve played more than my share of cooperatives and after all that time have come to the conclusion that, with very few exceptions, they’re just not for me.

The first reason for this is the most basic:  I like competition.  Not necessarily snarling, at your opponents’ throat, win at all costs competition.  But yes, I like a battle of wits against a crafty opponent who is doing their best to beat you.  That, by definition, is the element that’s missing in every co-op and it almost always leads to a less than fully satisfying experience.  I rarely play games with children (and have none of my own), so that very popular aspect of cooperative play doesn’t enter into the equation.  I just find that given the choice between playing against a game system or against living, breathing opponents, I’ll choose the latter every time.

My second reason is that the vast majority of co-ops are really extended versions of single-player solitaire.  Sure, you’re not supposed to tell anyone else what cards you hold in your hand, but when it comes right down to it, it’s a group attempt at solving a single problem, an effort that could be carried out just as readily with one player.  As such, the whole exercise feels a little forced and designers have to include artificial rules to give the players some semblance of individuality.  Even most of the “many vs. one” cooperative games, like Scotland Yard or LotR with the Sauron expansion, are like this–these are essentially two-player games.  They would be fine with two, but are invariably played with more.

Almost all of the exceptions to this rule are the “traitor” games, like Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica.  In theory, these designs should provide a nice sense of tension and paranoia, but in practice, they rarely deliver.  More often, this is replaced by a somewhat sophomoric “Just what I’d expect a Cylon to do” mantra which becomes tiresome five minutes into the game.  I don’t care for bluffing and psychological games, so the mind games in these titles don’t appeal to me either.

A minor point is that many co-ops are strongly themed, but not with themes I particularly like.  I’m not a big fan of Lord of the Rings, never watched Battlestar Galactica, and have only a passing knowledge of the Arthurian legends.  Then there are games like Ghost Stories, with themes that are totally incomprehensible to me.  It’s not so much that I find these themes unappealing, but simply that they don’t add much to the experience.  I’m not sure an enjoyable theme would make that much of a difference to me, but it might help a little bit.

Finally, there’s the most cited bugaboo of co-ops, the Dominant Player Syndrome.  We all want to win, so it’s so tempting for the player with the most experience to try to direct the other players what to do.  Sometimes, it’s just the bossiest player, whether or not they have the best plan.  This is a hard trap to avoid and I’m sure we’ve all seen it.  This makes the cooperative experience even less attractive, as quieter players don’t even feel like they’re contributing.

All of these reasons contribute to my increasing disillusionment with cooperatives, but the biggest factor is the first one.  If you find what you really like is the competitive nature of games, you have a strong incentive to routinely avoid the co-ops.  More and more, that’s what I’ve been doing and, with few exceptions, I don’t think I’m missing much at all.

All right, Tommy, those are my reasons and they’re good ones.  You can try to spread your co-op love, but I don’t think anyone will be buying!

Tom:  Learning to Play Well with Others

The genre of cooperative games has something for everyone.  There are the pure co-ops, like Ghost Stories or Pandemic, that pit the players against a puzzle to solve collectively.  There are speed co-ops, like Wok Star or Space Alert, that specialize in frantic fun.  There are all vs. one games, like Letters from Whitechapel or Descent, that provide remarkable asymmetric experiences.  And there are traitor games, like Battlestar Galactica or Castle Panic, that are the epitome of tense.  If you can’t find something in there for you then you are quite the picky gamer.

If I can break down your attempt at an argument, I see five points to rebut: (1) competition; (2) solitaire; (3) psychological; (4) theme; and (5) dominant player.  That should be easy enough.

Competition is easy, cooperative games are filled with it.  You just have to open your mind a bit.  It’s not an accident that cooperative games are notorious for kicking the living daylights out of players the first few times they play them, whether it’s an epic beat-down from Wu-Feng or gnomes dropping dead left and right in a doomed submarine.  Players compete against the game in cooperative games and the game doesn’t play nice.  Just as in Survival Games (like Antiquity or In the Year of the Dragon) where players compete against the game system as much or more than against each other, cooperative games just take it one step further so players can focus on competing with the game system.

The solitaire nature of some cooperative games is an asset, not a fault.  Certain cooperative games are remarkably easy to play as solitaire games and work extremely well.  You can fight disease or ghosts on your own, which makes those purchases so much more versatile than most games.  It’s a nice change of pace to sit down to a game on your own and challenge yourself.  Luckily for those of you like Larry who aren’t interested in broadening your horizons with such a novel experience, there are plenty of cooperative games that can’t possibly be played solitaire.  I’d like to see you try to peg Hanabi or Space Alert as solitaire games in sheep’s clothing, let alone Letters from Whitechapel or Battlestar Galactica.  And just because Pandemic or Ghost Stories can be played solitaire doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from having extra minds at the table to formulate strategy together.  For instance, the dynamic in Letters from Whitechapel changes when you add that third player and suddenly there are two investigators pooling their mental resources.

The psychological aspect of a subset of cooperative games may not be for everyone but it provides a memorable narrative that no other type of game can hope to replicate.  The paranoia inspired by games like Battlestar Galactica or Shadows over Camelot is not only engaging in the moment but also the perfect recipe for a memorable game experience that the players can recall far into the future.  Unlike so many bland games these days that are forgotten as soon as they’re back on the shelf, traitor games keep you entertained recalling them long after they’re packed up.  If you can’t handle the heat of being grilled about your allegiance by your fellow players then feel free to get out of the kitchen, but the rest of us will be in here having a raucous good time.

As for theme, diversity of theme is one of the great selling points of cooperative games.  If you can’t find a theme you like among the myriad cooperative games then you’re just not trying.  Are you telling me that among the following games not a single theme interests you?  Because if that’s the case then I guess you might as well just stick with Renaissance Italy and Egyptian auctions.  Arkham Horror, Battlestar Galactica, Castle Panic, Defenders of the Realm, Descent, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, Hanabi, Letters from Whitechapel, Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Red November, Shadows over Camelot, Space Alert, Space Hulk: Death Angel, and Wok Star.  Yes, fantasy and science fiction themes are more prevalent among cooperative games than board games generally it would seem, but there are others there for those of you in denial of your geekhood.

Last and least, the Dominant Player Syndrome is a bunch of hog wash.  If you can’t find friends to play with that won’t ruin the experience then you probably shouldn’t even bother with board games.  I trust you can find some people to play with that won’t boss each other around and make each other miserable.  Moreover, lots of different types of games can be ruined by certain player attributes, but that doesn’t mean you should discount them entirely.  You wouldn’t want to play Tikal with an analysis-paralysis player, 18XX with a math-phobe, Igloo Pop with someone hard of hearing, Poker with someone without any poker face, or Bausack with a total klutz.  But that doesn’t mean those games don’t have merit and can’t be played when you have the right people around.  Not only is the Dominant Player Syndrome argument worthless because of these reasons, but it’s also completely inapplicable to so many innovative cooperative games these days, like Space Alert, Wok Star, Hanabi, or Castle Panic.

The genre of cooperative games has grown so broad and diverse that it’s impossible to pigeon-hole them any longer.  Don’t feel bad for being incapable of coming up with an argument against them that holds water.  They’re just too multifaceted to succumb to any criticism you can come up with.  There’s something in the genre for everyone who’s willing to learn how to play well with others.

Larry’s Rebuttal

Jeez, Tom, is that the best you can come up with?  Maybe you’ve been wallowing in your cooperative games for so long that you’ve lost the killer instinct!

Doing battle with a game system is not the same as competing with living, breathing opponents.  If it were, I’d be perfectly happy solving crossword puzzles for the rest of my life and could save a lot of money by not buying games.  I love games where you have to struggle against the mechanics, but what makes those battles so enjoyable is the challenge of doing it better than everyone else in the game.  Maybe that makes me a competition junkie, but as I said, I’m not a win-at-all-costs gamer, just one who really enjoys the contentious aspect of gaming and who feels that competition is what makes the whole process meaningful.

Yeah, it’s nice that most co-ops can work well in solitaire mode, but that aspect is far, far down the list of things I look for when considering whether to buy a game.  I very rarely play solitaire games.  I much prefer FTF games and usually have better ways of spending my time than such solo contests.  It’s great that other people enjoy them, but the point of this article isn’t that cooperative games are bad, just that they aren’t for me.

However, I find it interesting that the two games you cite that really can’t be categorized as solitaire games are Hanabi and Space Alert.  That’s because those are probably the only cooperative games that I’ll actually suggest playing.  Hanabi’s unique and very innovative mechanics really set it apart from any other co-op I’ve seen.  It’s an extremely enjoyable puzzle where the presence of other players is essential to the game.  Space Alert works due to its theme and its inherent humor and fun, but mostly because it uses time pressure to overcome most of the objections I have to cooperatives.  Both games find different ways to avoid being solitaire pastimes and that seems to be an essential element for me to enjoy a cooperative game.

Traitor co-ops should induce some pleasurable paranoia, but in practice I haven’t found it to be the case.  Shadows Over Camelot seems to lead more to wariness of your opponents than anything resembling paranoia.  It’s a matter of degree, but there’s a pretty significant difference to my way of thinking and I think it may be due to the fairly abstract nature of the game.  I found it enjoyable for a few plays way back when, but then it fell into a deep black hole for the group from which it is yet to emerge.  And Battlestar Galactica didn’t do it for me at all.  It wasn’t a matter of not being able to handle the tension but more about being bored by the whole process.  When the chances for a traitor are that high, I usually just assume everyone is out to get me anyway and there isn’t too much that’s tense about that.

There are some mildly interesting themes in co-ops, but most of them don’t really grab me.  I don’t think I can be castigated too strongly for not swooning over bland fantasy, weird Chinese poltergeists, and pulp science fiction.  With very few exceptions (Space Alert is one of them), the themes aren’t strong enough to make me feel like I’m doing much more than pushing cubes.

If you haven’t had to deal with dominant players in your cooperatives, then you’re a lucky man.  The fact is, it’s a hard thing to avoid.  We all want to win, so it can be natural to lean on the person who seems to have the best ideas.  I’m not talking about bossiness, just players trying to maximize their chances of success.  It comes up often enough to give me another reason to avoid games like this.

And playing well with others?  That’s your big summary???  So now instead of digging into a nice vicious game we should just join hands and launch into a few stanzas of Kumbayah?  I play just fine with others, mostly by trying to beat their brains in while they’re doing the same to me.  We laugh before, during, and after this period of competition, with no bruised egos or shattered friendships.  I can have a great time locking horns with my buds at the game table and the experience is enhanced by the competition.  Maybe that means I’ll be living off of red meat for the rest of my gaming days, but those are the designs I like the most.  Vive le competition!

Tom’s Final Word

The point of this article is that cooperative games are an excellent genre, not that they’re bad or that they’re “not for you.”  They are a thriving, promising new field in game design.  What’s most exciting is that they’re just emerging from their infancy.  Designers are beginning to push the boundaries, trying out new and innovative things.  Unlike genres such as auction games or area majority games where there are already so many designs out there and it has become very difficult for a designer to break new ground, cooperative games are a fertile area for innovation.  It’s always fun to try out a new cooperative game because you don’t know what you’re in for and you may just see something you’ve never seen before.

It sounds like you’ve already come around with the innovative likes of Hanabi and Space Alert, so we have ourselves another convert to the cooperative club.  Your membership badge to the cooperative fan club should be in the mail shortly.

Vive le competition indeed.  Competition with your teammates against a covert villain in Letters from Whitechapel or an evil overlord in Descent.  Competition against the devilish machinations from the minds of Leacock or Bauza in Pandemic or Ghost Stories.  Competition to root out the sneaky traitors in Battlestar or Camelot.  Competition against the ticking of the clock in the great beyond of Space Alert or in the kitchen of Wok Star.  That’s a whole lot of edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting competition!  Cooperative games are not for the feint of heart as they pit you against some of the biggest challenges you’ll find in board gaming, but for those with a bit of team spirit and a bunch of bravado, cooperative games are a bastion of innovative fun.

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10 Responses to Opposing Opinions: Cooperative Games

  1. peer says:

    I agree with Tom here. Two points:
    1) Scotland yard is bassicly a 2-Player-game: This is simply not the case and this conception was probably invented by people who judge a game from the rule book. The point that this assemption is missing is that players talk with each other and discuss strategies. Strategies that Mr. X hears. Thats an important point and a good Mr X will play accordingly. I wouldnt play 2-Players-Scotland Yard, because that would be a luck fest for Mr. X. Hearing the strategies of the players give him a decent chance.
    2.) The Dominant Player phenomen exists in a lot (not all- see Hanabi or Space alert) of coops. But its a problem akin to “Games with Action points are AP-prone” or “Games with auctions are difficult for beginners”. Its a hardly a gamebreaker per se – it is for some, just like Kramers Maskgames are not for everybody – but it should not cause a dissmissal of all coops (especially if you include hidden/open traitorgames).

    For the German readers: I wrote an article about design possibilities on coops: http://www.spielbar.com/wordpress/2011/08/07/2126

  2. I’d like to suggest that although the Dominant Player problem seems more prevalent in co-op games, it’s not unknown in the rest of the gaming world. Co-op games didn’t create the problem of someone who doesn’t play well with others (give him/her an unsmiley face for playground play!), it just becomes more obvious in a game that demands cooperation.

  3. Dale Yu says:

    I hate co-ops.
    Or at least I used to think so.

    In the past 12 months, I’ve actually played and enjoyed a number of them:

    Star Trek: Expeditions
    Ghost Stories
    Ghost Stories: Black Secret
    Dungeon Fighter

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Descent.
    I’m actually highly anticipating the arrival of Sidi Baba in the mail from Essen.
    That being said – I’ve also played a number that I’d rather not see ever again though… :)

    I’d probably still never want to have a whole night of co-op games, but at least I can tolerate them. And I might even now say that I’d rather play a co-op game over most party games. At least with the co-op game, if I become disinterested in it, I can just let the “dominant personality” on my team tell me what I’m going to do while I go pick out the next game to play…



  4. Ryan B. says:

    Peer is spot on about Scotland Yard. It is described as one of the boardgames with the highest interaction among players, by all the people I play with. Many “competitive” Eurogames have far less interaction than Scotland Yard. Like Caylus, for example…

    Larry has a point about co-op games in this respect: It seems like game design goes through phases– first a lot of games with a pirate theme, then a lot of games with auction mechanics, then a lot of games about trains. And then there were a lot of co-op games, all being designed at the same time, where the goal was to “beat the system” within the game. I think co-ops should still be “in play” design-wise… just think of more creative ways to utilize the mechanic. Maybe a game where the cooperation element comes into play over “shared interests”, once you begin playing… so you don’t necessarily know at first who you want to co-op with? I don’t know. Its just an idea.

    But seeing so many co-ops all at once, covering roughly the same thing, does get a little old, I suppose.

  5. Wolf Wittenstein says:

    Thank you, both gentlemen made their point. And I do not care whose corner is the winning one.
    I had a lot of fun with cooperative games, right from the first year of Scotland Yard, which guided many of my friends into the hobby. And I remember a “cooperative” jump into the pool after a sweat-inducing mission of Space Alert decades later. Geschmack ist Bandbreite (taste is range) as we Germans say ;-)

  6. garygarison says:

    One way to play Carcassonne is to pull a tile, have all players take part in assessing the most promising place to put it, and everyone do their very best to optimized the collective score of the whole table. To avoid hurting sensitive self-images, just use a single generic marker on the score track and keep a running total of all collected points. Try to make the highest score possible. And then try to beat that score next time!

    For co-op fans who favor the cloying and sappy and can’t quite stomach the cut-throat nature of standard Carcassonne, rejoice. You have your co-op variant.

  7. huzonfirst says:

    The suddenly ubiquitous nature of cooperative games is certainly a big part of it, Ryan. I have just seen SO many new games which feature cooperative play prominently. I’m not at all sure that most of these games have different things to offer, just like I’m not sure that all the new deckbuilders are truly innovative. Even more than usual, it seems that hot trends are being done to death in the world of gaming and that can lead to an unfortunate sense of “Hot Trend Fatigue”. At least, it does for me.

    Mark, the big problem with the Dominant Player Syndrome is that these are NOT boorish or inconsiderate players. They’re just trying to help their team to win. It’s a very fine line between making repeated suggestions or letting everyone else participate. Essentially, you may have to decide between either dominating play or accepting sub-optimal strategies. We all want to win, so this can be a tough choice, making it all too easy for less skilled or quieter players to get stampeded a bit. I think it’s a difficult and somewhat incidious issue with co-ops that can crop up even with players who are very considerate during competitive games.

  8. Ryan B. says:

    I can definitely agree with everything you wrote on that one, Larry. Well said. : )

  9. Jason says:

    As one who plays primarily with my children, I really enjoy co-ops, but look at the theme moreso than the style of cooperative mechanics employed – and there are plenty of great themes in the genre! We like our competition games, too – even war games – but the co-ops are a nice change of pace and usually exciting.

  10. David Lund says:

    Count me as another fan of many of the co-op games. One of the things I like about board games in general, not just co-ops, is exploring the strategy space of a game. it’s definitely exciting in a standard game to do that exploration by matching wits and then comparing notes afterward, but I think it is often just as fun to explore the strategies cooperatively with all the kibbitzing that happens in a co-op. Ironically, I don’t enjoy the traitor based co-ops as much precisely because the mechanic undermines the kibbitzing. instead of upping the tension, for me it often just drains the joy, though I think I’m a minority view in that regard. Another nice feature of co-ops is the shared highs and lows, the collective cheers and groans when things work out or don’t. I wouldn’t want to play co-ops exclusively, but I think we’ve been fortunate to have a spate of really good ones in the last few years.

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