Archive for August, 2010

On the Nature of Co-operative Games

August 13, 2010

Cooperative games are games in which the players work together to defeat a common enemy. Sometimes one player plays the villain, either openly or as a secret traitor, but more often the enemy is the game itself which will defeat the players when certain thresholds have been reached. There have been many cooperative games published in the last few years, from Arkham Horror to Pandemic. Some say we’re in a golden age of co-op game designs. Whether it’s a fad or a cultural movement towards less competitive gaming remains to be seen, but I’ve been playing my fair share of them and I’ve even been developing one of my own.

What makes a cooperative game good?

First of all, a strong theme is important. It motivates the players to succeed. If the game is too abstract, then the threat doesn’t feel convincing. The theme also suggests to you what you should spend your time doing, letting you tap into real or fictional experience as a guide. The endgame must have a good thematic excuse, lest it feel arbitrary. I’ve lost many co-op games with a sense of "what, that’s it?" Theme helps make the threat matter, both to keep the pressure on, and to justify the doom looming over your head.

A good co-op game has lots of tough decisions, but not too tough. If the decisions are obvious, then you feel like the game is playing you. If the decisions are too difficult, then you and everyone else becomes bogged down in group analysis paralysis as y’all solve the puzzle by committee. Trust me, that part’s no fun when one player grabs the reins and dictates the actions of all the players. If you can understand the situation yourself, then you can analyze it solo, and will be less likely to ask for groupthink on an problem. Of course, one of the best strengths about co-op games is the ability to ask for help, both on rules and on strategy.

A good co-op game has multiple anti-victory conditions, and multiple ways to prevent your group from losing. It makes the game more replayable, and forces you to divide your precious time and resources in mulitple directions, thus increasing the decisions to be made.

A good co-op game surprises you with randomness. Again, this keeps the threat palpable, makes the game replayable, and prevents the most experienced player from driving the group. You should feel like you have a chance to win during any point in the game. At no point should you feel like all hope is lost. Ultimately, you should win a co-op game no more than half the time, and you should always feel like you earned victory.

A good co-op game has variable player powers. It encourages efficient teamwork, and again adds to replayability. If no one is special , you question your importance. By giving you a specific job, a specific role to fill, you become important. Everyone likes to feel important.

But most importantly, a good co-op game needs sacrifice. You should take big risks, make big bets, and take one for the team. This is what cooperative games are all about, the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat". It took me a while to separate the good co-op games from the great co-op games, and this is it. Making bad decisions should cost you more than time, it should hurt. And sometimes you realize that you’re the best player to pay a cost and take a risk. Sacrifice leads to heroic deeds, heroic deeds lead to intense storytelling, and those times where you risked it all and won (or lost) will be the gaming tales you will tell long after the game has been packed up. RPG players know this lesson by heart, but I think the point is often lost on luck-averse eurogamers.

So, what co-op games are your favorite? Here they are, in order of worst to best:

  • Scotland Yard ~ This is an all-against-one game, where a team of detectives track a hidden fugitive through the streets of London, deducing the criminal’s unrevealed location through clues of his modes of transit. Scotland Yard is the oldest game on this list, and is an excellent deduction game on the level of Clue. However, there are no player powers or randomness, and player experience counts here more than in any other co-op game I’ve played. This makes it very tempting for one detective to drive the whole team, and that’s why Scotland Yard is best as a two-player deduction game, not a multiplayer co-op game.
  • Martians!!! ~ Martians is a competitive game with a cooperative variant. The players are residents of a sleepy midwestern town which has succumbed to an invasion by little green men from Mars. Your team must find and assemble parts of a bomb, and then find and destroy the mothership with it. It sure sounds exciting, but Martians!!! failed the decisions test. There were few decisions to make, and often the best choice was very obvious. Since the modular map is built by the players as the game progresses, it was all too easy to keep the bad stuff away from you. The Martian soldiers ended up quarantined on the outskirts of town, and the mad tiles that triggered bad events were completely avoided. As a cooperative game, I found Martians!!! neither threatening nor challenging.
  • Apophis ~ In this Icehouse game, your team of rocket scientists must assemble rockets to destroy an earthbound asteroid before it strikes the Earth. The threat in this game comes entirely from the egg timer. The theme made this endgame very real for me. We only have a short amount of time before the asteroid gets here… oh no! While it was exciting to beat the clock, it turned Apophis into a dexterity race, and it felt more like a sport than a game.
  • 3-High ~ This is the most abstract co-op game I’ve played. The team uses playing cards to assemble scattered pyramids into complete towers, and they have to do so before running out of cards. The decisions in 3-High were harder than in Martians!!! or Apophis, but without a theme I wondered "why am I doing this?" Also, 3-High proved to be too easy to win.
  • Shadows Over Camelot ~ You are a Knight of the Round Table, and you complete quests for the glory of Camelot. Find Excalibur, seek out the Holy Grail, and defeat the siege engines amassing around King Arthur’s kingdom. Shadows Over Camelot can be played purely cooperatively, or with a secret traitor. I don’t like deception as a pastime and strongly avoid traitor games, but many people find the game to play better with a hidden adversary. This game felt dry and mechanical to me; the quests were completed or failed due to some arbitrary number being reached, and the whole thing felt more like a accounting exercise than a game. There is also a relatively low amount of player interaction involved, and you go about your business regardless of what other people are doing.
  • Pandemic ~ Pandemic is regarded as the current king of co-op games. You are part of a team of CDC experts racing to cure diseases before the world is overrun by germs. Each player has a unique and useful power. I’ve had arguments over which of the powers are indispensable. Can you win the game without the medic or the researcher? The player roles are well balanced. The game also has an ingenious deck-stacking mechanic that allows for controlled randomness. You have a sense of what trouble is coming, but you never know exactly when it will arrive. Because of your special roles, the team works together like a Swiss stopwatch, with efficient and precise timing. However, I’m sure there are many people who are surprised to see Pandemic so far down on my list and here’s why. Pandemic is too dry, too mechanical, and generally too predictable enough to get me excited. It reminds me too much of work, where everyone gets together and solves the puzzle by committee, heatedly debating and second-guessing each and every possible choice. There’s too little room for error to avoid doing so. And when the game ends, it feels arbitrary. It makes little sense to me that the game should end because we ran out of cubes or because the draw deck is empty. If you want to solve a low-luck puzzle together, this is still the best choice, but note that all of the following higher-ranked games have high luck factors.
  • Arkham Horror ~ This is one of the best RPG-in-a-box games that offers a very immersive setting and character roleplaying, a reasonable simulacrum of a roleplaying session with far less time investment. It’s silly I should say that for a game that can run over many hours, but it beats the months of time an RPG campaign can take. Anyway, Arkham Horror, with or without the expansions, is about a team of adventurers who defend their New England town from invasion by otherworldly monsters. There is generally only one approach to playing the game, either prevent the Ancient One from waking by closing and sealing gates to other planes, or by defeating the Ancient One in epic combat. Now this is an endgame that matters. If you fail, you will be driven insane and eaten! There is no subtlety. Highly thematic, highly replayable, and with nearly a dozen expansions to add even more moving parts, Arkham Horror does many things a co-op game should do, and do them well, especially heroic sacrifice. My shortcomings with Arkham Horror are mainly around the fact that the game takes a long time to play; it’s the kind of game you reserve a weekend afternoon for. It is not easy to win, but it’ll still take hours to defeat you if you know you’re losing. Player interaction is not as strong as it could have been; like Shadows Over Camelot, you wander around blithely disregarding the actions of others. The decisions of your fellow adventurers have only minor impacts on you, but at least it is interesting to watch other players take their turns. Lastly, and more subjectively, I do knock Arkham Horror for the Lovecraftian theme, which doesn’t strike me as particularly cool or interesting.
  • The Isle of Dr. Necreaux ~ You’ve seen movies like this… a band of superheroes infiltrates the island fortress of a diabolical mad scientist and rescues the hostages before the doomsday device is activated. That is exactly what you’re doing in Isle of Dr. Necreaux. Each player is given three random superpowers that determine what character they are, so each person will play the game very differently. The challenge is to make it through the obstacle course known as Necreaux’s lair before time runs out… which could be as little as six turns! Each turn, the team has to decide how much risk they want to take, depending on the relative health of each team member and the preciousness of time remaining. Then they race to overcome traps and monsters. You find power-ups along the way, and suffer inevitable blows that give many opportunities for heroic sacrifice. You are all in it together, but only one of you needs to survive for everybody to win. The teamwork in Isle of Dr. Necreaux is stronger than with nearly every other co-op game because you are not dividing time or effort… you are dividing pain. It also scales well, playing just as difficult with one player as with six. The only drawback to this game is that the challenge of finding the scientists and the escape shuttlecraft don’t vary a whole lot, just the order of obstacles between them is randomized. Also, there was a lot more product refinement the publisher should have done to make the game play smoother. Many of my Isle of Dr. Necreaux sessions have involved several arguments over how a particular rule is supposed to be implemented. Each instance of this is sand thrown in the gears of fun. With a lot more polishing to smoothen out the rules questions, and with better recommendations for setup conditions (the rulebook treats the game as a box of components that you can tinker to heart’s content), this game could be my favorite co-op game of them all.
  • A Touch of Evil ~ This is Arkham Horror Lite, offering basically the same experience with far fewer rules and in a shorter amount of time. Like Martians!!!, Touch of Evil is meant to be a competitive game, but can be played cooperatively (and is equally good either way). The setting is not Lovecraft’s jazz age New England, but rather a generic small town circa 1810. The menaces are the usual black-and-white movie villains: vampires, werewolves, scarecrows and the ilk. Unlike Arkham Horror, where the choice of Ancient One has only a minor impact on the game, the villain in Touch of Evil impacts a large number of things. Like Arkham Horror, you have a character with special abilities, with the chance to level up and become stronger through your experiences. But one thing that makes Touch of Evil shine is the deduction element. There are Town Elders whom can be powerful allies when you go into battle with the villain, but some of these elders are secretly in league with the villain. Only by investigating the backgrounds of each elder can you determine who is friend and who is foe. Everything that Arkham Horror does well is done almost equally well in Touch of Evil, but in a design that is easier to learn, easier to teach, and faster to play.
  • Red November ~ A team of gnomes aboard a Russian gnomish submarine must keep the ship afloat for one hour before help arrives. This is a difficult task, as things are constantly breaking around you. Every time you fix a problem, three more creep up on you. You must decide which problems are the most dangerous to your survival, and decide how much attention they deserve. Spending more time solving one problem increases your chance of success on that task, but leaves you less available to deal with other, often unexpected, nasty surprises. This game is an elegant meshing of thematic flavor and simple mechanics. You interact with your players quite a bit as you trade items and run to their rescue. Nearly everything in the game is random. Sometimes life or death hinges on a single die roll! While there are no player power (yet), the items you carry are important enough that you are obviously the best man for the job, so get to work, sailor! Red November’s difficulty scales with the number of players, growing more difficult with more players; it is certain victory for three and certain doom for eight, while five seems to be just right. This co-op game has the best overall mix of strong theme, hard decisions, random surprises, replayability, and heroic sacrifice potential to put it on the top of my co-op games list. As one reviewer aptly stated, "you laugh, you cry, you die!"

What cooperative games are your favorites? What about them makes them your favorite? What could they do better?

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The 1779 Invasion of England

Movies I’ve Seen:

Where Eagles Dare (1968) ~ spies, action, and a heist

The Big Bus (1976) ~ disaster spoof powered by atomics

Men of Honor (2000) ~ DeNiro mimics my dive instructor

Children of Men (2006) ~ CNN directs V for Vendetta

Sherlock Holmes (2009) ~ Holmes shouldn’t be action franchise

What I’m Reading:

"The Scientist in the Crib" by Alison Gopnik, Patricia Kuhl, and Andrew Meltzoff

"Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald