Once upon a time in a far off kingdom players would gather and enjoy crushing one another in a competitive game of intrigue, conflict, and deceit. One day a man was sitting below the oppressive fist of his component and a thought struck him, ‘I always lose.’ He thought as another of his armies was removed from the board; ‘wouldn’t it be better if we were all on the same team?’ and thus the Cooperative board game was developed.
For the record; that may or may not have been the way the idea of playing as a team was developed, but I like to think it is. The mechanic of Co-op play is not new, though in older games it was represented more as a team-vs-team than an all-vs-game. For the last few years, however, there has been a boom in the Cooperative and Semi-Cooperative game space as is seen in the success of games such as Forbidden Island, Pandemic, Flashpoint, and the like.
What defines a Cooperative game? This is a shockingly difficult question to answer due to the variability of the mechanic. Since there seem to be shades of grey in this area I will provide my definitions, and why I feel this way. Let me begin by looking at the unadulterated Co-op mechanic then I will look at the sub mechanics.
Pure Co-op games have the players work as a team, no traitors, no side teams, no game/dungeon master. Games using the mechanic in this way tend to have set game mechanics that work against the players; in Arkham Horror for example each round gates and monsters appear and/or move without the player’s control based upon card draws. The players do not have a choice if a gate appears (barring special circumstances); if the card says something happens, it does; so the players must do as it says. Games such as this tend by default to be all win or all loose games; there is usually no middle ground.
Other games use the All-vs-One form of Cooperation; games such as Decent, Scotland Yard, and tabletop RPGs are all examples of this. Traditionally games using the All-vs-One mechanic will have the solo player controlling the opposition or bad guys while the players take on the heroes; be they adventurers, police officers, or rebels seeking to overthrow the empire; often in these games the all win or the one wins (note the all is technically all minus one; thus the proper term would be ‘All-Minus-One-vs-The-One-Removed-From-The-All’ you can see why I shorten this to All-vs-One… (In most RPGs the GM/DM is not against the players but rather acts in a manner to move along the narrative.)
All-vs-One has a sub sub mechanic in the form of the betrayer. Betrayers are an unknown force; this is used well in Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot, and Dead of Winter. Often the game will begin with all players drawing a role; they are either part of the team or they are a traitor working against the team as a mole. The traitor(s) must work as a member of the team while working to secretly hurt the team and overthrow the kingdom, destroy the spaceship, or bring an end to civilization. Often these games will end with the team winning or the betrayer winning though there are instances in which everyone can lose.
Some would argue a sub sub mechanic belongs in this category for games such as Bang! or the Resistance in which players act in a cooperative manner until it is revealed who is really on either team; these games and this mechanic I would say belongs in its own mechanic of (social) deduction; which is a blog for another day. I would than further argue that team-vs-team games are subject to the partnership mechanic as opposed to the co-operative mechanic as players may be acting co-operatively with their partner the main theme of the game is not based upon the alliance.
For a game to thus be considered a cooperative game I would state all players must be working together with minimal direct player conflict. Semi-Cooperative games add more player conflict in the form of the All-vs-one or the betrayer mechanics. There is an additional form that is new to modern gaming in the last few years (there is a chance that such games can be traced further back but I can not think of any example off the top of my head), but these are coopetitive games. These are games in which players are a team seeking to fulfill individual goals, players are not directly competing, they are on the same team seeking a certain end, but only one player can be the victor. Players are thus forced to attempt to bring about the right end but in a manner that they have the best edge. There are levels of coopetitiveness from light to heavy. A light coopetitve game is one in that players each have hidden agendas and any who meet their agenda wins; so long as the main agenda has been completed as well, this is done in Dead of Winter; though the betrayer mechanic was slid in as well; who desires the main objective fails. Heavier coopetitive games tend to follow the end game point system; doing actions grants points and whoever has the most points at the end of the game wins.
Cooperative play is an interesting mechanic in that it is forced to be partnered with other mechanics; it is not capable of standing on its own, and yet when revealed it tends to be the mechanic that defines the game. Games are often described as their level of cooperation and how direct is the conflict if there is any. This is only reasonable as many games that are cooperative would not work well in a non-cooperative state; imagine Forbidden Island with one character controlling the weather or players not working to aid each other off the island; or Pandemic with one player controlling just the viruses; these games would not be as exciting for that player; when it is a betrayer, however, doing those actions the thrill remains.
I could spend days looking at this mechanic as it is one I find often in games I enjoy and bring to my table; partially as it can leave each player feeling successful; while in conflicting games competitive players can get upset when attacked or betrayed. These are also great games for younger and beginning gamers as it enable us to act as a teacher aiding them until they are ready to break free on their own. Unfortunately for this same reason alpha gamers can stand out as a problem as they attempt to control the game dictating everyone else’s turns.
If you would like to play more games with these mechanic I would recommend:
Pure Cooperative games: Forbidden Island, Pandemic (w/o bioterroris), or Arkham Horror
All-vs-One games: Scottland Yard, Decent, and Mansions of Madness
Betrayer games: Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, and Dead of Winter
Come back Tomorrow as we look at the great Co-Op game Forbidden Island! Until then you can find us on social media!