Riches to be Found in Cooperative Games
Cooperative games, or games that don’t result in one player winning and all others losing, are fascinating. There are precious few of them in the board and card game world. Many competitive games feature elements of cooperation, or at least opportunities for mutual gain among players, but few really pit players on the same side from start to finish. I think of games like Shadows Over Camelot, which I reviewed on this blog some time ago, in which players strive to complete the game before the rules overwhelm them. The game itself functions as the adversary, not the other players. Pandemic is a similarly excellent example: a game that’s cooperative in a players-vs-game mode, that’s really difficult, and that’s tons of fun. It further appears that the tradition of “digital games inherit from board games” is reversed in this instance. Digital games have played cooperatively ever since Mario was joined by Luigi. Why so few cooperative board games, then? They are getting more common, don’t get me wrong. But I feel there are untold riches to find in cooperative game design.
For one, players are required to think in a much larger context. For many, attempting to read and predict the intentions of their opponents is a prohibitive challenge and easily frustrating. In a normal board game, players need only think about the resources in play, their share of those resources, and their opportunities to gather more. In a cooperative game, players think about these same equations and opportunities for all the players in the game, and think about them in terms of contributing to a larger balance — a balance that can and often does involve sacrifice by one or several players for the gain of the whole. The possibility space of moves and decisions is multiplied by the number of players playing — each player is, in a sense, playing for all the players. Each one must think and act from the perspective of everyone in the game.
Another major advantage is the ease and richness of diplomacy and interpersonal communication as part of the system. In a competitive game, players can reasonably assume that all their opponents are out to get them. In a cooperative game, particularly one with elements of competition or hidden motives, this becomes infinitely less certain. Conversation, be it debate, persuasion, collaboration, or simply information sharing, is now a critical mechanic. Many competitive games can virtually be played in silence — players’ intentions are obvious, and their actions within the rules are sufficient to communicate anything they might need to say. But in a cooperative game, lack of communication is like shooting yourself in the foot, and no involved player can afford to sit on the sidelines. Cooperative games therefore involve players to a much greater degree, and keep them involved longer. Consider how, in some competitive games, players can fall far enough behind that they have effectively lost before the game ends and, feeling disaffected and bored, tune out and cease to interact with their fellow players. In a cooperative game, that would never happen. Even if a player’s utility is diminished, it is never destroyed. As a member of the larger effort, they have an everpresent responsibility to contribute their analysis of the situation and suggestions for choices to make (remember above, where I said players are effectively all playing for each other?). Furthermore, even if their actions are limited, the opportunity remains for them to make a small but vital contribution at a crucial moment and, in so acting, save the common effort. Like a pawn sacrifice that leads to checkmate, even the smallest action can have universal importance. Thus, no player is ever “sidelined” in a cooperative game.
These are just some of the ways in which cooperative games offer an expanded, richer experience. I remember in vivid detail games of Shadows I have won and lost, while I tend to forget games of Chess or Go or Settlers or Ticket to Ride. The shared experience has a greater effect and leaves a greater impression, like how team sports are more emotional (by and large) than individual sports. People have a natural affinity for common effort, for coming together to triumph over an adversary no individual could defeat alone. I hope game makers catch on to this and produce many more cooperative games.