Morning Table Talk is a series where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.
Many games pit players against one another but there are some games that have players band together to beat the game itself. Cooperative games are those games and this morning I will be examining what makes a cooperative game. For this article I will use examples from Forbidden Island, Harry Potter Battle Hogwarts (HPBH), and The Grizzled since their mechanics are simpler than some other cooperative games like Pandemic but several of the items I will mention are relatable to many other cooperative games. In cooperative games there are 4 major features that make a game a cooperative game and there are: the game is the enemy, asymmetric roles, the ability to help other players, and a clear, single way to win but there are multiple ways lose.
In a cooperative game danger lurks around every corner; the game is the enemy. Normally in games players are on a team against each other or have a free-for-all for victory but that is not the case in cooperative games. The game itself acts as another player in these games or provides challenges for the players to overcome. In this way, either all of the players win or lose together. In Forbidden Island and HPBH there is a phase of each turn where the game has a chance to add difficulties on the players such as sinking/removing pieces (Forbidden Island ) and dealing damage, discarding cards, or healing enemies (HPBH). In the case of The Grizzled players have to play cards without playing a card or bad trait (called hard knocks) that creates a matching set of 3 features. In the case of Forbidden Island and HPBH the game the adversity is distinct during each player’s turn and directly ‘attack’ the player or hinder them but in The Grizzled the players have to navigate playing cards to prevent playing certain cards (though there are sometimes where players are forced to play cards). In all of the instances, the players have to worry about the game’s turn or the mechanics that ensure that the players have to navigate the game’s rules.
But not all is lost for the players, since the players have there own ways of winning since they also have special abilities. This is manifested in having specific roles encouraging people to work together. This is called asymmetric roles and ensures that players can contribute to beating the game in their own way. For Forbidden Island this is most pronounced since each character has a unique trait or ability that they can use on their turn such as moving diagonally, enhance a normal action, or being able to move across uncrossable terrain. For HPBH there are player cards that give abilities depending on cards played encouraging players to focus on roles. The Grizzled however has the weakest roles by allowing players as an action to remove a specific card from the set of played cards. In all of these cases players have a specific way to contribute to beating the game because of their roles. These roles help balance out the game’s constant ability to provide obstacles giving a new meaning to ‘greater than the sum of its parts.’
Now with these extra abilities things would not be as powerful if the players could not directly help each other. This direct help can come in many forms, trading, giving, or removing negative abilities. With Forbidden Island players can directly trade cards if they are on the same space (unless they have an ability or card that says otherwise) helping players get the cards they need. For HPBH players can play cards to give each other resources to cause damage and buy more cards. With The Grizzled players chooses to help one another by voting who will benefit from the help restoring their ability and removing a negative cards in front of the chosen player. In all of these cases the players can provide some aid to another but the ability to help is limited by physical proximity, card count, or even voting by majority. This has two effects on the game, it allows for players to better plan and ensure that they get as much of an advantage as possible but also ensures that players have to use these abilities wisely since they cannot always rely on the help of others. These helping mechanics are essential to a cooperative game since it solidifies the team aspect of cooperative game and gives more advantages to the players in a game where the game is trying to win.
As with every game, cooperative games have methods of winning and losing that are clear to the players. What makes cooperative games different is that there is a concrete way (or ways) lose and only one singular way to win. With Forbidden Island there is one way to win: players gather the four treasures and all make it to the landing pad. This is a clear goal that all of the players can focus on and strategize on. However from this one way to win there are many ways to lose: if the landing pad is removed from the game and if the treasures are lost (by tile removal) for instance. There is also another losing condition where the tide track get too high. With these multiple losing conditions now the players need to focus on multiple things that the same time as trying to accomplish one goal. With HPBH there is a single track that is the player’s losing condition. This allows for the players to clearly see how close they are to losing and provide a clear reason to losing. The Grizzled’s victory condition is simple you go through the entire mission deck and get rid of the card’s in everyone’s hands. This victory condition is even emphasized on with victory and defeat cards that provide a sense of accomplishment or dread respectively. With The Grizzled there are a few ways to lose one is where the defeat card is revealed (it is at the bottom of the non-mission of the deck) or if one player gets too many negative (hard-knocks) cards. In all of these cases players have a clear way to monitor how close they are to losing while giving multiple items for players to worry about and even cause players to lose. A clear goal gives all of the players a single objective to work for while multiple losing options that are clear and distinct allow for players to feel the pressure of the game but have it feel fair.
Cooperative games are a great way to start your night for the reasons that make them special: with the game as the enemy players can focus on having fun with each other, each unique role keeps them engaged, and the game is clear and players understand why they won or lost making defeat less bitter and victory more sweet as a whole. So on your next game night, try a cooperative game and look for the elements pointed out.
All of this is just food for thought so take some time, sip some of your morning beverage, and have a great day!