Don't Tell Me What I Can't Do! (The Alpha-Dog Co-op Game Problem)

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      "No, you can't go there... There are too many gates open... We need to start sealing some gates or we're screwed..."

      "If you clean up some cubes in Lagos, and then the Ops Expert builds a Research Center, and then the Scientist cures yellow, then on my turn we can win..."

      "You can't waste time trying to shoot that Centurion... if we don't have someone fixing some of these damaged locations, we're going to die next time the basestar attacks... and you're the only one with Repair cards... You gotta do it, maaaan!"


Does any of that sound familiar to you? If so, you may be experiencing "The Alpha Dog Co-op Game Problem", otherwise known as TADC-GP. Wait... What are you saying?  You thought of a better term for it?  Of course you did... You know everything and can't resist telling everyone. That's what I'm talking about here...


I should state up front that I generally love cooperative games. I count Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica, Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror, Last Night on Earth, Shadows Over Camelot and Ghost Stories among my very favorite games, and they are all either fully cooperative or include a large cooperative element. Theme and story and character have always been the greatest draws for me in games, and cooperative games tend to have those things in abundance, and the best of them also have interesting mechanics and challenges and a very entertaining sense of cinematic adventure and drama. And the idea of working together as a team while still being immersed in a contest against an opponent (in this case, the opponent being the game itself) is something very compelling to me. The first time I played Shadows Over Camelot I remember thinking, gee, there's not much to this game in terms of what you do... you basically wait around until your turn and throw a card down somewhere... but there was so much going on in terms of the discussion and interaction around the table, and suspicion about who might be the traitor or if there even was a traitor, and concern and tension about whether we'd all survive or not. I thought, this is really cool and different and I want more of this kind of thing in my gaming experience. When Pandemic came along last year, that really clinched my love for co-op games, because not only did it grab me right away, but it was very accessible and easy to teach and a game that my wife really loved, too, and so we could share a fun cooperative challenge together and with other friends and family members who don't normally play hobby games. Invariably, the people we've introduced Pandemic to have really gotten into it and eagerly wanted to play it again, and many are quite intrigued by the novel concept of playing cooperatively against a game system instead of against each other. It's fun to see that same spark in their enthusiasm that I had after that first game of Shadows Over Camelot.


But it's hard to be a fan of the co-op game genre and not come across the criticisms against it, and the most prominent one is definitely the possibility of there being an "alpha dog" problem. This is the situation where one particularly loud or bossy or just very excited person can seem to take over the game, directing everyone as to what should or should not be done in many situations. Now, that can indeed be annoying for its own sake, but a friend of mine who generally doesn't like co-op games says that his problem isn't so much the overbearing nature of a person like that, but moreso that if that person is indeed very knowledgeable about the game and the course of action they're pushing really does seem like the best one, then he has no better option than to follow that. And so his work in the game has been done for him. He wants there to always be an individual perspective on who he is in a game and be able to make his own decisions. In a competitive game, you are always making the decisions and have to determine which one is the best. If someone else in a cooperative game makes the best decision before you get a chance to, then it can take some of the interest out of the game, no doubt.


So what to do about that problem? Can it be prevented or minimized when it occurs? Of course, you can just not play any co-op games, but in my case I know I'd be missing out on some of my favorite games, and it's not as though that problem occurs with every game or every group. By and large, most co-op games I play are indeed cooperative in the intended sense. Everyone can make or take suggestions and go ahead and do what they think is best when it's their turn. It's a good quality to learn in life that you can take input from many different sources (including overbearing loudmouths) and then feel perfectly justified to disregard all of that input and do something entirely different. The ancient Greek sculptor Polyclitus once did an experiment where he made two sculptures, one in his private workshop and one in the room where he often entertained guests. Whenever people visiting would make suggestions about the sculpture they saw, Polyclitus would change it according to their suggestions. When both sculptures were unveiled, the private one was considered a masterpiece and the public one was considered an absolute disaster. When asked how the two sculptures could be so different in quality, Polyclitus said, "Because I made this one (the private one) and you made that one." Now, that story illustrates that the way a group thinks, or the way individuals collectively work on something, isn't always for the best, and I think that's important to remember when playing a co-op game. Let people make suggestions, but don't feel obliged to do what anybody says when your turn comes up. But then again, I suppose that story could also be taken as a cue for the alpha dog... as in, I really know what I'm doing so I should just call all of the shots. You can observe and appreciate the sculpture, but I should really be the one doing the work so it'll turn out the best.


My friend who doesn't typically like co-op games says that the co-op games he enjoys the most include some kind of element that obscures the cooperative nature of the game. He's referring to the traitor aspect in games like Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot, where you are all cooperating but can't be entirely sure if everyone has the same agenda, and also the time element and programming system of a game like Space Alert. In Space Alert, you have a group of cards that depict actions that you can take, and you have to put them into a sequence that will play out once everyone has finished, and you have a time limit in which to accomplish that (an actual time limit, in minutes). The chaos introduced by the card programming combined with the pressure of the time element can make it very hard to follow or trust what advice anyone offers, and thus you are left more in control of what you do in the game, for better or worse. It can create some zany situations and be a lot of fun, but oddly enough, perhaps because of its obfuscation of the cooperative element, I don't care for Space Alert as much as many other co-op games, or at least, I don't think of it in the same sense because of the way it plays. But certainly, my friend has a point that there could be some better ways introduced into co-op games to help keep individuals in charge of their decisions and to reduce the possibility of an alpha dog taking over.


As it is, most pure co-op games like Pandemic and Lord of the Rings include a rule that all of your cards must be kept hidden, even though you can discuss what cards you have openly. That is a very minor thing to try to deal with this type of thing, and it doesn't help all that much. People have suggested variants for Pandemic where you have complete "radio silence" and can't discuss anything, but I think that's going too far. You still want to have some cooperation in a game like that, and removing all discussion takes away a big part of the interaction and social connection that can be a great part of the game. Another variant where you start the game with a certain number of tokens and can spend them in order to share ideas might be a better idea, though I haven't tried that.


What I think is very important when playing a co-op game is to remember that the reason these games are even cooperative to begin with is because of the theme and the characters. There is some kind of narrative that involves a group of characters (Arthur and his Knights, the Lord of the Rings hobbits, etc.) fighting together or working together against some kind of opposition or impending doom (diseases, Cylons, etc.). It's the coming together of this group of characters that makes the situation "cooperative", but the best cooperative games usually have individualized characters, where the particular role you play has some kind of distinction. By contrast, one cooperative game from recent years that I didn't really care for is Red November, where you are playing as a group of gnomes trying to save a failing submarine. The premise is a fun one, but one of the things I didn't like about the game is that the only distinction between the gnomes was their color. It's a little bit harder to be invested in my character when the only thing unique about him is that he's yellow and the other gnomes aren't, especially when being yellow has no game implications at all. When you can have some kind of distinction to your character and really take the wheel of what is special about that character as it pertains to the game, you can have a better time being part of the experience and also deflect some of an alpha player's interference. The sheer complexity of a game like Arkham Horror, where you have to keep track of your stats and special abilities and items and spells and skills, can make it easy for you to stay focused on who you are and what your stuff is, but even in simpler games like Pandemic and Last Night on Earth, it can help if you keep your focus on what your role is in the game. If I'm the Dispatcher in Pandemic, then I'll take particular note to look for opportunities where I can move other people around in a helpful way. If I'm the Nurse in Last Night on Earth, I'll try to find the best times when I can get to a player who is wounded so I can heal them. Sometimes you'll need to make detours to take care of other things that don't involve your special ability, and that's fine, but if you're the one in charge of what's unique about your role and can let others do the same for their roles, then the game can be more fun as a cooperative effort, as intended.


Sometimes in Pandemic and other co-op games, as the game nears its conclusion, one player in particular may see the final solution or have a plan that will work out to win the game. In my experience, when that happens, everyone is generally very happy to have won and there are no bad feelings about someone having "taken over the game". It's a little embarrassing to admit, but for the first winning game of Pandemic that I was involved in (after about a dozen losses), the winning solution actually came from my friend's wife, who wasn't even playing. She happened to walk by and notice something that we hadn't seen, and provided a solution where we could squeak out a win during the final turns. We didn't care, though... We were happy to have experienced the win. These are team games, after all, and as long as every team member contributes, then so what if someone in particular hit three home runs during the game and you only got a couple of singles? Be happy that you won the game together and shared the experience. Where people feel they have made no contribution at all throughout a whole game, then that can be frustrating, but usually everyone can contribute something useful even with an alpha dog at the table. If not, then they're probably just not trying hard enough. So in that sense, it may not always be a case of alpha dog players needing to chill out, but also a case of people playing the game needing to lighten up, or to get more actively involved.


An important thing to remember about alpha dog players, and to think about if you suspect you are an alpha dog, is that an alpha dog can't always be right. Yes, the more you play a game and the more acquainted you are with a particular game system, the better idea you'll have about what is likely to happen and what is likely to work out, but these kind of games tend to have some pretty heavy randomizing factors with event cards and die rolls and other things that just can't be predicted every time, or even most of the time. Yes, your suggestion may be brilliant and may very well be the best course of action, but it just might not be. So don't be so pushy about it. Let your input about the situation be known, and maybe try wording it in a way that is more suggestive and invites discussion ("Do you think we should do something about those monsters in Innsmouth?"), as opposed to being an insistent jerkface ("You need to go to Innsmouth and kill some monsters!!!"). And then, once your input has been put forth, shut up and let whoever's turn it is take THEIR turn. If they do something different and it turns out you were right and the Cylons win or the Black Knights take over Camelot or the diseases wipe out humanity, don't worry about it... It's just a game, and you did your best to help. Maybe they'll listen to your suggestions next time. But whatever the situation, please let me do my job and don't tell me what I can't do!

There Will Be Games
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