Consider for a moment -- you’re a soldier in a big concrete bunker. Coming up the hill towards you are: a) a group of 20 men with rifles, and b) a tank. Beside you in the bunker is an artillery piece, the words “Anti-Tank Gun” written on it. Which should you fire at? The men, or the tank? This isn't a trick question; go with your gut.
If you picked the tank, you’re smarter than a cooperative game's deck of cards. It's not the highest bar you’ll ever clear, but congratulations nonetheless. You’re a more qualified opponent than every cooperative game on the market, and likely a lot more fun to be with.
If you haven’t guessed I've been off of co-ops for awhile now. Initially I found the concept interesting. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot. Both were intentionally hard, and that meant challenge, and bringing friends together in a team meant camaraderie and a shared spirit of victory or defeat. Cooperative games should be just the thing for me and my buddies, but they’re not. They’re flat; they’re lifeless. They manage to be arbitrary and predictable simultaneously, which is a pretty impressive display of failure when you think about it.
So what’s my problem? Why do I dislike cooperatives when everyone else seems to love them? More than a few are very popular right now and game publishers are pumping them out with wild abandon, presumably because they’re in demand. I've played my share in the last year or two (they’re almost unavoidable now) and with each I’ve come to the same conclusion: this one doesn't work either. They just don’t do ring the bell for me. When I recognized this was happening a few months back I spent the time needed to figure out what my problem was. This was my conclusion:
It’s not me, it’s you. You’re all idiots.
Now hear me out – this theory is pretty compelling. It's simple; it’s straightforward; it thoroughly resolves the question and makes me feel better about myself. Since that may not be enough for you I'm going to spend time to lay out some indictments against cooperatives and as best I can tell they aren't the usual suspects that get trotted out on the subject.
Here’s the heart of the matter: cooperatives are puzzles. It’s pretty much that simple; they’re inanimate objects. There’s no intelligence, no insight. There can’t be. No amount of time or effort spent during development can breathe life into an opponent made out of cardboard. Puzzles are fine and I have dozens, but I generally do them alone, and I generally do them once. “Alone” and “once” aren’t two facets boardgame publishers can afford when fellowship is an imperative to the industry’s survival. And to some extent I think that the “fellowship” concept is the primary driver behind the ever-growing number of cooperative titles. Cooperatives provide a low barrier to entry emotionally, and publishers are using the concept to get unlikely players to the table. A laudable goal of course, but it has pitfalls. The game this wider audience sits down to needs to be engaging and worth returning to, and both are tougher to pull off with a puzzle.
Ok, so I dropped you in a concrete bunker in the first paragraph. Now I’m going to drop you into an even less desirable location -- a cooperative game designer’s office. Smaller, darker and less ventilated, those who dwell within deserve our sympathy, because they are working with one hand tied behind their back. Instead of a big gun they get a blank sheet of paper, tasked to create a game whose requirement set is much larger than that for competitive titles. They don’t merely have to create a level playing field. They have to create an artificial game player as well, one that can compete against real live humans. That’s very tough – there’s no computer program here. In boardgames there’s no way to examine what’s on the table in order to respond. The cooperative boardgame designer is required to develop narrative from an unknowing, inanimate object. The inability to sense game state means they have to find a way produce an intelligent response with what is essentially a bag of puzzle pieces. How on Earth do you do that?
By my measure, game designers have largely failed to achieve this herculean task.
Deaf and blind, cooperative games need to simulate some sort of decision-making process. They need to fake it, and that means random bad news and plenty of it. Generally done via a deck of cards, the theory is that a sufficient number of “events” for the players to deal with will provide a challenge. But often these decks-of-doom do just the opposite. I’m not speaking of a bad shuffle providing a too-easy or too-hard session (two very-real possibilities that you’ll see discussed aplenty.) I’m speaking of a gaminess where players disengage, where players don’t feel obligated to make decisions based upon the reality defined by the game’s ruleset. Against real opponents your decisions are scrutinized. Each move is examined by a thinking individual that can react with competence, and if you blunder you’re going to pay. That gets the scare up in you. But a deck of cards can’t do that. A deck of cards is as likely to hit you at the strongest part of your game as the weakest, so poor play often goes unpunished. In fact poor play can even be rewarded when you leave one position vulnerable and exposed in order to super-power another. You can (and likely should) leave some positions uncovered in hopes they won’t get hit by the random draw this turn. The game begins to de-evolve, becoming a search for seams in the ruleset that take you away from the game’s conceptual goals. That’s not fun, and when you explain to the new guy next to you that “you don’t need to cover London anymore because it's already in the discard pile” they aren't going to come away with a high opinion of the title.
Here’s the thing – this concept I’m raising isn’t about your unthinking cardboard opponent, it’s about you. When you’re playing a real opponent he keeps you honest. He forces you to play carefully. He makes you develop a broad, unified strategy covering the entire board. He makes you play hard. A deck of cards can’t do that. A deck of cards can be active, but it can’t be reactive. At best you start gaming the rules and working the angles because there’s positive feedback in doing that. At worst you just stop giving a damn.
The other issue I have with Event Decks is that they're essentially a simulation of my deaf grandmother. You and your friends may tell each other to draw a card when you play cooperative games, but I have a different phrase – “Listen to Eunice.”
You see my Grandmother Eunice lost her hearing as she aged, and she was well aware that she couldn’t react to other people’s comments or questions anymore. So if she wanted to be in the discussion, she needed to lead it. Not just lead it, she needed to dominate it. As long as Grandma Eunice kept talking she knew what the topic was, and that was just fine with her. We kids had no choice but to listen to the same stories over and over without asking questions or making comments. We loved Grandma, but it was awfully tedious.
That’s what an “event deck” has to do to maintain narrative. It can't hear, so it can't react even to itself. Regardless of game state, the deck is going to keep talking about whatever it wants. We smile and nod like we did with Grandma, but c’mon. It’s a lackluster session. Generally nobody complains because cooperatives really can't get better. We settle for second best because we want the fellowship.
Now, the first time you try a new cooperative you’re likely not aware of what resides in that event deck and there’s some fun in discovery. The first time we heard Grandma Eunice’s stories they were entertaining too. But that’s fleeting – once seen assembled a puzzle loses its luster, and the assembly time is largely determined by the amount of cardboard in the box. Arkham Horror can bring it for more than a few plays because there are so many cards. Castle Panic . . . my boys were done with it in ten minutes. To their credit they lasted a few minutes longer than I did.
Some cooperative games attempt to minimize the issue of arbitrary story by keeping the card deck simple and its actions smaller in scope. D-Day at Omaha Beach (a game I like in spite of closely resembling the example I started this article with) uses its card deck for target selection. No single card is of significant enough magnitude to throw the game off kilter or appear as a break in narrative. Each card drawn activates attacks on multiple units (often from multiple locations), and has the effect of steadily degrading your position on the battlefield. That’s a pretty reasonable reflection of the game’s theme, and multiple card draws of lesser effect mean that the law of large numbers is available to produce a more even-handed result. This is analogous to drawing a disadvantageous card in solitaire, where no single event is significant enough to break the theme or produce a bizarre change of state. You get a play that feels more like a balanced and well-considered response. In my opinion this is better, but still not gripping. Had I been playing a buddy he assuredly would have picked a soft spot and punched hard, trying to break my line to upset my battle plans. That is reactive gaming. It keeps me honest; it makes me play for real. It makes try to figure out what he's thinking. No deck of cards will ever be able to do that. No deck can identify a weak position or capitalize on a lucky die roll. I have yet to see one that is able to capitalize on combinations of powers. If anybody knows of one I’d love to hear about it.
If the last few years are any indication, game designers are aware that they’ve wrung out the capabilities of static protocols and event decks. In the absence of intelligence in the automated opponent, the concept of a “secret traitor” has become so common that I pretty much assume it’s in a cooperative’s ruleset before I read it. A capitulation to shortcomings, traitors provide a real-live human to help the game’s response. Voilà, real live decision-making magically appears in the play. There’s an opponent now, and the game once again takes life. But the group hug comes to a very abrupt end. “Traitor” turns Kumbayah into a session of distrust and backstabbing, a game that shares nothing in common with the spirit of cooperative play. Often someone will describe a game as “cooperative with a traitor element” and I bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “it’s a traitor game.” It’s not worth debating since I don’t think there’s any game billing itself as a "traitor game." I don’t particularly like the traitor concept, but that’s for other reasons. Unfortunately cooperative and traitor are often conflated.
The remarkable thing that keeps falling out of this train of thought for me is this – the incredible lack of games with two or more teams playing against each other. Teams are true cooperative play. A powerful intelligence engine operates on each side of the table, yet the game successfully executes virtually all the benefits of cooperative gaming. It’s better play. The video game industry has spent fifteen years and billions of dollars getting off of AI, networking players in social cooperatives that actively compete with each other. Meanwhile board games shun the concept. I can think of maybe two dozen boardgames where teams of two or more players play in direct conflict with each other. Frankly I’m stretching it on a couple of those. I teach Rush ‘n Crush as a team game because the game kind of blows without them. Last Night on Earth can be considered team vs. team if you shut one eye and squint a bit. Wings of War is best played in teams and it makes perfect sense thematically to do so. It’s truly team gaming. But in public venues I get push-back from non-wargamers. They want to play every-man-for-himself. I’ve said this before: it’s almost as if team play isn’t considered honorable in the boardgaming culture.
So this is the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moment I come to as I watch yet another cooperative title play out on the table in front of me. “We’re playing against an idiot” invariably passes through my mind as some out-of-context card comes off the top of the deck or some useless power is invoked that waste’s the game's turn. I’m left wondering why the industry is on such a jag to produce games built on a substandard concept. The short answer is almost assuredly “because they sell.” But I’m done. Cooperative games may sell, but I’m not buying anymore.
Sag is a somewhat regular columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.