The Conundrum of Co-operation

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Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage provided one of the most memorable gaming sessions of my life. Since the mid game, my Carthaginian armies had dominated the board thanks to a blend of luck and skill. In the final turn, Rome's only hope was an instant victory by taking Carthage itself. He duly built a big invasion stack and in response, I drew forces back to protect Africa.

But on the point of launching this assault, he did something different instead. He moved several smaller stacks along the coasts, dropping units as they went. To my horror, I realised what he was doing was cutting off all the supply lines to my control of Spain and Italy. He'd distracted my attention to Africa with a brilliant feint and used it to win the game of the very last round. It was a staggering feat of planning and strategy which has stayed with me for years.

Moments like that are rare, but they're what I game for. When I first got into gaming as a teen, I imagined myself as a proxy Sun-Tzu, measuring my skills against my opponents. And like Sun-Tzu, the I took pleasure in seeing how competition was an art. A creative endeavour where a cunning player could use all the tools at their disposal to invent new and unexpected ways to do things. That's the life-blood of gaming, the human element that keeps things endlessly fresh and exciting.

So why, then, would you actively seek to remove that from your games?

That's what co-op games do. They have no human element to surprise the players. So instead they fall back on ploys to create the illusion of surprise. Big decks of cards are the most popular but you often see dice, modular boards, story paragraphs and all that sort of thing. This is fine for games about narrative. And some co-op games like Escape the Dark Castle take that route and work fine for a while. But even then, there's a limit. It's not long before you've seen the whole deck, read all the paragraphs and the game loses its shine.

The lance for that boil is to add some strategy. It's why a lot of gamers have come to prefer mechanical puzzles over more thematic fare. But we instantly hit a problem. Because the solution most co-ops have for the lack of surprise is to substitute lots of randomness. And lots of randomness is, of course, anathema to strategy. 

Getting around this requires another conjuring trick, as fake as the initial one, which is to disguise depth with difficulty. If a game has lots of mechanical levers and is hard to beat, it might fool a lot of players into thinking it has depth. That resetting the puzzle and applying lessons learned over and over again will lead to improvement and success. This kind of incremental feedback is addictive and fun: it powers a lot of online digital games. But they have a luxury tabletop doesn't, of being able to hide shared information.

Without that, the repeat plays will eventually lead to a win. But while that might feel like improvement, it's a sham. All that's happened is that the group happened on a game state that made it easier for them to gain victory. The ever-popular progenitor of the co-op craze, Pandemic, is a great example. The initial shuffle does its best to give an even distribution of Outbreak cards in the deck. But if two are too close together, it almost doesn't matter what you do. The game is likely lost before anyone takes a turn. Likewise, if there's a good space between the first two, most groups will win unless they really screw up.

Of course, everyone wants to stop that happening. Which leads to the final and most serious problem with the genre. You can tell how widespread it is by the number of labels it has: quarterbacking, boss player, alpha dog and many others. The group wants to win, so it defers decision making to the best or loudest player. Despite the name of the genre, this is almost the diametric opposite of co-operation. There's no discussion, no creation, no group cohesion of finding a shared way forward. Only a herd of sheeples, following the glorious leader. 

It's easy, and unhelpful, to criticise. And these problems are not insurmountable. There are a small number of co-operative games which rise about the issues. And when they do the results are startling and brilliant. They foster real co-operation, offer a thrilling and novel challenge on every play. And with it a unique and memorable gaming experience.

Successful co-op games have one of two things in common. The first is a spatial element with some kind of enemy AI routine. This works because of the way simple elements combined together can explode in exponential complexity. Opposing pieces moving around the board makes the game feel alive in a way that manipulating numbers and tokens can't. And the unpredictable way in which everything interacts makes it hard for an alpha player to predict. On their own turn, a player has the chance to try to make their own sense of the game state and make independent decisions.

The other common factor is some method to stop the players from communicating clearly. Giving players hidden information and then forbidding them from sharing it is the easiest example. But you can go a lot further. In Hanabi, for instance, it becomes the basis of the entire game, in which players must make optimisation decisions based on what clues they can give. Groups playing Hanabi seem to develop an ability to read one another's body language in an act of close and genuine co-operative play.

We can't close out this piece without mentioning Gloomhaven which does both of the above, and to an extreme degree. In doing so it becomes the best co-op, and indeed one of the very best games, ever designed. It got that way because the designer paid close attention to the inherent problems in co-ops and invented brilliant solutions. 

But back when the genre was new and shiny and every designer on the block wanted a piece, no-one cared. Their efforts quickly grew stale and boring yet the consumer cult of the new ensured they sold and gamers demanded more. So they got more, of the same, with the same problems that allowed the genre to swell with undeserved popularity. We deserve better. Gloomhaven has the potential for surprise and thrills every bit the equal of Hannibal. It's about time we demanded nothing less of every co-op title.

The Conundrum of Co-operation There Will Be Games

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Posted: 07 Nov 2018 08:08 by Vysetron #285489
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I've been saying similar, albeit less eloquently, for a while now. Player interaction makes games interesting. Coops lose that. Why should I care about how this goes?

I DO like collaboration though. Competitive games that allow for alliances, negotiation, etc. are some of my favorites. It's way more interesting to choose when and how to cooperate than it is to just stare at a randomly generated puzzle with some other people around for an hour.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 08:44 by Legomancer #285492
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I was kind of shut out of co-ops for a while, since my groups have a similar attitude towards them. In the past couple years I've rediscovered the joy and fun of them. I think this article is missing the point that what a lot of people seek in co-ops are exactly what these "flaws" are. They don't want to compete against others. If you think being quarterbacked by an alpha player is annoying, what about being continually hammered by that player in a competitive game?

Co-ops offer a nice alternative. For me, they offer:

1) something other than "I got the most VPs" or whatever for victory. I find they have much more interesting settings and goals.

2) the ability to play games and BE quarterbacked. Our Pandemic Legacy group, also playing Time Stories and Robinson Crusoe, usually meets on Fridays. We're wiped on Friday. We want to drink wine and hang out and play a game and if I'm just not in the zone, I can still participate and I can still contribute and not be frustrated.

3) Welcoming to casual and non gamers. My wife is not a huge gamer, and is hesitant to play games with me because I do it more often and losing over and over just isn't any fun. But she looks forwards to the co-op sessions because that's not an issue, and because the games often stress things that competitive games don't.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 11:18 by Southernman #285504
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What Legomancer said, especially point 1.
I grew up playing team sports so perhaps that's why I like playing a game as a team, why I just find them fun. Or perhaps the co-ops I have played happen to be fun because I've chosen them for theme and mechanics I like.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 12:38 by Sagrilarus #285512
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And yet, there are very few Team games, one team vs another.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 12:47 by hotseatgames #285515
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Sagrilarus wrote:
And yet, there are very few Team games, one team vs another.

Two great ones from my collection: Guards of Atlantis and Captain Sonar.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 13:53 by Southernman #285521
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Sagrilarus wrote:
And yet, there are very few Team games, one team vs another.

The team part I enjoy is the working together, doing your bit but then having someone else cover something you caan't. It's usually not about beating another team but winning as a team, so beating the game (well, a good game system) does the job.

Good point about Team games, the few I can think about are usually card or minis games with board game versions usually being 1 vs the rest - BSG being the only one I can think of (while typing) that does a sort of a team game. Perhaps someone can start a thread on it :-)
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 16:11 by Sevej #285533
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I have three main reasons why I play game: challenge, escapism, and social interaction. While there are people who love difficult coop, I'm not one of them. I'm in primarily for the experience. It just have to be interesting.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 17:48 by WadeMonnig #285546
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I said in a similar thread about co-ops, I've tried plenty of them in an effort to reduce butt-hurt with my teenage kids while playing games. With some rare exceptions, they simply haven't gone over like I had hoped. We've played Pandemic a dozen times and we have never lost. Do I think we are some sort of savants when it comes to saving the world? Nope, it just happens that the cards have lined up just spaced out enough that we have managed to secure a win each time. On that same note, I think we have tanked Forbidden Island the last 5 times we have played? Were we somehow not coordinating correctly? Nope, just happened to be the way the cards fell. Moreover, no one has really been like, This experience is amazing, we must do it again! It's been like, okay, those were fun, what else you got?
The co-ops that have worked are things like Seal Team Flix or Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks. We're all working together and, while there are more optimal moves that can be made, it never feels like it comes down to We drew badly or we drew well.
Something like Ghost Stories falls into the middle. It feels like that stacked on insane difficulty and called it a "challenge."
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 20:26 by Msample #285551
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ANGOLA, the ultimate team wargame.
Posted: 07 Nov 2018 21:55 by SuperflyTNT #285556
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The team game genre is hurt by a minimum player count. I’m not sure publishers want to make mid weight co-ops that require 4
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 04:31 by Southernman #285564
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WadeMonnig wrote:
I said in a similar thread about co-ops, I've tried plenty of them in an effort to reduce butt-hurt with my teenage kids while playing games. With some rare exceptions, they simply haven't gone over like I had hoped. We've played Pandemic a dozen times and we have never lost. Do I think we are some sort of savants when it comes to saving the world? Nope, it just happens that the cards have lined up just spaced out enough that we have managed to secure a win each time. On that same note, I think we have tanked Forbidden Island the last 5 times we have played? Were we somehow not coordinating correctly? Nope, just happened to be the way the cards fell. Moreover, no one has really been like, This experience is amazing, we must do it again! It's been like, okay, those were fun, what else you got?
The co-ops that have worked are things like Seal Team Flix or Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks. We're all working together and, while there are more optimal moves that can be made, it never feels like it comes down to We drew badly or we drew well.
Something like Ghost Stories falls into the middle. It feels like that stacked on insane difficulty and called it a "challenge."

Co-ops that I really enjoy and that, mostly, have gone down well with my groups:
Lord of the Rings (I like it more playing Sauron in me vs them but only because theme jumps up another level)
Defenders of the Last Stand
Space Cadets: Away Missions
Eldritch Horror
Elder Sign
Arkahm Horror
Betrayal at House on the Hill
D&D: Castle Ravenloft
and its siblings
Gears of War
Secrets of the Lost Tomb


I do admit that I enjoy the themes that most of these games have so that likely improves my overall opinion and enjoyment of them.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 07:23 by Shellhead #285589
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Vysetron wrote:
I've been saying similar, albeit less eloquently, for a while now. Player interaction makes games interesting. Coops lose that. Why should I care about how this goes?

I DO like collaboration though. Competitive games that allow for alliances, negotiation, etc. are some of my favorites. It's way more interesting to choose when and how to cooperate than it is to just stare at a randomly generated puzzle with some other people around for an hour.

Cooperation is definitely a form of interaction. People who dislike co-ops tend to come across as super-competitive fun murderers who consider entertainment to be a zero-sum proposition.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 07:29 by Mr. White #285594
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Academy Games has a great line of casual playing, team-based wargames with their 'Birth of...' line.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 07:40 by Vysetron #285608
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Shellhead wrote:
Cooperation is definitely a form of interaction. People who dislike co-ops tend to come across as super-competitive fun murderers who consider entertainment to be a zero-sum proposition.

Well that's a hell of a characterization. Like I said I like working WITH people (team games, 1 vs alls, etc.), but I'm not as entertained at picking a fight with a deck of cards. Pandemic is boring.

Also there are a few exceptions to the rule. Darkness Comes Rattling, Burgle Bros, Ghost Stories, and Hanabi are all fun.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 11:28 by Southernman #285646
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Shellhead wrote:
Cooperation is definitely a form of interaction. People who dislike co-ops tend to come across as super-competitive fun murderers who consider entertainment to be a zero-sum proposition.

Or those that either can't work/play socially with others or who regard advice in a co-op as being told what to do and get defensive over it - I'd say that they weren't good at, or never played, team sports :-)
I have a few of these in my euro group.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 11:59 by Not Sure #285654
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Southernman wrote:
Shellhead wrote:
Cooperation is definitely a form of interaction. People who dislike co-ops tend to come across as super-competitive fun murderers who consider entertainment to be a zero-sum proposition.

Or those that either can't work/play socially with others or who regard advice in a co-op as being told what to do and get defensive over it - I'd say that they weren't good at, or never played, team sports :-)
I have a few of these in my euro group.

I think team sports is a good analogy on the surface, but becomes poor when you look at it with a little more depth.

I think the basics are correct: "listen to your coach, listen to your captain", but the breakdown is between the coach telling you "i need you to stay up front in midfield to put pressure on" and a coach telling you "I need you to take three steps the left and pivot, right now".

It's a matter of agency. In sports, you get a basic direction, and go do your job. The fine details happen in milliseconds, and you're on your own with a basic plan. In coop games (with the exception of something like Space Alert), you have frozen time, a tiny set of possible actions, and thus every opportunity to micromanage.

Nobody wants to be micro-managed, so coop games that encourage that suck IMO. Giving each player their own agency is critical. To me, this means you either have to restore the time constraint, widen the action tree to confuse optimizers, or deliberately hide info from each other to make a good game. Maybe some combination of those, even.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 13:55 by Sagrilarus #285676
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Mr. White wrote:
Academy Games has a great line of casual playing, team-based wargames with their 'Birth of...' line.

Yeah, and they have a facet that I very much like when sitting down with new players. You can coach, because you can put a new person with a veteran, and that lowers the entry barrier for non-confident people. It's a valuable feature, one that I think a lot of non-gamers crave, and one that they look to cooperative games for.

That's fine, and some cooperatives are pretty good. But there aren't many of them and even less that really have a good gameplay associated with them. Throw in a disinterest in a particular theme of a game and the list grows shorter.

Without a cognitive opponent you just don't get surprised very often, and that means you can largely switch off your brain. I played my first four or five games of Talon against myself and had the same experience you did Matt when I played a real opponent -- it was the first time I was caught off-guard by the actions of my opponent. I thought I had Talon pretty much figured out, but an opponent making a right turn just before I opened fire on him completely changed the mix, and my view of the game. Approach and attack wasn't as cut and dried as I thought. That doesn't come from an AI deck.

S.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 14:28 by Southernman #285688
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Not Sure wrote:
I think team sports is a good analogy on the surface, but becomes poor when you look at it with a little more depth.

I think the basics are correct: "listen to your coach, listen to your captain", but the breakdown is between the coach telling you "i need you to stay up front in midfield to put pressure on" and a coach telling you "I need you to take three steps the left and pivot, right now".

I'm looking more at a team sport meaning you have to rely on all your team members if you want to win, even the most talented (or bossy) individual can't win it for you. The captain or coach doesn't come into my comparison, more the ability (or lack of) to work with others and to be successful in doing so and get enjoyment out of it. When I did play team sports in my younger days I can honestly say I got as much enjoyment in putting in a good team effort than winning (which was just as well as a lot of my teams lost).
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 15:02 by san il defanso #285695
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I'm generally the most outgoing person at every game table, so if anyone is trying to boss everyone around it's probably me. I am also the type who internalizes other people's dissatisfaction with a game, so I bite my tongue in many coops.

The biggest quality that makes QBing easy is low-luck systems. The less ambiguity there is, the easier for someone to dominate the group, because everyone has all the info they need to make good decisions. Pandemic does this. The diseases are highly predictable after a few turns. Throwing some dice in a game makes it difficult for planning to be ironclad.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 16:59 by Not Sure #285713
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Southernman wrote:
Not Sure wrote:
I think team sports is a good analogy on the surface, but becomes poor when you look at it with a little more depth.

I think the basics are correct: "listen to your coach, listen to your captain", but the breakdown is between the coach telling you "i need you to stay up front in midfield to put pressure on" and a coach telling you "I need you to take three steps the left and pivot, right now".

I'm looking more at a team sport meaning you have to rely on all your team members if you want to win, even the most talented (or bossy) individual can't win it for you. The captain or coach doesn't come into my comparison, more the ability (or lack of) to work with others and to be successful in doing so and get enjoyment out of it. When I did play team sports in my younger days I can honestly say I got as much enjoyment in putting in a good team effort than winning (which was just as well as a lot of my teams lost).

Yeah, we might be arguing at cross-purposes. I would love to find a really great team game that doesn't easily fall down with the coaching problem. I like the feel of succeeding (or even failing) with a team, but I hate being micro-managed. Worse yet, I can sometimes slip into that micro-management mode myself, and wind up being the asshole at the table. I try hard, but it's a character flaw.

That's why I want a coaching-resistant game, where each player is best aware of their own situation and most able to react, without an Overmind telling them what the best course is. Actually, maybe I don't want that, because it sounds like why Shellhead won't play spreadsheet games after being an accountant all day. Too real.

san's not wrong about dice throwing uncertainty in the mix, but even then it's easy to say "well, there's about a 70% chance of it going wrong, so I think you should" and worst case followed by "I told you so". Low-luck (or high information) games are definitely the easiest to overcoach in.

I think the best examples I have of this limited information is in BSG's very arbitrary "no table-talk about your cards" rules, or something like the "megagames" that Jur used to play on and report about, where different operational theaters (on the same side) were in different rooms. Making the best choice in front of you, while not being privy to all the information about the whole state of the game. And yet, making a cohesive and satisfying game out of that...

That's the holy grail co-op to me.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 19:40 by Shellhead #285725
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san il defanso wrote:
The biggest quality that makes QBing easy is low-luck systems. The less ambiguity there is, the easier for someone to dominate the group, because everyone has all the info they need to make good decisions. Pandemic does this. The diseases are highly predictable after a few turns. Throwing some dice in a game makes it difficult for planning to be ironclad.

This is a great point, and I think it is exactly why most euro co-ops lack fun.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 19:43 by Shellhead #285726
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Death Angel has a great solution for the QB problem, which is that certain events can only be handled by the last player to act in a given turn. That plus the brutal randomness of single die rolls (no bell curve) can wreck any QB, and the QB can even get eliminated from the game before it's over.
Posted: 08 Nov 2018 20:38 by san il defanso #285727
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To some extent, you need a QB to teach some co-ops. I do this when I teach Lord of the Rings, which is a game I like a lot. Most people don't like feeling totally in over their heads in their first game, so a light-touch-coaching approach does help people enjoy their first experience. By this I mean you can tell people the tendencies of the game, things that helped you enjoy the game after some experience. I think that's appropriate, depending on the player group.

To some extent familiarity with the game is the single biggest way that experienced players can dominate an experience. It's not even intentional, it's simply how things go. I've primarily used Death Angel as a solo game, and the longer I've owned it the more it's stayed that way. That's because I know now pretty well how the different Marines operate and how best to deploy them. It has made multi-player games excruciating for me, because so much of the game revolves around making a decision without someone else. For that reason Warhammer Quest ACG has proven to be a more reliable multiplayer experience for me.
Posted: 09 Nov 2018 06:04 by Jackwraith #285738
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Right. I think WQACG is far more forgiving than Death Angel, which is what will make it an ideal co-op for a lot of people because it reduces the need for the QB by its very nature. Like games like Ghost Stories, Death Angel can be really difficult (when you're not playing the Dark Angels) and any one mistake can doom the whole team. That's often why the alpha person steps in, because he or she has more experience or has a better strategic grasp, in addition to being the most forward person who will always state their opinion. I think it's workable to categorize different kinds of co-ops (Big Trouble in Little China: storytelling co-op; Death Angel: competitive co-op) in the same way there are different kinds of dungeon crawlers (Descent 2nd Ed.: campaign crawler; The Others: competitive crawler.) "Competitive" is kind of a poor label, but the general thrust is that those are the games where the group must play very tight and there isn't much room for wandering off and doing your own thing.

That latter part is why I've always loved Death Angel: the team must function together, kinda like a group of Marines wandering through a hulk with death on all sides. Some people don't enjoy that kind of tension in their games, but I like the teamwork aspect that it requires.
Posted: 09 Nov 2018 06:22 by Vysetron #285740
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I don't think I've ever played Death Angel with more than two, but it's a fantastic coop. Super tense. I'm reminded of the first time I introduced it to a friend who was really into 40K. I'd played 40K and read a fair bit of the fluff, but there were gaps in my knowledge.

"So we're going through the halls of this hulk, which is why we're all lined up."

"Ok, got it."

"And we're fighting genestealers on both sides the entire time."

"WHAT"

"What?"

"We're fighting nothing but genestealers?"

"Yeah?"

"WE'RE DEAD"

Ended up losing by a hair. Was a great game.
Posted: 09 Nov 2018 06:46 by MattDP #285745
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Shellhead wrote:
Death Angel has a great solution for the QB problem, which is that certain events can only be handled by the last player to act in a given turn.

Not a fan of the game as a whole - it has a big dose of that "you've lost before you've drawn a card" thing going on - but that rule is brilliant.