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Tim Deagan
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{Warning, this is a long musing on the mechanics in cooperative games.}

We're on a big cooperative games kick here at DeChurch (our casa.) Out of my game collections of over 175 titles, really only 4 qualify as cooperative games. (I do own a Family Pastimes game that alas, just doesn't get my gaming juices flowing, which is too bad given the effort and commitment Family Pastimes has made to co-op gaming.) These are: Vanished Planet, Lord of the Rings, Break the Safe and Minion Hunter.

My definition of cooperative for the purpose of this discussion is:
1) All players win or lose together.
2) Everyone plays, no gamemaster/referee.
3) No traitors, scapegoats, false identities or one vs. everyone else situations.
4) Preferably not just multi-player solitaire, game should require mutual reliance (preferably altruistic behavior,) and benefits from a synergy of various approaches.

I am interested in the mechanics and designs that lend themselves to this kind of cooperative gaming. For the most part, these games seem to fall into what I think of as either the 'collapsing-ceiling' or 'personal-best' models. The collapsing-ceiling (CC) model is some kind of game entropy (Sauron moving towards the light in LOTR, the timer in Break the Safe or the creature in Vanished Planet. The idea is the classic image from adventure movies where the protagonists are trapped in a room with the ceiling or walls closing in.) Personal-best (PB) is a scoring mechanism where you compare your score to your previous attempts. In CC, you primarily want to survive. In PB you want to maximize points. The two can obviously mix.

In either case, in cooperative games the players are generally playing against the game. Therefore there must be some form of responsiveness from the game based on the actions of the players. I tend to think of this as 'Cardboard AI'. To have any hope of re-playability, there must be some means of introducing novelty. Given the challenges of building any kind of dynamic logic engine (a la computer software) into a board game, typically designers rely on some form of randomness. Random sequencing for things like resource distribution or challenges (e.g. cards,) and random values for things like resolution of conflict or movement capability (dice.) Multi-player games get to harness the creativity and processing power of humans (varied though it may be :-) Solitaire and cooperative games are generally players vs. a state machine.

[The term state machine refers to something like a programmatic software activity (think of a shopping cart) or a bread machine that has a set of definable 'states' like mixing, rising, baking or shopping, confirming, checkout, etc. A state machine moves from one state to another based on some action or transition like 'turn_on_heater' or 'click_checkout_button'. State Machines are a well developed model of system analysis, my description is dangerously simplistic. (See more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finite_state_machine ) Interestingly enough, state diagrams for state machines look a LOT like gameboards.

Cardboard AI consisting of a carefully tuned set of cards, a balanced set of resources, a well thought-out gameboard and some mechanic of game entropy has been used enough and are difficult enough that designers are, IMHO, more challenged to bring coopertive titles to market than competitive titles. So, my purpose for this musing is to bat about some ideas for cooperative games that either break the mold of Collapsing-ceiling and Personal-Best, or breathe some additional life into them for a larger set of cooperative titles.

One of the areas that I think has been largely abandoned, though it has a rich history, is the 'paragraph book' approach in games like Ambush! or Barbarian Prince. In this model the game strings together a narrative out of a set of elements (paragraphs.) This is usually done by a combination of a large number of elements selected by randomness constrained within parameters of location/resources/state/etc. These kind of games tend to have a rich narrative or story feeling (and may God have mercy on my soul if this introduces to BGG the Narratology Vs. Ludology debate that has infested the software games design community http://www.costik.com/weblog/2005_06_01_blogchive.html#11193... ) This approach found its zenith in pre-computer solitaire games. I suspect that there is gold for co-op designers who revisit this approach. It offers some especially nice expansion potential.

Another mechanic, loosely used in Shadows Over Camelot, is restricted communication between players. This has some interesting potential for greater use in co-op play. I tend to think of this as a kind of signal-to-noise ratio that creates ambiguity. The idea of a restricted vocabulary has some interesting potential for adding tension, think bidding in Contract Bridge. This is also a potential means of increasing or decreasing the difficulty by adding or subtracting terms from the lexicon. Of course, this starts to make me wonder if Mastermind can then be described as a cooperative game ;-) Perhaps some kind of two(or more)-way mutual Mastermind-model communication as the basis of building/discovering something.

I've also wondered about looking at existing non-cooperative games in a cooperative light to see if new potential emerges. I'll take Carcassonne as an example. It can be played cooperatively in the 'Personal-Best' mode as a multiplayer solitaire by playing open-hand and combining scores for a group total. It's fun to play this way, IMHO not as fun as the normal game, but especially fun with little kids. Tension could be added by having the group score but playing closed-hand. It's definitely possible to do what Break The Safe does and just add a timer to the mix. I find that this turns Break the Safe into something of a dexterity game since your chances of success relate directly to the number of rolls and moves you can make in the allotted time period.

The paragraph book and also the 'Lost Worlds' combat books typically used a kind of frozen 'logic tree' to generate a result from a set of inputs. It's well within the realm of possibility to use computers to generate an entire booklet of lookup tables that act as an 'expert system' against which the players battle. This would have to be easy and fun to use (rather than grognard wet-dream territory) to appeal to a broad range of gamers. Ambush!'s sliding window charts is a good model to consider. Plus, cool slideruleish charts could be a great game bit, decent opportunities for artwork and theme.)

Designing cool one or two shot cooperative games is relatively no big deal compared to trying to bring in replay-ability. And heaven protect the game designer who asks Geeks to put up with too much randomness as a substitute for creative play! Creating a game that has the ability to fight back with surprises, traps and novelty is massively challenging. Perhaps if Vanished Planet had more than one kind of creature and you didn't know which kind it was for a little while...

Okay, this is obviously waaaay too long. I'm just interested in kicking around ideas for designers to carry forward and build great games with. Heck, maybe I'll even gel out an idea I can run with....


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Justin
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I have to congratulate you Tim for writing a wonderful post. I was actually going to post something like this (although I'm not as good with my words as you seem to be) over at the bgdf until I noticed 2 things: you posted this and the bgdf was hacked. Personally I have nothing to add but you really gave my brain some "food for thought" on the matter of board game narrative styles.

By the way, your post wasn't long. It only took me 25 min. to read the entire thing ;) Kidding.

 
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Jay Little
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Great post... I'm so glad you were able to get a hold of Minion Hunter. While it shares many things in common with other cooperative games, it has enough novelty and differences that it stands on its own merits. Which is a great thing, as for me many cooperative games tend to end up feeling a bit similar or repetitive due to the mechanical nature of how cooperation is integrated into the game.

I like your "Collapsing Ceiling" and "Personal Best" game conditions to help qualify cooperative game structures. I've been trying to decide what else might fit the bill, but with the strict guidelines you've included for cooperative games (specifically no GM or all-vs-one systems) I'm having difficulty finding other examples to use.
 
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Tim Deagan
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It's interesting that both Minion Hunter and LOTR use mulitple game boards to mix up the action. Kind of a macro-level/micro-level thing. Both games seem to keep up a nice rythym by oscillating between the boards. This helps cover a LOT of narrative territory in an efficient manner. Knizia was clever (what a surprise!) to use physically seperate boards, giving a big boost to the expansion capability.

Both are also derived from themes that have heavy RPG backgrounds, which I suspect also does a lot for the cooperative buy-in of players.
 
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Luca Iennaco
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Arkham Horror has a "paragraph book" feeling (and it qualifies based on your criteria).
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David Reed
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I guess I will have to try and find Minion Hunter...

My group has a soft spot for cooperative games (reflected in computer gaming choices as well...), with Arkham Horror having been a staple of play since its release in the early 1980s. Newer titles, such as Lord of the Rings and Vanished Planet have been added as they have been discovered and/or released.

You make some interesting points and I like your categorization of the existing types of cooperative game design.

I would contend that the original Arkham Horror fits into both the "collapsing ceiling" and "personal best" models: in other words, if enough gates appeared and the doom track progressed far enough, everybody loses - if the forces of darkness are thwarted, the player whose character closed more gates and/or killed more monsters is given special additional recognition. Even the Doom Track itself can be used as a measurement of how well the group has done: "We beat the bad guys before the Doom Track got to five!"

The new Arkham Horror is more or less just a "collapsing ceiling" out of the box, though those who are familiar with the original game can easily keep track of particularly effective play. Our group is still deciding whether we prefer the redesign to the original.

We've taken to trying out other titles, like Return of the Heroes and Runebound in a cooperative fashion. The card or tiles that would make for player on player combat are taken out, not played, discarded, whatever. And, the funny thing is that, even though the designers did not have cooperative play in mind (otherwise the "rob another player's equipment cards" would not exist), the games work well in that respect. We've even tried something similar to what you suggested in Carcassonne (which is probably why both the Princess and Dragon and the Count expansions have not made it to the table yet), with positive results.

I would be curious to read what other people have done to adapt games to cooperative play. What games have worked for your group? What modifications were needed? What didn't work for your group? Why?
 
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Rick Mathews
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I, too, have given considerable thought to the idea of cooperative gaming. I engaged in a fairly long correspondence with Jim Deacove, the designer of all Family Pastimes games, on the subject. Our correspondence was primarily about elements necessary for a successful cooperative game for adults. Family Pastimes has published several games for teens and adults, but their greatest success has been with children's games. Of course, I have had thought of designing a cooperative game myself, but the time commitment has dissuaded me so far.
 
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Tim Deagan
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Given the level of effort that Family Pastimes has put into cooperative gaming, I feel really bad that I just can't get enthusiastic about the couple of games of their's that I've encountered. Maybe I need more exposure, or maybe I'm just being biased against low production glitz.

I'd be interested if you wanted to share any of the comments Jim Deacove has made. He's certainly worked hard in this market.
 
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Tim Deagan
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An additional mechanic for cooperative games just occurred to me as I drove past a golf course. A lot of charity golf tournments are 'best ball'. In this kind of tournament, on each hole everyone on a team tees off. Then, whichever ball goes the farthest is where everyone takes their next shot from and so on. This may mean that the worst player never contributes and a great player carries the team, but some diversity in the type of 'test' combined with some kind of 'character abilities' might balance it out so that everyone has a decent chance of contributing to the phase of the quest or whatever in game terms. Alternately some simple handicapping could provide balance.



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Jay T Leone
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Seems like an exceptional cooperative game is on huge demand. My girlfriend (who doesn't like games due to their competitive nature) is actually encouraging me to design a cooperative game.

I suppose (hopefully) it's only a matter of time until someone cracks the formula to make a cooperative game challenging and replayable. CC seems like the most logical way to go, IMO. PB seems too stagnant and formulaic (best answer).

 
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Randy Cox
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I like your definition of a cooperative game. People like to call things like Shadows over Camelot or Fury of Dracula "cooperative" when they're not. Hide 'n' seek comes down to a two-player affair and that's not cooperative.
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Kevin B. Smith
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Nice analysis. Obviously some new games have come out in the years since that was written.

Even today, CC and PB are common among coop games. The notable exceptions, which I will designate TC ("Time Constrained") are Space Alert and Wok Star. In both cases, the team enters a timed phase with events happening so quickly that the players must work on their own with minimal communication. I haven't had a chance to try either yet, and I'm not sure if either works well with just 1 or 2 players, but they sound promising.
 
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chearns
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Kevin,

Space Alert is a Collapsing Ceiling. There are ten rounds, and at the end of the ten rounds, if your ship hasn't been destroyed, you win (note, there is also a system for keeping score, so in a sense it also does PB, but it is primarily a CC game).

The timer is just a mechanic, like in Break the Safe.

Wok Star is the same deal, if after the last round you have made enough profit, you win (CC).
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Wim van Gruisen
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revtim wrote:
An additional mechanic for cooperative games just occurred to me as I drove past a golf course. A lot of charity golf tournments are 'best ball'. In this kind of tournament, on each hole everyone on a team tees off. Then, whichever ball goes the farthest is where everyone takes their next shot from and so on.

There is a form of Scrabble that uses this concept. One set of seven letter tiles is drawn and each player tries to compose the best word with those tiles. At the end of the round everyone reveals their word, and the word with the most points is placed on the board. New tiles are drawn and a new round begins.

This game is still competitive, though. Points go to the person who scored the most points, or everyone gets the points for his word (depending on which variant you play).
 
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