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Subject: Competitive Cooperative game mechanics rss

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W Scott Grant
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I'm working on a game currently that is a worker-placement with a traitor mechanic. My initial thoughts were to make it a cooperative game with a competitive element in the sense that the loyal players are trying to accomplish a common goal, but individually, the one with the most "points" wins.

When I proposed this to my friends, they didn't like the idea of the competitive cooperative mechanic. In their experience with other games, players will intentionally sabotage the collective in order to protect their lead or prevent other players from scoring points. This behavior would give the traitor player an unfair advantage, since he'd be working to foil the success anyway.

I've since abandoned the competitive aspect and dropped the part where the loyal players track victory points. If they loyal players win, they win as a team.

Anyway... The purpose of this post is to ask your opinion regarding the theory behind the Competitive-Cooperative model. Is it one that is doomed to fail or are there games where this does work consistently? What are your thoughts and experiences?
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Stephen Eckman
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My quick thoughts:
- I think purely coop games can suffer from the "alpha gamer" problem. Semi-cooperative games will be preferable to gaming grops that have that problem.
- I've been intrigued by the idea that semi-cooperative could be a catch-up mechanism. Imagine a game that requires an end condition to be met or everyone loses. Now imagine that if that end condition is met, only one of the players wins. Players that think they have a shot at winning will be pushing the game towards the end state while users who are clearly behind will be working on catching up rather than helping push to the end state. I had hoped that Tomorrow would have been like this, but in practice it doesn't work the way I envisioned (although it is still fun).
- And to your last question there are games where the Competitive-Cooperative model works well. Offhand Dark Moon (BSG Express, not Dark Moon) and Tomorrow come to mind as ones that I have played.
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Rainer Ahlfors
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steckman wrote:
My quick thoughts:
- I think purely coop games can suffer from the "alpha gamer" problem. Semi-cooperative games will be preferable to gaming grops that have that problem.
- I've been intrigued by the idea that semi-cooperative could be a catch-up mechanism. Imagine a game that requires an end condition to be met or everyone loses. Now imagine that if that end condition is met, only one of the players wins. Players that think they have a shot at winning will be pushing the game towards the end state while users who are clearly behind will be working on catching up rather than helping push to the end state. I had hoped that Tomorrow would have been like this, but in practice it doesn't work the way I envisioned (although it is still fun).


Perfect example of a semi-cooperative game that works exactly as you describe: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
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    After years of consideration (and even an article on this on Fortress:Ameritrash) I've come to the conclusion that cooperative play belongs in the realm of role-playing. You need to have some level of intelligence in the background environment to make anything compelling.

    Competitive-Cooperative solves that problem but raises another -- everyone drags their feet, delaying the end of the game until enough players capitulate (likely out of weariness) in order to let someone else win. That's not exactly a recipe for a tense ending. If the player in the lead can force the group across the finish line single-handed, well, that's essentially a fully competitive game. In short, to answer your question, I think it's damn near certain to fail.

    What remains is the concept of true team play, multiple players working in concert against other groups of multiple players in order to produce a shared win for their team. This is a remarkably thin genre, and I don't think there are any heavy hitters that use it. It has some wonderful facets for coaching, specializing, handicapping, large play groups, etc., but somehow is considered not cricket in boardgaming, a truly ironic condition considering how prevalent it is in physical sport. It's almost as if game-nerds aren't willing to step into the realm of social intelligence to go after it.

    Minis guys are the exception by the way, plenty of team play in the Ancients and Pre-Gunpowder genres.

             S.


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GalaGalaxia wrote:

Perfect example of a semi-cooperative game that works exactly as you describe: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game


    But is it? Show me the part of that game that is cooperative. Each player's turn drags you closer to the finish line, but I certainly don't see coordination in the players' actions in it. Instead of each player racing to get to the finish line first, each player hopes to be in the front of the line when everyone gets to the finish as a group.

             S.
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Stephen Eckman
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Sagrilarus wrote:
What remains is the concept of true team play, multiple players working in concert against other groups of multiple players in order to produce a shared win for their team. This is a remarkably thin genre, and I don't think there are any heavy hitters that use it.

I don't know your definition of "heavy hitters" but games like The Resistance: Avalon or Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game qualify and those are highly rated (both in the top 30 on BGG).
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steckman wrote:
Sagrilarus wrote:
What remains is the concept of true team play, multiple players working in concert against other groups of multiple players in order to produce a shared win for their team. This is a remarkably thin genre, and I don't think there are any heavy hitters that use it.

I don't know your definition of "heavy hitters" but games like The Resistance: Avalon or Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game qualify and those are highly rated (both in the top 30 on BGG).


    My definition of a team game really isn't that difficult to describe -- matching shirts in at least two colors. Both of the games you list are cooperative games with a traitor mechanic in them, where each person's allegiance is murky at best until they overtly reveal. Granted, once the Cylons reveal in BSG you have a true team game, where players act in clear concert with each other.

    World of Warcraft: The Boardgame is a true team game. Memoir '44: Overlord is a true team game. All players act in complete cooperation from beginning to end. That's my definition of team play, one exceptionally common in other gaming endeavors. Considering there's about 50k games in the BGG database the list that support true team play is pretty doggone thin. There's a few heavy hitters when you cast a broad net -- Bridge is a good example, but when I ask about team games I generally get about 20 titles returned to me that have a recognizable name.

             S.

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Rainer Ahlfors
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Sagrilarus wrote:
GalaGalaxia wrote:

Perfect example of a semi-cooperative game that works exactly as you describe: Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game


    But is it? Show me the part of that game that is cooperative. Each player's turn drags you closer to the finish line, but I certainly don't see coordination in the players' actions in it. Instead of each player racing to get to the finish line first, each player hopes to be in the front of the line when everyone gets to the finish as a group.

             S.


Depending on the particular Scheme (scenario) used, the cooperative aspects are more or less emphasized.

There is no automatic win condition for the players. They must defeat the Mastermind four times (at least) in order to not collectively lose.

While striving to build up a deck strong enough to defeat the Mastermind, the players must avoid triggering whatever loss condition is prescribed by the Scheme itself. Sometimes, this means helping to defeat villains in the city that others cannot take on. Other times it might mean recruiting (or avoiding to recruit) certain superheroes.

You cannot win Legendary by focusing on screwing things up for your neighbor. The city must be kept clean, the villains defeated, and the Scheme kept in check. That is all done collectively as a group. The more players you have, the more important that cooperative aspects become.
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GalaGalaxia wrote:

You cannot win Legendary by focusing on screwing things up for your neighbor. The city must be kept clean, the villains defeated, and the Scheme kept in check.


    So what's the game-theory incentive to cooperate? Keep the opportunity to win alive by not triggering a complete game loss? I have to admit I played Legendary twice and was done with it.

    I understand the concept you're describing, but at some point the opportunity to win starts coming into reach and you make your run at it. Everything prior felt like busy work to me, getting your deck set up and hoping for a good position to make your run at the end.

             S.

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Sagrilarus wrote:


I disagree quite a bit. It is more like two sets of completely separate cooperative games going on on the same board. There is virtually no interaction between the two teams.

Sagrilarus wrote:
Considering there's about 50k games in the BGG database the list that support true team play is pretty doggone thin.


Agreed. There are way too few that feature this style of play in the first place. There are even fewer that do so successfully.

Sligo wrote:
The purpose of this post is to ask your opinion regarding the theory behind the Competitive-Cooperative model. Is it one that is doomed to fail or are there games where this does work consistently? What are your thoughts and experiences?


You know, I can see where they are coming from ... If sabotaging the common goal (or, rather: if avoiding to support the common goal in order to protect one's individual interests) is a viable strategy, then it is simply not very well designed.

I don't think the concept itself is a problem. The challenge comes from making sure the game remains interesting and providing enough incentives for everyone to truly cooperate, while, simultaneously, providing enough opportunity to achieve personal victory at the end.

In my opinion — not only is the Competitive-Cooperative model something that can work, such a game would easily rise to a top ranking among my owned games because of utilizing that particular model.
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Sagrilarus wrote:
So what's the game-theory incentive to cooperate? Keep the opportunity to win alive by not triggering a complete game loss?


Let's compare with the solo game experience of Legendary. When playing solo, you defeat villains in order to score points. If the city gets overrun, you will lose more quickly. By letting villains escape, you may also be forced to discard (KO) cards from the HQ that you may otherwise have wanted to recruit.

Considering the vast majority of Schemes, just focusing on winning the game by defeating the Mastermind is not a viable end-game plan.

Not only will defeated villains score points for you at the end of the game, but keeping the city clean helps you to focus more wholly on your end-game strategy, which is figuring out the best way to defeat the Mastermind.

Now, all these aspects are multiplied in a multi-player game. On each player's turn, a new villain will emerge in the city. If you solely focus on your personal strategy, rest assured your strategy will be foiled by the others.

If you choose not to cooperate, you will be treated like a traitor. By not cooperating, the other players will have no incentive to consider your strategy in decisions they make.

Legendary takes the social aspects into consideration. With a limited number of heroes available to recruit each turn, and with each player having a say in actions taken on their turn, you are constantly trying to balance cooperating without king-making. Does a hero need to be KO'd from the HQ? Guess what — the decision of which hero to KO rests with the player whose turn it currently is.

Sagrilarus wrote:
I understand the concept you're describing, but at some point the opportunity to win starts coming into reach and you make your run at it. Everything prior felt like busy work to me, getting your deck set up and hoping for a good position to make your run at the end.


Legendary is one of those games where adaptability and group flexibility are crucial to not only the common goal, but also your own individual goal.

General player strategy becomes clear from the very first few heroes that are recruited. With a limited number available of each hero type (and with multiple heroes being in the deck, each with its own unique abilities and benefits), you are really hurting yourself by trying to compete with another player over the exact same cards. Sure, depending on the Scheme and the hero composition, direct competition may be possible. But, for the most part, if I focus on X, you are better off focusing on Y.

In all, this helps you build a better deck while, incidentally, allowing me to also build a better deck. By helping me, you help yourself. By helping one another, winning the game does not only become more possible, but you are also more likely to do well on your own.

Sagrilarus wrote:
I have to admit I played Legendary twice and was done with it.


I was extremely disappointed in Legendary the first time I played it. I did not feel that it was competitive enough, nor cooperative enough; I also did not feel that excited about the deck building execution itself.

I still thought it was a decent game, and my son loved the superhero theme, so I bought the game anyway.

Once I acquired the Legendary: Dark City expansion, Legendary went from being merely "okay" to being one of my Top-10 favorite games of all time.

I will note, however, that we always randomize our setup and that we play with variable difficulty (there is a chance of extra Scheme Twists being included, as well as a chance of the Mastermind being stronger than normal).

That said — I realize Legendary is not for everyone. Personally, however, once I started playing it as a truly Competitive-Cooperative game, the cooperative aspects were enhanced, as were the competitive aspects. The added variety provided by the Dark City expansion completed the game experience for me.
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    I will admit that I thought the game played itself on my two tries. Simply not my kind of play. I've essentially given up on co-ops completely, so I may not be the best judge on this topic. But the decision has come from playing plenty of them and finding them wanting.

             S.


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In "competitive co-operative" games where only one player wins, I have found that players who are not about to win the game would rather try to make everyone lose than to let someone other than themselves be the big winner. In order to be truly co-operative, all players have to have incentive to help, even if they can only help a little bit. A game that expects players to work together, but only congratulates the one who helps the most, is defeating itself.
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Rainer Ahlfors
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meshnaster wrote:
In "competitive co-operative" games where only one player wins, I have found that players who are not about to win the game would rather try to make everyone lose than to let someone other than themselves be the big winner.


I spot two immediate issues:

1) potentially poor game design
2) man, you're playing with the wrong crowd
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GalaGalaxia wrote:

I spot two immediate issues:

1) potentially poor game design
2) man, you're playing with the wrong crowd


This is kind of a trite response, though.

1) Yes, it's arguably poor game design... but that doesn't help overcome the problem. Every single competitive-co-op game I've personally played has this problem, so the solution isn't so obvious that it can pass without comment. There's a good argument that in fact there is no solution.

2) The crowd he's playing with are following all the normal rules of competitive gaming; trying to maximise their own position relative to the crowd. If they see that they can't win the game themselves, the best they can hope for is to equalise their score with everyone else's. If the game only offers two answers - one person wins or nobody wins - then the game is incentivising them to sabotage the cooperative aspect because that is the only way they can equalise their score with everyone else's.

Which is to say: it's not the fault of his group, it's the fault of the game. If the group is expected to suspend normal competitive behaviour in order to make a nominally-competitive game work, then that game doesn't work as a competitive game.

(Yes, there are groups who can do this; good for them. There are also people who play Russian Roulette, it doesn't make it a good game.)
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    This is part of what I addressed in my article as well (I believe found here -- http://fortressat.com/articles-analysis/2767-idiots, can't reach it from this location). The problem with the concept is that the designer has two strikes on him when he steps up to the plate. He's really in a bind. It's possible to get something interesting that is both cooperative and competitive, but it's way harder than just creating a competitive game where individual players are able to respond to conditions on the board real-time and act with intelligence to neutralize other players.

    Calling it "bad design" isn't terribly fair. Saying "you're playing with the wrong group" isn't either, and I have three or four groups worth of experience, good fun players all, where these sorts of games haven't passed the sniff test. People play to win, and if threatening to sink the ship increases their position they go for it. On occasion you have to actually do it to give your threats credibility in future plays.

    Cooperation/Competition working well -- Little Italy. An incredibly simple design (likely part of the reason for its success), it creates a situation where you and your adjacent players share half your pieces each and score cooperatively when the common piece does well. It's still a competitive game because each pair of players has distinct needs and goals from each other pair, including the two pairs you're in. I'll be curious how many people would consider the game both cooperative and competitive though. Fundamentally it's about striking mutually beneficial deals (at others' expense) of short duration. Cooperation? You tell me. The key here is that you have to cut your own throat in order to impede the progress of your neighbor, which puts a true juxtaposition into the mix, instead of a "let's all cooperate for the love of gaming!" kind of mechanic where the only real incentive is outside-the-ruleset social pressure to get along.

    Coloretto -- cooperative and competitive? Deals that last six seconds are struck constantly through the game between pairs of players, but I don't think you can call it cooperative. Clear winner every time, no common goal, no negative endgame condition to avoid. The clocks ticking, score points when you can even if that means offering rewards to a fellow player. Schacht nestled up against cooperative/competitive with it, but I'd wager most consider it full blown competition.

    Personally I think both of those games work very well and are good plays. They're about as close as I'm willing to get to the concept we're debating.

             S.


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One interesting thing about Tomorrow is that there are some hidden points. If things are close enough, the players will want to push the game to the win state, because each player will believe they have a chance for individual victory. If one player is clearly so far behind that they can not win, that player can sabotage the game for everybody. But this becomes an extra strategic part of the game. Want to win the game? You have to make sure that no player is left in the dust. You have to make sure that no player is ganged up on. You have to make sure that every players feels like they have a chance to win, even though you think your hidden points will pull out the victory. Some people just throw up their hands and say "this game is broken, one person can sabotage it" ... I look at that as a strategic challenge.
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Sligo wrote:
I'm working on a game currently that is a worker-placement with a traitor mechanic. My initial thoughts were to make it a cooperative game with a competitive element in the sense that the loyal players are trying to accomplish a common goal, but individually, the one with the most "points" wins.

When I proposed this to my friends, they didn't like the idea of the competitive cooperative mechanic. In their experience with other games, players will intentionally sabotage the collective in order to protect their lead or prevent other players from scoring points. This behavior would give the traitor player an unfair advantage, since he'd be working to foil the success anyway.

I've since abandoned the competitive aspect and dropped the part where the loyal players track victory points. If they loyal players win, they win as a team.

Anyway... The purpose of this post is to ask your opinion regarding the theory behind the Competitive-Cooperative model. Is it one that is doomed to fail or are there games where this does work consistently? What are your thoughts and experiences?


An expansion for Small World (Necromancer Island) uses something like what you describe. One player is the Necromancer character and all other races are pitted against him. If the Necromancer wins, everyone else loses. If the Necromancer loses, the highest scoring player wins. It still feels like an every person for themselves scenario, but in reality the non-Necromancer characters need the others to stay in the game to help stave off a Necromancer win.

I find it a gloriously political landscape. And yes, if you're going in the coop-competitive play style, it almost always is about politics.
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W Scott Grant
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Thank you all for your thoughtful (and some trite) responses. Legendary was brought up multiple times, and this was one of the games discussed when I talked amongst my friends about the concept.

One of the "issues" with Legendary and some other comp/coop games is that that there are roles, and some players end up with a "supporting" role that enables other players to score points. Unless the game has a way of tracking and scoring this behavior, many of the comp/coop concepts don't work, in my opinion. It would almost be like adding a scoring system to Pandemic and giving points for each disease cube cured by players. Some roles would get very few points (Operations) while others would run away with the score (Medic).

Battlestar Galactica and Resistance were brought up, but these are loyal vs traitor games - - they don't necessarily give victory to an individual loyal player (or in some cases, an individual traitor if there's more than one).

I agree that some games can suffer from delaying tactics. I see this happening in straight competitive games. Munchkin is a prime example in that other players will actually work together to prevent a player from winning. One way to fix this is to establish a set number of rounds through some mechanic. Lords of Waterdeep, Resistance, etc, all do this, but can their methods be worked in to the comp/coop model? In the game I'm working on, I have a limited number of rounds. Not too few that players can't build and work strategy, but not too many to make the game last too long.

I've not taken the idea off the table completely. Perhaps, with your suggestions and comments, I can come up with something that would work.
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Bichatse wrote:
Which is to say: it's not the fault of his group, it's the fault of the game. If the group is expected to suspend normal competitive behaviour in order to make a nominally-competitive game work, then that game doesn't work as a competitive game.


I agree with that 200%.
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Just came here to recommend to read up on Archipelago. The fora are full of discussion whether this mechanic works or is doomed to sabotaged by "losing" players.

For good insight into the game, I suggest to read the excellent review by
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(I'm on my phone at the moment soiI don't have the direct link at hand)
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pinoeppel wrote:
For good insight into the game, I suggest to read the excellent review by
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What You're Missing: Archipelago
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I get the impression that people who ask for "competitive-cooperative" games are sometimes being deliberately vague about what they want in an attempt to have their cake and eat it too. I've yet to see anyone give a clear statement of what they actually want out of such a game that didn't strike me as self-contradictory.

But, based on the vector of the discussion so far, let's assume that you want players to cooperate even when they don't expect to finish in first place.

The goal of a game can be looked at as a way of ranking all the possible outcomes; winning is better than a tie, which is better than losing; sometimes winning with more points is better than winning with less points, sometimes it doesn't matter. Traditional competitive games are games where that ranking is constructed in such a way that the number of winners is always exactly one; traditional cooperative games are ones where either everyone wins or no one wins.

If you have multiple goals (e.g. "save the world" and also "score the most points"), then simply stating those goals doesn't clearly rank the outcomes; in particular, is it better to save the world but not have the most points, or to not save the world at all? If the rules don't specify a ranking, that doesn't mean that there is no ranking, it means the players will (perhaps subconsciously) make one up and then get angry at anyone who made up a different one (like how Rainer reacts to stories about saboteurs by dismissing them as "the wrong crowd").

If you don't want players to sabotage the cooperative goal even when they're losing in the competitive goal, then at a minimum you need to clearly state in the rules that failing the cooperative goal is worse than succeeding but with a lower score. Otherwise, you invite players to look at failing the cooperative goal as a "tie", which of course is better than losing, so of course they're going to sabotage it if they see things that way.

However, even if you succeed in convincing people that letting someone else win is ranked higher than the everyone-loses option...I suspect you're still going to get a lot of saboteurs. Firstly, because threatening to sabotage the game may give you enough bargaining power to secure a chance of winning, even if you'd honestly rather lose than be a saboteur, and your threats lose credibility if you never follow through. But more importantly, because humans are not perfectly rational actors and are predisposed to punish people they perceive as acting unfairly even at personal cost; take a look at the Ultimatum Game (that's a game-theory experiment, not a recreational game). If any player says "unless I start winning, I'm going to make sure everyone loses", then most other players' gut reaction is going to be "then screw you, I'll take the worse loss before I let you get away with that."

And that's all assuming that cooperating is "free"--if players need to pay some personal cost (including an opportunity cost) to help the common cause, then you've got a tragedy of the commons on top of all of that.

I won't say it's impossible to overcome all that, but it's certainly a tall order.



As an alternative, consider a game where:

1) Each player is given a secret goal at the start of the game.
2) None of the goals are mutually exclusive, nor completely aligned.
3) The game rulebook explains at great length that your only objective is to complete your secret goal. Whether some, all, or none of the other players complete their goals has absolutely no effect whatsoever on you. Thus, it's possible that all players will win, or none of them will win, or anything in between.
4) The game is difficult enough, and random enough, that the players cannot reliably complete all the secret objectives by simply revealing them all and treating it as a fully-cooperative game. You might pull it off sometimes, but frequently the game will end before you can complete 100%.
5) Many of the actions you might take in pursue of your own goal could incidentally help or hinder other players, depending on their goals.

The idea being that there are many opportunities to cooperate with OR backstab the other players, and the game isn't telling you which you're supposed to do. It's not a "temporary alliance" game where you know the other guy must eventually backstab you in order to win; it's entirely possible that you could both win, and no inherent reason why that would be any less desirable than a solo win. But it's also not a fully-cooperative game where you know the other players completely share your interests and so will never act against you; they may have an opportunity to better themselves at your expense. And it's not even a hidden-teams game where you have some fixed allies and some fixed enemies but you don't know which is which; your own actions (and negotiations) have the potential to turn an enemy into an ally, or vice versa.

So each player has to make their own assessment of what they need from the other players and how best to get it. Maybe you can strike a deal; maybe you can renege on your end. Maybe you can hold someone else's interests hostage and make an ultimatum. Maybe you can appeal to their better nature and they'll help you out of sheer goodwill. Maybe you can lie about your goals and trick them into helping you without realizing it.

How's that for a melding of cooperative and competitive elements?
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Jeremy Lennert
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Sagrilarus wrote:
    What remains is the concept of true team play, multiple players working in concert against other groups of multiple players in order to produce a shared win for their team. This is a remarkably thin genre, and I don't think there are any heavy hitters that use it. It has some wonderful facets for coaching, specializing, handicapping, large play groups, etc., but somehow is considered not cricket in boardgaming, a truly ironic condition considering how prevalent it is in physical sport. It's almost as if game-nerds aren't willing to step into the realm of social intelligence to go after it.

Do you count one-versus-everyone games? Some people like to count them as a subtype of cooperative games, but I think it makes far more sense to view them as a subtype of team games.

Of course, most 1v1 games can also be turned into team games by delegating responsibilities. I think the concept of freestyle Chess is fascinating (though I'm not sure I would actually want to play it).
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Benj Davis
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Antistone wrote:

As an alternative, consider a game where:

1) Each player is given a secret goal at the start of the game.
2) None of the goals are mutually exclusive, nor completely aligned.
3) The game rulebook explains at great length that your only objective is to complete your secret goal. Whether some, all, or none of the other players complete their goals has absolutely no effect whatsoever on you. Thus, it's possible that all players will win, or none of them will win, or anything in between.
4) The game is difficult enough, and random enough, that the players cannot reliably complete all the secret objectives by simply revealing them all and treating it as a fully-cooperative game. You might pull it off sometimes, but frequently the game will end before you can complete 100%.
5) Many of the actions you might take in pursue of your own goal could incidentally help or hinder other players, depending on their goals.

The idea being that there are many opportunities to cooperate with OR backstab the other players, and the game isn't telling you which you're supposed to do. It's not a "temporary alliance" game where you know the other guy must eventually backstab you in order to win; it's entirely possible that you could both win, and no inherent reason why that would be any less desirable than a solo win. But it's also not a fully-cooperative game where you know the other players completely share your interests and so will never act against you; they may have an opportunity to better themselves at your expense. And it's not even a hidden-teams game where you have some fixed allies and some fixed enemies but you don't know which is which; your own actions (and negotiations) have the potential to turn an enemy into an ally, or vice versa.

So each player has to make their own assessment of what they need from the other players and how best to get it. Maybe you can strike a deal; maybe you can renege on your end. Maybe you can hold someone else's interests hostage and make an ultimatum. Maybe you can appeal to their better nature and they'll help you out of sheer goodwill. Maybe you can lie about your goals and trick them into helping you without realizing it.

How's that for a melding of cooperative and competitive elements?


That's how Blood Royale works (or at least the way I've played it, which is heavily modded, but never having seen or played the original, I don't know how), although with the twist that all the goals are things like "have the most Popes over the course of the game" or "have the most money at the end of the game", so all the individual goals are competitive, but you're the only one who directly cares about your particular goal.
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