Jim Becker

Nashville
Tennessee
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I don’t remember my first time very well. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, and I suspect we heaved a collective sigh of disappointment when it was over. We’d failed. No one could pinpoint where we went wrong. We probably committed infractions, overlooked the obvious, and bypassed simple rules. None of us regretted trying it, though, and we quickly set everything up for another go.

No, I’m not referring to an orgy. I’m pretty sure it was Pandemic. I’ll ignore any similarities from this point forward.

We ran out of the deck, not realizing how quickly we had to cure all four diseases before the world went boom. In games since, we’ve lost every way - 8 outbreaks, running out of cubes in one color, card depletion, and an oddly appropriate sneezing fit that left the board too disheveled (and gooey) for any of us to venture near it again without ammonia and hazmat suits.

Since then, my gaming group has played a variety of cooperative games including On the Brink (Pandemic’s expansion), Shadows Over Camelot, Death Angel, Forbidden Island, Castle Panic, Ghost Stories, Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, Drizzt’s D&D, Last Night on Earth and Battlestar Galactica. Those plays, plus my computer keyboard, and a Mountain Dew provide me enough ego to claim the authority to write this article.

What makes a good cooperative game?

Motivation
In all the games except Shadows Over Camelot, death is at stake. Humanity will either be eradicated by zombies, ghosts, Cylons, the Ancient One, monsters, disease or a natural disaster. Want inspiration? Survival. This also provides a sense of accomplishment when overcoming the puzzles and pitfalls each game provides. We didn’t simply collect enough coins to win, WE SAVED THE ENTIRE HUMAN RACE! Feel free to plan our parade accordingly.

The Fail Factor
No risk, no reward. For that reason - as well as its appeal to 5-9 year old sons (of which I have three) - Castle Panic doesn’t surface unless my kids want to play. Sure, there’s a luck component, and if all the monsters appear along the same path without a giant boulder to take them out a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, we could lose. But we never do. We’ve won games with only one tower remaining, but we’ve yet to lose yet. For young kids, that’s fantastic. For geeks who want a challenge, it’s unrewardingly simple.

Several cooperative games offer levels of difficulty: more epidemics, more incarnations, or floods, for example. Beating Pandemic with seven Brink epidemics plus the purple mutation may have required incredibly lucky draws, but after a dozen games, we managed to pull it off. Most of the time, our group plays with six whammies and the mutation. But we introduce people with four or five epidemics so they can understand the mechanics without getting overwhelmed or too frustrated to play again. For Ghost Stories, we use three incarnations, as one Wu-Feng stopped scaring us a long time ago. A basic house tweak on Elder Sign allowed us to start the game with X Doom Tokens on the doom track, depending on how desperately we wanted to scramble.

All of our group’s settings provide a chance of success without a fluke. I suspect we win more than half of our games, but not 75%. Imminent failure carries the same enjoyment as careless success. In other words, it requires a balance, as either too hard or too easy means not enough fun.

Puzzling, Ain’t It?
A common complaint about coops is how they’re basically puzzles. If you can play them solitaire, they don’t require multiple views or teamwork to win. Taking this to its basest argument, would the classic solitaire card game be considered a puzzle? You have the same challenge and the same 52 components every run, but some games are predestined to fail. Unlike FreeCell, which can be won 100% of the time. So that makes FreeCell a puzzle and Solitaire a game? I don’t know.

I do know there are games where the cards and/or dice have conspired against us; whatever tactical decisions we make, we’re doomed. Since we don’t know which those are, we still discuss (read: argue over) whether it would be better seeking the Holy Grail or Excalibur or battling back the Saxons and Picts. Better to try to send the suspect President to the brig or risk population for a jump? Should we collect allies and items and prepare for the awakening, or roll the dice and hope an Other World encounter will provide two Elder Signs? (FWIW, we’ve yet to find a situation where leaving Genestealers behind isn’t the best idea.)

Yes, they’re playable solo. But they’re far better games when people with equal willpower state their cases over why the Researcher needs to heal while the Medic needs to build stations. It’s no good when one person dictates every move, but working together, using each player’s individual strengths, toward victory? Sweet.

Traitors - Making Flippy Floppy
...and there’s the rub. Not all of the games have an insider intent on sabotage, but the fun ones do. When you know your group well enough to preserve the world with it, the next step is adding someone who’s goal is to thwart those plans. A bioterrorist, Cylon or knight turned bad? Without those components, I’m not positive we’d keep rolling out co-op games. (Actually, we play Pandemic sans bioterrorist most of the time, but we enjoy it mainly as a quick filler game.)

Traitors have potential to turn away players who don’t know the group especially well, or to cast gamers in a negative light. We ran BSG with a newbie who drew the Cylon; his anger mounted as we strategized against him. But on our relatively level playing field, these have proved to be the most fun games lately. Nothing like suspicion to ratchet up suspense.

The Ticking Bomb
Extended deliberation is frowned upon, as the nature of the challenges these games provide is to get things done quickly. If your group carries a member who can’t decide whether to overbid your noir cargo, debates whether to build a city or buy two development cards, or ticks away time struggling to figure out whether attacking the Bermuda Triangle to control or destroy is better... There’s no time for that in cooperative games. Admittedly, Arkham Horror still takes over three hours to play, but each turn should progress without too much studying the board to figure out which of these nine options is ideal. Stated differently, groupthink encourages healthy pacing.

Knockouts
Some games also present the option of players being eliminated. It’s hardly enjoyable to have your space marines slaughtered on the first turn of an hour-long game, but it certainly gives you ample opportunity to remember who your friends are. That guy who lines up three supernasties while your marine’s back is turned? Maybe it’s about time you returned the hedge clippers you borrowed six months ago?

In conclusion
Walking away from the table with the knowledge that your superior luck, strategy, and brilliance were sufficient to prevail is always a good feeling. No reason it can’t be shared. For a little variety and a still-enjoyable outcome, cooperative games are a fantastic option.

Good luck and great gaming!

-- Jim


"If you pull Khartoum, that’ll be outbreak number eight."
"Then I guess I’ll have to pull somewhere else!"
(Flips card. It’s Khartoum.)
"I told you to cure it!"
"I’m sorry, I can’t hear your petty whining over the cries of the world. The sick, sick world."
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Nancy Ann
United States
California
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This is very informative and I enjoyed it very much, thank you for taking the time to share this!!

Castle Panic just got put on my Christmas list for my family!

I am totally new to cooperative games other than the educational ones I have purchased for our homeschool. I honestly didn't know there were so many out there like this that were just for fun.

Basically, my husband, myself and my 10 year old son are the ones playing games regularly. Is this enough people to play some of these cooperative games?

Can just my husband and myself play some of the more challenging ones like Pandemic together?

Editing to add this question: Is it possible to have someone end up dominating the game and not have it be fun with these cooperative games?



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Kevin B. Smith
United States
Mercer Island
Washington
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PolarbearLA wrote:
I am totally new to cooperative games other than the educational ones I have purchased for our homeschool. I honestly didn't know there were so many out there like this that were just for fun.

Hundreds. Literally: PeakHope's comprehensive list of purely cooperative games

Quote:
Basically, my husband, myself and my 10 year old son are the ones playing games regularly. Is this enough people to play some of these cooperative games?

Can just my husband and myself play some of the more challenging ones like Pandemic together?

Not all co-ops work well with 2, but many do. Each BGG game page has a poll near the top, with "Best with" and "Recommended with" different player counts. For any game you are considering, I strongly recommend viewing the full poll results. Keep in mind that some people are fine playing multiple pawns within a game, but others of us really only want to control one in-game character each. So while some people think Red November is great for 2 (controlling 2 gnomes each), I find it lacking with 2 and would really only want to play it with 3 or more players (1 gnome each).

Quote:
Editing to add this question: Is it possible to have someone end up dominating the game and not have it be fun with these cooperative games?

A common debate. Many of us feel that it is the responsibility of the dominator to just not do that. Secondarily, it is the responsibility of the other players to enforce that. Some folks have had success with a table rule that nobody can offer advice to anyone else unless they asked for help. In some games, groups say that 2 players can only talk to each other when their pawns are at the same location.

As far as in-game mechanics, the ones that seem to help include:
- Real-time pressure (Space Alert; Escape: The Curse of the Temple)
- Hidden information (closed hands in Pandemic; communication restrictions in Witch of Salem and Hanabi)
- So much randomness that it is literally impossible for anyone to "know" what is best
- Traitors or betrayal, although to me that makes the games no longer "cooperative"

For you and your son, I would strongly recommend Forbidden Island and/or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, along with Castle Panic. For CP, the expansion supposedly adds options, which is good because for me the original game was fun, but could almost be played on auto-pilot.
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Clare Marie
New Zealand
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The most beautiful things in nature stay that way because most humans are too lazy to ruin them ...
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PolarbearLA wrote:
This is very informative and I enjoyed it very much, thank you for taking the time to share this!!

Castle Panic just got put on my Christmas list for my family!

I am totally new to cooperative games other than the educational ones I have purchased for our homeschool. I honestly didn't know there were so many out there like this that were just for fun.

Basically, my husband, myself and my 10 year old son are the ones playing games regularly. Is this enough people to play some of these cooperative games?

Can just my husband and myself play some of the more challenging ones like Pandemic together?

Editing to add this question: Is it possible to have someone end up dominating the game and not have it be fun with these cooperative games?


Basically, my husband, myself and my 10 year old son are the ones playing games regularly. Is this enough people to play some of these cooperative games?

Can just my husband and myself play some of the more challenging ones like Pandemic together?

Editing to add this question: Is it possible to have someone end up dominating the game and not have it be fun with these cooperative games?


I think your son will really enjoy Castle Panic Nancy, and Pandemic too if he is anything like the kids I regularly play these with .. Another he may really like is Forbidden Island aka Pandemics little brother with an awesome island treasure theme ..

Any co-op can be played be played by 2 or even 1 player, by simply playing more than one character .. And yes if there is a dominating personality someone can end up controlling everyone elses moves, but again in my experience this doesn't necessarily happen meeple
 
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Clare Marie
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Nice post Jim, and Welcome to BGG!

I'm surprised you have won every game of Castle Panic, but perhaps that's because there are 3 of you playing (imho it's best as a 1 - 2 player game) .. I also agree that the expansion makes it a lot harder - it's well worth getting ..

Another fun one that younger kids really love is Break the Safe .. It's OOP but quality copies can still be found at a reasonable cost on ebay .. Out of all my games this is by far the most loved & played by my (nearly 11yr old) son & his school friends - they literally phone me up on rainy days and ask me to bring it in for lunch-time
 
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