This month’s game genre is not defined by mechanics so much as it is by the way it frames the relationships between players: instead of competing to avoid defeat and attain victory, players are all working together against the rules of the game to beat the system, and either win or lose as a team.
The value of this framing as an expressive device should be immediately obvious, and the writeup recently posted for the new historically-based co-op board game, Freedom – The Underground Railroad, makes it explicit. Sometimes the challenge of the game is themed around a common threat, like disease, or just something you don’t want people to be playing, like slavery. Co-op games allow you to explore those themes without putting any players in the position of playing something that nobody wants to support, or that may even have strongly personal negative associations for one or more players at the table.
In the last two Talking Points articles, we’ve discussed how one of the greatest strengths of competitive games is that they drive you into other people’s shoes – you have to anticipate your opponent and therefore have to try to think like them. But that oppositional interaction with others is not the only, or even the primary, mode of engaging with our fellow human beings. We overlook and outright forget it often, but most of the things we collectively work to overcome are not each other. Rather, these general threats are natural phenomena that are not the product of human actions (though we can certainly contribute to their occurrence, and exacerbate their effects), which we have yet to overcome entirely, and which constantly threaten to overwhelm the defenses we have against them. That humanity has survived and prospered to the degree it has is a remarkable achievement, nothing to take for granted… and the product of intense collaboration among millions of people.
(Consider the number of people who have contributed to the device on which you are reading this text, and all the devices through which it has arrived there from the device on which I am typing: extraction, refining, processing, design, prototyping, shaping, assembling, testing, coding, and the research that enabled all these things, and the planning that co-ordinated them… and this is merely one artifact among many. We are surrounded and supported by a web of shared effort that envelops us so completely that it is almost invisible to us, the air we breathe and the water in which we swim.)
So it is hardly surprising that games have evolved to explore this territory too. The process started with team-based games, which saw groups workling against other groups, combining both approaches. These eventually shifted to few-vs-many or one-vs-many games – both of which have existed in the physical-game space for centuries (most team sports, Fox & Hounds/paper chase games, Hide & Seek, tag/chasey, etc). Fully co-operative games are a relatively recent innovation, but have nonetheless proliferated rapidly: witness the collaborative storytelling of the games highlighted last month, co-op computer games, or the-group-vs-the-system tabletop games, like Freedom.
It’s worth briefly exploring the different strengths of co-op vs. competitive games. Co-op is definitely weaker in terms of fostering theory of mind, since you’re not having to anticipate other people’s actions to the same degree in order to succeed. (Though that raises some interesting design possibilities around co-op games where you can’t communicate with your fellow players.) It’s great for fostering analysis and discussion of systems, though, for precisely the same reason: that’s where the challenge now lies. It’s also terrific for strengthening the skills involved in collaboration, notably communication, especially in games where time pressure is a factor.
If you’re interested in giving co-op games a go, here are a few random recommendations to get you started:
Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros. U – as part of its outreach to “casual” gamers, Nintendo has been doing a lot of work in the co-op space, in particular in developing asymmetrical co-op, where one player controls the main character and the second player operates a slightly simpler set of controls to try and help the first achieve their goals. Nintendoland also has some fun co-operative minigames.
Opposites is an indie title for X-Box and now Ouya, a sort of sideways co-operative (or competitive) Tetris – I personally find the attempt to collaborate and last as long as possible much more interesting than playing to spoil each other’s options. This is definitely one where you practice skills in communication under time pressure though!
MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) also feature a good deal of co-operation – some quests are only achievable with co-ordinated efforts from 40 or more players.
Pandemic is a board game about working together to find a cure for four diseases which have broken out around the world before they go critical and kill or infect too many people. This is not only a great game for collaborative strategizing, it’s a terrific example of “poetry of system”. While the actual gameplay has almost nothing to do with any activity that would contribute to defeating an epidemic, the tension between short-term dealing with the symptoms of the problem and working towards a long-term solution is beautifully captured. Highly recommended, especially with the On The Brink expansion.
Escape – The Curse of the Temple is a co-op realtime game that is played by rolling dice as fast as you can, trying to find the combinations you need to achieve tasks related to exploring and escaping a trapped ancient temple that is collapsing around you. You only have 10 minutes (there is a soundtrack you can use as a timer, highly recommended for the extra atmosphere, or you can use more prosaic timers) and there are some mini-deadlines along the way. Players in the same room of the temple can share dice pools, and players can get “trapped” and need rescuing, meaning working together is mandatory and the game is an exceptional way to exercise the ability to think and communicate tactically under time pressure.
Forbidden Island is a great introductory co-op game. It has some similar mechanics to Pandemic; but its different flavour (rescuing treasures from a sinking island), shorter play time, slightly simplified rules, and the fact that the board is randomised each time gives it a sufficiently different feel that it’s not redundant to have both in the collection.
Other recommended board games include Flashpoint: Fire Rescue, where you play as firemen trying to rescue people from a burning building, and Defenders of the Realm, where you play as fantasy heroes defending the realm from four invading armies. For more advanced gamers, Arkham Horror and Shadows Over Camelot were two pioneers in the field that still exist today and are worth a play, though you need to set aside a decent amount of time to do so, and Shadows ventures into social detection territory with a mechanic dictating that in some games a player will turn traitor.