By Douglas Stewart
My regular game group really likes to play cooperative games, and we’ve seen an abundance of them hit the table recently. Whether we’re defeating a common foe, attempting to survive a hostile environment, or preventing some unspeakable disaster, there are few moments in tabletop I find more exciting than the winning plays of hard fought cooperative games. The sense of teamwork and accomplishment are incredibly satisfying and always sparks excitement and conversation among the players.
While it feels great to pull off a win, what I find fascinating is that it's nearly just as exciting for a hard fought cooperative game to end in defeat. After all, “we were so close!” Many of our games end with us quickly resetting the board and shuffling the cards so we can try them again. Of course, not every game begs to be replayed. If a game was particularly frustrating, it usually can’t be boxed up and put back on the shelf fast enough.
So, what makes a cooperative game good?
Answers are probably going to vary from person to person and group to group, but in an attempt to gain some insight, I’d like to look at a few cooperative games I’ve been playing recently.
In Aeon’s End players take on the role of Breach Mages - magic wielding defenders of society’s last great city. The game uses deck-building as it’s primary game-play mechanism, and it pulls no punches when it comes to crushing player’s hopes and dreams. Our group has only been victorious once in the last four times we’ve played, and we love it!
There are two things that I think Aeon’s End does particularly well. First, deck-building is extremely fun. Not only do you feel like you are growing in power as a Breach Mage, but the game doesn’t require players to shuffle their decks when they run out. This means you can set your deck up for big combos and big hits. Second, the game manages to create amazing tension. Every round is filled with an intense tug-of-war between the monsters and the players. The game balances on the edge of a knife until it falls one way or the other and ends fairly quickly either way.
Many tabletop gamers make the mistake of overlooking Hero Realms. At first glance, it appears to be another generic, fantasy themed deck-building game, and that’s exactly what it is. However, Wise Wizard Games have released two campaign expansions for Hero Realms that transform the game into something truly special. The Ruin of Thandar and The Lost Village combine to tell a branching story that pits players against an assortment of baddies and lets them upgrade their decks in interesting ways.
While the campaign offers a significant challenge (our group failed the first attempt), it isn’t overly punishing or complicated. What it manages to do exceptionally well, is give players fun choices. The branching story makes players choose who to chase down, what leads to pursue, and even who to pick fights with. As the story unfolds, characters earn experience points which they can use to unlock new cards and abilities. The end result is a story and deck of cards that feel unique to each player.
The Reckoners is based on one of my favorite book series by author Brandon Sanderson. A mysterious event gives random people superpowers (Epics), but when they all turn out to be evil, a group of ordinary men and women (Reckoners) must fight back. Using dice to roll for actions, players attempt to take out thugs, defeat Epics, upgrade their gear, and research the weaknesses of their greatest foe, Steelheart.
One of the things I appreciate the most about The Reckoners is the lack of down time. Players roll dice and perform actions simultaneously. This means that players are almost never sitting around waiting for their turn. Everyone at the table needs to communicate about what dice they are going to use and what actions they intend to perform. The process of combining actions to reach goals and meet objectives feels like a true team effort.
Paleo has been generating some buzz recently after it won the 2021 Kennerspiel des Jahres award in Germany. This survival game set in the stone age uses a clever mechanism that lets players look at the backs of their cards to determine what they intend to do, and then shows them specifically what actions they can actually do on the front side of the cards. If a player doesn’t like their choice of actions or doesn't meet the requirements to perform those actions, they can usually pass and choose to help others instead. Will you choose to build tools that could help your tribe survive, or will you help another player hunt the food needed to ensure none of your people starve?
Paleo is played in a series of stand-alone scenarios that rapidly increase in difficulty. I have to admit that our group is currently stuck. We can’t seem to survive a particularly harsh winter where food is scarce and the snow has pushed ravenous wolves out of the mountains. That said, this is still a game we thoroughly enjoy. In nearly every round, players debate the merits of prioritizing certain actions over others. Choosing the right path feels very rewarding, but choosing the less optimal path doesn’t necessarily ruin the game. On the contrary, it usually manages to add to the game's tension in a fun way.
Survival-based decision making and a strong need to rely on teammates make this game a worthy pursuit for anyone who enjoys cooperative experiences.
What can we conclude?
So, what makes a cooperative game good?
Using the examples above as a guide, there are a few lessons I think we can learn. First, good cooperative games need to have solid gameplay mechanisms. If the mechanisms in the game are engaging and polished, players are more likely to enjoy the actual process of playing the game and interacting with its components.
Second, victory needs to be difficult but attainable. There’s a reason most people don’t find it enjoyable to watch blow-out sporting events. We want games to be close. We want to be excited by the possibilities of who could win and who could lose. Additionally, players want to feel rewarded for their efforts. When there is a real threat of defeat, or when you have been defeated before, it makes the process of striving for victory all the better.
Third, good cooperative games encourage and promote teamwork. I’ve played plenty of cooperative games that ultimately come down to one or two players showboating. It’s discouraging to play through a game where your efforts never feel needed or useful. Conversely, knowing that your combined efforts carried the group to victory feels like an accomplishment for everyone at the table.
And finally, I think good cooperative games offer players a variety of interesting choices to make. Whether it's choosing a path to take, which card to play, which teammate to help, or what villain to defeat, choices and options make games feel unique to the groups that play them.
What special ingredients do you think go into making cooperative games good?