The Co-Op Conundrum

While I like winning, – and trust me, I do – the primary reason I play board games is not to crush my enemies into a fine dust, but to spend some time with friends in a way that I enjoy. The best games are ones where it is fun when you’re winning, but it’s also fun to lose. So in theory, Co-Op games would have an immense appeal. You have to interact with the people you’re playing with, and if things go well then everyone wins. A well designed Co-Op game can offer all the avenues for clever plays that a standard game does; you just use your ingenuity against the game itself, rather than an opponent. In fact, for all their potential, it might be in some ways surprising that I don’t play Co-Op games very often.

“I like this game because most Co-Op games feel like the smartest player in the room is playing while everyone else just watches” – Erik “Spooky” Volkert, about Sentinels of the Multiverse

Maybe I keep playing Co-Op games in the wrong setting, but Erik’s take on them rings true.  A game that requires the cooperation of all players requires a very similar level of experience and a boatload of trust to work out well, more so than any other game. When a player makes a mistake it no longer screws things up for that singular player but rather it can affect everyone’s chances of winning. The result is generally the person who formulates the overall plan of attack ends up directing all of the action.

Of course, no one is required to listen to the person trying to direct the action. A group can try to play a game based around cooperation as a bunch of separate entities, but not only does it not generally work but it also defeats the purpose of playing a Co-Op game in the first place. And when that group does eventually lose – and if the game is at all well-built, they will – there is a level of frustration that the “smarter” player will experience that is beyond most anything else in gaming. When you lose a regular board game, there can be a certain level of frustration, sometimes directed at yourself for a stupid play, sometimes because someone else played kingmaker and you weren’t king. But the frustration of someone who was supposed to be on Your Team making you lose is a level far beyond, because it’s something that is out of your control but feels like it should be. And if you win despite some poor play by one or more of the players? Then you (I) get the feeling like maybe this game wasn’t well balanced. A good Co-Op game is one where you feel like even if you play well, it’s still possible that you lose.

So, let’s step back to Sentinels of the Multiverse and all its comic book glory.

First off, the theme is strong, and the mechanics feel pretty natural. Sukrit’s character keeps discarding cards to deal damage to himself and the villain, Brandon’s Hulk-like hero Haka is a tank by drawing lots and lots of cards and then discarding them rather than taking damage. Spooky takes a versatile but weak bard-ish guy, I grab a martial artist/janitor, Roger ends up with the Batman equivalent and when Dave comes in right as we’re about to begin he finds himself with the Flash.

Each turn involves a little bit of strategizing as we decide what has to be done this turn and who can take care of it. This is where Sentinels of the Multiverse shines. Since everyone has a hand full of cards, it is difficult and would be extremely time consuming for the person who knows the game best (Spooky) to look at each player’s hand and figure out what would be optimal. There’s too much information to process and the fact that they are “hands” means that even though this is a place where information is of course both public and worth sharing, the tendency learned from games of poker and rummy and the like growing up is to hold your cards so no one else can see. This hidden information tactic and pure multiplicity of options are both really solid attempts by the designers to avoid the takeover by the smartest player in the room. That is, unless they lean over and peek at your hand because hey, you’re new and not sure what you really CAN do, and, well here, let me help you out here…

Which ended up happening, rather consistently. I’m not mad about it and there were fairly good reasons. Roger is still pretty new to the complicated board game thing, and poor Dave walked in right as we were beginning the first turn, so he had to try to pick the thing up on the fly. Both of them sat next to Spooky, who brought the game and really wants people to like it.* So what happened felt like a four player game, with the four people who are all Capital-G-type Gamers.

This brings me back to the appeal and frustration I’ve had with most Co-Op games. If we in the gaming hobby want to bring others into the hobby, and think that Co-Op is a good way to do it, we need to sit back, let people understand what they’re doing, and probably lose a few games. And if we want to be just part of the machine that defeats the game, we need to be playing with people whose moves we respect and who will in turn respect our moves.  I haven’t really sat down and played a Co-Op game with Brandon, but I bet it’d be a lot of fun, and no matter what game it was, neither one of us would sit back and let the other assume that they were the smartest player in the room.

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*As a side note, I totally caught myself helping out my girlfriend in a competitive game of Factory Fun last night, where I managed to snag her one extra point in a game she eventually won by two points (afterwards I was thankful my influence wasn’t the deciding factor). When you’re introducing someone to a game I find it natural to want to help them out so they can feel the full richness of the game, but I’m coming around to the “dammit, just let them play!” train of thought. After all, not only did she win, but for all my smarts and the fact that I bought the game, I only came in third.

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5 thoughts on “The Co-Op Conundrum

  1. Neat piece! I have definitely had some similar experiences with some games like Pandemic and Wrath of Ashardalon as well as others. I’m sure there are ways to combat this but it is definitely an issue. Simple things like having a hand of cards can help quite a bit as it leaves some kind of unknowns that are hard for the more experienced players to be constantly evaluating.

    It is also hard because different groups have different dynamics. I know my mom, for example, loves to play games and will be all for playing whatever game just for the company, and is totally fine with my brother and I doing more of the heavy lifting. On the other hand, I’ve been scolded for mildly suggesting basic tactics in Othello once; I totally understand the back off kind of mentality, but understanding with whom and when to step in takes a fair deal of understanding the expectations of the people you are playing with.

    My brother and I had similar issues with the New Super Mario Bros. co-ops, in that they really only worked as party games, because the way the screen works and the players interact, it is nearly impossible to play them fluidly unless you have a group of very equally skilled players. Someone is always annoyingly far ahead and kinda rushing people stuck in the back, and people are bumping in and on each other at jumps. It often turned into the best player plays, and everyone else plays until they are forced to bubble.

    Additionally, I think the Co-op vs. 1 person games (I’m thinking Scotland Yard and Clue the Great Museum Caper and games like that) can kind of shine in this conundrum a little, in that there is the strategy inherent in the mechanics of the game and then additionally the strategy of reading an opponent. With this, the ideas of certain moves being “optimal” starts to blur a little, and there are benefits of somewhat less refined strategies in thwarting the opponent.

    Anyways it’s definitely an element that game designers should keep in mind when creating a co-op game.

    ~Dylan

    • You definitely bring up a good point about Scotland Yard (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/438/scotland-yard for those who don’t know it), which is an all time great game. Having limited options makes the learning curve much less steep and (as you said) the moves become less “optimal.”

      I almost wrote about Betrayal at the House on the Hill for this post as well, which starts as fully Co-op and then becomes a One Vs All game. Here the game designers (knowingly or not) made a game that, while it often is not particularly balanced, can prevent one player from taking over for everyone else by having hidden information. If you start pushing everyone else around and explaining why, then the Betrayer gains information, and that often can be the difference in the game.

      • Just read the wikipedia page on that game… sounds pretty unique and fun. I am curious now haha. If I get a chance I will check it out!

  2. I am loving Sentinels for the same reasons Spooky does, but if you want to get out of the smartest person in the room conundrum, the only way to go is Space Alert. It’s no longer about how smart you are individually or collectively. It’s about how well you work as a team.

    Man, I really wish my wife didn’t hate that game.

  3. Pingback: Talking It Out | anygamegood

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