Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cooperative Board Games

Us Versus... Them? It?

Cooperative board games are an interesting genre. The basic idea in a nutshell is that everyone works together to defeat "the board". Usually this amounts to a series of increasing challenges that are randomly thrown at you in an attempt to simulate artificial intelligence. The team of players figures out a way to overcome these challenges and either easily wins or is swamped with another wave of even bigger problems. This formula often amounts to some fun tension, provided you have the right crowd of folks, and that some players aren't way more familiar with the game than others. The problems arise when you have an over-bearing player (or players) who wants to tell everyone exactly what to do, or someone who has figured out "the solution" (ie the optimal way to play in order to beat the board) and either intentionally or inadvertently takes away the mystery and challenge of figuring it all out. Or when the game just sucks, which happens sometimes. As you've probably guessed by now, this isn't exactly my favorite type of game to play. I'm not a hater, but I'm not a fangirl either. I'll play a cooperative game with friends here and there and have a good time with it, and after thinking it through and trying to decide on a favortie I've realized I think the genre has come a long way and is heading in a good direction.

Rising Stars

There are a few cooperative games that I think do a better job of creating fun and interesting problems than others. Some of the genre favorites such as Pandemic really don't hit that sweet spot for me of a game I want to rush back and play again and again. I enjoy Arkham Horror for it's theme, depth, character options, and interesting story, but it can be such a long (and sometimes tedious) endeavor that I don't play it very often. There are 3 cooperative games that really stand out to me as heading in "the right direction"; not perfect games, but something I'd be interested in playing and seeing more of in the future.

Betrayal at House on the HillBetrayal at House on the Hill is a fun, story-driven, cooperative horror game in which you play explorers adventuring around in an old haunted house. You all stumble around discovering rooms, finding equipment, and stirring up trouble until suddenly "the haunt" begins and one of the players becomes the traitor. The traitor then gets some special rules and everyone else continues to work together to do whatever heroic action is required by the scenario. This game usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour, is different every time, and has a fun level of interaction and intrigue. The traitor mechanic usually allows for a thinking opponent which keeps things challenging and unpredictable in a way that most cooperative AI's can't. I have many fond memories of this game, and while it was long out of print (and very expensive) there is a new edition out and it looks like it's only $20 on Amazon right now! That would have easily made my top 5 games under $25 if I had seen it. (It might be a holiday sale, so don't quote me if you're reading this on a day other than the one I'm writing it on)

GHOST STORIES STRATEGY BOARD GAMEGhost Stories is one of my favorite cooperative board games right now, and I think it has some staying power. This game sets up the players as taoist monks working to exorcise the ghosts plaguing thier villiage. With the help of the villagers, the monks fight off the hoards and hoards of vicious ghosts until a final showdown with the incarnation of Wu-Fen. This game provides a good level of tension and strategy, and has players working together to solve problems and use special powers in a way that makes it feel like teamwork and individual strategy are both important, while remaining accessible to family gamers. I think the only downfall of this game is that sometime you just get buried in ghosts you can't defeat. such is life as a Taoist monk I guess. Or maybe that's the whole "random heaping of problems" complaint I have of games in this genre. Overall though, this game is a strong showing and one i would highly recommned trying out.

Space AlertFinally, the "winner" for the day, Space Alert. I have not gotten to play this game as much as I would like to, despite it's relatively short playing time (20-30 minutes per game, but you'll never play just once!). It's complicated. It's hard to learn. It's HARD. The main reason I haven't played it much is because I feel like I would need to get a team of friends together, TRAIN them on how to play through a series of drills (provided in the book of course!), and then we would need to learn to work together and strategize in order to be successful at this game. And that's exactly the reason it's the winner. It manages to take the idea of a cooperative game a rachet everything up a notch. It's problem solving and teamwork and stress and awesome and it makes my brain hurt. It all happens so fast and more and more keeps happening that you have to react to and all your careful plans fall apart if someone isn't in the right spot at the right time to power up the shield or refill the battery from the reactor core or do whatever thing that is needed to make the plan all work. I've stood there time and time again punching a button to shoot a laser at an oncoming enemy ship only to discover my teammate who was supposed to be powering my gun station instead sent the power to the shield. Or got lost. D'oh. Who was supposed to be taking care of these battlebots? Aren't you out in a fighter drone? Who is on shields? Batteries!?! Miscommunication! Stress! Tension! Teamwork! Blowing stuff up in space! Yes, this is the direction I would like to see cooperative games go in; games that make us think and actually work together and learn to be a team while having a blast. Literally. Haha.

In retrospect...

I guess I like cooperative games more than I thought. Anyone wanna team up?

Challenge Link:

Check out Cool Factor 5 for more thoughts on cooperative games from one of the only crew members to ever survive a Space Alert mission with me.


  1. Nice writing and list! Keep it up!

  2. Arkham is a favorite in this house, we play it on average at least once a fortnight sometimes much more than that.
    I would love to look into some other co-ops as i dislike 'beating' or 'being beaten' by my friends and family i'd rather work with them to achieve a goal. I might look into ghost stories thank you.