a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


the curse of cooperation

Cooperative multiplayer is an oft-underused method of allowing people to play games together in a more accessible and casual manner. People are starting to warm up to it, though, and recent years have seen a surge of cooperative board games, as well as digital games like Starcraft 2 and League of Legends that are embracing co-op vs AI as a valid way to experience the game. There's something nice about winning or losing together with your friends, especially when one isn't in the mood for the intensity and cutthroat qualities of a typical competitive experience.

That said, there's a particular problem that's endemic to cooperative board games, which is that the game will present players with a puzzle, hoping that the group will work together to find a solution, and instead the single most skilled or most experienced player will end up playing for the entire group. It's just much simpler for a single person to execute a strategy than it is to get everyone on the same page and let them arrive at the best course of action themselves. Many games give each player a hand of cards, but in the absence of a rule that prevents discussing those cards, they often are just laid openly on the table to save everyone the trouble of having to continually ask what everyone else has. If I remember correctly, Pandemic actually recommends laying the cards down on the easy difficulty and then asks that players hold them in their hand on medium and above, but still doesn't restrict players from talking about them. That does help a little; players at least get to feel somewhat involved when they're asked how many red cards they have rather than simply told what to do.

Pandemic (image from Chris Norwood on BoardGameGeek)

Not to say that those games aren't well designed and enjoyable overall. The list of games suffering from this problem is quite long: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, Castle Panic, Castle Ravenloft, and so on. Both Pandemic and Ghost Stories are heralded as some of the best cooperative experiences out there, especially when playing with people of roughly equal experience and skill levels. Still, any designer thinking about the cooperative space should have this problem at the forefront of their mind.

Of course, many games have also managed to solve this problem, either intentionally or as a side effect of another mechanic. There are three methods of varying degrees of commonality:

The traitor - Betrayal at House on the Hill, Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Add in the fact that one or more players are secretly a traitor and suddenly players are no longer keen on playing the game for everyone else. Or rather, no one's willing to let their turn be taken for them. Then again, adding in a traitor does add a competitive element to the game, which you may or may not want.

Real-time aspects - Space Alert is the king of this category. Not only are there hidden cards, but there's also a strict time limit and an audio track constantly throwing new challenges in the team's direction. Knowing this, Space Alert actually has the players appoint a captain, and everyone still gets to contribute fully because there's simply no way the captain has time to order everyone around.

Hidden information plus restricted communication - For example, adding a rule that says that players can't talk about the cards in their hand. Games seem to be hesitant to pull the trigger here, and I can't think of an example at the moment, although I'm sure there must be one out there. My guess is that it stems from concern that players will have trouble interpreting a rule like this, or worse that they'll outright rebel against it. Richard Garfield talked about this in a podcast on cooperative games and also mentioned the idea of "communication as a resource", which I've been thinking about ever since.

With the cooperative prison break game that I'm currently working on, there are two phases: the planning and the escape. For the planning phase players are forbidden to discuss the game at all, and cards are played face down, but each player has two tokens that they can spend to show everyone else a card from their hand and describe where they're stashing it. The goal is for players to try to work together as best they can, planning what they'll need for the escape, with that limited channel of communication.

When the actual escape begins, all restrictions on communication are lifted, but there's now a real-time element, with new obstacles showing up every fifteen seconds. Players have their objects in their hand and have to discuss what object or objects the group wants to use to solve that obstacle. Thanks to the timer combined with the hidden hands, players stay involved during this phase despite the open communication channels.

Initial playtesting has been good, and I'm confident that all players will be able to contribute throughout the game. Now to fine tune the rest of the mechanics...

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)
  1. While I generally agree with everything you’re saying here, I also think that group problem solving is very fun, and doesn’t always end up with one player leading the rest. You’ve played those puzzle hunts, so you know those don’t work that way. All members of the teams contribute. (Time pressure is an issue there, but even if it wasn’t, it would still be a team effort.)

    I think the issue is that most cooperative games provide obstacles that are too easily overcome. It’s too easy for one person to find the optimal solution on their own (Pandemic remains a great example of this). Maybe we just need game mechanics that create difficult puzzles that draw on a variety of skill sets at once.

    • For sure. That’s the reason why Pandemic and Ghost Stories are considered to be great cooperative games, because they’re great experiences when everyone is able to contribute and the group feels like it’s working together. My point is just that it’s the obligation of the designer to prevent the single solver situation as much as possible.

      Ghost Stories does throw a decent amount of complication at the players (in the form of nine different squares, each with a wildly different action, plus other options) but it’s a double edged sword. While there’s a better chance that someone will see an option that the alpha player doesn’t see, there’s also a potentially wider skill/knowledge gap between the new players and said alpha player, which can overwhelm them entirely.

      Trying to design a co-op game where different players will excel in different problem solving areas is an intriguing challenge though.

  2. I’ve started taking a “vow of silence” sometimes in our Shadows over Camelot, and it’s quite effective – just one loyal player refusing to communicate makes things considerably more challenging. (It’s important to do this before viewing your loyalty card, or else it can seem very suspicious! Although, I seem to be dealt the traitor card disproportionately often, so I’m considered suspicious regardless.)

  3. What is a cooperative game? It’s a game where everyone plays together, no one is left out, and everyone has fun! In a cooperative game, players work together as a team against a common obstacle, not against each other.Cooperative games emphasize play, not competition. Kids work together, they help each other and, most importantly, they play for FUN!

  4. Great article. I think one other way that the quarterbacking problem can be overcome, which is not always a real part of the rules or design as such, but more of a player option, is roleplaying. If the group shifts the focus from optimal play to doing what my character would do, they *have* to have autonomy. In a way, playing D&D is a co-op puzzle game, but you don’t generally get quarterbacks.

    Another example where I think that, although there’s no time limits, there’s just too much going on for people to quarterback effectively, is Spirit Island. In this you can also roleplay, as your spirit is quite well-defined.

    In Unfathomable/Battlestar Galactica, roleplaying also gives extra depth to the traitor mechanic. If you’re all committed to playing optimally, then, for instance, the captain should in some circumstances (in response to some events) definitely give up their captaincy, unless they’re a traitor. If there’s a degree of roleplaying, are they holding on to it because, dammit, they deserve to be captain, or are they the traitor?

  5. Some good cooperative games with restricted communication: Hanabi; The Mind; The Grizzled; Magic Maze…

Leave a comment

No trackbacks yet.