Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The difficulty of cooperative games.

Sunday afternoons I normally find my self at Paul and Mandy's house. They're a wonderful couple with a wonderful family - gracious and hospitable. The time is often spent playing games of various types - word, card, personality, trivia, etc. We've played Moods, Wizard, Pit, Title Recall, Shout it Out and more, enjoying ourselves the whole time. Its not uncommon for the house to have eight or more people there, visiting, and enjoying each other's company.

Much to their credit, as well as the folks who come, its often laid back and everyone is a good sport about winning, losing, and generally just playing.

But one thing I was wondering, however, is "are there many cooperative games?" As is, the games we play are typically competitive in nature. The rules set up a system for that competition that everyone has to abide by and goes from there. There is really only one winner, be it an individual or a particular team. Now, that is good, and enjoyable, but "in the real world" there is the possibility for win/win and lose/lose situations. Outcomes where everyone can benefit or everyone loses out.

Now then, how do you replicate this?

Right now I'm planning on checking out Forbidden Island and Pandemic. Both are supposed to be cooperative games where players either win together or lose together. I think my gaming groups would like them, but more than that I'd like to see if I can learn from them. Adversary-based competition is so prevalent in gaming because I believe its likely easier to design for and because its easier for us to relate to and work with. We see it in sports, our entertainment, and cynical jokes about how business works.

But, as I've been listening and reading to various people, its clear that in order to prosper you need to be able to create win/win situations. Where you and those you partner with in business both win. You and your customers need to both win in your deals and transactions. You and your employer or employees need to be win/win in your relationship in order for it to be mutually beneficial.

Its a bit easier to find cooperative video games, but I think that there's a cost of accessibility. A lot of online role-playing games like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes are cooperative, but not everyone likes them and given each person needs their own computer, account, etc., its going to be cost prohibitive. There's an increasing number of console games with cooperative elements, but they're often shooters of some sort with violent game play. Likewise, there's a certain amount of time that needs to be invested to learn the game from a physical standpoint (controls, hand-eye coordination, etc) that detracts from their usability.

There are traditional role-playing games, but regardless of genre they're not going to appeal to everyone. Likewise, not only would someone have to take up the game master/referee's position, there's not an insignificant amount of work involved in running a game. A game master has to be the arbiter of the rules, be fair and consistent, and be a good story teller! Its not easy, plus that person doesn't actually get to play along with the other people.

Hence, I'm curious about the idea of games that are cooperative but are accessible and do not require someone to sit out in order to make the game happen.

Its been something to think about, that's for sure!


  1. I think one of the things I like about RPG's is their storytelling aspects. Even games you think might be cooperative "Once Upon a Time: Storytelling Game" turns out to have a competitive aspect.

    Even many RPG's create some competitiveness (the Gm role is an "opponent" to some players I've met, rather than a collaborator, which I find odd.)

    I have seen story-teller less games and haven't found any as robust at creating something simple or effective as the role allows- a human brain that can make snap judgments.

    I never mind assuming that role myself, I've fun on both "sides of the screen."

    It is something to think on.

    I'd like to see more cooperative games. I'm not a competitive sort in the game space most of the time. In Taekwondo? Maybe a tiny bit. But I spend 90% of time trying to help others get to where I am, so even then its a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage.

  2. As far as avoiding "cost prohibitive" elements, there are a couple of ideas my friends and I have used to be able to play D&D and/or Rifts despite the fact that most of us live hundreds of miles away from each other. 1) OpenRPG is a free virutal tabletop; it includes dice rollers, a chat window (typing, no voice), and a grid window (in case you want/need to use miniatures - which you can usually find JPG images that can be scaled down to fit the grid). 2) Ventrillo - yes, I know, it's not really free; the software is, but you have to rent server space. However, it's pretty cheap depending on how many people you need to have space for. I was paying only $4/month for a 10 person vent server.

  3. A good cooperative game [imo] is Arkham Horror by Fantasy Flight Games. Either the players win or the players lose. Sure there might be a "lead" investigator in the end, but collecting trophies doesn't matter if your soul is gobbled up by Cthulhu. At the moment there is the base game, 3 card expansions, and 3 board expansions. Best way to play is the base game & one of each type of expansion. And if your character dies, you draw a new one at random & continue to play.

  4. @Silverlion: I can understand the enjoyment from both sides, although I will have to admit the amount of work a GM puts in doesn't necessarily dictate the players will enjoy the game. A non-refereed game is less flexible, but there's less work and less at stake in some regards.

    @Carlisle: True, true. I was thinking more "cost prohibitive" in terms of getting everyone who wants to play a computer, the software, etc. While the house would great for a LAN party, a LAN party might not be everyone's idea of fun... sorry - I didn't make the context clear enough @_@

    @Simms: I might have to look at that, although I'll admit the setting doesn't do much for me. Anything similar but different genre?

  5. As Christine said on Facebook, I have probably clocked in close to 50 hours of conversations on this topic. Here's my take:

    I won't play a co-operative board game. There are three reasons -- 1. I find the game design philosophy to be disengenuious. 2. None of the co-operative board games appeal to the deep reason that I play a board game. 3. The true strength of these games is easily accomplished by other, cheaper and more interesting methods.

    1. The basic design of all of the co-operative games is that they are single player games. If you wanted to play by your self, you could easily just by playing multiple characters, by taking on the role of more than one player. (True, you can do this in any game, but in competitive games, you lose something -- imagine playing both sides of a game of chess -- in co-op games you don't lose anything at least in the play/strategy arena.) The gimick that these games run on is that they are all single player games where the roles have been split up so that multiple players have to work together in order to form a single player's worth of input into the game. And then usually, some often ignored rules are thrown in to make communication between the players more difficult, so that you are tricked into playing less than optimally; so that misunderstandings occur.

    2. What usually happens as you play these games is that one or two players are more into the game than the others. Maybe they get it more, maybe they've played it before and understand the rules better, maybe they like the 'solve the puzzle' aspect that most of them have. Whatever. These players then become the 'leaders' and will take charge of discussions of strategy or how to spend resources. That's great. They have more invested in the game, so they want to succeed more. Makes perfect sense. Since everyone is on the same team, there is social pressure to work together, even if the game may be telling you that one player might be a traitor (depending on the game). So you want to work together. If the leader really does have a better handle on the game, and you want to help the group win, then it behooves you to follow the leader's advice. _So the game becomes a single player game_, with the self-appointed leader directing everyone's action (or making you seem like a non-team player for doing your own thing, or a hundred different related issues).

    (I've got to get going to work. I'll post more once I'm there or tonight.)