Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Spirit of Cooperative Games

In the spirit of the holiday season I wanted to approach the subject of cooperative games. Specifically, I wanted to talk about my favorite cooperative game. One stark realization came up, however, as I continued to ponder the issue of which co-op games I liked. It occurred to me that though I have enjoyed playing co-op games from time to time, they are actually kind of terrible.

Do I Even Like These Games?
Stating that co-op games suck seems strange to me because there are co-op games that I like. I like Lord of the Rings, Ghost Stories, Shadows Over Camelot, and even Castle Ravenloft a little bit. There are other fun co-op games as well, but do I actually like these games? Do I really? Actually, what I like is to play together with my friends, where we are all working together on the same side to solve problems and have fun. I love this so much, that I am willing to play mediocre and bad board games simply because they facilitate this basic experience. They don’t facilitate it all that well, but it’s better than nothing and better than jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are boring.

Why Co-op Board Games Suck So Badly
The basic problem with any co-op board game is that it’s trying to use basic rules to create a manufactured opponent for the players. The game’s trying to simulate a real opponent like the bad guys in video games. Video game programmers can use thousands of lines of code all hidden from the player to make the bad guys react as though they were real opponents working against you. The illusion works pretty well.

A board game demands that the operational code for the forces of darkness be up front (because the players are going to have to track it themselves) and relatively simple (because the players are incapable of making thousands of computations per minute like a computer). This usually means you end up with a stupid opponent who is granted enough unfair advantages to make things challenging. Randomly occurring problems are thrown in to make the idiot less predictable. There is no illusion. The bad guys are just a set of game mechanics that are made obvious to everyone.

The Tried And True Solution
The classic solution to this co-op dilemma is to have one player actually take on the role of the antagonist. The game is entirely cooperative for everyone except for the one player who is in charge of presenting a challenge for the players and sometimes even actively trying to defeat them. This is how role-playing games like D&D handle it. This also how it is handled in Descent, Betrayal At The House On The Hill, Last Night On Earth, and lots of other games. It works well. It lets most of the players work together and presents them with a real thinking opponent. These games are more fun their purely co-op counterparts because they present the players with strategic challenges, not just stacked odds and random events. Of course, the problem is that they still aren’t entirely cooperative. Someone has to be the odd one out and at least one player is going to lose the game.

The Co-op That I Love
This is one area where video games just do it better. Co-op video games are generally better experiences than co-op board games. If I am entirely honest, I would say my favorite co-op game at the moment is Super Mario Bros Wii. It’s incredibly fun for four players to run around, bash into each other, help out, get in the way, grab power-ups, ride Yoshi, and gang up on the poor Koopa Kids. The levels are quick and entertaining to watch. It’s easy to have a large group of people just trade of play between levels. Super Mario Bros Wii has provided some of the best times I’ve had playing a game cooperatively with friends.

If I had to pick a board game, I’d cheat and pick Betrayal At The House On The Hill. This game starts out cooperatively, but at some point a random event forces one player to become the bad guy. One of about 50 scenarios is revealed and the players find out mid-game the plot of the story and which one of them is going to play the villain. Being the traitor can be a delightful bit of mayhem and the game moves fast enough that you really don’t get too upset if you lose. Betrayal has serious style and enough variety that it’s never the same story twice in a row. It’s a bit of cheat to call it co-op because one player ends up the bad guy, but it’s close enough to count in my book.

Keeping The Dream Alive
Just because video games handle the mechanics of cooperative gaming better than board games doesn’t mean I don’t still like co-op board games. There’s a magic to sitting around a table with friends that video games just don’t capture. Someday, perhaps, someone will find a way to make a board game that’s entirely cooperative, but still presents players with an interesting and adaptive challenge. Until then, I will continue to play and enjoy all the muddled missteps and honorable attempts. Despite their flaws, they remain entertaining because they are built upon an irrefutable truth: it is good to play together.

Happy Holidays everyone! This will be my last post until after Christmas. Please feel free to leave comments about your own co-op experiences. For a different take on the best cooperative games, check out our friends at Growing Up Gamers.

1 comment:

  1. You need to check out Battlestar Galactica! It is my favorite co-op by far. It has taken the "traitor" aspect of Shadows Over Camelot to a whole new level!