Co-Operative Games: Nobody wants to be Tails

Growing up in the 90s, most of my early memories of gaming come from videogames. My sister and I shared a megadrive, with a copy of Sonic 3. I have so many great memories of this game- I still hum the Ice Cap zone music sometimes- but it wasn’t a great game for two players. As the younger sibling, it went without saying that I would play as the plucky sidekick, Tails. The camera focused on Sonic, who got to explore, and speed through the level. Tails, on the other hand, would be sent to deal with things that were either too high or too scary for Sonic. Sometimes I was a ladder, and sometimes I was bait.

Fast forward 15 years. I’d started playing board games at university, and decided to pick up a copy of Pandemic. I had a blast, and taught it to as many people as possible. And then something strange happened. People lost enthusiasm a lot more quickly than I did, and stopped wanting to play with me. That’s when it occurred to me- I’d become the Sonic of board games. I was calling all the shots, and taking over the game. In board gaming terms, I’d become a Quarterback.

This is a huge problem in co-operative games. Individual groups can solve it in their own ways. Some groups hide their hands from each other, or only let the current player talk. While these solutions can work, I believe that it’s a problem that designers need to address. Here are some of the ways that have been attempted so far, and my thoughts on them.

Hidden Information

The core of most solutions is simple: if the quarterback doesn’t know everything, then they can’t do everything. This is the motivation behind players hiding their hands, instead of allowing perfect information. Alone, this always seemed dissatisfying. It takes too much away from the co-operative atmosphere, and cuts off the strategy for everyone.

To make the hidden information meaningful, you need to work a little bit harder.

Restricted Communication

One solution is to also restrict communication between the players. This can work stunningly well- take Antoine Bauza’s Hanabi as an example. Communication is a scarce resource. Players can give very specific hints to each other, and need to pay each time they do. There’s a fantastic sense of tension as you have to constantly consider what your teammates are trying to hint to you, and work out what to tell them.

A common criticism of co-operative games is that you’re playing multiplayer solitaire. This is often true, but whether it’s an entirely bad thing is an argument for another time. Hanabi is one of the only co-operative games I’ve seen where this doesn’t apply at all. The interaction between players is paramount to the experience, and considering other people’s perspectives is key to the strategy. This is co-op gaming done right.

The main drawback is that it can take up a little too much of the game space. Most mechanics only apply in certain situations (eg: on your turn, or at the end of the game), but a communication mechanic is always present- even during downtime. With a strong, interesting communication mechanic, there’s not that much room left for other complexity.

A possible alternative approach is to simply provide a weaker communication mechanic. Rather than being specific about what you can say, be vague. I’ve seen a few prototypes take this approach, to mixed results.

  • The best result was seeing a particularly shy player use the rule to stand up for himself. His girlfriend was trying to take over his turn to hurry things up, and he enforced the communication restriction to make sure she gave him enough time to think. It was slightly out of character for this couple, but a really positive interaction between them.
  • A slightly less positive outcome is that the players may completely ignore a too vague communication rule. The impact of this really depends on the game. If it’s an important mechanic, it could completely throw the difficulty balance, but if it’s just an anti-quarterbacking measure, the game may be fine without it for certain groups.
  • The worst case is when players become afraid to communicate. Players love games, and want to stick to the rules. When faced with a communication restriction, players can err on the side of caution, and say nothing rather than accidentally reveal information. In many ways, this spoils the great social experience that games can provide.

Non-communicable Information

Some games take a novel approach to restricting communication. Rather than having the rules restrict communication, make the information in the game inherently difficult to communicate. In Time Stories by Manuel Rozoy, each player independently sees part of a story, and has to relay a summary of the important information to the other players. Often, the information they see won’t be text- rather, it will be an image. The other players only have their description to work with, so the next time a related image appears, that player is in a unique position to identify it.

Obviously, this is a difficult mechanic to implement. The reliance on art and storytelling puts it slightly out of reach of most traditional game designers. I’d love to see it used more often, though.

Time Pressure

At best, quarterbacking is slightly annoying for the other players, and at worst, it ruins the game. It can stem from good intentions, however. Often, I found myself getting so into the game, I’d put winning ahead of whether my friends were having a good time. Afterwards, I’d regret it, but in the moment I was 100% focussed on making sure we won.

While some solutions are centred on shutting down quarterbacking, this isn’t always the best approach. A better way is to make quarterbacking strategically unviable. Eric Lang’s XCOM does this incredibly well by introducing strict time pressure on the players. An app-based timer shouts instructions to each player, which must be handled in real time. Each player has their own role and responsibilities, and time is so tight that it’s impossible to pay too much attention to the other players. If the quarterback wants to win, then it’s vital for them to communicate well with the other players.

Hidden Traitor Games

Earlier, I noted an issue with introducing hidden information to a game: it spoils the game’s atmosphere. One approach is to take the atmosphere of distrust that hidden information introduces and run with it. Give the players something to hide! The simplest way is to just include a hidden traitor in the game- one player who is secretly working against the group.

The issues here are largely similar to the issues caused by a strong communication mechanic. While hidden traitor games can work incredibly well, the distrust tends to overshadow the game’s other mechanics. Battlestar Galactica by Corey Konieczka works really well as a standalone co-op game, but most of a player’s energy goes into trying to identify cylons. In some ways, hidden traitor games stand apart as their own genre, entirely separate to co-operative games.

Semi Co-operative Games

A different approach is to introduce multiple goals. A simple example is found in the In The Lab expansion to Pandemic by Matt Leacock and Tom Lehmann. This provides a variant where players can all lose together, as in regular Pandemic, but players also score points based on getting to cures first.

I love this idea, and really wanted to see it work. The problem I’ve often run into is that players will choose either the co-operative goals or the personal goals to focus on, and totally ignore the other. If the personal goals are chosen, there’s a chance that the game will suddenly end, even though all players are still enjoying the experience. Thematically, it makes total sense, but it’s still dissatisfying.

Generally, giving players freedom to play the game how they want to is a great thing. In my experience, players who have an aversion to co-operative games won’t be swayed by including a competitive element.

Conclusion

Overall, there’s no magic bullet for quarterbacking. For some groups, multiplayer solitaire is fine, and it’s a style I expect to see go from strength to strength- The Captain Is Dead is an excellent recent(ish) example. Still, it is the most frequent complaint I hear when someone mentions Pandemic in an online discussion, and it’s one of the main issues holding the genre back.

The easy approach is to look for a ‘no quarterbacking’ rule. You might have some success, but there’s a limit to how far you’ll get. A truly great co-operative game takes a different approach. It puts positive interactions between the players around a table- not just interactions between the pawns on a board- at the centre of the game. It doesn’t just give players a common goal. It forces them to work together, and consider one anothers’ perspectives, in order to achieve their goals.