Why Co-Op And I Don’t Get On

Co-operative play is rather fashionable in game designs at the moment. It comes in a few distinct flavours, and although they can be quite different they all tend to get lumped together into “co-op”. Personally, I like some types and can’t get on with others. I understand how they work, I just find them more frustrating than fun in practice. Of course, I’m not the only one going to be playing the games I design, so I’m happy to include modes I don’t expect to use myself (once I’ve done playtesting) in DKH or other designs. Pure Co-op (see below) is one of those.

First, some definitions.



I think there are two main stylistic approaches to co-operative gaming.

Pure Co-op: all players on one side are working towards exactly the same goal and play as a group. Usually they either win or lose collectively, ie all win or all lose.

Semi Co-op: all players are nominally on the same side and are playing for the same overall aim. However, they have significant individual goals as well, and though they may all lose together (if the main aim is not met), they can be ranked individually if their side wins. In other words, they need to co-operate enough to ensure their side’s victory, but also mess with their erstwhile comrades to ensure they beat them too.

Mechanically there is not a lot of difference between the two. In play, however, they are very different.

Either type can be played against a live player or against the game. Either type can include a traitor among the co-op players, secretly working against them. Neither of these variations changes the fundamental way these types work and the fundamental differences between them.

Of course, you may disagree with these definitions, which is fine. However, for the rest of this article I shall assume that they are correct.


My View

Personally, I don’t enjoy Pure Co-op games. Perhaps this is because I’m overly competitive, perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon who doesn’t play nice with others. However, every time I have played one of these games the following happens. Depending on which player you are, either:

  • Someone else knows the game better then you do. They tell you what you need to do and so all you are doing is moving the pieces where you’re told to. Help in learning rules is fine and expected in any game. That may happen here too, but it is not the same thing. I don’t find this interesting or fun.
  • You know the game better than everyone else. Either you tell them what they need to do (see first bullet point) or you sit and watch them mess things up. Losing because my allies did daft things isn’t fun either.

I find both of these situations extremely frustrating, intellectually stultifying and generally no fun at all. Nor do I relish the choice between meddling with someone else’s enjoyment or losing my own.

Interestingly, this is much the same dynamic I found in group work at university. We were occasionally told to work as a group. We had a set task and were supposed to work together to achieve it. Each person in the group got marked equally, regardless of whether they had actually done anything to help or not. This is great if you are a lazy toad because someone else will almost always take up the slack and you will get the best mark someone else can get for you. As I wasn’t the lazy toad, doing more than my share of the work so that some idiot could get a better grade than he deserved did not sit well. It’s a stupid and entirely unrealistic piece of laziness on the part of the college. All it gains is less marking for the lecturers. Now if people cannot work properly together when something much more important than a game is at stake, how is this a good plan for playing a game?


A Social Activity

Now you may say that face-to-face social interaction is all part of board gaming, and I’d agree entirely. It’s why I’m less of a fan of computer games than board, card or tabletop games: I like dealing with people in person. Even so, I think this takes things too far. Pure Co-op games are, in my view, not always even games at all. Let me explain.

Games are defined a number of ways. The dictionary gives a few broad definitions of the noun game, including “an amusement or pastime”. However, whilst that covers Pure Co-op games it also covers many other things most gamers wouldn’t normally consider to be games. For example, playing practical jokes on people could be described as “an amusement or pastime”, though I wouldn’t really call it a game. The old Samurai habit of watching cherry blossom falling, or leaves floating by on the autumn stream are definitely amusements or pastimes, but hardly games. So I’d suggest that this definition can be safely ignored as too vague to be functional.

The more useful definition of the noun game is “a competitive activity involving skill, chance or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules…”.¹ The relevant bit for me is the word competitive. Whether or not this is a reasonable definition of game, looking it up crystallised for me what I’d been thinking: that it is simply the lack of competition that causes the problems mentioned above. Competition is so fundamental to gaming that not having it creates problems in knowing how to deal with the result. There is no gamer’s etiquette for how you play without frustrating each other when you’re all on the same side, if indeed that is possible.

As soon as you put back some of the competition (making it Semi-Co-op instead of Pure Co-op) then it all works much better. At least it does for me.


A Family Affair

Of course, there is always the cry of the family man. “I want to be able to play the game with my wife and kids”, he says. “They aren’t gamers and won’t play competitive games”. That’s fine, and as I said at the start of this article, I’m happy to accommodate that style too. However, as I also said, I don’t think Pure Co-op games are really games at all – what they are is more akin to performance art or social get-togethers and that’s exactly what you need here. The board, cards miniatures or whatever simply act as a focal point around which the social interaction takes place. If you like, it flips the idea that you have a game with some social interaction and makes it social interaction with a game. Except in my view the act of doing this destroys the game in the process.

What you really need is not so much a game as a social focal point. That could be anything. If you weren’t a gamer then it would probably be something else, and would work just as well as an excuse to share some fun time with your family and friends.

In my many years in the gaming industry and as a gamer long before that, I’ve played with a wide variety of people. I’ve run game demos with everyone from hardcore gamers to bored grandparents, from straight A students to school-skipping street kids (seriously), and with games that were designed for non-gamers as well as those intended for dyed-in-the-wool geeks. For me, the actual game you have in front of you doesn’t matter – what’s important is that people have fun, and you adapt the props you have in front of you accordingly. With “real” gamers, they’ll want to play by the rules. With non-gamers the approach needs to be different.

The typical situation when non-gamers play a game is when one of the group is actually a “real” gamer. Either they are trying to encourage the rest of their family to see what they enjoy about it, bring on the next generation of young gamers, are being humoured by a spouse, or simply want to spend some quality time with the family – the reason isn’t especially important. What is important is understanding that this² is not a normal game in the way that your geek buddies would play it.

I’ll assume for the moment (because you’re reading this) that you are the gamer in question, surrounded by a group of non-gamers who want to play something. You are, in effect, running a demo rather than playing a game. Because you are the gamer you will be expected to know what’s going on. Similarly, it’s your fault if it’s dull. Best avoid that.

To be successful, you need to read what people want, when they’re bored (do less of that), which bits they enjoy (more of that), and generally chivvy the process along so that everyone has a good time. The rules should be ignored as appropriate, ridden roughshod over if required, and amended as necessary. Remember, this isn’t really a game, it’s an entertainment, a show, a spectacle. You’re not a gamer now, you;re the Master of Ceremonies.


So What About DKH4?

The next DKH will include both Pure Co-op and Semi-Co-op modes of play. Pure Co-op is actually relatively easy to design once you have everything else in place, and as some people want it then I’m happy to give it to them. I think having the variety of play modes is a strength not a weakness.

Now, feel free to tell me that I’m wrong 😉



1: Intriguingly that disallows solo play too, but that’s a discussion for another time.

2: Whatever this is. Like I said, the rules themselves are secondary, although picking something you can explain quickly will help.

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45 Responses to Why Co-Op And I Don’t Get On

  1. cashwiley says:

    You’re a curmudgeon. Try relaxing and not worrying as much about winning as having fun with everyone sharing their time with you.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      As I said, that may be true. However, I can (and have) run hundreds of games with non-gamers where winning was not the aim. I find Pure Co-op more of a hindrance than a help. If it only works in that rarefied environment then I have no use for it either as I can run a perfectly entertaining game for non-gamers using other rule sets.

    • TGM says:

      I don’t think enjoying the friendly rivalry of competitive game play over pure co-op makes one an anti-social cumergedon. Some of my fondest gaming memories revolve around the trash talking between friends while gaming.

      It sounds like the best thing about the new DKH is that like Neapolitan ice cream, everyone gets their favorite dungeon crawl flavor in the same box. Casual or hardcore. Pure Co-op, Semi Co-Op, competitive.

  2. Thawmus says:

    Speaking as someone who started playing Pure Co-Op games about 3-4 years ago, and have added several to their stack since then, let me say:

    I agree completely. 🙂

    In essence, the problem with Pure Co-Op games, to me, is that they are no different than a solitaire game. And, quite frankly, to that end, they are solitaire games with an audience. Part of the problem, for me personally, is that when I get interested in something, I overdo it. I bought Arkham Horror, and played it night and day for months on end. Same happened with Pandemic, Atlantis Rising, Sentinels of the Multiverse, etc. So what happens, is, I end up playing these games when friends are unavailable, as solitaire games. And, inevitably, when I do play with friends, I end up dictating the action, because I have the most experience. I don’t sit there and tell them what to do, mind you. But they’d be idiots not to ask my opinion when I’ve played the game so much, and they’re not idiots. Sure, they come up with unique ideas I’ve not tried, and that’s always interesting. But for the most part, a formula is devised for how we will play, and we stick to it. BORING.

    Now, I’m going to make a point about something here, and it’s something that I wish more Co-Op board/card games would tap into: Adversaries, player skill, and communication.

    1. Adversaries

    If you’ve ever played Magic, you’ve probably heard of Archenemy. It’s a game format where one player plays with a regular Magic deck, but is also flipping some other Archenemy cards as well, which are largely BS (some are kinda lame). The other 3-4 players are all on the same side, and working against the Archenemy. This isn’t everyone’s favorite game to play, but I personally loved it. It made for a unique and fun experience every game, due to there being skill applied on both sides of the table. There are other games out there that do similar things. Using the Bio-Terrorist in Pandemic, for example, makes one player an enemy of the others from the gate. These games, to me, are more rewarding, as you can’t just apply a basic formula for how to play. Sure, there are stupid and smart things to do, but there’s a lot more gray area than in a game you could otherwise play solitaire.

    Unfortunately, games where the adversary is a block of text, rather than a real person, can’t really tap into that. I’d be interested if someone could think of a way they could.

    2. Player Skill

    If you’ve ever played Co-Op video games, you know that they can be fun experiences. You can’t just tell the other player what to do, most of the time. They have to actually perform that function well enough to be worthwhile. You can’t just fireman’s-carry them everywhere. This is something that is also kind of lost in the board game world. Typically you’re not aiming your dice, you’re calculating what they could roll. And anyone at the table could do that for you. Heck, they probably have.

    How do you tap into a player’s ability to wield their models/stats/cards without allowing for input from other players? How do you make that solely something they’re responsible for, and nobody else?

    3. Communication

    This is a short one: I don’t like it when people are allowed to coach each other in Co-Op games. To me, it is probably one of the worst game mechanics involved. Explain the rules? Sure. But I would be very interested to see a Co-Op game where teammate communication was not allowed at a strategic and tactical level. This ties into #2 pretty intrinsically. As soon as the communication barrier doesn’t exist, the Co-Op game immediately goes into Solitaire territory.

    That all being said, I understand that playing competitive games is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have a hard time talking some friends and even family into playing a competitive game at all, and thus I own a bunch of Co-Op games. I’ve not hidden my disdain for them, and my wife has taken that as a cue to openly challenge my decisions when we play Co-Op games, and that makes them fun again. 🙂

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Some excellent points Thawmus. You’re right about co-op video games sometimes working rather better.

      Banning communications within the game is back to RPG territory. In the “friends and family” environment it may be a little harder to convince folk that’s the way to go. Still, it’s something I was toying with, so I’m happy you brought it up 😉

  3. You also have some interesting variations like, The Resistance, Avalon, Shadows over Camelot, House on the Haunted Hill and Battlestar Galactica. – Co-op games but with a secret nasty hidden element, one – or more, or maybe even none – of the players are actively working against the group.

    Solo play is an interesting thing, truth be told, I don’t tend to think of them as games, but more as specific puzzles to solve.

    • I’d argue that The Resistance isn’t really a co-op, it’s a two team competitive game with lop-sided rules. One side knows who are their team mates, the other doesn’t. It’s genius and why I am willing to give it more room than other games that really are co-ops.

  4. Steven Bach says:

    Yep, so in other words, if it ain’t PvP, it ain’t worth squat. Your 2 types of co-op situations fit for competitive games equally as well.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      PvE works fine in some contexts, just not for me in a Pure Co-op board game. At least, it hasn’t in any I’ve tried. I did prefer PvE MMOs though, rather than PvP. In fact, using my definitions above, you could probably best describe my MMO playing as wavering between Pure Co-op, Semi-Co-op and solo play. It’s a very different medium.

  5. For me, co-op = RPG. A really good RPG requires a really good GM and a really good set of roleplayers. Having done 20+ years of RPGs my standards are set very high and an automated GM doesn’t cut it, plus not many players really get the RPG element.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      RPG-lite, perhaps. In an RPG sense I think of miniatures, boards, etc as temporary props for explaining situations, to be abandoned as soon as the story finds them unnecessary (which will probably be fairly soon). Co-op does include some RPG-like elements though.

  6. Ben says:

    You’re wrong :p

    I don’t game with non-gamers. Which is not to say that I won’t game with a newbie gamer, just not with non-gamers. My gaming time is too precious to waste it on people who don’t really want to game. I do play co-op games, albeit a lot less often than PvP games. I play these games with other gamers. Now your experience is that in a co-op game, the person or persons who know the game best either dominate and take everyone for a ride, or they sit back and let the team lose rather than take over. This is not my experience. Like I say, I play exclusively with gamers. Once we get past the first game or two, we all have a grasp of the rules. If the game is too easy, then we won’t bother with it. If the game presents a challenge, then we work together to try and overcome it. We discuss, plan, argue, divide tasks, and if all goes well, we win. We don’t have a social experience (beyond that normally provided by a boardgame), we play the game and we win or lose, and we do it as a team. We’ve experienced a real sense of achievement when we’ve overcome a particularly difficult scenario (I’m looking at you Zombicide). The experience of PvE is no less than of PvP.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Fair enough Ben. Can’t say our experiences are in any way similar, but they’re no less valid for all that. I’ve been in at least 3 different groups of gamers and tried pure co-op games, and none of them worked as you described. It would be nice if they did.

      • Ben says:

        They work best with small groups and repeated plays. Too many players and some people will get drowned out, though that can be an issue in PvP too. Play the game only occasionally and everyone won’t get a grasp on the rules. I played through the Zombicide KS campaign earlier this year. There were three of us, we had a couple of one off games to refresh the rules, then played the six scenarios over four consecutive gaming sessions. Though we use the terminology of co-op to describe them, strictly speaking we mean PvE when we find a co-op game that works for us. By their nature, all PvE games are co-ops (if there’s more than one player), but not all co-ops are true PvE. Easy co-ops are just social and/or narrative experiences, and not truly PvE.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          I’m happy that you’re having fun with it, and I can see how a group might enjoy it. However, just before I posted this article I was being told by someone that they’d played Zombiecide earlier this week and had exactly the problems I mentioned above.

          I disagree with your definition of PvE. To me that means what it says: player vs environment. It says nothing about a requirement for players to co-operate, merely not be antagonistic (because it’s not PvP). Active co-operation is different. Most PvE MMOs, for example, can be played as solo games even when there are thousands of other gamers in the world with you. That’s drifting though, and is probably not very important. You’ve also got some fuzzy boundaries between definitions, which simply demonstrates how subjective a lot of this is. Hence my defining what I meant by co-op at the start.

          PS: I think I’ve corrected your previous post as you intended.

  7. PikaRapH says:

    Two co-op games that may be different :
    – Robinson Crusoe –> each turn the leader changes hand and must deal directly with hazards, players must have the sense of sacrifice.

    – Hanabi : you can’t talk apart from what’s authorized by the rules (some people find this is more a game for ‘robots’) not everybody has the same way of thinking, that’s what makes the game cool : you have to find what to say to help whithout cheating.

    Other than that I agree, that’s not fun when a player takes (or could take) all decisions. I really prefer tha Battelstar Galactica style or Shadows over Camelot, or Room 25 where there may be a traitor or more that have another plan to win.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’ve come across a handful of co-ops where roles rotate. This sounds like it would work in more abstract games, but for something where people have a particular miniature and identify with that I think it would feel wrong. I’ll certainly have a look at them though. Thanks for the suggestions.

  8. Maurice says:

    Well, I come from an RPG background where for me co-op is the norm and competitive play ruins a campaign for me, so I don’t agree with you. A co-op game with a truly heroic group effort is the bast game you can play. No competitive game can beat that.
    But like in RPGs, it is important that everybody contributes. That boils down to playing with the right players. Clearly you are not one of them 😉
    What worries me though, how can you design a proper pure co-op variant if you don’t like it yourself? How can you tell whether it sucks just because you don’t like it, or because your rules are actually pretty awful?
    Just wondering….

    • Quirkworthy says:

      It’s funny. I can do RPGs co-operatively, though in my view the best of them has sub-plots and undercurrents that (often) not all players are privy too as well as the co-operation of the main adventure. But RPGs are a very different beast to board games.

      The design is relatively simple. Firstly, being co-operative is not a rule, it’s a social thing. Most of what you’re doing is actually leaving things out rather than adding them in.

      Secondly, I get other people to test it that do like this style of play, and they tell me if it sucks or not. Same as any other game – you pick the most enthusiastic and experienced crowd for whatever you want to test, and drop it on them. It’s always hard to entirely trust your own judgement about anything you design 🙂

  9. Thawmus says:

    The problem with equating Co-Op Board Games to RPGs, is that an RPG has a completely different adversarial element, which is what makes RPGs good. If the GM didn’t exist in your RPG, the game would be a heck of a lot less fun. Yes, he might be running with a pre-generated adventure, but there’s still a pretty severe difference between a GM running a pre-generated encounter, and a block of text on a Sentinels of the Multiverse villain card.

    I honestly don’t think you can equate them. Compare the experiences to foster a better Co-Op board game? Sure. Which is why I think some Co-Op games previously mentioned were designed in a way that has one player adopt that role to turn the game into something more than Solitaire with an audience.

  10. Hum_Con says:

    The problem I have with this article is that you have taken an increasingly popular genre of games that you don’t happen to like and decided the problem is the genre rather than you. Then you go on and try to define competitive games out of existence by deciding they’re not games at all because they don’t have a competitive element. It doesn’t help that your cherry-picking your preferred definition in order to do it.

    Perhaps co-operative games are better thought of as puzzles, but I’m not sure that you can’t think of puzzles as a sub-set of games. It’s worth noting that your definition excludes all single player video games. And while you may not like them either, I think you’d have a hard time re-defining them in the face of the common understanding that they do count as games.

    I have the opposite attitude to you. I’m pretty anti-competitive. In very competitive games I find, if one side wins by a large margin then the loser feels bad for their lack of skill or knowledge and, if I’m the winner, I feel guilty for making the loser feel bad. A very close game is much better, but that relies on players with very equal skill levels. This is just the flip-side of the problem you experience with non-competitive games where experienced players tend to dominate.

    It’s worth noting that your final section about treating games with inexperienced players as demos applies just as much to non-competitive games as competitive ones.

    Unbalanced skill levels among the players are a problem for any games. Personally, I prefer games with a strong random element which helps to balance out disparate skill levels.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      You say this like I am the only one with this opinion, and yet the comments here and elsewhere demonstrate that this is simply not the case. Whilst many people enjoy Pure Co-op games (to use my definition above as we haven’t got another one to hand), and more enjoy Semi-Co-op, this is far from universal. As you yourself demonstrate, every type of game is liked by some and not by others.

      All I’m doing here is explaining why I don’t find Pure Co-op games fun (because I was asked), and that’s no more a failing of me than your dislike of competitive gaming is a failing of you. In both cases it is simply that certain aspects of a style of gaming don’t suit us.

      If you object to me using the dictionary for defining words, what would you suggest in its place? And where did you get the idea I don’t like single player video games? I certainly didn’t say that, nor is it true. My footnote acknowledges the dictionary definition’s exclusion and parks the discussion for later. No opinion is expressed.

      I’d say that all games that involve any skill include elements of puzzles, not just co-op ones. The fact that these puzzles can evolve as the game progresses just makes them more interesting in my view.

      Any type of game can be used when you’re dealing with non-gamers, and that was my point – co-op games are not the only option. As soon as you need to be running a demo or entertaining non-gamers then the actual style of game is far less important than realising you’re doing something different from playing a straight game. This is the extreme end of having unbalanced levels of experience between gamers, though this in itself is not a problem. In fact, I think that a small imbalance in player skill can be a good thing.

  11. Danny says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and views, Jake (and every other poster). Interesting stuff, indeed. I enjoy both competitive gaming as well as, using your term, Pure Co-Op gaming. They both are equally enjoyable to me, depending on what I feel like playing at the time.

    I play Pure Co-Op with both non-gamers (certain members of my family) as well as gamers. When I play with my family, it is very much a case of me leading some family members through the game (my wife and daughter) whilst others I don’t need to (my two elder sons who are gamers), none the less, still very enjoyable for all. However when I play Pure Co-Op with gamers, my experiences are very much like Ben’s above (minus the arguments 🙂 ) and it is very enjoyable and highly satisfying for all.

    Pure Co-Op’s are still highly competitive, its a competition where a group of humans join forces to work as a team to succeed at something, like groups of humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years. Although the stakes in a board game offer no where near potential for a catastrophic result as not being able to bring down food for your tribe, the sense of camaraderie at sharing strengths, skills and knowledge to engineer solutions to defeat the “common enemy” is still very real,

    In regards to the mentioning of not being able to communicate (talk?) during a game. This can be fun, especially when the game focuses on humour gained from the physical antics of others (being forced to mime etc), however in a Pure Co-Op game that is based on a group of adventurers working together to defeat an ancient evil or to succeed at navigating a dungeon to find treasure, if you remove the single most important element that humans have used to co-operate (unless you count money 🙂 ) throughout history, then you will likely be removing a tool that is very enjoyable and is an inherent part in the history of human “Co-Op”. Being able to talk to each other to devise an over arcing strategy and smaller level tactics during game play is certainly sociable, but also encourages competitiveness against the “Common Enemy” as well as helping players to immerse themselves in the game.

    Its been very interesting reading the differing opinions and ideas people have had on here in regards to this game! Thanks all 🙂

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Thanks for the comments Danny, and glad you’re enjoying the read. I think this variation of favourite styles is what makes gaming and gamers such an interesting mix 🙂

  12. Matt says:

    I enjoyed your cross comparison of coop to that of university. I think most people who hat these are this who carry the load. I do think you were bein generous with your comparison in that “one tells all what to do an they do it” as I never was so fortunate in this regard…sound like I should have studied abroad 🙂 I heartily agree that having multiple modes of game play only adds to th over all playability and marketability of the game. I look forward to seeing more as you move forward with thi project!

  13. Michael Kelley says:

    I’m not going to tell you “you’re wrong,” since your preferences are clearly true for you. But as a game designer with a fully cooperative game being published in the near-ish future, I’d like to respond to a few of your points above.

    To your first point about Alpha Players (one player telling everyone else what to do), I have certainly experienced this issue with some co-ops, and been guilty of “running” games myself. That being said, many well-designed co-ops eliminate this problem in one of several ways.
    – Restricted communication, as in Hanabi where you must spend resources to give clues to your fellow players.
    – Hidden information, as in many co-ops where your hand of cards is hidden and you cannot directly discuss the contents of it.
    – Large amounts of randomization, from cards and/or dice.
    – A tight time limit that prevents one player directing all, such as in Space Alert.
    Any of these solutions make it hard to impossible for one more experienced player to have the “solution” to winning, and thus tend to eliminate or reduce Alpha Player issues.
    But even in games with lower luck and open information, such as Forbidden Island and Pandemic, you can still CHOOSE to let your fellow players have a large degree of autonomy. As you mentioned in your post, this can lead to frustration because you see their moves as “daft.”
    But I don’t quite get this. I assume you have played many team-based games. For example, I’m sure you’ve had 2v2 matches in wargames, with each of you controlling a squad and going against another pair of players.
    In this situation, do you feel the need to dictate your partner’s every move? If he plays somewhat sub-optimally, do you call him daft and choose never to play with him again?
    I assume not. He has his squad to control, and it is only polite and fair to give him a large measure of control. You can suggest or give strategic advice, but it is the nature of good teamwork to trust your colleague and allow them to play their role.
    If they mess up, sure, it could necessitate a conversation on strategy before the next time you play together. But that’s all part of learning in a team.
    The exact same thing applies in co-ops. It doesn’t matter that your partnership is playing against the game instead of another team. Good cooperative players will allow their teammates to make choices, even if they aren’t the one you think is absolutely the best option.
    And, as Hum_Con argued above, you only need to hold your tongue strategically when playing with players of a much lower skill level than you. With equally skilled teammates you can have in-depth strategic discussions, weighing the risks and benefits of different choices. I don’t see this as too different from playing with a handicap in a game like Chess or Go or any other purely competitive game. You want everyone to have a good time, so you make accommodations for differing skill levels to ensure enjoyable play.

    Now, onto your second point. You used this definition of a game: “a competitive activity involving skill, chance or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules…”.
    I don’t see any problem with applying this exact definition to most cooperative games. To provide my own definition, to “compete” is defined as “to strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.”
    Clearly, there is a large degree of striving to win in any good fully cooperative game. Does it matter that the “other” you are striving against is an artificial intelligence controlled by card draws of flowcharts or dice? Having played many solo games, iPad implementations of boardgames, and computer games, it’s clear that a well-designed AI can approximate human behavior and provide stiff competition. I see little to no difference in playing the AI in a game of Ascension on the iPad to playing a real player face to face. I can’t tell in some cases whether the player I am shooting at in a first person computer game is a man or a machine.
    I’m not claiming that fully cooperative boardgames achieve this high level of artificial intelligence, since they don’t have computing power to back them up. But they generally have a set of cards, of options, that can be played against my team on a given turn. They might choose an optimal choice, or a suboptimal one, providing a smaller or greater challenge. But this is, again, the same as a human opponent.
    If the game rolls a die against me, and that die roll could scuttle the strategy of my team, am I not engaged in active competition against the game? Is the sense of tension and excitement lessened because I am rolling for the game instead of my opponent?
    For you, perhaps, it is. But the majority of my gaming buddies (which include family and hard-core gamers) LOVE a good co-op. We feel just as much competition, as we strive to defeat the challenges of the game, but we also get to discuss strategy, cheer our fellow players instead of being angry at their good luck, and come together as a team.

    You design fabulous competitive games, and I can’t wait to see your attempts at co-op with the zombie rules for Deadzone. So even if you never enjoy a fully cooperative game, I’m happy to know that you’ll continue to produce great games in general. Thank you for that.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Nicely put Michael, and well argued. Some excellent points. If I’d been slightly quicker off the mark you’d have had my next post to comment on instead of this one, which is for exactly this sort of useful suggestion 😉

  14. redfox4242 says:

    I agree that cooperative play is an altogether different animal. You make a valid point saying that co-op is technically not a game by the definition. My only experience with co-op play is a board game called, Pandemic. I found the experience enjoyable. I felt like everyone contributed to the common goal. I can imagine a frustrating situation where one player feels like they have to do all the thinking. I think that a game like Pandemic succeeds or fails depending on the people playing. If you have a sense of friendly camaraderie and mutual respect then it the experience is going to be good because you have a strong team. If people don’t get along then the experience is spoiled and unhappy.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I just bought Pandemic the other day. Not got round to playing it yet. Nothing much I can do about putting camaraderie and mutual respect in the box, I’m afraid.

  15. redfox4242 says:

    I am pleased to hear that Dwarf King’s Hold 4 will have some type of co-op play available as an additional option. I think that’s a good thing. More ways to play the game are always better. More options is better. I think that I would be likely to use the co-op play mode with friends and family. I hope that their will also be the traditional competitive play modes as well. I like that way also.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Partly this depends on how many people are playing. If you have 2 players then there’s one on each side, so it’s not co-op at all (unless we fund some AI work in the KS). As soon as you add a third player then you’ve always got a co-op situation of some sort or other, given the basic premise of heroes vs Necromancer.

  16. Pingback: What Makes A Good (Pure) Co-Op Game? |

  17. Torkel says:

    I can definitely enjoy pure co-op games. But if it’s too easy, it tends to only get played once. I get a feeling of having completed the game – solved the puzzle, if you will – once the players defeat the game.

    The KEY point of a good co-op game, to me, is that it’s sufficiently difficult. The players should not defeat everything on the first run. Probably not the second either. The greater the range of difficulties, the longer the game lasts. The game can implement the difficulty range with a single mode that scales difficulty up as you progress through it. Typical of tower defence and such. But personally I like it better if the game has different modes of varying difficulty. Preferably “hard”, “harder”, … , “brick wall”. Easy modes have limited value to me, because I like the “competitiveness” of the game/puzzle. PvE, but still competitive in my book.

    I know people that like better to be confident that they can complete the game in an evening, and find it demoralizing if it takes a while to figure out how to defeat the game. That’s fair, of course, and also a reason for why I favor different modes of difficulty in a game.

    Of course, to make a challenging puzzle out of the co-op, the game is dependent on solid mechanics that enables difficult choices and a form of learning-scale. Not every game does this well enough to empower much replayability.

    I’m excited for DKH4 either way! 🙂

  18. I agree with you, Jake. I think it depends on whether you are a team player or not.
    I’m not .
    I spend my work week in a team-type atmosphere like most 9-5 employees, dealing with bosses (both official and self-appointed), workplace Divas, lazy whiners etc. I don’t want to replicate that dynamic in my gaming time (lest some unresolved sub-conscious workplace anger/annoyance manifests itself in an act of passive aggressive game sabotage)! 😉

  19. Pingback: Pure Co-Op Games Are . . . Well, Games (a Response to Jake Thornton) | The Law of Game Design

  20. ImhotepMagi says:

    As a big fan of Warhammer Quest, I do honestly think a pure co-op dungeon crawl can be both fun and challenging. I don’t think anyone can claim WHQ to be an easy affair, even with one player making all the decisions.

    Personally, I dislike semi co-ops not only because they encourage players to work against each other and create conflict within a team but also because they make it difficult to play the game solo. As a gamer who has sporadic ability to play games with others, I appreciate this ability wherever I can find it. Board games may be social by nature, but not everyone has the option to be social all the time and may still enjoy rolling some dice. Pure co-ops give you a game you can play with others and by yourself, which I think is a lot of the reason they are so popular these days. In that respect, they are like Call of Duty. Internet is out? Looks like it’s story mode time.

  21. Chris says:

    I dislike pure co-op games for the same reasons that you stated. Interestingly, usually it’s me becoming the know-it-all just-play-the-one-optimal-move gamer, and I still dislike the experience and afterwards feel bad for dominating the game like that.

    However, I disagree that a traitor variant does not change the game dynamic. Having a traitor-coop game means you can never be 100% sure about the moves a player is proposing, which practically eliminates (or at least should) the “alpha gamer” problem. The condition being that you need a sufficiently complex game for that to work.

    Shadows Over Camelot was one of the first traitor co-op games released and remains one of the most well known. Personally I think the traitor mechanic does not work in that game specifically because the game mechanics are very simple, on par with what you’d call a typical family or casual game. It is very easy to figure out the most optimal and beneficial move, so unless you are playing with very unexperienced/very young players, anyone not taking that move is clearly telegraphing to everyone that he/she is the traitor player.

    On the other hand, the other well known traitor co-op game is Battlestar Galactica. The traitor mechanic in that one works beatifully, makes you unwilling to trust anyone and eliminates the “alpha gamer” problem. It is a fairly complex Corey Konieczka design that has a metric ton of different moving parts. With so much going on every turn of the game it is very hard, if not impossible to figure out one golden optimal move in any given situatuon, and that is how the Cylon player(s) can stay hidden and play the psychological game so effectively and disrupting the co-operative strategizing.

    I dislike co-op games, but adore Battlestar.

    Interestingly, I have no problem with dungeoncrawling co-op games, even those without traitor mechanics. Both the D&D Adventure System game family (pure co-op vs. the board) and Descent (pure co-op party vs Evil Overlord player) are some of my favourite games. For some reason my brain doesn’t register those kind of games as co-op games, but as dungeoncrawl games and apparently that makes a difference and allows me to kick back and relax and enjoy the playthrough. I guess it might be some sort of weird spontaneous brain conditioning as a result of my long history of playing D&D and Warhammer Roleplay in ye olde times.

  22. Souterrien says:

    Ah, I’ve been expecting this game for a long time now and I’ve just found out that the game designer thoughts on this type of game places him at the polar opposite of my conclusion over gaming.

    By experience, performance in board games rely on command over the rules.
    Command over the rules stand on two feet:
    – knowledge of the rules set
    -manipulation of the rules (finding the interpretation/loophole that provides a competitve edge)

    I am used to playing with people who enjoy gaming (while I am writing this piece, some of them are playing a game downstairs) but all of us have a life and most of us do not make a living by gaming.
    As a result, most of us do not have an extended time to dedicate to building a solid command over the rules.

    For a competitive board game, the end game is known: the guy who is able to allocate more time wins. Performances are proportional to the time investment. Players are penalized for the lack of time to allocate to the game.
    Simple as that so the gaming sessions tend to grow very boring.

    That is why we enjoy so much more pure co op games. The difference in rules knowledge is erased. The quoted problem is easily solved: players with a higher knowledge shut their mouth trap and let other players make their decisions by themselves. It is a key rule, players make their decision by themselves. When the decision made by a player is so poor because of lack of knowledge of game mechanics, a discussion might be started to explain why this decision is so bad.
    Plans, courses of actions might be decided collectively.
    In a competitive game, it is not possible to make up for the lack of knowledge of your opponent.
    You cant tell an opponent he is making a mistake. Misinterpretated rules might lead to arguments over who reads the rules right etc
    Twisted interpretations of rules work at the advantage of every player in a pure coop game instead of frustrating an opponent who might often feel cheated because that loop hole comes out of nowhere. Once again, it might lead to endless discussions over rules that are not often that well written.

    It is no accident of life if, generally, competitive games require a referee who is supposed to know the rules at least as well or usually better than the players. Interpretations of the rules is too important to be left in the hands of the players.

    Which leads to another gaming side: It is a pipe dream to build a competitive game on a dice based system. Statistical laws do not lie and generally, the number of dice rolls is too low to constitute a representative sample.
    The best executed plan does not resist to luck.
    Unlucky, and you do not win. Lucky, and you win.
    It might leave players cursing their back luck, ah, if they had rolled over or at the average during the game etc
    In a pure coop game, luck or the absence of it are favourable factors that help creating a good gaming session. Dice rolls create the narrative.

    Winning or losing is usually funny in a pure coop game while it is not the case in a competitive game.

  23. Doug says:

    What if you designed the characters in the game around the classic coop player types?

    If only one player could give instructions and those were in game instructions, or bonuses, or actions given to other players, then it wouldn’t hugely matter that an alpha player played that character.

    How constrained the receiving player would be as a result is another matter but they would also have their ‘type’ have an affect on the game as well.

  24. Doug says:

    Yeah, I was mainly thinking of these miniature coop fighting games where there is notional structure and direction already.

    You could still do the same with coops where players aren’t supposed to do what they’re told though. Although the classic dungeon bash is a team helping each other through the dungeon, they are still individuals out for themselves.

    So you could also design them around personality types where for example, the bossy player can give action cards to other players telling them what they should do.

    A rogue though might have a list of options they can do specifically when that card is played. They may even get a bonus to perform them if they’re contrary to the wishes of another player. You can game this of course using a bit of reverse psychology on people, but that becomes a minigame unto itself…

    But I like the idea that player interactions have an effect on the game. You could have a powerup meter for a barbarian. Every round he’s told what to do he gets a token.

    When he hits 5 he goes berserk from being bossed around and then the owning player gets to spend the next round running around like a nutter. That would draw certain types of players to begin with.

    I suppose I look at it from the perspective of ‘what are the perceived issues wth co-op? Player personality types. Ok, work those into the game’

    The potential hindrances then become a feature of the game itself.

  25. tiborvadovan says:

    Interesting read. I like coops and, sure enough, I find that the “competitive” elements you discuss actually tend to hinder rather than help the game in any way. For example, any type of “player ranking” tends to be ignored by us as we are first and foremost cooperating to beat the game. In my experience, coops are actually the games that are more easily accepted in our local group at the FLGS. I find this to be the case because:
    – Let’s face it: everyone is a sore loser. While some are sorer than others, coops mitigate this feeling immensely. You feel less an idiot by losing when its not just you but everyone else too.
    – I find them somewhat friendlier towards new players: everyone is working with you and not against you.
    – Pure coops lend themselves well to solo play, which is an added bonus (of course, competitive elements/hidden traitor mechanics also hinder this).
    I can understand some of the problems you mention at a conceptual level, but never really felt them. I find that avoiding the “alpha male” syndrome is just a question of common courtesy. I may offer my advice, especially if I’m asked, but would never dream of interfering with another players turn. The reason that this doesn’t bother me (or “ruins my fun” as you put it) is that, intrinsically, coops are about beating the odds and unfavorable conditions, A newbie player making silly mistakes is just another thing I must factor in when deciding what to do: an increased level of difficulty, if you will. Anyway, I find that a simple “fix” to that is including hidden information: for example, if players have a private hand of cards, they can’t actually be micromanaged by other players (unless they chose so by showing them): at best, others may dictate general strategies he may feel free to pursue or not. But again, it is essentially a matter of courtesy letting other people make their own choices and learning from their mistakes.

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