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Tabletop Tutor: Playing Well with Others in Co-Op Games

By Loyd Case

Co-op games are not a genre, but a style of play. Some try to replicate the roleplaying game experience, but most create new kinds of experiences, using a variety of game mechanics. I’ll take you on a tour of my favorites. Afterwards, I’ll talk a bit about how to play these games; the metagame can be a bit different with co-op board games.

My favorite type of board game, bar none, are co-op games. I have more co-op board games than any other type of board game, and much prefer playing co-op to pure competitive games. Yet co-op board games are a fairly new thing in board gaming. Sure, there was the occasional game like Arkham Horror, perhaps the granddaddy of modern co-op board games, and the popular Shadows Over Camelot, but they were few and far between.

Co-op games are not a genre, but a style of play. Some try to replicate the roleplaying game experience, but most create new kinds of experiences, using a variety of game mechanics. With co-op games, you’re essentially playing against the game itself. The game mechanics present a sort of primitive game AI, created by the game designer, in order to keep the game challenge. The best co-op games can be very hard – a rough rule of thumb is that if your group can win one out of three games, it’s probably a good game.

There are subsets to this game style. You have the pure co-op game, with everyone pulling together to beat the game. There’s the co-op game with a traitor, pioneered by the aforementioned Shadows Over Camelot. Someone in the group secretly opposes the team, but you don’t know who it is. And there’s the co-op game with a single opponent. One of the earliest of these types of games was 1987’s The Fury of Dracula, since reprinted by Fantasy Flight as simply Fury of Dracula. These games pit a team against a single, known enemy, in this case, Dracula. Similar games include Scotland Yard and games which pits a group against an player “overlord”, like Fantasy Flight’s Descent: Journeys in the Dark.

I’ll take you on a tour of my favorite co-op games. Afterwards, I’ll talk a bit about how to play these games; the metagame can be a bit different with co-op board games.

Eldritch Horror

Once upon a time, my favorite co-op game was the aforementioned Arkham Horror. However, finding someone to play it is a challenge all by itself, since a game of Arkham Horror can take as long as six or more hours. Enter Eldritch Horror.

Eldritch Horror adopts the older game’s core theme: a ragged band of investigators investigate arcane clues and try to stop one of the elder gods from the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos from spawning and wreaking the utter destruction of civilization. Along the way, they risk sanity, health and their allies in the attempt.

The game borrows a lot of the mechanics from Arkham Horror, but streamlines them considerably. Fiddly parts, like having to move to another part of the map to have otherworldly encounters, now just happen in-place. Traveling between locations is streamlined, and most monsters don’t move around the board, removing yet another fiddly mechanic that needed to be remembered.

However, Eldritch Horror brings some unique bits of its own. Need to take out a bank loan? There are several debt cards, but each is unique. They look the same on top, but flip it over when the time comes to pay the debt, and the price you pay may not be simply money. Similarly, spells can wreak their own toll, but each spell has a different effect, also printed on the back of the card.

Each elder god you face has its own set of clues and mysteries to solve, so the game’s goals feel quite different, depending on which enemy you face.

Overall, Eldritch Horror feels like a streamlined Arkham Horror that takes nothing away from the theme, yet you can play it in three hours or less.

Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game

In a strict sense, the Battlestar Galactica board game isn’t purely co-op. But it’s not really a team-based game, either. Instead, it’s a subset of the co-op style, co-op game with a traitor. This idea isn’t original, but was likely pioneered by Days of Wonder’s Shadows over Camelot. It’s not quite the same as games where you have a single, known opponent. In Battlestar Galactica, one player is secretly a Cylon, while the other play humans trying to help the fleet reach the legendary planet Kobol. Depending on the number of players, a second person can become a Cylon in the second half of the game.

The result is a game of tension and suspicion. Who is the Cylon? Who can you trust? Meanwhile, the Cylon fleet is hot on the tail of the ragtag human fleet, destroying civilian ships and wreaking havoc on Galactica itself. It makes for a taut game experience with an equally tense metagame.

During the game, a number of tests take place to see if the fleet can survive yet another crisis. Each crisis is handled by players contributing personal resources (cards) in secret. In addition, a random pool of cards also contributes to solving (or being defeated by) the crisis, so you never quite know who threw in the bad cards or the good ones.

As with most modern board games, there are a number of expansions, but you can continue to have a great time with just the base game for many, many epic evenings.

Pandemic

Pandemic is one of the classics of co-op board gaming. Players adopt the role of researchers desperately trying to find a cure for four rapidly spreading diseases before they consume the planet. Players draw cards that represent cities on the global map. Regions of the world are color coded; the diseases are color coded similarly. In the base game, you need to play five cards of the same color at a research station to effect a cure.

Each player adopts a different role. The researcher can pass any city card to a player in the same city, not just the card of the city she’s in. The medic can treat all disease in one city (remove all the disease cubes), not just one cube, which can minimize the chance of a serious outbreak. The operations expert builds research stations (laboratories), where cures take place. There are a large number of roles, and the mix of player roles can make the game easier or harder, depending on which roles are drawn.

The basic Pandemic is great fun, and a good introductory co-op game, but I like the new In the Lab expansion. The lab board adds an abstracted genome sequencing mechanic, which gives the game better context to curing diseases, rather than just discarding colored cards. Particular player roles, like the researcher and epidemiologist can do special actions in the lab, speeding up the sequencing process. It adds a nice bit of tension to a game which already ratchets up the tension over time.

Pandemic is one of those games which really does ramp up the threat level insidiously. Early in the game, you think you’re doing great, smashing diseases down. A few draws from the infection deck, however, and a couple of big outbreaks, and suddenly you’re faced with terrible choices: treat diseases in heavy outbreak areas to reduce the chance of increased spreading of the disease, or cure a disease in a different area? Pick the wrong choice, and the game could end in disaster…

Ghost Stories

The village has been a peaceful place for centuries, but a demon recently cursed the village, and hordes of ghosts have descended on the townsfolk, terrorizing everyone. Your team of ghost hunters come to the village in an effort to stem the flow of ghosts, find the source and destroy the demon once and for all.

The mechanics in Ghost Stories are simple and straightforward, but give the players few actions and many difficult choices. This is another game that begins deceptively easy, but before you can say “boo!” you’re faced with hordes of rampaging ghosts, some of which can only be killed by group efforts. The village itself can give you special abilities, but you need to take time out from ghost hunting to pick up those abilities.

Each player’s role offers different sets of abilities, which mesh together very nicely, but how the game progresses really depends on how each player uses the roles effectively. Some ghosts are more easily killed by one character than another. If you’re successful in at least stemming the shadowy horde, you’ll eventually face the demon lord Wu-Feng himself. Can you kill the demon lord and bring peace back to the village, or will your band of Taoist ghost hunters themselves lose the fight and bring doom to the innocent villagers?

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Betrayal at House on the Hill, or Betrayal as I’ll refer to it, is as much a storytelling game as it is a co-op adventure. You take archetypal characters from horror movies and explore a haunted mansion. What could go wrong?

Originally released in 2004, the relatively new 2010 reprint adds better graphics, slightly rewritten rules and nicely painted miniatures. Like Battlestar Galactica, Betrayal usually includes a hidden traitor. The twist is that no one knows who the traitor will be at the start of the game.

As you explore the house by laying out randomly drawn tiles, the players encounter events and omens that eventually uncover the house’s secret horror, and one (or sometimes more than one) player is consumed by the haunting and becomes the nemesis to the other players.

Each game of Betrayal is usually different. The way the Omen cards come out leads players to pick a different story (called a “haunt” in game parlance from a separate booklet that contains 50 different haunts. Some of the haunts can be pretty easy, others insanely difficult. That’s the charm of Betrayal: you never know quite what you’re getting into.

Betrayal is a fairly light game, usually taking less than an hour. It’s somewhat goofy and over the top, like most haunted house movies, so it’s not quite the tense and paranoid experience of Battlestar Galactica. But that makes it a better game if you’re looking for a lighter, beer-and-pretzels co-op gaming experience.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Pathfinder, sometimes called “Dungeons and Dragons 3.75”, is a tabletop roleplaying game using D20 mechanics loosely based on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. The game world, of course, is different, but all the tropes are there: dwarves, elves, orcs, humans, half-elves, halflings and so on. As an RPG it’s fiddly and complex.

Enter the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. The Pathfinder card games tries to replicate the tabletop RPG experience in a more streamlined, purely card-driven way. In fact, when you open the box, what you see is a vast array of cards.

That array of cards gets bigger over time, assuming your group follows the adventure path, which consists of mini-expansions which expand a single story over time.

The mechanics are a tad fiddly, but after you’ve played through it once, it’s easy to grasp. Each player has a card or sheet representing their character, plus another card that’s the character’s avatar. Depending on the number of players, location cards for a particular scenario are laid out, with a face down draw deck beneath each location card. The draw decks consist of enemies, cool new gear and clues to other locations. You want to close of a fixed number of locations, depending on the scenario rules, by either completely exploring them or killing a boss monster.

While you can play scenarios standalone, the fun is in playing the longer adventure. The adventure (called Rise of the Runelords in this first version of the game) links together different scenarios into a coherent adventure. There is some dice rolling, but the meat is in the cards. Characters level up a bit (there are really only two levels), but their capabilities get better over time as they pick up new gear.

Each player’s personal deck of cards represent their hit points, and if you ever run out of cards, your character is dead. It’s an elegant mechanic that minimizes paperwork and bookkeeping. Each scenario typically takes less than an hour, so it’s possible to advance both the story and your character in a single evening. You can really get a feel for a Pathfinder RPG session without the hefty preparation, massive sourcebooks and endless rolling of dice.

Games On Deck

I’ve got three games in my collection I’ve yet to play, but I’m aching to give them a whirl, so here are quick summaries.

Police Precinct. You play cops trying to solve a murder. But it’s just another day at the precinct, and you have to deal with street gangs, traffic accidents and other activities that consume the day-to-day lives of cops. Oh, and there might be a corrupt cop trying to screw up your investigation. You have to keep the precinct humming smoothly while trying to solve the murder before the perpetrator escapes your jurisdiction.

Forbidden Desert. The latest game by Matt Leacock, the designer of Forbidden Island and Pandemic, Forbidden Desert is a good second step after you’ve played Forbidden Island. You’re stranded in the desert, and have to find parts and assemble and exotic aircraft so you can escape the desert sands, much like the plot of the movie Flight of the Phoenix. The game itself comes with an aircraft miniature that you assemble as you uncover the parts.

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island. Robinson Crusoe is a co-op game for hardcore Eurogamers. Its central game mechanic is worker placement, used by numerious Euro-style games, but the game itself is purely co-op. A group of people are shipwrecked on an island, and have to survive long enough to escape. You explore the island, build shelters, develop inventions that help you survive. If you’re lucky, the weather and the wildlife don’t kill you before you reach the endgame. The board and components are gorgeous, the game is supposed to be difficult and there’s even a campaign of linked scenarios. I can’t wait to get this one to the table.

Co-op Gaming Tips

If you’re new to the idea of co-op board games, I’ve got a few tips to get you started.

First, start small. If you’re not quite sure that the idea of working with other players is really your cup of tea, pick up (or borrow) a copy of Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island. The game can be found for just $15, so won’t break your budget. It’s also a great game to play with families.

Your band of explorers are trapped on an island, and you need to escape. But first, you’d like to find the secret treasures hidden in various parts of the island. The problem: the island is slowly sinking into the ocean. Can you find the treasures and get to the helicopter before the last bits of the island sink beneath the waves?

The rules are simple, the theme easy to grasp and a typical game lasts well under an hour. It’s a blast with the right group, and a great way to introduce kids to hobby board games.

Avoid the alpha gamer syndrome. When it comes to the metagame of co-op gaming, the alpha gamer syndrome can crush the spirit of a group. The alpha gamer is the guy who tells everyone else what to do. He or she (but usually a “he”) isn’t content to simply lead, but instead bosses everyone else around. The alpha gamer usually knows the game very well, so pushes the other players to make moves to achieve optimal solution. Alpha gamers are tiresome in any gaming experience, but can really suck the joy out of co-op games.

If you have the tendency to be an alpha gamer, my advice to you is just relax. If other players screw up, that can add to the fun and make for great stories later on. That doesn’t mean you can’t give advice, just leave the “my way or the highway” attitude at the door.

Find your own stories to tell. Co-op board games, more than competitive games, can lead to great storytelling after the game. Whether you lose the game in an epic manner, desperately trying to stave off doom but failing by… just… a… little… bit, or whether you eke out a win by the skin of your teeth and that last, lucky card draw, a good co-op game can lead to a shared experience that was once the purview of tabletop roleplaying games. But unlike RPGs, you can play an entire co-op board game in an evening (usually). Whether you crave an epic experience, like Battlestar Galactica, or a more personal, prosaic experience, like being a cop at the local precinct, co-op games have themes and game styles for most players.