Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Co-Operative Games (Unplugged)

 When geeks typically think of Co-op, we think video games, usually first person shooters with a cooperative campaign mode, or maybe classic arcade games where 2-4 players could team up to beat up hordes of bad guys and work together to progress. I guess a lot of other forms of gaming are cooperative as well, as tabletop RPGs are cooperative in nature (unless you play with one of THOSE groups, or are playing Paranoia.) I love all these games dearly, but I'm not talking about any of these.

Red Wizard Needs Food - Badly. I show my age by using this as an image instead of something like Left 4 Dead.

I'd like to discuss a fast-growing niche in the tabletop board gaming world. The cooperative game, and its twin sibling, the co-op game with a traitor. My first board game article touched on one of the more complicated and popular games in this sub-genre, Battlestar Galactica. There were a whole lot of games released before BSG unleashed suspicion and paranoia into deep space.

The earliest ancestor of this style of game (as treated by my narrow definition that eliminates games with one defined 'antagonist' like Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula) that I could find evidence of is Arkham Horror. AH was first published in 1987, with a redesign and re-release in 2005, making the first proper game of this type still one of the most popular today. Investigators in the 1920s fight monsters, dig up clues, and close Gates To Worlds Man Was Not Meant To Know. Players work as a team, trying to prevent the return of one of the Great Old Ones from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Personally, I love the new edition of Arkham, with or without expansions, there is so much going on and it fits the cosmic horror theme, running around with tommyguns and eldritch tomes, defeating cultists and going insane from shoggoths.

Remember, any wins are temporary. The Old Ones will eventually destroy all When The Stars Are Right.

Five years before Arkham was re-released, though, Fantasy Flight put out the game that introduced me to the cooperative board game genre. Lord of the Rings, by master designer Reiner Knizia had a group of hobbits playing against the board itself, attempting to bypass challenges and complete the classic Heroic Journey before the Eye of Sauron can claim victory. I loved this when I first played it, but the years have not been kind, as other games reveal a key flaw. Every turn, the game says “I'm going to make you lose," and the entire play is spent reacting, merely trying to stop it. This means most key decisions are made randomly, and all the players can do is react.

On the upside, any homoerotic hobbit bed-bouncing is entirely optional.

A few years later, we have the first really popular game with the “secret traitor” mechanic, Shadows Over Camelot, published by Days of Wonder the same year Arkham Horror was re-released. This is the one that really got me going on the co-op board game, and I still play it six years later (as recently as Sunday, matter of fact.) Players are Knights of Camelot, and every turn, on one of the many areas and sub-boards representing threats to Arthur's Kingdom, something goes wrong or gets worse. The balancing act of resource management in dealing with these issues and completing these heroic quests is that one of the Knights may be a traitor working for Camelot's downfall. It is random every game, with 8 loyalty cards (and 3-7 players) it is also possible there is no traitor at all.

This game is typical of Days of Wonder... impeccably made, art and components both sturdy and very pretty.

More recently, we've seen a mini-flood of these games, highlights being Pandemic, Forbidden Island and the new Co-op questing D&D boardgames like Castle Ravenloft, based on classic adventures. There's just something different about the mood and atmosphere in a game where (at least most of) the table shares victory or defeat. I actually like a game in this style that beats us as a group of players occasionally, the challenge makes the victory over the common foe that much sweeter. Even if the foe is a deck of cards and a little collection of plastic and cardboard.
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6 comments:

Conspyre said...

Betrayal at House on the Hill (AKA Scary House Game) is also a winner, though I'm not sure it fits your definition for the purposes of the article. I've always found the games of Shadows over Camelot where there is no traitor at all to be the tensest, though also the most prone to "Hey, Steve made a non-optimal play, he must be the traitor!" when you have one player that just kinda sucks.

Mike James said...

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Biff Tanner said...

Gauntlet 2 best thing ever.

G said...

I vaguely remember some of them...

Bassislv said...

cool post

Jay.CA said...

good research. thanks for the info. :D

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