Yesterday I was given a copy of Z-Man Games’ Pandemic. I knew it was on the way and had originally planed to buy it myself until I was informed that someone else had ordered it for me as a gift (thank you Matt). I plan to do a full review on the game after a few more plays (got two in with two players last night but I would like to get a more even assessment before writing my review) but I thought that I could at least do a brief post about co-op games in general.
What Makes a Co-Op Game?
For many it likely seems obvious that a game involving co-operation between players is what defines a game as a co-operative game. However this leads some people to call games co-operative that I would refuse to qualify as co-operative games. In fact many games involve some amount of co-operation between players even if it is simply a “pick on the leader” kind of thing. Diplomacy for example involves a lot of co-operation but I would not call it a co-operative game.
Things become slightly more complicated when we move to games like Descent: Journeys in the Dark or Doom: The Board Game or even Hero Quest. These games involve one player taking on the aggressor role and the other players working together. Some people would still consider these to be co-operative games even though one player is the “bad guy” but to me they really belong in a separate category as my idea of a co-operative game is one in which you play against the game board and not another player.
To add to the complexity we have games like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Shadows Over Camelot. In Betrayal there are fifty different scenarios that involve different players (or occasionally no player) being the traitor and, half way through the game, trying to kill the other players. Shadows is even closer to the line in that some games involve no traitor and some games do. More often no traitor, where in Betrayal it is exceptionally rare. Still, in both of these cases it’s hard to consider them co-operative when the players know that there is likely going to be a traitor among them and thus can never fully trust each other.
In my opinion a true co-operative game is one in which there is little to no chance of a player ever betraying the rest of the group through game mechanics. This last bit may sound silly but a player could easily “defeat” his fellow players by doing things in opposition to their goals in almost any co-op game but this does not make the game non co-op unless their actions are meant to be part of the game. I feel the need to add the “little to no chance” rather than just say “no chance” because several games I consider to be co-op do in fact have a small chance (or an optional rule) that pits the players against each other.
Why Play Co-Op Games?
The silly answer that a lot of people give is “because they are fun”. This of course tells us nothing. Some people don’t find co-op games fun and those who have never played a co-op game, and ask why anyone plays them, may hope to get a more descriptive and informative answer.
Of course, one of the reasons I play co-op games is because I enjoy them but the specific reasons why I enjoy them are what’s really important. For me it comes down to a couple of things. One being lack of stress and the other being teamwork. My gaming group (myself included I assure you) has a tendency to get heated over games. We are often fairly competitive and perhaps a little too involved in the outcome of a game that is meant to be fun. Co-op games break up this tension and allow us to work as a team against a common foe. The idea of winning or losing as a team is one that has assisted with things such as race relations over the years and so the fact that it can help with my gaming group comes as no surprise.
What Good Co-Op Games are Out There?
My personal favorites are Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror and (primarily for nostalgia reasons) Army of Darkness, however I assume that Pandemic will soon be on that list as well.
Lord of the Rings – In some ways this is a great game and in others it suffers; many of my friends have said that they feel it suffers in part because we have added all the expansions together. I should mention that my earlier comment about “little to no chance” relates to this game in that one of the expansions gives us the option to play Sauron, though we never use that expansion. Lord of the Rings is the classic quest of a group of hobbits traveling across Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring. It involves drawing tiles from a bag and then reacting to them as you use cards to move yourself across a series of boards. This game has been nicknamed “Escape from Bree” because many games of it end on the first board which happens to be Bree. I like the game but admit that this is a bit of a flaw. Still if you are interested in co-op games this is a good one by most standards.
Arkham Horror – Another game that has expanded quite a bit since its original release. Arkham is about investigators attempting to stop a Great Old One (yep, a Lovecraft reference) from entering the world and killing everybody. The game is basically a dice-rolling-luck-fest (with tons of cards to make things even more random) but it can often be a fun dice-rolling-luck-fest if everyone pays attention, keeps things moving and maybe gets into character a bit. I haven’t played this game too much lately as I am waiting for the new expansion to come out but I am sure it will see a lot of play time once Kingsport Horror hits the shelves. I should mention that this game does offer a couple ways for a player to betray the other investigators but again it’s rare and in all the games I have played I have never even seen a player try to do it, much less succeed.
Army of Darkness – I’m including this primarily because it was one of the first (maybe even was the first) co-op game I ever played and I still own a copy of it. It’s an incredibly simple game that really cannot hold up to too many plays in one sitting since there is not a ton of variety. Still, if you are a fan of the movies and just want to have a few laughs it can be amusing for about an hour. Essentially it tries to mimic the final battle of the Army of Darkness movie as the deadites swarm over Arthur’s castle, with Evil Ash seeking the Necronomicon. The game also has an optional rule where a player can play the deadites, but the basic game is completely co-op. One great thing is if you hop over to Deadites Online you can download all the pieces to this game for free!
Co-op Games: Final Thoughts
I would love to hear about some other co-op games and why people do (or don’t) like them, so please feel free to leave some comments. I doubt any group of gamers play only co-op games but I think most could benefit from mixing one in every now and again.