Every board game I can remember playing as a kid was competitive. Most were simply a race to get to a space on the board, like Shoots and Ladders or Sorry (I fondly refer to it as “Sorry I made you play this game”), other games, like Monopoly,  were epic quests to slowly torture your friends and make them never want to see a polyhedron again. Playing these games as a kid, I learned how to win and lose gracefully. More importantly, I learned that winning’s no fun against a sore loser, and sore winners make losing even more excruciating than it already is.

Psychology of Winning and Losing

I’m no psychologist, but I’ve played a lot of games in my day. I know that it feels good to win, I know that it sucks to lose, and I know that people react very differently (often badly) in either outcome. In my experience, it’s much more difficult to lose to another human that it is to lose to a system. Not that losing is ever fun, but it’s easier to die in a video game, for example, than it is to be slowly and inexorably driven into abject poverty by your “friends” over the course of 5 hours. In a video game we usually just shrug it off and hit continue.

Interestingly, the feeling of accomplishment and success from beating a video game isn’t diminished compared to winning against your friends. In many ways it feels better because the video game usually won’t bitch about that cheat code you entered back at the title screen or complain about how it never wins.

This combination of satisfaction in victory and perseverance in defeat makes video games an appealing alternative to board games, especially for those who don’t handle losing gracefully. If only we could find some way to capitalize on this quirk of the human psyche in the board gaming industry… But wait! We can!

Enter the cooperative board game. Making a board game with satisfying wins and soft losses isn’t easy and games approach cooperative play in different ways. In the following section I look closely at several cooperative board games and see what works and what doesn’t.

Levels of Cooperative Play

Straight-Up Coop: Arkham Horror is a prime example of this type of coop board game. It’s the players versus the rules and the luck of the draw. Can the players coordinate their actions and utilize the skills and tools provided to overcome the obstacles created by the board? This style of coop play is satisfying with the least potential for conflict because in the end, everybody  at the table is a winner or a loser and all players are united in a common goal. Any conflict between players is cause by different ideas of the best way to achieve the same goal.

Straight-Up Coop (Or Is It?): This is Straight-Up Coop with a mechanic that creates the possibility of an adversary amongst the players. Shadows Over Camelot uses this method. It’s a good style for players who enjoy surprises and munchkining in their games but, in the case of Shadows Over Camelot, once the traitor is revealed, it’s pretty much game over for the traitor. If I were to make a game with this mechanic, I would create a more satisfying play experience for the traitor after being discovered. Part of the reason for the unsatisfying options for the traitor post-revelation might be simply incentive to keep your treacherous nature concealed. Still, if the traitor is discovered early in the game, it’s an hour and a half of not much fun for one of the players at the table…

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Stab Yours: Games like Munchkin and Risk allow the players to cooperate if and when they want to. In my experience, this sort of coop is exciting, creating some very entertaining table-talk and player interaction, but inevitably leading to betrayal and in some cases hurt feelings. This type of game is still competitive at its core and there can be only one winner, so cooperation is ephemeral and alliances are strictly on an “until it serves me better to stab you in the back” basis.

It’s Us Against You!: Mansions of Madness, the sequel to Arkham Horror, is only semi-cooperative. Instead of players against the game, it’s players against the “Keeper,” a kind of referee and storyteller somewhat analogous to the Dungeon Master in D&D. While this model works well in D&D, where the DM can’t actually “win” the game, in Mansions of Madness, things can get a little touchy. The fact that the Keeper is actually trying to win the game crates a fair amount of conflict between players and keeper. Add that to the fact that the odds are very stacked against the players and you have a recipe for frustration and a tough loss. With this game, it is best that players who don’t lose well play the keeper.

The Referee: The obvious example of this type of cooperative game is D&D and other table top RPGs. While not exactly a board game, D&D has evolved more and more towards the genre with game pieces (miniatures) and a game board (dungeon tiles). In this type of cooperative game, one person at the table plays the referee (DM in D&D) who acts as an arbiter and storyteller. Their job is to make sure the story progresses and that the players are having fun and playing by the rules. Many DMs don’t understand this, but the referee is not an adversarial presence, even though they control the forces of evil. The players, however, are usually united in the common goal of fighting the DM’s monsters and destroying his carefully laid out plans. Conflicts at the table are similar to straight-up coop in that players have the same goal, but often disagree on the best way of achieving it.

Cooperative Gameplay in the Games of Ismia

So what does all of this mean for the games of Ismia? Readers know that I have been working on implementing some cooperative elements into Heroes of Ismia with the new party quests. The party quests in Heroes could be described as straight-up coop, but I’d like to work in some more munchkining opportunities. Or perhaps I could come up with a version of the game that requires all the players to work together against a single epic quest, instead of having each player working on their own. In the end, though, I think Heroes will always be a largely solitary journey, despite my efforts to remedy that.

What’s the answer?  How ’bout a new game! It’s quite premature, but I have been working on the next game in the Ismia franchise. Siege of Ismia will be a straight-up coop game from start to finish. It’s been set aside while I work Heroes into a presentable prototype, but once developed, Siege will be a 1-6 player game where each player has a defined role and multiple paths to victory or defeat based on how well they play against the random elements put forth by the normal progression of a turn. I also have some interesting new battle mechanics worked out that I look forward to sharing once Heroes is closer to completion.

For now, I will continue to work on incorporating some more cooperation into Heroes of Ismia through party quests or some other mechanic I haven’t yet devised. If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them. Drop a line in the comments section.