Optimizing Play in Cooperative Boardgames

After the suc­cess­ful inva­sion of Eurogames into the New World, the growth and pop­u­lar­i­ty of boardgames in the US has bee­ny impres­sive, espe­cial­ly giv­en today’s dig­i­tal and vir­tu­al offer­ings. My take is that sit­ting around a table and play­ing with friends or fam­i­ly has irre­place­able social val­ue. This argu­ment has long been made for table­top role­play­ing games, but RPGs have a lot of things work­ing against them: chief among them com­plex­i­ty, time com­mit­ment, and a per­ceived geek fac­tor. Com­par­a­tive­ly, boardgames only have to shed the per­cep­tion as being “for kids.” The time com­mit­ment and com­plex­i­ty of Eurogame imports is far less.

Com­pared to clas­sic Amer­i­can boardgames, the aver­age Eurogame is also sig­nif­i­cant­ly less com­pet­i­tive. As a core play­er, my expe­ri­ence of boardgames leapt from Risk to Axis & Allies to Titan. With each step, the num­ber of peo­ple I could con­vince to join me dwin­dled. It wasn’t just the com­plex­i­ty. It was the cut­throat com­mit­ment to win­ning, the essen­tial zero-sum game­play that in order to win, I don’t out­race you to a vic­to­ry zone or a point total. I must destroy you and your armies, seize your ter­ri­to­ry, and geno­cide you out of the game. The last few turns of the com­pet­i­tive wargame aren’t much fun for the los­er, are they? And thus most play­ers wise­ly sur­ren­der once the out­come is clear.

So some boardgames aim for a less direct­ly com­pet­i­tive mod­el and increase their appeal. The last step, though, is a ful­ly coop­er­a­tive boardgame. The play­ers pit them­selves against the game itself, with some form of auto­mat­ed “AI oppo­nent” per­formed by the play­ers, since there’s no com­put­er to do this work. Essen­tial­ly, this is group soli­taire, like Left for Dead in boardgame form. These are fun games. Pan­dem­ic, Shad­ows Over Camelot, Arkham Hor­ror, to name some of thew few I’ve played late­ly. The sim­ple ver­sion is that every­one takes turns work­ing toward a com­mon objec­tive. With the excep­tion of game vari­ants in which one play­er is secret­ly some kind of trai­tor, these games lack any com­pet­i­tive ele­ment. The play­ers win or lose togeth­er as a team.

Here’s my prob­lem. Why aren’t these games best as soli­taire games? Why don’t the play­ers deter­mine the best play­er and let this benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor take all of their turns? Team coor­di­na­tion will increase. Indeed, in most of these games, it is inde­ci­sion, bick­er­ing, and lack of cohe­sive effort that threat­ens defeat. Dif­fi­cul­ty only emerges from herd­ing the cats (con­vinc­ing play­ers to opti­mize play) or from beat­ing some form of ran­dom ele­ment (again akin to soli­taire). Solu­tions?

  • Steal some­thing from sports. Make the pri­ma­ry objec­tive coop­er­a­tive, but add scor­ing ele­ments so the game rec­og­nizes an MVP. Hand out a few such awards if you must. The play­ers can win as a team, but still rec­og­nize an indi­vid­ual win­ner. More com­pet­i­tive play­ers may elect to reduce the team’s chance of suc­cess in order to raise their own indi­vid­ual chances. I think that’s okay.
  • Add ele­ments that demand simul­ta­ne­ous play, instead of asyn­chro­nous. Even some­thing prim­i­tive such as a eggtimer may do. Part of the prob­lem is that the turn-based struc­ture of most boardgames allows play­er A not only the time to watch play­er B, but to crit­i­cize and coach. This is essen­tial­ly the answer in the coop­er­a­tive dig­i­tal games, whether a shoot­er or RPG.
  • The trai­tor con­cept works well enough on paper, but it seems to change the nature of the game fair­ly sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The social dynam­ic of trai­tor iden­ti­fi­ca­tion quick­ly grows more impor­tant than actu­al­ly win­ning the game. Act­ing is more impor­tant, rather more like Mafia or Were­wolf, than what­ev­er boardgame is nom­i­nal­ly being played.

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