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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