What Are Co-Op Games?

Co-operation was first invented in 2001 by Daniel Ocean when he found 10 friends and made them – get this – WORK TOGETHER to rob the famed Mirage, Bellagio, & MGM Grand casinos, owned and operated by the dreaded Terry Benedict.

But Terry Benedict is not the only one who coerces co-operation from uneasy allies, and Danny Ocean is not the only man with smouldering good looks capable of rallying a rag-tag team together. You too can be that man or woman with co-op games! Now sell me a Nespresso, Janice.

Co-op games try to capture the magic of team bonding that can only come from robbing a Casino, solving a crisis or narrowly avoiding a catastrophe, but boils it down to lovely bits of cards and plastic, and does away with the whole being arrested afterwards thing.

And the meteoric rise of the things has rocketed them to become one of the top sectors in the gaming market because people have finally realised that if you can’t beat your friends it is much better to join them.

But where did they come from? How did they take over? And where do they go from here? Come roll with me as I explain co-op games.

What is a Co-Op Game?

In short, co-op, or co-operative games if you’re fancy, are games where all of the players work together to beat the game. Unlike most games where players compete against each other with only one winner, in co-op games you all win and lose together, as a team, a unit, a crew, a band of brothers and sisters pulled out of retirement for one last job.

That could be something as straightforward as pulling off the perfect heist, escaping the Universal monsters, or banding together to survive World War 1 to something more abstract like helping a teammate guess a word, chaining a bunch of tiles to make a fireworks display, or saving a little girl from her own dreams. Generally speaking, you are presented with a puzzle that you need to solve within a certain amount of time, or without hitting a certain number of failure conditions. Co-op games have become such an established and beloved corner of the industry and some of the games that have been coming out, the way they blend team dynamics and group strategy into rich, imaginative tales of companionship, provide some of the best organic storytelling out there, and I mean in any medium

Which is not to say that co-op games are not competitive. They actually might be the MOST competitive type of games, because you’re fighting an enemy that you can openly despise without violating the social contract, a Terry Benedict you have to defeat with your cunning plans. Except this enemy is not another player, it’s the game designer. F**K YOU, GAME DESIGNER.

The designer is the worst person in the world. See, they know exactly what you and your team are trying to do and they’re going to do everything they can to stop you. So in their game, they hide lots of little mechanisms, random traps and complications to make your life harder – spawn a load of enemies or flip your careful plan on its head with the turn of a random card.

When a human player is out in front, sometimes it’s fun to rage against them. However, that’s a bit socially dicey, feelings can get hurt. Not everyone enjoys the heady thrills of getting into conflict and combat with their friends. It makes some people uncomfortable, especially in a hobby that is often regarded as being gatekept by your ability at tactical thinking. Co-op gaming solves this problem by having the enemy be ever-present. You can feel their fingerprints everywhere in the design, every twist calculated to defeat you. That foe is the game, the shadowy design behind the curtain, a faceless, remorseless monster that everyone can cuss up and down, and that serves to unite everyone and spur them on to achieve glory together.

“But what about my personal glory?” you might scream into your keyboard and, hey, that’s fine, some people don’t want to just be a faceless part of a hivemind. That’s why some of the best co-op games assign each player a different role or skill to play. Maybe you’re better a safecracking, maybe you are the sniper, maybe you’re the fastest, maybe you’re the toughest. When a co-op game is really cooking it’s like a scene in a crime movie, everyone gathered around a table, studying the blueprints, going over the plan, with every member of the team having a different, but crucial job that they, AND ONLY THEY, can pull off. Co-op games are f**king brilliant.

BEWARE THE ALPHA GAMER

So, we do need to talk about the elephant in the room, the elephant that’s telling everyone what to do and when to do it. The Alpha Gamer problem, or quarterbacking, is a BIG problem in tabletop gaming that is unfortunately pretty much limited solely to co-op games.

Simply put it’s when someone is a lot more dominant in the discussion of what to do than everyone else. Perhaps this person has played the game before, perhaps they’re slightly more tactically adept, or think they are, than others.

See in its purest, more ideological form, a co-op game functions with each player thinking about their own turn, then taking it with the aim of benefitting the group. However, that’s not how any form of co-operation works in real life. People discuss things, and sometimes, like in any other team exercise, quieter people can find themselves being overridden by louder, more bullish types.

A lot of more modern co-op games have mechanisms to combat this, games like Magic Maze or The Crew, where people are forbidden to speak, or games like The Grizzled where only the player can know what cards are in their own hand. If you’re getting into co-op games, it’s something to be aware of. But like most things, it really all just boils down to this; think of other people’s feelings, and don’t be a dick

HISTORY + THE EXAMPLE YOU’VE HEARD OF 

So where did co-op games come from? Well, co-operation in gaming has been around for donkey’s years; look at Dungeons & Dragons, all the players teaming up to battle a foe, although in this case a human player. A horrible nasty human player called George, who won’t let you use your magical elven sword to just lop off the dark god’s head even though you rolled really high and asked really nicely. I might be projecting… but you know what you did, George.

One of the first famous examples of co-op gaming that wasn’t some sort of twist on a 1 vs All mechanic was Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a grand old Duke of Gaming first published back in 1982. In that game, players are given reams of information about a crime to sort through and have to work together to piece together the mystery. It’s iconic, and still available today in fancy new editions.

There were other notable games, like Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings in 2000 or Arkham Horror in 2005, which were co-operative and successful with it, but quite dense and heavy for casual gamers. It wasn’t until 2008 that this genre of gaming went from the occasional outlier to a dominant voice in the hobby. It’s the co-op game that you may have already heard of, and if not it’s certainly a word that you’ve heard bloody non-stop these past few years.

It’s Pandemic.

Published in 2007 and designed by Matt Leacock who was inspired by the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, Pandemic has spread across the world like… well… let’s just grit our teeth through this bit.

Pandemic takes place on this world map filled with cities. As the game progresses four different diseases are going to spread across this map in the form of cubes and it’s the players’ job to cure them all before the spread becomes too much to manage.

Players each have a different role – maybe you’re the scientist and are better at making cures, maybe you’re the soldier, better at removing cubes from the map, maybe you’re the dispatcher who can teleport yourself or others around the world. Pandemic is a brilliantly tense little game, one of the tightest, most ingenious designs, that’s punishing whilst also being light enough for a mainstream audience, simple enough to lull you into thinking you’ve got everything under control, but complex enough to send consequences cascading with the single turn of the epidemic card, one of the most hated cards in gaming.

The game sold like gangbusters, and won numerous gaming awards, spawning 3 expansions and numerous ‘Pandemic but for’ editions like, Pandemic but for the Spanish flu, Pandemic but for ancient Rome, Pandemic but for dice, or, inevitably, Pandemic, but for Cthulhu.

It’s one of the biggest franchises in board gaming today, bridging that gap between the hobbyist and the casual gamer, so much so that Pandy is frequently the top recommendation that gamers give to people who want to get into board gaming.

THE EXAMPLE THAT HOBBY GAMERS LOVE

Co-op games are huge, and sometimes that’s meant literally, because now it’s time to talk about the co-op game that Hobby Gamers love, and it’s a bloody whopper. Let’s talk about Gloomhaven.

The first thing to note about Gloomhaven is that it comes in a box you could bury a dog in.

It’s bloody gigantic in every way. It’s got hundreds of cards, and about a hundred different playable scenarios, costs over a hundred quid, and provides a sprawling MONTHS-long experience where you and friends can play one of 17 unlockable character classes, each with its own unique deck and fighting style, battling your way through the D&D tinged world of Gloomhaven.

It also takes over half an hour to set up and pack down, making it the “Most” Board Game in existence. It’s taken gaming by storm, it’s made millions of dollars across a number of different Kickstarters and it’s currently ranked number 3 on BoardGameGeek, the IMDB of board games. That’s right it is, according to a ranking system powered by gamers, it’s one of the best board games ever made, and it’s got a sequel coming out, Frosthaven, which in the space of a single Kickstarter, raised almost 13 million dollars, which is the most funded game campaign in the history of the crowdfunding platform.

It’s a big deal, and why I’d in no way recommend it for people just starting out as board gamers. But if gaming becomes something that you love, Gloomhaven is something you need to be aware of because that is the peak of hobby mountain.

CONCLUSION:

Of course, if you’d like to try Gloomhaven, there’s a newer version, Jaws of the Lion, which is like a pared-down version of the game. It requires way less setup and is way cheaper, but it does have fewer bits, and gamers bloody love their bits.

In conclusion, co-op gaming is a relatively new but definitive phenomenon in board games, from Pandemic, which is often regarded as the perfect way into the hobby, to Gloomhaven, the apotheosis of board gaming heft and excess. After decades of tabletop games being stigmatised as either overtly mean-spirited like Monopoly, or intimidatingly tactical like Chess, a great co-op game bonds players together, makes them stronger as a unit, and can provide a heady rush of triumph for a group with even the wildest range of skill levels, provided alpha gamers can reign themselves in.