Building a game that encourages players to work together is an interesting challenge for a game developer. There’s much more to it than providing a simple, common goal. Cooperative game design is full of pitfalls and difficulties that overtly competitive games don’t have. Here, I outline why we like cooperative games, give a general overview of what cooperation means, and list a few pitfalls that can plague the cooperative game designer.

Why is cooperation fun?

When we cooperate with others, it gives us a chance to share their victories, and have them sympathize with our defeats. If you win in a cooperative game, the excitement of victory is shared among teammates. If you lose, the sting of defeat is distributed. Who wouldn’t want to multiply their positive gains and divide their losses?

Cooperative games also allow a greater platform for social interaction. It’s easier to become friends with a teammate than an adversary. I’ve seen games of Risk, Monopoly, and Chess turn ugly as the losing players quit in rage or desperation. Games of Pandemic and Arkham Horror generally don’t have this problem. Why is that? Because when players are working together, no individual feels singled out as a loser.

In Risk, when a player leaves the table, he leaves in defeat, and the other players become stronger for his loss. In Arkham Horror, a player leaving can significantly weaken the group. Thus, there is positive peer pressure to stay at the cooperative gaming table when things get bad, while there is negative peer pressure to leave the competitive gaming table in the same situation.

This is the same reason that MMOs and RPGs are so popular–on a very fundamental level, people like to work together. It’s a genetic predisposition towards collusion and community that has helped us to survive as a species.

Cooperation or Group Exercise?

Naturally, if we’re working together on the same shared goal, we’re cooperating, right? Alas, no.

Cooperation is not a matter of having a shared goal. In fact, the goal of a game is completely unrelated to whether it is a cooperative game or not. There could be cooperative games where all players have a different goal–they might be more interesting than some of the existing cooperative games, in fact. In some games like Bang!, determining who you are supposed to be cooperating with is the entire point of the game.

Cooperative games are those were consensual collusion (that’s way less dirty than it sounds, I promise) between the players is a major or required element of play. The players may not be necessarily playing against the game, they just have to be working together by their own choice.

A game where everyone shares a goal is just a group exercise. Only when working together is a viable method for reaching that goal does a game become cooperative. Games where teams of players work together against one another are both cooperative and competitive.

Encouraging vs. Forcing

It’s not enough to simply let players cooperate. In monopoly, you can give money to anyone at any time. That’s an option that allows for cooperation, but it hardly makes monopoly a cooperative game. In a true cooperative game, cooperation is a necessary or extremely useful method to ensure victory.

In Pandemic, if you make a wrong move or fail to work together with your fellow players, you’re almost certain to lose. While this is cooperation, it’s very strictly enforced. In some games, you may even come under the impression that your turns are run by democracy, and everyone gets a vote on what choice you make.

In a good cooperative game, cooperation is not an option, but a collection of options the player can pursue. The question should not be “What is the best move for the team?”, it should be “What is the best move for the team that suits my preferred play style?” Too many cooperative games make the optimal victory path too overt for there to be any player decision or personality involved in the matter.

Cooperation is not Enough

Cooperative play does not make a game fun. It doesn’t make a game interesting. Ultimately, a game’s excitement still comes down to players making choices. If the players’ choices are not relevant or effective, or if there is only one choice to make, then any fun you get out of cooperation is going to be obscured by the deficiencies in gameplay.

In the example of Pandemic, above, the best option is usually so obvious that there’s no question of what to do. The game’s boundaries are so small, and the difficulty so tight, that there are usually only one or two viable options for a turn. Often, your teammates will inform you of what the best option of the bunch is, and you’ll take it on their recommendation (they’ll do the same for you, too, of course). Ultimately, Pandemic has one single strategy for victory, and every game of Pandemic is the same, barring the roles you play and the locations where viruses show up.

Is this fun? It is as fun as our natural cooperative instincts can make it. As a game, however, it suffers from having too simple a master strategy and thus little replayability. The fun of cooperative play comes in jointly deciding and executing a solution to the problem at hand. In the example of Pandemic, aside from a few variants of play, the rules are the same, and the strategy for beating the game is the same. In Arkham Horror, there is a little more variety, since each of the 32+ bosses and 8+ heralds comes with their own rules–at least a few of which will force you to adopt new strategies.

Cooperating to what ends?

Arkham Horror has its own deficiencies, of course, and like most deficiencies of cooperative games, they all spring from the same basic and fundamentally flawed idea about what players want in a non-competitive game. Most cooperative games are built with the premise that players are competing against the game. However, this is not the case for non-competitive games. Players are trying to solve the game. Once a non-competitive game has been solved, then there is no longer any reason to play it.

The question players go into Arkham Horror with is not “can we beat Cthulhu today”. Instead it is “can we figure out a way to overcome the obstacles presented by Cthulhu and reach the win condition?” After one or two plays, players will begin to approach your non-competitive game the same way–as a group puzzle and not as a competition with the game.

Changing up your puzzle

Varying the players’ tool boxes (of characters, weapons, or abilities) and swapping out the game’s options (in the form of bosses, event cards, and other hazards) will not improve the game’s stagnation at all, unless it significantly changes the strategies that players have to employ to win.

In the expansions to Arkham Horror, there are usually a number of new spells and weapons included with the game updates. These sound nice on the box, but they don’t actually change the game strategy at all. They’re just new illustrations with different numbers attached. That said to illustrate the point: once your players have a master strategy to play out, changing the numbers or adding new illustrations will do nothing to keep them interested.

Instead, as a designer, you have to create a situation where:

  1. The game’s victory conditions are so significantly different that the game must be solved again under these new conditions.
  2. The game introduces new rules that require a completely different strategy to master.
  3. The game removes some of the fundamental tools players normally use, and supplies them with new and different ones instead, forcing the development of new strategies (or completely rebuilds the toolbox each time from scratch).
  4. The game employs a human element (like Pandemic’s bioterrorist or the traitor in Shadows Over Camelot) that can react to circumvent the players’ strategies.

In Summary

Cooperative gameplay must built on the same principles as all good games. Cooperation won’t make up for the deficiencies in gameplay, but it will augment the fun that your game systems put into action. Working together should be a viable strategy in a cooperative game–not an enforced rule. And ideally, there should be multiple ways to work together, thus creating a value judgment among players.

Consider the cooperative games in your own closet. Is working together a good idea, or is it forced by the rules? Or is it artificially put into place by a joint win condition, even when the players may not interact with each other at all during gameplay? Is cooperation played out through the division of tasks, or through cooperation on tasks, or even via some happy median?

The next time you’re putting together a cooperative game, consider whether the fun factor is there before you put in the cooperation. Is cooperation something that grows naturally from the situation you’re putting your players in, or are you forcing it because your game’s simulation doesn’t encourage it organically? Is there a master strategy to your game? Is it solvable? And how will the personalities of the players affect their method of solving it?