Transcript of our podcast from 1 March 2009

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Some Thoughts on Cooperative Games

by Moritz Eggert

Let me tell you about a game that I love but that definitely did not work for my gaming group, the Westpark Gamers. The game is called "Battlestar Galactica", and playing it with my good Westpark friends who approach every game in a very analytical manner was frankly quite a disaster. Walter for example played Starbuck, and instead of doing what Starbuck does best, which is manning (or should that be "womanning"?) a viper and attack some Cylons, he instead complained about the limited choices for his characters, that the Cylons could shoot at him when they were activated and he could not shoot back at the same moment, that he didn't get enough interesting cards, etc. I tried my best as Commander Adama to get him back into line, but to no avail. Probably my acne turned him off.

It got so bad that I actually became convinced he was a Cylon, because his actions were frankly bizarre and counterproductive, and there was also one situation where I was sure he had added a bad card for a skill check (it later emerged that this had simply been a mistake by him - well this "little" mistake cost us 5.000 lives, Mrs. Starbuck, which is what the loss of 2 population roughly amounts to, but I digress). This enraged him even further, and he complained about unjust accusations, while the real Cylon, Aaron, went about his ways and managed to create doom for the last of mankind. But Aaron also didn't enjoy the game, again the main critique being the limited choices he had each turn.

Cooperative games - some hate them, some like them, the Westpark Gamers hate most of them, even though they think "Shadows over Camelot" is quite ok (even though I would strongly doubt that players have more choices there, as "Shadows" is extremely card-driven).

Another thing that bothered the Westpark Gamers, Walter especially was the irregularity of Cylon activity. "I hate it that at one point there are too many Cylons attacking from all sides, and then, after a jump, there are suddenly several turns without one single Cylon in sight. Couldn't they make more regular attack waves?". I tried to counter this with the argument that this is exactly how it is in the TV show, and that this irregularity of Cylon confrontation makes the story exciting and the interplay between the characters more interesting. But as he didn't know the TV show at all this was kind of a moot point, he looked at the mechanics per se.

Now I am not trying to find out who is right in this discussion. For me "Battlestar Galactica" is a great game that comes very close to mutual role-playing in a stress situation. It is less about the actions of a single player but more about the general feeling of Angst and dread, with some surprises like a traitor and random Cylon attacks thrown in for good measure. It is like a RPG adventure without a GM, and if it had a GM, he would constantly consult random tables to define various Cylon attack waves.

For players who aren't into roleplaying or into the show the game seems very different though. They feel uncomfortable with the fact they are sometimes "played" and not the players, that the game will sometimes throw insurmountable odds against them, and that with some bad rolls or card draws they will lose even if they play at the best of their ability.

"Battlestar Galactica" is certainly a harsh game in that bad luck really can make you lose. If all your jumps only cover 1 distance instead of 2 or 3 you will most certainly get into trouble. It is also possible to be overrun by Cylons in a way that will make it absolutely impossible to protect your civilian ships. You can also get endless crisises without a jump symbol. So from a Eurogamers perspective the game seems extremely random and punishing.

But let's look at some other cooperative games - are they really that different from Battlestar Galactica? Let's take Knizia's "Lord of the Rings" for example, also a game that many hate and many adore. The game is extremely mathematical and logical, but also vastly random. Once you're on the adventure trail and draw the event tiles practically anything can happen - I have seen games where the Fellowship really was going strong only to be completely destroyed by some crass event tiles. Even if one plays a theoretical "perfect" game it is still possible to lose badly if your luck runs out.

Or take "Pandemic" and "Ghost Stories", two popular new cooperative games. In "Pandemic" the dice and cards control the epidemic, and if you roll or draw badly it can get out of hand, even if you play to the best of your ability. In "Ghost Stories" wave after wave of monsters attack, and depending on the card draw these monsters can be strong or weak. If you happen to encounter a wave of only super-strong monsters you're done for, and you can do nothing to prevent that. Let's not start to talk about the random fest "Arkham Horror" in this context!

On the other hand all the aforementioned games can be a lot of fun with a group that gets into the right mindset that I would like to call "group think". This means that each player doesn't look only at the enjoyment of his own actions but also emotionally participates at the successes of other players. This I think is a strong argument FOR cooperative games. Whereas in a normal game once you've done your turn you basically wait for the other players to finish their turn in a cooperative game there really is no waiting as every success of other players will also help you to win. So you will cheer at each die roll and each fantastic success.

In our "Battlestar Galactica" game there came a moment when I as Adama managed to nuke a Cylon Basestar at a crucial moment, but basically everybody in the group just looked bored when that happened, even though it was a major success for us as a group. At another moment Günther as Apollo managed to shoot down 5 Cylons with a single action, I cheered and was happy; again the others just looked on dourly. It was clear that they were not in the right mindset for the game - I don't blame them, it's really a matter of personal taste.

So what would the perfect cooperative game look like for them? It probably would be logical, like a puzzle that has to be solved. But even though I am also for game balance and equal chances in a game I am somehow more relaxed on aspects of randomness when it comes to cooperative games, simply because I know that a game AI, and that is basically what the game has to be when there is no gamemaster, has to be random to remain interesting and surprising.

Just imagine the game Solitaire - I mean the boardgame with the jumping pins, not the card game - as a multiplayer game. Everybody knows that Solitaire can be solved, that there is a perfect way to play it and win it. If it was a multiplayer game, the group would win all the time if they had one player who knew how to "beat the system". This at the same time would be extremely boring for the other players, as they would just watch on as the single knowing player manipulates the game for the perfect win. So every cooperative game needs randomness, it is just the exact measure of randomness that can be wildly different for different groups of players. Game on and may the Kimchi Manikin guide you ...always!

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2009, Westpark Gamers