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Board Game Mechanics 101: Cooperative Games

Board Game Mechanics 101: Cooperative Games

Board gamers have largely been seen as competitive but it is not that board gamers are not a cooperative bunch, it is just that they did not have the games to prove it in the past. That though has changed with the boom in the popularity of cooperative games that pits all the players against the game, hence the players win or lose as a team together.

The cooperative genre also has an audience that took to the genre like wildfire and that is the family market. Before fully cooperative games were common, when a parent played a board game with a child, they often had to handicap themselves so that the child would have a fighting chance at victory but in a game where all the players are working together, that is not so. This is because the kids can be being guided by the parents and thus the game can still be designed to be challenging for adult players. 

Cooperative games though are not solely for families as even hobby gamers have taken to the genre with gusto. This is well proven by the fact that the current most popular game on Board Game Geek is a cooperative game called Pandemic Legacy. 

The general keys to making a successful cooperative game are first, it has to be challenging enough for your target players but yet not so hard that it feels impossible to get through the game. In fact, other than for kids, it is a general consensus that players should lose a lot more than they win as this creates a sense of accomplishment and the challenge is the thing that keeps them coming back for more. 

Secondly, the game rules should be as simple as possible as the competition is provided by the game mechanics. If the rules are hard to follow, then victory or defeat might feel unsatisfactory just because players forgot to apply step 13 of 15 for example.

Thirdly, this is not a  hard or fast rule but the most popular cooperative games do have a very strong theme to the game. The popularity of escape rooms proving that abundantly well as they are basically massive cooperative board games with the various themes you can choose from.

Related: Board Game Mechanics 101: Social Deduction


The game by Matt Leacock that is said to have set off the cooperative game boom. Released in 2008, it is still extremely popular and as you can guess is the inspiration mechanics wise for Pandemic Leagacy which we have mentioned above. 

In Pandemic, each player plays an expert in a team of disease fighting specialist who are on a mission to save the world and find the cure for 4 new virulent diseases that could spell doom to mankind. 

Gameplay is simply 4 actions, they are travel between cities, treat infected populaces, discover a cure, or build a research station. Cures are found by submitting 5 cards of the same colour at a research station. 

The main "enemy" of the game comes in the form of epidemic cards, which are mixed into the deck of cards which players will be drawing from to refill their personal hand of cards. Whenever an epidemic card is drawn, a city will get infected and the disease will spread all over the board with an escalating effect. 

Keeping with the difficulty factor of cooperative games, there are several ways to lose and only one way to win. The players lose if the player deck runs out of cards before the players cure all 4 diseases, if the outbreak of diseases chart goes pass 7 or if you wish to place disease cubes on the board but can't. All this hard thematic goodness in 45minutes to an hour.

Matt Leacock also made the game very versatile for all levels of players. This is because the difficulty of the game can be tweaked by varying the number of epidemic cards in the game. This move increasing the game's audience to even new gamers and is definitely a plus for families as you kids grow older, you can add more epidemic cards to make the game more challenging. 

Pandemic is literally the first game most gamers would ask you to try if you have expressed any interest in the cooperative genre. The game is enjoyed by the newest of gamers to veterans of the hobby and thus why if you are looking to design a cooperative game, this is an awfully good game to start with.  

Time Stories 

Taking a page from Pandemic and another from the popularity of escape rooms around the world, Time Stories focuses on providing a cooperative experience with an extremely immersive story to go with it.   

In Time Stories, the players play temporal agents or in layman terms, Time Police, who go back in time to solve crimes. You do this by inhabiting the body of people in that period.

Players spend "time" to interact with the world. This is done by picking up a card from a specific deck and reading it to the group. Events vary from you just picking up items, getting into fights or having to solve puzzles. Attribute tests from characters or events in the game are done via rolling custom dice and are affected by items or the statistics of the chosen character the player has chosen to inhabit. 

To get an immersive story, they have tailored the game to have standalone mission expansions with set answers. This reduces the replayability significantly but allows for a more detailed and cohesive story.  

No one knew how the market would react to having a board game you really could only play once but the gamble paid off though and the game was the talk of the board gaming world in 2015 and is currently the 35th most popular game on Board Game Geek. 

Time Stories was unique in how different it was to the traditional cooperative game and shows there is always space to innovate in a design space. You just have to give your idea a try!

Pandemic Legacy

And now that you have read on what is the basics of the cooperative genre and how it can be innovated. Then you can take what is the core of the genre and then add another element to the game. In this case the legacy mechanic.

The legacy mechanic is a system board game designer Rob Daviau created with his game called Risk Legacy. Its premise is that every game counts and what happens in one game is carried over to the next game in a permanent way. Such as entire parts of the board destroyed and marked with stickers for example. 

As the state of the board or characters are changed permanently, there is, even more, gravitas to every decision. Mix this with the solid mechanics of Pandemic and now you have created not just a story but something akin to an Oscar winning epic movie series for the players. A combo that is so successful that it has catapulted the game to become the number 1 ranked game in just about a year from its release.  

Do note though that Legacy games are one of the hardest to design for due to the massive playtesting that is needed to fix any bugs or dead ends that might occur from the player's various decisions in the game. 

In conclusion, the cooperative genre has several pluses going for it. There are firstly way less cooperative games out there than compared to its competitive counterpart and the market for the genre seems to be growing very strongly. Also, the family market has always been a staple of board gaming and like I said before, they do take to cooperative games most well. So put your mind to it and make the world a better place by getting people to work together. 

Zhou Huibin is a smith of words who majored in Philosophy & History from the University of Western Australia and whose life has followed the flow of his hobbies. He seeks continual contentment in his ponders, reading, writing, painting and board games which fills almost all of his time.
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