Co-Op Concerns

I Tweeted a bit about cooperative games last week and it stirred up a bit of a storm. Some agreement, some strong disagreement, some strange stories and anecdotes. It really clarified just how polarizing cooperative games are.

I personally don’t like cooperative games that much. I really enjoy competition in a healthy sense and trying to outwit my friends in a competitive game. But, one of the reasons I choose the designs I do is to bend concepts to my will. I like designing a game such that I’ll enjoy it. In this case, my (most likely) next design is a cooperative game because I relished the challenge of designing one.

Riding the waves of success from SPQF, which had many things going for it, primarily it being a deckbuilder, I’m very concerned with how my cooperative game will fare. Not only is it a cooperative game, but it’s a four player only game. Yeesh! What have I done to myself?

In this article, I want to write about the considerations I’m making, how I plan to tackle them, and generally share my analysis on the issue of crafting a successful cooperative game.

The preeminent collaborative elephant in the room is the notion of the dominant player problem, or alpha players, which many people affix to cooperative games specifically. Many people have different, nuanced ideas of what this means, so I’ll seek to clarify.

The most extreme case is that there is a rude, bossy, authoritative person at the table who is dictating play to others and shaming folks based on their decisions. I believe this person is a jerk and ruins most games, not just cooperative.

But, there’s a softer side to this. Nobody wants to lose, but especially not if you’re the reason your entire group loses. There are also games where somebody is more familiar with the game, or just better at the game. The group naturally defers to this person, or even persons, and you basically feel like a passenger. So, even if they aren’t being rude, you don’t enjoy the game as much because you forfeit your agency in favor of not being the reason, perceived or actually, that leads to the group’s failure.

I can identify with this second notion! I played two or three games of Exit, which I think is a brilliant design. But, my friends are far superior at solving puzzles quickly than I am. I stopped playing them, at least with others, because I’m more or less a passenger. I’d rather play the Exit games solo because then I can actually participate. My friends aren’t rude! They’re just better. I also stopped attending Escape Rooms because I found myself running into the room with a solution that they’d found 5 minutes prior.

Cooperative games have a stigma. It creates social anxiety, resentment, frustration, and just has a perception of being bad. While I don’t think Farmageddon is a cheap take-that game, I now that it has suffered in sales because people see take that and think about Munchkin or Fluxx. Perceptions matter!

There are a few things that can help solve this stigma in cooperative games.

  • Real time pressure helps create chaos that prevents folks from identifying and broadcasting the ideal solution.
  • Private, personal information helps limit what people can show or share.
  • Clearly defined responsibility helps. You have to outline who can do what, when, and why.
  • Imperfect information. If you make it so the game cannot be exactly solved, there cannot be someone to solve it.
  • Limit communication. If you limit how much you can talk, or what you can say, that also alters the paradigm.

With my co-op, I have implemented and experimented with a few of these. As Hanabi was one of my biggest inspirations for the game, it began with limited communication. But, the game itself didn’t pair well with this, so over time that was stripped away because it was less fun than I envisioned.

My game has private information, in that each player has a personal hand of cards. It also has personal turns and clear resolution guidelines on who chooses what. My hope is that players use or ignore these per their group’s temperament.

Finally, I’m toying with a real-time variant where players have a limited time (with a sand timer) to finish the round. Regardless of where they are at the end of that timer, they lose a provision and the round is over.

I think the best solution here is for me to confront it head on. I need to not let assumptions build, but instead communicate how the game can protect you against bad players, and demonstrate a video of us playing the game to drive this point home.

There is another interesting stigma of cooperative designs which is that they’re just puzzles waiting to be solved. I think this is true of many games, but as tabletop AI is typically very limited (and honestly, it’s limited for video games as well), when you do not have a human opponent to create interesting challenges, a co-op can become stale.

I’m fascinated by simple variance and managing uncertainty and probability in my designs. I think as a result of this being a cooperative design, I think my co-op may not stand the test of time that SPQF or Hocus will, just by the sheer lack of human variability and interaction. But, I’ve designed the game to not be strictly solvable. This includes a few things, including:

  • The types of cards that emerge, and in what order, dramatically changes each game.
  • There are cards in the game that trigger uncertain moments, further magnifying this.
  • There are multiple good things to work towards. Provisions give you more time, Items give you more flexibility. Both are good, which means different groups can experiment.
  • In my testing at least, there often isn’t a clear solution to fix the problem...and the game is always giving you problems. For my group, this leads to healthy shouting and debate. It’s fun. Some groups may not enjoy that debate.
  • Quests lead to different goals, good and bad issues, and more things to look at.

I feel like playing my cooperative game is like working together in a wave pool to get from one side to the other. You’re going to get smashed by waves, there’s a lot happening, but eventually you’ll get there. There are plenty of floaties to use, but really, it’s about choosing which ones are the best ones based on your instincts.

Those are my design concerns. I have publishing concerns as well.

Firstly, I’d like to shave $9 off my cost from SPQF. Can I get the game to a $39 price point? I think that’s a bit more suitable for folks. But, I might need to shave it further to offset the community’s concerns related to it being a co-op in the first place!

Secondly, the design is four players only. That doesn’t mean it’s optimal at four players. No, it’s four players only. Yes, you can technically play with two or three players if folks manage multiple hands, but I’ve done that during testing and it’s not the best way to play (and adds confusion as you try to track which “hand” you’re currently managing). That’ll turn a lot of people off, even if they’re only going to play it with four players regardless! It’s a perception of lower value, i.e. this game only works in one condition and is therefore not worth my time.

That’s a challenge, as I think I’ve come up with a neat mechanism that requires four players. In fact, the origin point of this game was making it specifically for convention play, like SHUX, to be share by larger groups of people. Typically games like this work with 4-6, or 4-8, but in this case, I lost interest quickly in trying to tweak, tune, and massage for every nuanced player count and decided to focus on what I thought was most typical: four players.

If the argument brought up in the first case isn’t sufficient, this one might be. Instead of $39, how can I get it to $29? I think it’s viable as there’s a decently low pool of cards and the rest of the components are simple. But, price is going to be key. With SPQF, a huge challenge was “How can I present enough value to drive interest?” Here, I need to say “How can I convince you that it’s worth the risk here?” Value won’t come into play!

One of the ways I can approach lowering the price, but also adding value, is breaking different components into pricing tiers. For example, I want to do a neoprene mat for the board, as it’s much higher quality than the paper or cardboard boards, and a quad fold board is overkill. But, it could also just be a printed sheet of paper. That can be an add on. While it adds confusion to the product offering, maybe it helps folks on the edge due to pricing to join the game.

The game will likely have a fantasy vibe, and while I plan for it to be bright and colorful, I also intend for it to be atypical. Where SPQF cleared 700 people as a deckbuilder, I think this co-op will hit around 300 people, maybe up to 500 people, which means I can take more art risks as my audience will probably be more core audience regardless.