…and Other Lessons Learned from Co-op Games

Introduction by Peter Vaughan: Nicholas Yu is an active and positive collaborator on Facebook, Game Crafter, Kickstarter, Twitter (@yutingxiang) and at the League – so it’s ironic to me that he would have any issues with cooperative play!

Nevertheless, I was thrilled to get his thoughts on co-op lessons and tactical analysis of Sentinels, which gives insight not only into alpha gaming but also I feel reveals more clues about his own engaging deck-building design twist, Hero Brigade. So join Nicholas and find out which side of the co-op battle you’re on. Enjoy!

I recently picked up Sentinels of the Multiverse on iOS and my thoughts naturally turned to cooperative game design. I posted a few thoughts and questions to the Card & Board Game Designers Guild on Facebook, and that post created a lot of interesting discussion. The League was kind enough to give me space to continue to explore my thoughts and collate the responses I received.

It’s important to first understand that there are primarily two distinct types of cooperative games: Those that are fully cooperative and those that are competitive and/or utilize hidden information, often implemented as personal goals or traitor mechanics. In this post, I’m going to analyze the former, but here are some examples of both types of games so you have some more context.

Fully Co-Op
Fully Cooperative Game

Examples: Sentinels of the Multiverse, Pandemic, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Arkham Horror

Competitive Co-Op
Competitive Cooperative Game

Examples: Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot, Dead of Winter, Betrayal at House on the Hill

Fully cooperative games place everyone squarely on the same team. Players put their heads together and face off against the game itself and not each other. While individuals may ostensibly have their own characters, cards, and powers, all of the information between players can be freely shared and groups will often come to consensus decisions. There’s some very cool (and mind-boggling) game theory information that can be found on true cooperative board games.

These games work remarkably well if everyone functions as an equal member of the team and arrives at mutually agreed decisions by committee. They are, however, subject to armchair “quarterbacking” by an Alpha Gamer who thinks they know best who will try and dominate and specifically instruct the other players on how to take their turns.

Full disclosure: My original Facebook post posited that Sentinels of the Multiverse is perhaps best enjoyed as a single player experience because I didn’t have to deal with other people making sub-optimal decision.

There are times when a real human being, capable of empathy and other terrific human-type emotions, isn’t going to make the most optimal decision. That person drives me to Bananatown, USA and strands me there without my cell phone.

Sentinels Visionary

Consider an example from Sentinels. The Visionary is a powerful support character whose key ability is allowing one other player to draw cards. When I’m performing my elite Tempest “deeps” with Vicious Cyclone, I need to be fed cards. If you’re Visionary, keep giving me cards. Being fair and taking turns passing cards to the rest of the players is inefficient. If you’re giving cards to Bunker or Absolute Zero, you’re just throwing good cards after a lost cause. Vicious Cyclone with Gene-Bound Shackles (another key Tempest card) is going to be both more effective and more card-efficient than whatever Absolute Zero is going to do, and the discrepancy only gets greater the more damage buffs you throw in (such as from Legacy, another hero, or from the game’s Environment).

Not everyone will care about the specific effectiveness of each hero in Sentinels, but other people will care very, very, very much. That’s not just word count inflation, either, 3 “very”s was the bare minimum amount of “very”s necessary to convey how much those people care.

Matrix of Sentinels effectiveness

A person who cares this much about Sentinels will probably attempt to hijack or quarterback the game if the group is comprised of people who don’t care nearly as much. Group composition is always important when gaming, but I’d argue that it’s doubly so for fully cooperative games. It’s much easier for one person to ruin the experience for the rest of the table than it is in other types of games.

On the flip side, your gaming group may have someone who is new to the game or even gaming overall, and they’ll be more than willing to listen to the advice of veterans, playing the cards they’re instructed to play in the order they’re advised to. Bryan Koch (@BryanKoch) and Damien Lavizzo (@eldamien) brought up Pandemic and Forbidden Desert as other examples of fully cooperative games where someone can just coast and not take an active part, and that brings up questions about player agency.

Does one player really make an impact on the game? Is it all about the committee’s consensus? If you’re really trying to do your best to win the game, aren’t you better off letting your elite quarterback take charge, for the most part? Are fully cooperative games broken on a fundamental game design level, assuming that not every player in the group has an equal level of competency and everything in the game is perfectly balanced?

Fully Co-Op Games are Not Broken for the Right Audience

I started discussing ways you can counteract these issues, and that leads us directly into cooperative games with hidden information. By providing each player with specific individual goals that will often work at cross-purposes with other players’ goals, you’re throwing a scraplet into the ‘Matrix of Hippie Free Love Cooperative Gaming’. The political nature of a cooperative game becomes a totally different animal when players are forced to cooperate out of basic self-interest with the foreknowledge that they need to sharpen their knives and wait for another player’s back to present itself. Because they don’t fall prey to the issues of fully cooperative games, are co-op games with hidden information inherently better designed and more interesting?

The League’s own Mark Major (@shmitz) then pointed out various ways in which I was being a silly min-maxing power gamer. Guilty as charged. Quick aside: I totally made a 4th Edition DnD Rogue who could single-handedly drop a Solo monster (meant to be a challenge for an entire party) in one round. It was a fun novelty for me, but it made the game a nightmare to balance for the DM and the other players felt mostly irrelevant during combat (90% of 4th). Totes OP. When you play Sentinels of the Multiverse and try to take over the game, you are channeling my 4th Edition Rogue. That type of behavior goes against the spirit of a fully co-op game. I had an “Ah-ha!” epiphany when Mark talked about the communal journey being the point of such games. A few other voices chimed in about enjoying the support characters in Sentinels because they loved helping others and creating a fun experience for other players.


People like Mark who play truly cooperative games are fun-enablers, funablers, if you will. It’s just as important that the people around them are having a good time relative to their own enjoyment of the game. I learned that day that I am not a funabler, perhaps I am even an anti-funabler.

I love Battlestar Galactica. Dead of Winter is on my list of must-plays. Fully cooperative games cater to a very different audience for a very different experience than most other games. It’s a crime to dismiss them. A fun-crime. (Not that the crime itself is fun, it’s a crime against fun. I’m going to shut up about fun now.)

The major take-away from this article should be this: If you’re designing a cooperative game, don’t feel as if you have to add hidden information to it. It’s okay to make a game for the funabling audience. Be aware of the quarterbacking phenomenon, but don’t feel obligated to introduce specific rules or mechanics to prevent players from quarterbacking. Those people aren’t playing the game correctly, anyway.

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  1. Chris Funk on December 3, 2014

    When I play Sentinels, I know what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t drive the game. I will offer suggestions, usually more than one, and let them make the decisions. By trying to come up with multiple options instead and letting them do what they feel is best instead of just saying “Play it this way”, you’re not only helping new players learn the flow of the game but you’re keeping them interested in playing as their decisions are still important.

    I play the same way with a Co-op named Catacombs. It basically a 4-player dexterity-based co-op against a 5th player. When I’m playing the bad guy, I even offer advice how to possibly take myself out or how to maximize their teamwork. It’s about playing the game, not about winning every time.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      “When I’m playing the bad guy, I even offer advice how to possibly take myself out or how to maximize their teamwork.”

      I think that’s a commendable attitude to take, especially with new players, but it’s not something that alpha gamers will necessarily adopt.

      Catacombs sounds interesting. Many vs. One games are rare outside of DnD and DnD-lite experiences.

      • Chris Funk on December 3, 2014

        Catacombs is a rare game. Not just rare to find, but rare in the way it combines dexterity and co-op. I’ve rarely seen as much planning or strategic conversation in a dexterity game like I have with that game. People will take 5 minutes discussing who should go first, what they should hit, if they need to bump someone to get a better shot, etc. It’s just a unique blend.

        Now, as for helping out at the bad guy, I know that if I really wanted to, I could wipe their team out in 5 rooms if I really wanted to. The bad guy can be a royal arse if they’re in it to win. I treat it like being a DM in DnD when I play that role. That player has so much control of the enjoyment of the rest of the players that if you play it like a DM, everyone has a better time.

        If you play it like an Alpha gamer that only sees one winner, the rest of the table will likely never play that game again. You usually know who those people are and you want to make sure they are not the big bad guy. Ever. I think most of us RPG players have had that horrible RPG experience from having a vengeful DM/GM that made the game one of the worst experiences ever. This game can have the exact same effect.

        If you play it like a good DM, you try and keep the players in the game as much as possible. You don’t send all your forces against one character to take them out. You keep them alive and on the edge. You keep them alive until the final room. If they’re having more problems, adjust the room difficulty on the fly. Add a room if they’re doing too well, remove one if they’re struggling. You make it so that there’s this pressure to make good decisions and clutch shots because you’re hurt but not out. You’re at the end and even though you’re battered and bruised, you’re looking at the final bad guy and you have a chance.

        That difference is what makes the game great. That’s what gets the heroes jumping up and high-fiving each other when someone makes an important shot or an impossible hit. That’s what makes them sad, but content they did their best when they lose.

        • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

          It sounds a bit like the first edition of Descent in that way. There were rules for both the DM and players to win in Descent, and the optimal way for the DM to win was to just continue picking on the weakest character. That was rarely fun for anyone. Players had to self-balance in that game as well.

          They did address it completely in the next edition of Descent. Now everything is strictly scenario-based, and you won’t see situations where one player can keep getting singled out, so there are ways to balance that in-game as well as out.

  2. Daniel Zayas on December 3, 2014

    About the whole co-op game players are funablers or that players as equals makes for a great co-op experience. That is all true. However, these are gamers we are talking about. Hobbyist community gamers who buy strategy games and know about more game titles than what you’d find at Walmart. Co-op games for me, in this example, is best suited for kids. Parents teaching kids deep strategy without fearing the wrath of them losing. But even saying that, the Guardian came out with a series of board game articles and one of them specifically highlighted how important it is for children to learn about losing and being a good sport.
    One last point. Co-op games inherently support the alpha gamer when there is no secret information, and for that reason it is a flawed concept. I am saying this having been both sides of the same coin. I’ve dominated games of Forbidden Desert, and I’ve been dominated in Sentinels. But all of this wasn’t mean spirited. It was all the players wanting to win, and only one knowing how. Even if all the players know how to win, then you’ve essentially solved the game, and you might as well be playing tic-tac-toe. Playing games shouldn’t be about a script of actions that we must do like feed Tempest cards every turn.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      You bring up a great point, Daniel. I think the less complex or more easily solvable a game is, that is, how easily it is to determine an optimal decision or go-to strategy, those are the co-op games that straddle the line between hobbyist game and fun community exercise. It’s easy for a quarterback to arise and point out decisions for such games.

      Hidden information is probably the easiest way to make the game unsolvable or less solvable, which is why we see it so often in co-op games.

  3. Joey V on December 3, 2014

    Nicholas, you sound like the type A dominant player you describe at the beginning. I agree you should be playing Sentinels alone since I for one wouldn’t want to play with you.
    Congrats on making such an amazing super DnD character that can drop monsters on your own. You must be the greatest gamer ever!

    I’m mostly kidding and I very much enjoyed the post. I really feel like I learned something about the mentality of certain types of gamers today. You know it isn’t about WINNING a game, co-ops are about the social experience and growing. They are not a “flawed concept,” they just are not for you!

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      Joey, exactly! Talking about co-op game design made me learn some uncomfortable truths about myself as a gamer. Crap, sometimes I’m “that guy!”

  4. Mike Bott on December 3, 2014

    I have a decent collection of Zombicide stuff. I’ve played several games with different kinds of groups. Alpha gaming was only an issue in a game involving 2 younger siblings (the older was VERY controlling over the younger). Long discussions about move specifics that stretched the game out was only an issue in a 9- or 10-player game*.

    When I played a 4 player game with expert gamer friends of mine who were new to Zombicide, we had so much fun in such a short time it was unbelievable. We had no issues with alpha gaming or lengthy discussions. The co-op feel (saving each other, tossing each other weapons, rough co-op planning) was perfect.

    Zombicide currently sports no hidden individual player-specific info and 100% predictable enemy movement**. I submit that enjoyment of Co-op and the typical problems plaguing a co-op game are more a result of the group mix and less a result of hidden information or specific co-op mechanics.

    * I should be shot for trying a 10-player zombicide game.

    ** On the other hand, enemy spawning is random and fraught with excitement.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      Group mix is definitely a big component of how enjoyable a game is, and I agree in that it’s even more important for co-op games than competitive ones; however, hidden information and elements of randomness (cards, dice, etc.) obscure results and outcomes of decisions so that the optimal solution is not always apparent, which is important to please the power gamer or at least preventing clear quarterbacking. It can also create tension and fun as well. You mention how tense the random spawning can be in Zombicide, which I think is critical to creating that sense of “imminent zombie doom possibly around the corner.”

      For a group without an alpha gamer, you already have the correct group mix to enjoy a fully co-op game. If you have alpha gamers and want to avoid quarterbacking, though, you will probably have better luck with a co-op game with hidden info.

  5. Royce Banuelos on December 3, 2014

    Great article! Very well written and outlined 🙂 I greatly enjoy co-op games and feel as though you’re right that the majority of co-op games are more about the experience than optimal strategy. That suites my personality as well as I’m typically the guy who’s up for playing anything and is okay with other player’s personalities. There are alpha gamers in competitive games as well who criticize everyone’s moves. It’s annoying as all get out ha ha.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      That’s true, an overly critical alpha gamer can ruin the mood in a competitive game as well!

  6. Gamer Dave on December 3, 2014

    Great article that applies to more than coops. Quantum and SmallWorld are two games that come to mind where alpha gamers show up or you are at the mercy of sub-optimal moves.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 3, 2014

      Yeah, I think you can apply some lessons outside of co-op games as well, but that’s where the discussion started. I can’t speak to Quantum, but, you’re right, Small World certainly lends itself to alpha gamer optimization. It has intense decision gates that can dictate the course of the game over the next several rounds (or even the rest of the game) when you pick your race and decide when to go into decline.

  7. Frank Boivin on December 4, 2014

    I’ve discovered that fully-cooperative games must implement a way for players to make bad moves without the Alpha player being able to stop them. Hanabi, Dungeon Fighter, Catacombs, Eldritch Horror are all games in which the Alpha Player will simply be there and rip his own hair while he can’t do a thing. He can’t take control of the whole game because he can’t control my hands with his mind, he can’t change the dice results, he can’t spoil the thrill of a gambly-roll.

    • Nicholas Yu on December 4, 2014

      Yeah, random elements can help out with player agency but they don’t combat the quarterbacking phenomenon as completely as hidden information does. In Eldritch Horror, for example, the alpha gamer can still instruct a player to go to a specific location to accomplish a task, but that player still gets to roll the dice. The quarterback analogy becomes particularly apt in this instance: The quarterback calls the play and throws the ball, but it’s up the wide receiver to make the catch.

  8. Carl Klutzke on December 8, 2014

    I simply prefer co-op games because I’d rather play _with_ people instead of _against_ them.

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