Semi-cooperative Games

With the rise of cooperative games, where all the players work together to achieve a single goal, as in Shadows Over Camelot, it’s no surprise that the term semi-cooperative would eventually pop up. For the rest of the article, I’m going to refer to these as SC’s.

CO2

It’s easy to find a lot of these on the internet; just google semi-cooperative. One forum on BGG (Are semi-co-op games flawed?) mentions Divided Republic, CO2, Castle Panic, The Republic of Rome, Legendary, Archipelago, and Arkham Horror, among others. They discuss plusses and minuses of each of these games.

So what do we mean when we say “semi-cooperative”

Well, there’s a single nemesis or goal that all the players are striving against or for. It’s possible for all players to lose, or all to win, or some to win. The “semi” comes into play because, despite the fact that everyone has achieved the goal and “won the game”, one player might have more points or kills or whatever at the end of the game, thus making him the

winner of winners

Some say that this is the fatal flaw in an SC, potentially putting players in a reverse king-maker position, knowing that they are going to die in the game, and deciding to take all the other players with them, thus “tying” the game with them. If there is a winner, there is really only one winner, but if everyone loses, then it’s a tie!

There are ways to avoid this conundrum. One is to assure that you can’t die. You can fail to achieve your goal, but still have the most gold, somewhat like the whole global warming trend. I remember trying to design a game based on this idea called Eat the Earth. The game ended when the Earth couldn’t support any life any more. Whoever had the most money at the end won the game. Depressingly real.

Another method is to have the cooperative function built into a normal game, where you have to deal with the other players to get ahead. Competing, yet sharing. Pit, Settlers of Catan, and Bohnanza all share this characteristic, although I’m sure some people will argue that these aren’t SC at all. If you have to share resources to get ahead, then I would call it SC. The primary difference between these and games like CO2 is that there isn’t a condition where everyone loses.

One technique I used in a game design (unpublished) was that a player could escape from the playing board mid-game with whatever resources he had, hoping that none of the other players would get as much as he had. Adventurers uses a similar mechanic. This could easily be used in an SC, eliminating the ability for one losing person to drag down everyone else with him on purpose, out of spite. Of course, the guy who escapes is no longer contributing to the welfare of the others.

I’ve tried a number of SC variations in my designs over the years.

Some of them produced some odd results. The first was an SC dungeon run for real money. I created some D&D pre-fab characters, seeded the dungeon with treasure that had a cash value, and encourage the players to work together to try to get the goodies. The big stuff was completely inaccessible without some cooperation.

Hah.

I don’t think a single player lifted a finger to help the others. Spell carriers who could obviously put a hoard of skeletons to sleep kept their spell to themselves; the most effective use of each item by each player was never applied in a way that helped anyone else, except by accident. In some ways, it was hilarious, but out of 12 players, I think about 6 of them lived, and they didn’t retrieve much treasure. On the plus side, it was a hell of a lot of fun. D&D games are all basically coop games; adding the “semi” to the equation completely changed the dynamics and player interaction in the game.

The second design that featured SC play was a real-time game where players could either move their own team of adventures into a castle, or move the various undead toward their opponents. Players could gather treasure and get points for killing undead. They could work together, wiping out the monsters easily, but the object was to walk the edge of the line, balancing your need to kill off the other players with your need to stay alive and gather treasure. More competitive than coop. I think that when both elements of the game are present, the competitive elements will always rule the cooperative elements. “We can all win, AND I can win the most” always devolves into “I can win”.

The third and most recent design involves a role-playing version of Wiz-War, basically a co-op Wiz-War game, very much like D&D, except with Wizards with megapower and lots of hit points. After playing it the first time, full co-op, which worked extremely well, I thought about adding treasure to the game that players could count as “points”. Still cooperative, but players would be raiding the pockets of the dead opponents, or sneaking into side rooms by themselves to find goodies there before anyone else. I’m not sure the game would be as fun that way, but the added dynamic of greed would certainly make it interesting (or perhaps irritating, for example, rummaging through the pockets of a near-dead companion before curing his wounds).

Yet another game design allowed players to run off the board, stash what they had accumulated thus far, then go back onto the board for another dip into the dungeon. If they died, they could still win based on what they’d stashed with their family.

So can semi-cooperative games work?

I think they can, but only in the cases where cooperation helps multiple players, and there are mechanisms that prevent one player dragging all the others down, for instance, not having an “everyone dies” conclusion, or by presenting an escape mechanism for others to save their current status or winnings. And encouraging trade between players so that they help each other during play while vying for the most points themselves is a positive experience allowing both cooperation and competition.

Castle Panic

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Tom Jolly

Game Designer at Wiz-War, Drakon, Diskwars, Cavetroll, Vortex and More

Electrical engineer, writer, game and puzzle designer. I’ve an interest in physics, space travel, fantasy and science fiction, hiking, bad jokes. I enjoy having a pint or two with friends on occasion, usually with games involved.

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  1. Daniel Zayas on August 31, 2015

    I don’t consider Shadows over Camelot to be a co-op. It is a traitor game, as is Saboteur or Dead of Winter. Then again, pigeon holing any game by one mechanic, even an end-game mechanic, is a dicey proposition. Some games simply work as a marriage of mechanics to create the entire experience.

    • Norv Brooks on August 31, 2015

      Traitor games, I think are kind of a separate Sub-Category of Co-op games. The Traitor is always playing to defeat the other players but needing to be deceptive. The remainder of the players all have the goal of accomplishing the goals of the game as a team. I haven’t played Saboteur but have played the other two as well as Battlestar Glactica.

      • Daniel Zayas on August 31, 2015

        I believe we are entering the semantics stage of this discussion. haha. Regardless, it is important to note that there can in fact be one winner in Shadows over Camelot.

    • Ryan Spangler on February 9, 2016

      Agreed, Shadows over Camelot, BSG and Dead of Winter are all team games, where players are on a team and one team or the other wins (even if this is just a team of one). I think this gets mixed up with Semi-Coop because “some players are cooperating but not others”, but a true Semi-Coop means that everyone can lose, or some number of players wins (not necessarily a team). This leads to a way different (and controversial) dynamic.

  2. Norv Brooks on August 31, 2015

    “We can all win, AND I can win the most” always devolves into “I can win”. I think this observation is what a game designer must really keep in mind if they are going to design a SC. If you can’t work in some of your suggested solutions to the issue in a logical thematic and cohesive manner, than maybe you should rethink your design as fully co-op or competitive.

  3. Nat Levan on August 31, 2015

    Maybe a question to ask is whether we should try to design a semi-cooperative game for everyone. I’d argue that there are “semi-coop” gamers just like there are social gamers, casual gamers, euro gamers or wargamers. Trying to play one of these other types of game with the wrong players can run into problems. So maybe it’s OK to design a game where players can ruin it by playing against the spirit, because the game isn’t for them.

  4. Carl Klutzke on August 31, 2015

    It seems to me that any game in which one player says “I win the most” is not a cooperative game in any sense: you aren’t trying to help each other, you’re just trying to exploit the other players better than they can exploit you.

    I know we’re splitting semantic hairs here, and words mean different things to different people, but a fully coop game means to me that all players either win or lose together. (And I reject traitor games as a fully coop game for this reason.) So a semi-coop game must allow a third alternative: some players won, others lost: each player’s victory cannot be allowed to exclude victory by another player. This can be accomplished if there is a shared victory condition that must be met for anyone to win, as well as individual victory conditions that each player must meet on their own.

    I have two games like this that I’m working on. They clearly aren’t for everyone, but I think the results are promising. They avoid the quarterback problem with fully coop games, because if I have my own agenda in addition to the group agenda, I have to work through potential conflicts of interest instead of just doing what the QB tells me to do. I find them to be rather like working on a team project in the real world: everyone wants the project to succeed, but we might each pay a different price and reap different rewards.

    • Derik @ Lagniappe on August 31, 2015

      I completely agree with Carl. If a game says “I win more” then it is semi-competitive. It’s sort of competitive in that I want to be the true winner, but semi because we’ll all lose if we don’t work together. I don’t want to flame a semantics war, but we need a name for games like Dead of Winter where some or everyone can win and some or everyone can lose. Like a true co-op, points aren’t tracked to determine an ultimate winner – either you made it or you didn’t.

      • Carl Klutzke on September 1, 2015

        I like “semi-competitive” as a label for games where the goal is to be the single ultimate winner, but it’s possible for everyone to lose. That seems like a much better label for a game like Legendary: it’s competitive, but some level of cooperation is required. I’m surprised I’ve never seen that label before.

  5. Sergio on August 31, 2015

    What about a game where you win BY helping the other players? In other words, if you do it alone, you don’t win; if you do it with the other players, you win; the more players that you get involved, the more you win, the more you share in to loot (or whatever). Would this work?

    • Tom Jolly Author on September 2, 2015

      I think that’s a good description of Bohnanza and Settlers of Catan.

  6. Shawn on September 1, 2015

    “an escape mechanism for others to save their current status or winnings” sounds like an excellent idea–similar in a way to ending your turn in Yahtzee or “Can’t Stop”, or perhaps refusing another card in Blackjack. Far more interesting “settling” choices include ending a bid in Reiner Knizia’s “Taj Mahal” or “Ivanhoe”*. But all of these choices happen mid-game.
    A game which ends by “settling” sounds as though it might be quite interesting. I can’t bring an existing example to mind, although I suspect someone with broader experience might….
    *(the latter with Andy Lewis}

  7. Alex on September 2, 2015

    Is one group playing against another group “semi-coop”? Perhaps hidden groups? We very much love “Jäger der Nacht”

    • Tom Jolly Author on September 2, 2015

      I think one group against another is just team play, not semi-coop. Semi-coop, I think, implies that there’s an advantage in helping everyone else out toward a common goal, but that you are individually trying to do better than anyone else.

      • Carl Klutzke on September 3, 2015

        Would you consider Derik’s “semi-competitive” label for a game such as this?
        I have trouble designating any single-winner-only game as being even slightly cooperative, though clearly others see it differently.

  8. Carl Klutzke on September 3, 2015

    Would you consider Cosmic Encounter a semi-cooperative game? It seems to me that it’s a purely competitive game that merely allows multiple players to agree to win simultaneously.

  9. Jacob Varvel on September 3, 2015

    I would define Cosmic as a ‘semi-competitive’ game rather than SC. An instance where “I can win” frequently turns into “We can win.”

  10. Lucas Gerlach on September 7, 2015

    Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of play testing a few semi cooperative games. These games are a little different than what you described. The games I play tested generally involve a select group of players working together during each turn in order to accomplish a short term goal. Players who helped groups that succeeded gained points. The members of these groups would change from turn to turn. In the end, the player with the most points would win. These mechanics forced cooperation yet meant gameplay was still very competitive, and it was fun, too.

    • Tom Jolly on September 8, 2015

      That’s an attractive version of co-op games. Glad you mentioned it – I think I’d like playing that sort of co-op.

      • Lucas Gerlach on September 9, 2015

        If you’d like to try out this mechanic, the brothers Peter and Steven Dast have been working on two such games. One is themed around conducting heists while the other is about escaping from an asylum. If you’re going to CrafterCon (or just about any game design events in the Milwaukee/Madison area) they’ll be there.

        • Carl Klutzke on September 9, 2015

          I would definitely put Steven’s _Umotu’s Asylum_ in the semi-coop category. The inmates must work together to escape, but ultimately some will escape, some will probably not, and some may even be sacrificed. I can’t wait to see this game published.

  11. Carl Klutzke on September 16, 2015

    Another game in this category just came to mind: star-format Magic: The Gathering. It’s a five player game in which you win by eliminating the two players opposite you. That means each of your neighbors shares an opponent with you, but it also means that they are each allied with your other opponent! It’s an interesting format. Usually only one player wins, but if the first two players eliminated are not adjacent, then it’s possible for two players to win, so I guess it’s semi-cooperative.

  12. R on November 30, 2015

    We’re using the term “Co-petative” in our game — https://www.escapefromsunsetisland.com — where usually no one ‘wins’ (except the every growing number of zombie players) unless the group works together to help at least one to survive.

  13. Massimiliano della Rovere on June 26, 2017

    One technique I used in a game design (unpublished) was that a player could escape => Red November is one of these games.

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