There seems to have been quite a bit of buzz recently around co-op games, what with the upcoming release of Kingsport Horror and the kudos that Pandemic seems to have been gathering. And after a member of the F:AT staff gave the latter a glowing review last week, I really couldn't resist dipping my rather large and nasty fly in the ointment and longer. See, as far as I'm concerned, no-one who is happy to play co-op games should be allowed to rejoice under the AT label at all. All co-op games are unconditionally crap and worse they're the antithesis of everything that AT ought to stand for. Here's why.
Before I let rip, let me be entirely clear about what I'm not talking about. I'm not talking about solo games. I'm not talking about team games like Axis and Allies or Fury of Dracula where a group of players, who will win or loose as a team, take on either another team or individual players. I'm especially not talking about games in which co-operation is a choice but where players have individual victory conditions, games such as Republic of Rome or Magic Realm. This latter case is worth highlighting because it's a well underused mechanic which can result in some incredibly tense and nail biting choices. Indeed the way it has been implemented in Magic Realm is about the only good thing I can find to say about that game and I'm quite excited at the Return of the Heroes variant that promises similarly open ended gameplay without the vast counterweight of pointless rules and admin time that drowned MR. But I digress. All the game styles I've just mentioned do, to some extent, validate the criticisms I'm about to make of co-op games but all of them also have gigantic get-out clauses that the co-op genre doesn't have. You'll see why as we go along.
At this point, so much bile is queuing up to be given vent that I'm not really sure where to start.
Let's start with why any self-respecting AT gamer ought to go out and ritually burn every co-op game they own. One of the reasons I like to call myself an AT gamer is because I thrive on being really horrible to other people in games, something which precious few Euros give me the chance to do. There are few greater gaming highs than suddenly and unexpectedly turning the screw and pulling the rug out from under an opponents' feet just when he thought his position had become well-nigh impregnable and especially if he thought you were actually helping him along. I really admired the idea that in Trashfest there would only be first-place prizes because in Ameritrash, second place was worthless. That's a core part of the Ameritrash dream and is absolutely the spirit we all ought to be aspiring to! So why the fuck would any self-respecting AT gamer go out and willingly play themselves in a game in where you have to love up to your fellow gamers? Where's the thrill of competition, the cut-and-thrust of competing strategies in that? If that's what you want then why not put on a kaftan, play a few John Lennon records and since you obviously prefer to protest about nukes rather than play military-industrial-capitalist-complex games about them, give all your AT games to charity shops and get yourself a copy of either "Care Bears Quest for Care-a-lot Card Game" or Knizia's pointless yawn-fest, lovely-dovey co-op version of Lord of the Rings which manages to completely miss both the point and the theme of the story on which it claims to be based.
Still here? Then I assume you want more, and shame on your for being a F:AT reader and actually requiring further reason than I've already given for ditching those namby-pamby co-op games. Here's more. In a co-op game what limited, diluted competition that exists is between the players and the game system. Anyone who's played a PC game will know that professional programmers struggle, even in this day and age, to come up with entirely satisfactory AI opponents for games that aren't obviously "solvable" (i.e. appear to have a "perfect" or near-perfect set of moves for a guaranteed win, whether computers are currently capable of calculating them or not - Draughts, Chess, Go and the like). If you're playing a co-op board game then there is no computer and therefore the abilities of the "AI" you're playing against (i.e. the game system) are vastly, vastly reduced even from this unsatisfying level because there's no human opponent in there to spice things up. So what's left for the game designers to do in order to challenge the human players? Two things: firstly you can turn the game into a logic puzzle which has no obvious solution. While this might result in a challenging play experience, you're still solving a logic puzzle and not playing a game and frankly, if that was what I wanted to do then I'd sit around with my mates "co-operatively" solving particularly fiendish Su-Doku grids rather than playing a game. The second solution is to challenge the players by making the game as unpredictable as possible, sometimes described as the "game-plays-you" experience. This is the route most co-op games choose to take, and the recent Pandemic is as good an example as any. The problem with this is that it'll rapidly dawn on all but the most intellectually challenged players in the group that the win potential of any given game is based a whole lot more on the way the random factors are stacked at the start of the game than it will on the decisions the players make during the game. At which point I'm forced to ask: who's up for "co-op" snakes and ladders? Because that's all you might as well be playing.
Regular readers of my columns will know that I place a premium on what I call "organic strategy" as a marker for a worthwhile game. As the name suggests, this is something that can only come from playing against other human opponents and thus is completely lacking in a co-op game. And that's another big, fat, black, mark against the damn things as far as I'm concerned.
As far as I'm concerned the coffin of co-op games is well and truly nailed shut already, but not being someone to stop and half measures, let's make absolutely sure by gluing the lid down with industrial adhesive, taping round the edge with duct tape and then hammering in another nail, just in case. Because in a co-op game you're all competing against the game rather than each other, it becomes difficult to focus on anything other than actually beating the game system. You're not going to win bragging rights, or kudos, or cool stories by pulling off a "killer move" because there's no-one against whom you can lever those ephemeral gains. As a result, co-op games tend to bring undesirable fun-murderer behaviour to the fore and also lead to situtions where other players will happily tolerate or even encourage this sort of mindset as an aid to beating "the system". I'm thinking particularly here of the problem that I call "loudmouth syndrome" whereby one player at the table - who is usually the most able or most experienced - starts telling everyone else what they need to do in order to maximise their chances of winning the game, and the other players will go along with this because the group mentality has taken over and they all want to win. This has happened in every single co-op game I've ever played and I've seen people who are otherwise upstanding, fun-loving games players indulging in it because everyone round the table knows that it actually helps to win the game. It doesn't help if your group is all new to the game and no-one has played before - someone will still take on the loudmouth mantle but it'll just be the loudest or most enthusiastic player instead of the most skilled. This problem completely torpedoes what is often the lure of playing a co-op in the first place, the thought of making a genuine team effort to win the game in which different strategies and actions can be debated and evaluated. In reality this never happens. Instead, the loudmouths take over. And yet players seem never to learn this and they carry on buying and playing co-op games in the hope of hitting that Holy Grail experience of having a real working coalition arise amongst the players. What's truly shameful is that a number of co-op designs actually make this already impossible nirvana even less likely to happen by not giving players a measure of individual control through independent characters or hidden inventories of cards/chits/whatever that they can't share or show to other players. Yep, LotR, I'm looking at you again.
Now somewhere between the Scylla of pointless randomness and the Charybdis of logic straightjackets there ought to be some sort of happy medium where one might potentially begin to carve out the beginnings of a worthwhile co-op game. In this joyful place you might find a game in which the system "played" its own units on the board through a simple AI system which was predictable enough for the players to form meaningful strategies, but random enough to keep them on their toes. Because the decisions to be made against the system were no longer either obvious or pointless, people prone to suffering from loudmouth syndrome wouldn’t have such clear arguments to make. You might even get the genuinely co-operative decision making going on. You could even allow some hidden information about a players position or inventory to further muddy the waters and encourage genuine doubt and debate (I've never, ever seen this in a co-op design and I don't know why - maybe the designers don't trust the players not to "cheat" and share the information with each other even though they'd be spoiling the game for no-one but themselves as a result). It'd help if this system had enough variety built into it to stop people from eventually learning and solving the game and putting us back at square one with both the pointlessness of playing the game and the propensity for encouraging the loudmouth syndrome. When you dwell on this particular soup of ingredients for any length of time it becomes obvious that such a game would, by necessity, have to be fairly complex. It's also worth noting that it seems inevitable that any such game would come with a considerable overhead of in-game administration as the players had to keep track of all the variables governing our projected "simple" AI system and the stacks of different cards and chits which would be the result of trying to inject a sufficient level of variety into the game. These two problems may be part of the reason why game designers seem to have found it near-impossible to hit this particular goal in any of the co-op games released to date, which have tended to skew horribly toward either Scylla or Charybdis and been a waste of time as a result.
There is one tiny glimmer of hope on the horizon. It's called Arkham Horror, a game which I originally bought to play solo. Turns out that multi-player AH suffers from all the problems that I've outlined for co-op games, especially game-plays-you rather than you-play-game, but it does at least make a valiant attempt at bypassing the lack of competition and loudmouth syndrome, and is the only game I know about to date to meet with any success at all in this regard. A quick glance over the rules will demonstrate that it meets the criteria I predicted to the happy middle ground of a simple, workable, but ultimately unpredictable AI - the game does produced and control "units" (read: monsters) and these do move around the board and hinder the players according to semi-random dictates. Players have their own characters to control and everyone gets a turn at sharing the loudmouth spotlight by being the first player. The game also features a wealth of variety in terms of locations, items, creatures, people, situations and circumstances and the central importance of this to the game play can be seen in the value that fans of the game attach to expanding the variety on offer through expansions. It is also, as a result of all this, a pretty complex game which has an annoyingly high level of administration overhead. The other trick that AH pulls is to switch the focus of playing from winning the game to telling a story, or at least to try and put the two on an equal footing. This is perhaps the greatest triumph of the game because by encouraging the players to do this it does manage, when the stars align, to put loudmouth syndrome to bed, at least for a little while, and have the players so immersed in a tale in which they are the central actors that they cease to care that the game might be playing them. But I have to re-iterate that in spite of all this, AH only partially succeeds as a co-op experience (it makes a great solo game, and is a worthwhile addition to your collection for that reason alone). Which just goes to show how high the barriers that a co-op game is going to have to climb actually are. As a final redeeming feature, AH has the "first citizen" rule which you can use to declare an actual single winner, thereby transforming the game from a namby-pamby co-operative affair into one of those fascinating scenarios where you need to keep one eye on not loosing the game for everyone and one on winning the final prize for yourself. It strikes me this would also add difficulty to the game for those who find it too easy - I'm surprised not more people play with this rule in effect. Any AT gamer worth their salt ought to.
Possibly the saddest thing about co-op games though is that the criteria I've identified as being essential to a good co-op experience, and highlighted so nicely by AH, mean that the ultimate co-op game almost has to be an AT game. Think about it - complexity, variety, focus on narrative - what Eurogame is really going to provide those things? So to come full circle then it's extremely unfortunate that our ultimate, yet-to-be-invented co-op game is going to have to belong to a stable of people for whom competition is, or should be, the highest form of art.
Are those games burning nicely yet?