Why Co-Op Board Games Are The Devil

I have been having a discussion on Google+ today about why “Paul” doesn’t like co-op board games. I think one of his points is totally off-base, and his second point is totally understated.

Let’s start with the positives first.

Co-op board games are generally ingenious. Their mechanics are tight, and the balance (usually automatically scaling to the number of players) spot on. They’re the sort of cleverness I never would have imagined in the board game arena just 3 or 4 years ago. Now they’re everywhere.

For those of you that haven’t really played a serious co-op board game before let me briefly outline them for you:
You and a group of friends will be working together to beat the game itself. Maybe you’re trying to wipe out a virus that is teetering on the edge of a pandemic and is threatening to wipe out humanity.

Basically a turn goes like this: You move your guy. You do an action to try and help the team a little. Then you draw a card from a deck that is nearly always terrible for you and your ilk.
The whole point of the experience is to overcome these challenges. You must prepare for, and mitigate, the bad stuff that you will inevitably draw from the deck of terrors. It’s strategy at its core, and is usually so finely balanced that no matter the number of players you have to do everything just right or humanity is doomed. They often end in nail-biting finishers where this one move will determine the fate of the game.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, they’re clever and can be fun. But they suffer a fatal flaw.

The flaw comes in two flavours: Play By Committee and Field Commander.

They’re two sides to the same coin, however. If you’ve not played a co-op game you probably just won’t really understand the problem. It goes something like this:

There is no room for error. So everyone discusses each facet – starting with the character selection. Something like: “Well, you go this guy, and I’ll go that guy and then we’ll also need another guy and for our first turn you do this, I’ll do that…”  It’s not that bad on the face of it. Everyone is typically involved, and options are discussed and strategies developed. The problem is — why am this guy? I don’t really control him, except to move him and to declare that,  yes, I will do the action we all agreed on a few minutes ago. Really – other than a bit of brainstorming – there is absolutely no reason it couldn’t just be one person playing with 6 characters, rather than 6 persons playing with one character each.

This leads me to the Field Commander. You see, it’s even worse when it’s not even a committee. One player – one who has a lot of experience, or looked up strategies, or what have-you – directs everyone on what they should do. Strategically, it actually makes a lot of sense. Everyone is on the same page as “we” all “work together” towards a common goal. So, in many ways, it’s the best way to win… but why I am even playing? Why not just let the Field Commander play with 6 characters? In these sorts of games you could literally get up and walk away, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

The one saving grace of a co-op board game is that they can be pretty fun the first couple times you play. These problems really only rear their head after you start to learn the mechanics. Once you start to learn the odds of drawing cards, or work out some optimal strategies for various situations. Once you start getting to that point (in my experience after about 3 games) then everyone starts to agree on tactics and strategies and then the committee quickly and naturally forms. (Or if one person is perhaps more strategically-minded than the other players, the field commander comes out.) Prior to this point people tend to do their own thing a bit. No-one knows the game well enough to make suggestions and most of the time all anyone can recall is their own character’s abilities. So it’s up to each individual to step up and help out. It really doesn’t take long to get past this point though.

So I can be talked into playing a new co-op game a few times (especially if no-one is experienced with it) but I won’t be buying any more.

The one exception to this rule (that I have so-far found) is Space Alert. I’ll cover why in a later post.

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