Co-op Games


At the turn of the millennium, when Lord of the Rings was all the rage (The Fellowship of the Ring film was released in 2001), Reiner Knizia designed a game called… wait for it… Lord of the Rings.  The title itself astounds me.  We have so many different Lord of the Rings boardgames these days that it’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t any, but this was the first of any note.

If you want to make a boardgame about Lord of the Rings now, you’re going to have great difficulty coming up with a name for it that makes you think of Lord of the Rings, but hasn’t already been taken.  Prior to the year 2000 though, despite having a wealth of very popular material in the trilogy of books, it was a relatively untouched franchise as far as boardgames were concerned.

Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings did very well in part due to the strength of the name.  I know several non-gamers who bought the game simply because it was Lord of the Rings.  It was certainly an insta-buy for me.  However, it created a stir in the gaming world for another reason: it was a co-operative game.

Co-operative (or Co-op) games are very popular today, but back then, they were virtually unheard of.  It was a real paradigm shift to imagine playing a game where you weren’t competing against other people.  The idea that you would be working together to try to defeat the evil Sauron was revolutionary for a boardgame.

Now Lord of the Rings certainly wasn’t the first co-op game.  Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was a notable precursor, but even today that game is totally unique (and very good by the way!).  RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons were co-operative after a fashion, but tended to be more storytelling than actual game.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings was the first to really popularise the idea of a co-op game though.  He put co-op games on the map and the idea of a co-op game entered the game designer zeitgeist forever.  In particular, it entered the mind of one Matt Leacock.

In 2008, Z-Man release Pandemic by a previously unheard of designer called Matt Leacock.  It was a smash hit and cemented the co-op genre as one of the most popular genres of games today.  In Pandemic players take on the roles of disease control experts trying to stem outbreaks of several nasty diseases around the world.  The mechanics are simple, the theme is engaging and people loved it.

Matt Leacock is now famous for designing co-op games and has designed several very popular titles including the current number 1 ranked game on BGG: Pandemic Legacy, which is a version of Pandemic where the game keeps changing after each playthrough.

Personally, I love co-op games.  I know many people who were scarred as a child by boardgame experiences where tempers would flare, tears would be shed and tables flipped because some people’s competitive side couldn’t be curbed.  The idea that you could play a boardgame and not compete with each other is a breath of fresh air for a lot of people.

There are many variations on the straight co-op genre today.  You can have co-ops with a hidden traitor, one vs. many games where one player is competing against a team, co-ops that change into competitive games half way through – people keep innovating around the basic co-op idea.  But for me, I always prefer the pure co-op.

I love the teamwork, the comradery, the discussions of which strategy will work best in the current situation and the corporate sense of achievement when you win.  If you’ve never tried a co-op game before, I highly recommend it.

Here are a few of my favourites, depending on your taste:

  1. Myth

There are many co-op dungeon crawls, but Myth is my favourite.  It’s very hard to do enemy AI well unless you have an Overlord controlling the bad guys.  Myth combines interesting tactical gameplay with an intuitive AI system though.  Throw in some lovely art, high quality miniatures and the world of stuff to keep you campaigning for years to come and you have a premiere co-op dungeon crawl experience.  The only downside is the price.  You’re talking hundreds of pounds if you want everything.

  1. Mechs vs. Minions

Not everyone likes programmable movement, but put it into a co-op game and it works really well.  In Mechs vs. Minions you’re controlling mechs that stomp around on the board shooting wave after wave of minions.  If one of you gets the programming wrong, the others can always help out if they’re not laughing too much – it’s a lot of fun watching people spin round in circles, shoot in the wrong direction and then walk through lava!  Mechs vs. Minions also has the best component quality I’ve ever seen in a game.  Period.

  1. Robinson Crusoe

The theme comes through so well in Robinson Crusoe.   You’re trying to survive having washed up on an island.  You need to hunt, gather wood, build a camp, explore the island, protect yourself from the wild animals and the elements – all before winter arrives and all hope of being rescued vanishes.  It’s tough, but compelling.

  1. Pandemic Legacy

As previously discussed, you’re trying to save the world from diseases that won’t stop spreading!  The legacy version gives you packets to open after each game that add extra components, change the rules and provide an overarching storyline for your campaign.  If you lose a game, it becomes slightly easier the next time you play, but if you win it becomes slightly harder.  By the end, it will have taken you on a cinematic adventure that you won’t forget.

  1. Dead of Winter

A survival, horror game set in a post-apocalyptic world full of zombies.  Some people prefer to play with a traitor, but I prefer to play without.  It works well either way though.  You have to explore locations to gather food and equipment without making too much noise lest you attract unwanted attention.  The game has lots of different missions to add variety and surviving to the end will feel like a lost cause at times, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to pull through if you all work together.

What are your favourite co-op games?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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