I’ve played a slew of one-vs-many games recently, from comic-strip mayhem (Batman: Gotham City Chronicles) to Film Noire detective fiction (Detective: City of Angels) to the Cthulhian zombie apocalypse (The Others).
I’ve always had mixed feelings about one-vs-many games. If you’re not familiar with the term, Descent is the classic example. One player plays the Overlord, who controls all the monsters and attempts to thwart the heroes’ plans. Everyone else takes on the role of heroes who forge a path through the dungeon, killing the monsters and completing the mission.
Traditionally, fully co-op dungeon crawls often struggle to provide an authentic AI. You need some way to determine what the monsters will do on their turn, but a set of rules governing their behaviour (an AI) can make them feel robotic and can turn what should be a romp into an analytical morass.
Allowing a player to control the bad guy gives a much more realistic opponent to fight against. So why the mixed feelings? Let me explain…
I love co-op games. When Reiner Knizia‘s Lord of the Rings came out in 2000, it was a breath of fresh air, despite being rather clunky and formulaic. The idea that we were working together against the game was mind blowing at the time.
Obviously we have some excellent co-operative games these days (Pandemic being a prime example), where players are presented with a scenario and have to manage their actions and resources well enough to overcome the difficulties they face.
The good ones require lots of teamwork and co-operation so when you succeed, you get a sense of having been through the gauntlet together and emerged triumphant – I love it! Even when you lose, there’s a sense of solidarity, a debrief (“Perhaps if we had done this instead of that?”) and a desire to try again.
I don’t mind competition so much in a Euro. I feel like I’m competing against myself to do the best I can with the resources I have. I don’t feel someone else’s gain is my loss. If they get more points than me because they managed what they had better than me, all credit to them! If they won because they stole my stuff or killed my guys though, it’s difficult not to feel hard done by.
What does this have to do with one-vs-many games? While I appreciate the problem that one-vs-many games are attempting to address (more on that later), my issue is that it essentially turns a co-operative game into a competitive game. And a rather lop-sided competitive game at that.
As the Overlord, if you try your best and win, everyone else loses. There’s no second place, they just lose. All of them. There’s a distinctive gloom that settles around the table when heroes realise it’s all over. You win, but you still feel like you lose because everyone else is deflated.
If you don’t try your best, enabling the heroes to win, it can feel like you’re not really playing the game with them. You become the indulgent father who runs around trying (vaguely) to catch the children in order to keep them entertained.
If you try your best and lose, well then you lost. There’s just no situation in which you come out a winner.
As a hero, winning feels good for sure. The sense of achieving a goal through teamwork comes through. But then there’s always that nagging doubt: “Was the Overlord taking it easy on us?”
Another major issue with these games is balance. It’s very hard not to make one side more powerful than the other. If it’s too easy for the heroes, they get no sense of challenge and the Overlord fees a bit redundant. For this reason, more recent games in this genre err on the side of making it hard for the heroes. But this comes back to my issue with competition. You’re losing because the nasty Overlord killed all your guys!
So while I would rate many of these games very highly, I’d usually prefer a fully co-op dungeon crawl. What about the AI problem? Well, fortunately, game design has steadily improved over the years. While clunky AI hasn’t been entirely phased out, there are a number of excellent fully co-op dungeon crawls that provide an intuitive yet challenging AI experience.
My favourites would be Myth, Too Many Bones, Arkham Horror and Mechs vs Minions, to name a few. They’re not all dungeon crawls exactly, but they all give you that feeling of fighting your way through hordes of monsters. And they all have solid AIs. So if one-vs-many games are leaving a sour taste in the mouth too often, try one of those!
What do you think? Do you like one-vs-many games? Have you played any that feel sufficiently balanced?