Cooperative board games are difficult to design. One major failure mode of a cooperative game is one player directing all the others what to do. At that point, it becomes a one-player game, only there are several additional people sitting around being bored.
One of the best-known cooperative games, Pandemic, has this problem really bad. Pandemic requires players to carefully coordinate in order to contain several diseases as they spread throughout the world. Unfortunately, the “careful coordination” often amounts to the most experienced player telling everybody else what to do. This is often a winning strategy, because the more experienced player can usually unambiguously identify the correct move. I refuse to play Pandemic for this reason.
But I do like other cooperative games. Here I’ll go through some examples and describe how I think they address the issues with Pandemic.
In Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, players overcome obstacles by playing cards face down, and then summing up the points on those cards. The rule is, you can’t say what cards you have available, or which ones you’re choosing to play. Otherwise, it would be too easy for people to coordinate and play just the right number. You are, however, allowed to give ambiguous information like, “I’m helping a lot for this one”.
This solution works, although personally I find it annoying how ambiguous the rule is. It’s obviously against the rules if we use the phrase “just a tad” as code for “I’m playing a 1”, but at what point does the code become illegal? I prefer games that have more formalized rules about what kind of information can be exchanged. Here are several examples:
In Hanabi each player holds their cards backwards, so that they are visible to everyone except themselves. In order to tell people about the cards in their hand, you have to expend clue tokens, and you’re constrained to giving only specific types of clues.
In Mysterium players cooperate to solve a murder mystery by communicating with a ghost of the murdered person. The ghost (a player) is not allowed to say a single word the whole game, but can only communicate through mysterious visions (represented by cards with surrealist artwork).
Codenames isn’t exactly a cooperative game, but there are two teams, and people within each team cooperate. It’s a bit like Taboo or Pictionary in that one player tries to get their team to guess the right words. But the player’s communication is restricted to a single word per turn.
Many cooperative games, such as Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, feature a hidden traitor. Everyone pretends to cooperate, but there’s an element of distrust because some players are secretly working against the team. You wouldn’t want one player controlling the whole team, because what if that person is a cylon?
Unfortunately, there are a few issues with the traitor mechanic. What if the traitor doesn’t know how to play very well? And once you identify the traitor, the game transforms into just another competitive game, possibly not a very interesting one. One easy solution is to make the game short. Once players have identified the traitor, the game is over, or basically over. And then you just play again. There’s a whole genre of hidden identity games along these lines, including Mafia, Werewolf, Avalon, Saboteur, Shadowhunters, and Spyfall.
Another issue I have with the traitor mechanic, is that the traitor’s options are often too constrained. It’s in the cooperative team’s interest to be as transparent as possible, and the traitor has to behave like they also want transparency, even though they don’t. This is particularly an issue in Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, where the rules are unclear about how transparent you are allowed to be. I consider Spyfall to be a model solution. The cooperative team knows their location, while the spy (the traitor) does not, and is trying to figure it out. The spy tries to be cagey to not give away their identity, while everyone else tries to be cagey to not give away their location.
Aside from having traitors, I think it would be interesting to give players secondary goals, meaning that some players can win “more” than other players. Probably some games already do this, but I’ve never played one.
Dexterity and time pressure
Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a board game that comes with a soundtrack. Players explore a temple, Indiana Jones style, and try to escape before the end of the soundtrack. Players don’t take turns, they’re just limited by how quickly they reroll dice. “Time pressure” refers to the fact that there’s a time limit, and “dexterity” refers to the physical feat of rolling dice quickly. Even if you have some expert player on your team, they can’t roll dice for you!
This is a post about board games, but I should mention that this is the solution used by nearly every cooperative video game. Your teammates aren’t going to take your controller from your hands and play for you.
Lightness and randomness
I recently played a game called Star Trek: Five Year Mission. Players take turns rolling dice, and if you roll the right numbers you can use them to overcome an onslaught of obstacles. There are several mechanisms to prevents one player from controlling everyone else. But for me, the main thing was, this game is so light.
I don’t mean that pejoratively, sometimes we just want a light game. What I mean is that the game is so random that it didn’t seem terribly important to optimize our decisions by asking the experienced players for advice. It also moves quickly enough that asking for advice would slow it down way too much.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Arkham Horror. This game has an impressive number of moving components.
While an experienced player can direct a team of Pandemic players to victory, it would be a bit overwhelming to direct a team of Arkham Horror players to victory. There’s just too much to keep track of. Also, the most experienced player is likely the one managing things like the rules of monster behavior, so they’re too distracted to micromanage other players.
The problem with using complexity, is that complexity is relative. Sometimes it’s too complex for new players and simple for experience players, which can lead them to dominate the team even more. Of course, if one of the players ever becomes too controlling, you can just let them play as two characters at once, maybe that’ll shut them up.
Conclusion and questions
When I researched this problem, I found that it’s often called the “alpha player” problem. Apparently people disagree whether it’s a problem with the game, or a problem with the players. It turns out that I have a strong opinion about this. It’s caused by both. But that’s besides the point. It doesn’t matter what causes it, it matters what the easiest fix is. I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot easier to switch games than to switch player groups.
So there you have it, multiple ways to prevent one player from controlling their whole team. Are there any solutions that you particularly like, or don’t like? Have you played any cooperative games that you felt had elegant solutions? Or perhaps you’ve found solutions by changing player behavior?