The first semi-cooperative board game I ever played was HeroQuest. While I couldn’t get my middle school girlfriends to try role-playing games with me—and it didn’t even occur to me to befriend the nerdy boys in my classes—I enjoyed many hours of playing GM while my best friend played the four heroes (Jenny’s Barbarian was dumb and had a propensity for fighting walls, while the Wizard and Dwarf carried out a clandestine love affair in dark corners between turns.) I guess technically it wasn’t cooperative since I was actively trying to kill all her heroes… but the goal wasn’t “winning” so much as telling an entertaining story together.
My taste in gaming has come a long way since then, as have modern board games, but cooperative games still hold a special place in my heart. There’s more to today’s co-op games than the simple D&D-lite dungeon crawl that HeroQuest offered. Now, games challenge players to work together to solve complicated problems. Can we prevent global pandemic? Can we defeat the evil forces at work in the world before Cthulhu awakens and devours us all? Can we pull off this heist without getting caught? I love seeing all the different facets of my friends’ personalities come out, as well as the feeling of winning with my friends instead of against them. (Don’t get me wrong—I love that too!)
Even though these games are meant to be played together, without competition between players, conflict can still arise. “Quarterbacking,” where more experienced or confident players overshadow less confident players, can take an activity that’s supposed to be fun and turn it into an exercise in frustration. It can be discouraging to sit down to play a game only to have other players decide which moves you should make on your turn. In some cooperative games, such as Pandemic or Eldritch Horror, it’s good and necessary for players to collaborate on which moves they should each make. If we can all see where infection cubes or cultists are on the board, it makes sense for us to discuss who should deal with each one. But there’s a fine line between offering suggestions and taking over.
Most of my favorite cooperative games have unique mechanics that get around the problem of quarterbacking, empowering players to contribute their individual strengths and talents to the team. Here are some of my top picks.
In Spirit Island, up to four players take on the role of island Spirits, sworn to protect their land and its native people, the Dahan, from the presence of foreign invaders. Each player chooses a different Spirit, each with a different set of powers and its own play-style, such as the defensive “Vital Strength of the Earth,” the offensive “Lightning’s Swift Strike,” the terrifying “Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares,” or my current favorite, the flexible and Dahan-centric “Thunderspeaker.”
Spirit Island is the most strategically complex cooperative game I’ve played, with seemingly endless replayability. Once players are comfortable with basic gameplay, there are a number of options for adding variety to the game including five scenarios, three adversaries with six different difficulty levels each, and a “thematic board” on the reverse of the standard game board. Additionally, the Spirits start the game with the same basic abilities each time, but then gain new, random abilities as the game progresses, making their strategy different each time. Quite a bit to keep track of.
The complexity makes quarterbacking nearly impossible for even the most skilled player. Spirit Island shines not when players try to divine the optimal strategy for the team as a whole, but rather, when players take responsibility for their Spirit’s unique abilities and work together to see how they can help others succeed.
On the opposite end of complexity from Spirit Island is FUSE, a dice-based game that is played in ten-minute sessions. A number of bombs (represented by a deck of cards) have been activated on your spaceship, and your team has ten minutes to defuse them before they detonate. In turn, each player draws dice from a bag, rolls them, and everyone takes a die, matching the numbers or colors to corresponding spaces on one of the bomb cards in front of them. The bag then passes to the next player, and the process is repeated until the timer runs out or all the bombs have been defused. The gameplay is frantic and chaotic.
FUSE’s solution to quarterbacking is its timer. One player could try to monitor all their teammates’ options and dictate which die each of them should take each turn, but that would take near-supernatural levels of focus. It’s hard enough to focus on your own cards and make quick decisions about the best dice to take or best bomb to focus on at any moment. When my friends and I play, our strategizing usually involves figuring out how to make the process of die-rolling and bag-passing as efficient as possible, how to make quick decisions, and how to communicate efficiently with our teammates about which dice we absolutely need at that moment.
FUSE is a tense game, and when each round is over, win or lose, our team collectively lets out a sigh of relief. Ten minutes goes by in a flash when the fate of your spaceship—and your life—is at stake. If you use the game’s official timer app, there’s even an annoying ship’s AI. (“Are you even TRYING to defuse the bombs?!”)
Because of this tension, FUSE can result in some hurt feelings when players take the game too seriously and get frustrated with one another. But if quick, simple games with dice-rolling, symbol-matching, and timed play are your jam, this is one worth checking out.
The Grizzled is about surviving war, yet it’s not about combat. Players take on the role of French soldiers during WWI who are trying to survive the emotional and psychological turmoil of life in the trenches. The main mechanic of the game isn’t particularly complicated—at its simplest level, players are adding cards from their hand to a central tableau, trying to avoid matching any symbol (representing trials like “snow” or “gas”) three times per mission (game round). What makes this game challenging—and completely eliminates quarterbacking when the rules are followed—is that each player’s hand of cards is secret, and players are not allowed to discuss or even imply the contents of their hand. They may only say “I think I can help out right now” or “I can’t help you; I’m going to have to withdraw from the mission on my next turn.”
I love that The Grizzled is a cooperative game that’s actually about cooperation and friendship. It’s about using teamwork and encouragement to survive another day, and it’s about learning to communicate effectively in the midst of hardship and fear. Many of the cards are “trauma” cards that have lasting abilities, negatively impacting a player’s ability to contribute, including my favorite: a “Mute” card that restricts the affected player from speaking or communicating in any way while the card is in play. The only way to discard cards like these is via “support tokens,” which other players choose secretly when they pass their turn, choosing to pass to their left or their right depending on which player they think needs more help, and which tokens they have available. Once all players have passed each round, the support tokens are distributed, and the player with the majority of tokens that round is allowed to discard up to two traumas. Again, players aren’t allowed to discuss who their support token will be passing to, but if they agree ahead of time who is in most need of the help if possible, it’s much more likely that the support will actually get passed their way.
The Grizzled requires that players trust their teammates to make decisions that benefit the entire team with limited information, and to extend grace when those decisions turn out to be the wrong ones. I’m particularly excited about the forthcoming Armistice Edition, which will add pre-painted minis and a campaign mode to a game that already has a prized place in my collection.
I’m a big fan of Fowers Games, and their earlier game Burgle Bros is still one of my favorite cooperative games to introduce to people. However, it does occasionally suffer from quarterbacking. All of the available information is shared publicly, and it’s easy for experienced players to offer “advice” to newer players, who then never get to learn from their “genius” decisions the hard way.
That’s why I really love what Tim Fowers has done with his newest game, Now Boarding. Players work together to control a fleet of airplanes, delivering travelers to their intended destinations around the United States. The game is split into two phases: an untimed planning phase, and a timed active phase where players put their plans into action. What really makes this game shine (beyond the whimsical artwork by Ryan Goldsberry) is: (1) the timed phase is a mere 15 or 30 seconds depending on the number of players, which definitely not enough time for any quarterbacking, and (2) new information becomes available each round only after the planning phase is over and the timer is started. Even if one person takes charge during the planning phase, players will need to independently make their own quick decisions and coordinate together during the timed phase.
So, you may have all decided that your plane should pick up passengers at LAX and deliver them to ORD, only to find out once the new cards are revealed that there are two new passengers in LAX who want to get to SEA, and you have the best plane for the job to get everyone delivered. But there’s that lady in ORD who’s getting angry and about to walk away. And there are only ten seconds left to decide…
Now Boarding is quick to pick up, but don’t let that fool you… you will probably lose at least as many games as you win, if not more, even with skilled strategy gamers.
…and then, we held hands.
If you play games with me long enough, I will probably try to convince you to play this game with me at least once. It’s an odd game, with a name and theme that scares many people when I present it to them: …and then, we held hands. is a game about repairing a failing relationship. Not a cheerful theme, or a comfortable one, which is part of what I like about it. It’s a great litmus test to see how much a person is willing to overlook strangeness and try something new. Also, I take morbid pleasure out of watching people squirm as they try to decide whether or not to humor me and play my weird game about feelings.
On the surface, it may not be much to look at. With the game’s minimalist design, even the cards contain little more than a name, a color, and some artwork. The goal of the game is simple, too: complete all 24 objectives before you run out of cards. Move your token around the board by playing cards of the color that matches the space you want to move into, and ending your turn on a space matching the objective’s color. Either player can meet an objective, and each player is allowed to use cards from the other’s hand. Simple.
The catch is that neither player is allowed to discuss their strategy while they are playing. They can hold a conversation about innocuous things like the weather, or the beautiful card illustrations by Marie Cardouat (you may recognize her art style from Dixit), or what they did with their day today. Or they can sit together and play in silence, which happens a lot because it’s surprisingly difficult to focus on strategy and hold an unrelated conversation at the same time.
So with communication about the game completely removed as an option, you are left in an awkward, vulnerable state where you are completely reliant on your teammate paying close attention to your game state as well as their own. If at any point one of you can’t make a move, the game is over, and your attempts to repair the relationship have failed. As with many of the other games in this list, there’s an element of trust involved: will my teammate care enough about this game and our experience together to pay close attention and make good decisions for both of us? Or will they make only a half-hearted attempt in a rush to get to back to more comfortable territory?
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Cooperative games require players to think differently about strategy than if they were playing alone, and they can reveal players’ priorities. Are you in the game simply to win, or to share an experience with the other people at the table? Can you give up some of your power so that other people can have a voice? Playing cooperative games can teach us about more than just gaming strategy—they require us to practice communication, sacrifice, patience, and leadership—skills that can help us navigate and strengthen our relationships both at and away from the table.
Editorial note: This article originally stated that Burgle Bros (2015) was Fowers Games first game. However, both Wok Star (2010) and Paperback (2014) were published earlier. The article has since been corrected.