Co-operative board games

Co-operative Board Game Design Tropes

I’ve been thinking about non-competitive board games recently.

There’s this wonderful thing about the way they are designed and how they operate. Player turns are treated differently in these games. It’s not about pulling one over on your friends, rather it is about trying to communicate with people and working with them towards a common goal. Organizing, discussing and questioning choices rather than motives.

My friend Paul recently sent me a link to a card game about consent between humans and aliens. My mind was blown. I’ve played games like Hanabi, Forbidden Island and Pandemic before but the mechanics in this game were much more unifying than other co-operative card games. It inspired me to create a small game (I’ll put up the game once I’ve made it) and a small analysis of some co-operative board game mechanics/tropes that I’ve encountered.

Limited Actions

Limiting the player’s available actions seems to be a common way of bumping the difficulty and increasing the amount of communication between players. We see this in games like Hanabi and Pandemic where each player has X actions that they can take per turn.

In some cases, these actions can be solitaire like; meaning that there is a correct move (Forbidden Island) and you should always use your actions in the most precise and efficient way. I’m not calling these bad, but I find that games with only limited actions (and maybe a time limit) tend to be quite stale and not very co-operative in the long term. You can essentially play the game on your own and not have to interact with anyone else.

Survival

A great way to unite the players towards a common goal seems to be a threat. This can be either a global virus, a slowly sinking island, a collapsing temple or a creature of unfathomable horror. Either way, the players are united with a common mission; succeed or perish. Survival is more of a thematic setting than a mechanic, but I’ve found it to be a strong enough theme to drive mechanics on its own. In Escape! the combination of surviving the temple collapse and constant dice rolling create a real sense of tension. Especially when a teammate is locked and needs help from another teammate to free them.

Survival as a mechanic seems to require an “all-or-nothing” approach to make the consequences of your actions felt. Take the example above for example. In Escape! you fail or succeed as a team. If Adam is locked in a room and Jane decides to not save him – they will both lose. Taking an “all-or-something” approach will create a much more selfish dynamic within the team. It’s not a big deal if Jane leaves Adam in the room because Jane doesn’t need Adam to win the game.

Limited Communication

This is probably one of my favourite tropes so far. Limited the communication between players creates a much more interesting game to me. Players must find a way to talk without, well, talking! Hanabi immediately comes to mind when thinking about how limited communication marries very well with limited actions.I’ll save my love letter for Hanabi’s design for another post but in essence: players cannot talk except for very small periods of time and even what they say is very limited.

If we took a game like Forbidden Island which contains proper moves and put on some limited communication then the game becomes much more difficult and much more co-operative. Suddenly, players not only must figure out the proper move, but also the best way to communicate it to their teammate who might have a different idea in mind.

We can also take the idea of limited communication and apply it to the senses. Limited hearing, seeing, touching, etc. It really depends on the goal of your game and how the players can accomplish that goal.

I feel like limited communication is one of the strongest ways to bring people together. It requires some creativity and thinking on the player’s end. From there, the player’s partner(s) must think about how to interpret that information. Thinking may be difficult, but games that make you problem solve are some of the best.

Hi-Score

I haven’t seen this one in too many places but that could be because I haven’t been exposed to enough games that employ this trope. But I do love it within the few games that I have seen it in.

Hanabi and Space Alert use this because the games usually have a number of losses before a win. Hi-scores help the players track their personal growth in the game as well as a quantifier for how much they’ve won. This trope isn’t a core mechanic in the way that limited communication or limited actions is, but it’s still a nice way of helping the players feel like they’ve accomplished something.


That’s about it from me this time. I hope you learned something! I’ll probably make another post like this in the future and update this list as I find new tropes.

If you have any games that use the above tropes in interesting or polished manners please share them with me in the comments!