Monday, August 16, 2010

Cooperative Games – Solitaire Games?

I'm very fond of the new style of cooperative board games. I have Pandemic, Lord of the Rings, Ghost Stories, and Vanished Planet. These are games in which the players work together against a nemesis controlled by automatic game rules. A complaint I've sometimes heard from players who aren't fond of this type of game is that they are "just solitaire games". I started analyzing this claim to see what it means, and whether it is true.

A classic solitaire game involves one player against a nemesis controlled by automatic game rules. Sounds pretty similar to a cooperative game so far. Imagine, as a thought experiment, playing an old solitaire game, but instead of one player deciding the moves, having a group of 3 players discuss among themselves what moves to make. I think that if this situation is truly equivalent to a modern cooperative game, that would be the essence of saying a cooperative game is actually a solitaire game. So is a modern cooperative game simply a solitaire game where the moves are decided by committee? If not, what are the differences?

First of all, I have to say that a lot of games really do have a strong "committee solitaire" element, in that the players tend to get together and debate what everyone should be doing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – it can be fun to have a big discussion about what the best move is for the group as a whole. But it does create a certain sense that you don't control your own character.

Here are some potential differences I can see between a modern cooperative game, and a solitaire game where the moves are decided by committee:

1. The sense that each player identifies with and executes the actions of his or her own character. When playing cooperative games, even when the everyone mutually agrees on what moves everyone else is doing, each person's character has a turn, and the player moves the pawn, draws cards or tiles, rolls dice, or does whatever else is necessary to execute the actions of his or her own character. I think this is sort of the minimum step for making a game seem cooperative instead of solitaire. I tend to remember better the actions of my own character and put together a mental narrative of what happened to my own character during the game, rejoicing in my successful moves, even when I wasn't the person who came up with the idea for the move.

2. A second step beyond this is the degree to which each player personally controls his or her own character. In most cooperative games I've played in, even when there is a lot of group discussion and very strong teamwork, each player ends up with more control over his or her own character than over the other characters. One reason is that the owning player ends up "breaking ties" – if the group can't decide between two reasonable strategies, it isn't actually put to a vote, but rather the owning player decides. Indeed, this isn't a formal decision, but rather the basic process of making group decisions is that each player kibitzes on the other players' turns, and the owning player then chooses what to do. Another aspect of individual control is that some decisions are too minor to bring up for group consensus – it would waste time. So the owning player just makes the decision.

3. This individual control goes further when the game complexity is such that it is hard for each player to totally keep track of the situation of every other player, so the group "delegates" responsibility for controlling each player's character to the owner of that character. I'm thinking of how a government might delegate control of specific jobs to specific people, even when the government retains the right to override any decision. In a cooperative game, even when everyone is mutually agreeing on the best group strategy, each player may be expected to champion his own character, examining his own character's unique situtation in the game, and making his specific tactical needs and capabilities known to the other players. For instance, a player says "I need this resource" or says "Hey, I see a situation here to use the special action card I drew."

4. Players may have different information that they cannot share with each other. When this is true in the game, we reach the point at which the game is clearly no longer identical to a solitaire game, as it can no longer be properly played solitaire. Many cooperative games specify that you cannot show each other your hands, you can only talk about them, or possibly you can only hint about what you have. Although this would make the game non-solitaire, I have to say that in my gaming groups, we don't find this rule appealing and generally throw it out. Apparently we aren't all that concerned about whether we are playing a "solitaire" game, we would much rather work tightly together and not have to worry about self-limiting ourselves by trying to conceal our hands instead of just trying to win the game.

5. Characters having differing side goals, as well as a common goal. This element isn't really present very much in the kind of cooperative games I listed, the purely cooperative games I'm thinking of. There is a different type of cooperative game, in which one or more persons are traitors, but I think of that as a rather different type of game than what I am discussing here. However, in all of the purely cooperative game I listed earlier except Pandemic, there is one personal goal of each character – to stay alive until the end of the game. The players aren't required to try to do this, and you can certainly play a game where everyone ignores such considerations. But it isn't much fun to have your character knocked out of the game early, and everyone playing is aware of that. So each player tries to stay alive, and also to keep the other players alive. This makes the game play a little bit differently than it would if a single player were controlling all the pieces and had no qualms about sacrificing them.

The extent to which the "soft" elements 1-3 have an effect really depends a lot on the social dynamics of the players. If one player is totally dominant and the others all passive, one player can end up analyzing the situation and telling everyone else exactly what to do, and it really becomes a solitaire game. If the players don't communicate much with each other and just do their own thing, it will play very differently from a solitaire game except insofar as everyone has the same goal. I'm envisioning that most gaming groups fall in the middle. Actually, for purposes of my analysis I was ignoring the possibility that players would simply refuse to follow the group consensus, as I don't think the complaint that "cooperative games are just solitaire games" is meant to apply to that play style.

It is interesting to compare the modern cooperative board game with an older type of cooperative game, the roleplaying game. If you ignore the fact that the gamemaster is live rather than controlled by automatic rules, there is a lot of similarity – the players in an RPG are totally cooperating in the style of a cooperative game, at least in roleplaying styles emphasizing heavy teamwork rather than inter-player conflict. Thinking of this style of RPG gaming – where the players are totally focussed on working together to succeed in the mission – what makes it not feel like a solitaire game?

Actually, in the most degenerate case, a roleplaying game really can have a lot of the feel of a solitaire game. This happens when one player is really dominant over the others (and usually expert in the rules), and ends up telling everyone else exactly what to do in order to maximize the chances of party success. But I think this happens to a lesser extent in roleplaying games than cooperative board games because classic RPG's are strong in the points I listed earlier. You certainly identify strongly with your own character in a classic RPG, especially after going through a length character creation process and following your character's progression throughout numerous adventures. And RPG characters can be pretty complex, and what is happening in the game can be pretty complex and involving, so that it is not easy to try to figure out exactly what other people's characters should be doing, even when you are inclined to do so. And once the game starts to involve even a small amount of actual roleplaying, it becomes clear that individual characters have individual motivations which can only be interpreted by the owning player, not by a committee.


  1. If you like cooperative games, you would love Battlestar Galactica. Fantastic game and great fun. I have written a review in my magazine ( Hope you like it!

  2. Keith from Friday night game group here - insightful analysis! I'm going to ramble on for a bit because your post got me thinking.

    I would be interested in playing a game that incorporates your 3rd point - I think that could be fascinating, though probably more difficult to learn.

    Per your fourth point, I agree, if the entire team is working together toward a common goal, communication is key, and the rule prohibiting players on showing cards/items seems arbitrary if you are allowed to to communicate them in other ways. Perhaps the purpose of the hidden cards is to make the game appear (when it may not actually be the case) less like a solitaire game, and more like a cooperative game. For example, when played with the "secret cards" rule, each player, including those who are less dominant/experienced are forced to speak up for the common good of the team. Sitting back while a more experienced player dictates the direction of the game without information on what the meeker player holds could hinder the group's chance of success. It prohibits a dominant player from simply looking over all players cards and making decisions on behalf of the group. That said, if all players are of the same caliber in rules and "dominance" and cooperate well, the rule becomes arbitrary.

    My favorite non arbitrary use of rule is Battlestar, where not showing your cards becomes more important as there may be one or more traitors in your midst. Then the cards take on a different meaning entirely - they become less representative of "physical items" (a key that can open a door and advance the game, for example) and more representative of "ideas or information" (with my knowledge, we can beat this obstacle). Of course ideas and information can be twisted/miscommunicated or completely fabricated. This works incredibly well within the game, where certain players have objectives that oppose the traditional "common good."

    Per your fifth point, the other reason to keep players alive is that the game often becomes more difficult to beat with fewer players contributing.

    Good stuff, I look forward to Friday!

  3. Good to here your comments! You have a good point, that the rule prohibiting other players from seeing your cards may be helpful in preventing dominant players from telling everyone else what to do.

    Games with traitors are called cooperative games, but they lack the element of being "equivalent" to a solitaire game. A fully cooperative game can, in fact, be played as a solitaire game with no rules changes. A game with traitors cannot be played as a solitaire game without substantial rules changes (unless that person plays multiple sides, which is different from a true solitaire game). So in a game with traitors, hiding your hand is a fundamentally meaningful aspect of game play.

    For the fifth point, what I neglected to mention was that I was really referring to was the extent to which players have a greater incentive to keep their individual characters alive than is actually required by gameplay. In particular, games such as Lord of the Rings have the peculiar feature that the death of a player does not necessarily hurt the party at all, because the "evil side" loses just as much as the good side. The reason players try desperately to keep everyone in the party alive is not because it makes the game easier to win, but because it is more fun to keep all the players active in the game, and because a victory where everyone lives is a "better" victory, and because trying to keep everyone alive is just the natural way of playing a cooperative enterprise.

  4. It occurs to me that a big part of hiding your cards is a desire to play along with the secrecy aspect. I can't speak for BSG, but when I played Shadows over Camelot, it was clear that the rule about not revealing your cards was vaguely phrased and very open to interpretation - something like "you can only describe your hand in character". In order to make coordination possible, we started using code words like "first-rate warriors" to mean rank 1 warriors.

    It strikes me that if you really took this to an extreme, everyone could just reveal exactly what was in their hands, making the hiding of the cards meaningless except for traitors. And it would certainly help discover traitors, although Shadows over Camelot had lots of instances of playing cards without revealing them, in order to make it difficult to out traitors in this way. But it sure would be harder to play a traitor when you have to maintain a consistent set of lies about all the cards you draw.

    The reason people don't play this way is that it is a big time sink, and because it is lame, it is not playing along with the game, if you don't want secrecy why aren't you playing a different game? In playing fully cooperative games, the secrecy aspect equally relies on people playing along, when we lost our interest in playing along with the secrecy the rule lost its purposes, so we just turned over our cards and forgot about it.

  5. Re: the Fifth point - that is interesting, I hadn't thought about how LOTR actually hampers he game (sauron) for having fewer players. (I suppose this is through requiring fewer players to collect items, and thus speeding up the game, right?) Ghost Stories seems to be the opposite though - one fewer person to collect tokens/fight ghosts/use a particular power seems to outweight the fact that one less ghost will be drawn per round. (Though I can't confirm this as I haven't played a game where one player died.)

  6. Unfortunately I can't speak to Shadows Over Camelot, never having played it. But the requirement (at least for BSG) that you don't actually show your cards is important as you can obviously out a traitor if you were able to, thus ruining the integrity and point of the game. That said, you are allowed to tell anyone whatever you wish, including your actual abilities, and which cards you play in "skill checks". Since multiple cards are played in skill checks, including some randomizers, you are allowed to lie without being caught to a certain extent. Knowing when to lie, maintaining the lies, and knowing when to go along with the group dynamic is what makes the game all that much more interesting for the traitor characters.

  7. You can think of LOTR as an endless series of alternations between a game action (drawing a tile) and a player action. The rate at which bad stuff happens in the game is based on the number of game turns, and the rate at which the players do things is based on the number of player turns. If all players are alive, the players get one action for every game action. If a player dies, the players still get one action for every game action. There are just fewer players among whom the player actions are divided, so each player now gets a larger portion of the player actions and goes more often over the course of a given mission board.

    There are definitely balance differences between different numbers of players - for instance, more players means more starting cards and more bodies to absorb corruption that is not per-player, but also makes it harder to gain enough life tokens. These effects are supposed to roughly balance out. Otherwise, it would mean the game didn't scale properly - a 2-player game of LOTR would be much harder than a 5-player game of LOTR.

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