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.