Designing My First Cooperative Game

So I’m working on a cooperative game.

The game did not start out cooperative.  Life can be surprising that way.

Like parents, we designers must listen to our designs when they’re young, give them a chance to show what they want to be when they grow up, and do everything we can to help them get there.  Parents who force their children into the wrong career create dysfunctional adults.  Designers who shove their games in the wrong direction get equally dysfunctional designs.

This design already had an “everybody loses” condition.  As it developed, it became increasingly clear that the game wanted to be focused on that condition. With Luther firmly steering me away from the awkward compromise a semi-cooperative design, we shifted all the way over and made the game wholly cooperative.


Cooperative Game Essentials

In a competitive game, the other players are your antagonists.  In a cooperative game, it is the game itself who is the antagonist.

Cooperative games come in many flavors but they all share the same two-part ethos:

  1. There are lots of ways to lose.
  2. The only way to win is by not losing.

Cooperative live in perfect contrast to their competitive counterparts, which tend to offer many paths to victory.


Setting the Difficulty

PandemicThe hardest part of cooperative game design seems to be in getting the right difficulty.  Players expect to lose but they don’t expect to always lose.  It’s our job to find that balance.

Difficulty can be adjusted by limiting (or expanding) the resources given to the game.  If your game has an A.I. like Pandemic, you can adjust how many cards the deck flips each turn.  If your game has troops or money, you can adjust how much it starts with.

Difficulty can also be adjusted by limiting (or expanding) the resources given to the players.  You can give players more (or less) movement, action points, hit points, or starting resources.

Since different groups will have different levels of skill, the best approach I’ve seen is to specifically incorporate multiple difficulty levels in the rules.    Let your players decide the challenge they wish to take on.  This approach addresses the issue of balance and empowers your players a the same time.  Bonus–many players will be familiar with this practice before even opening your box since variable difficulty is common to video games.


Game Roles: Generic Protagonists and Specialists

Some co-operative games give each player the same options as any other.  This casts your players as
Generic Protagonists with equal ability at any circumstance. This is absolutely appropriate for a lighter co-op or one aimed at younger kids.

For oldstar wars angriff der klonkrieger set uper or more sophisticated players, each player should be a Specialist with unique bonuses and handicaps .  Specialization adds an extra layer of depth to play.  The medic in your co-op commando game might not be at the front of the raid but is sure handy to have around after an engagement is over.

For a look at specialists in a cooperative game, I recommend Star Wars: Angriff der Klonkrieger and Pandemic .


Collaboration: Generals, Secrecy, and Traitors

A common concern about cooperative games is that one assertive player can easily become The General.  The General is that player who tells people how to take their turns.  The folks in my regular group are all pretty assertive.  We don’t have much trouble with generals.  Some players are more demure.  They prefer to battle only the game and not the other players.  A run-in with particularly rude generals has caused players to completely give up on co-op games.  And that’s a shame.

Friend and all-around spiffy guy Carl Klutzke offered his simple solution for addressing generals; “don’t play with them.”  I appreciate this attitude.  And I respect it.  But as a designer, I feel that Carl isn’t going far enough.  Game designers are curators for their players’ fun.  We owe our players to consider every approach possible.

One response to The General is enforced secrecy.  Limit how players can communicate.  When our general isn’t wholly aware of the other players’ options, our general cannot realistically command the other players’ actions. I like this solution so long as the game setting supports it.

Shadows Over CamelotAnother design response to The General is its opposite number The Traitor.  The Traitor is any player whose objective is for the other players to lose.  The presence of traitors neuters any would-be generals at the table.  How can I follow your commands when you might actually be working against me?  My first exposure to The Traitor was also my first exposure to cooperative games in general–Shadows Over Camelot.  Battlestar Galactica offers us a similar traitor mechanism.  As in the case of enforced secrecy, I like this solution so long as it is supported by the game’s tone and setting.


ResistanceCrossover Traitors

Recent attempts at Werewolf-without-elimination strongly resemble cooperative games with one or more traitors. The Resistance and Secret Hitler each split players into two teams, offer each team an alternate agenda, and conscript one team (the traitors) to the critical minority.  Although I continue to defend player elimination in Werewolf, I do also appreciate the psychotic glee of continually sizing up every other player throughout the entire run of the game.


What do you think of cooperative games?  Did I miss any features?  Have you written any yourself?  What did you think of the experience?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.



9 thoughts on “Designing My First Cooperative Game

  1. Though I feel like traitor mechanics undermine the collaborative experience of a cooperative game, I understand the desire to create more tension. Cooperation in a game isn’t like cooperation on a real-world project, where all the participants are working toward a common goal but they have different motivations and get different rewards (e.g. Jack gets a promotion, but all Jill gets is a new software system to support, and Gary the consultant finally gets to go home.) I experimented for a while with a game in which there was a shared victory condition which must be met before _anyone_ could win, but each character also had a private victory condition that must be met for them _specifically_ to be considered one of the winners. The results were interesting, and I look forward to getting back to it.

  2. Another interesting co-op variant can be found in Steven Dast’s as-yet-unpublished _Umotu’s Asylum_. Any number of players can win by overcoming the final challenge, but you can’t get to the final challenge without cooperating with the other players. There’s no need for a hidden traitor because everyone is working in their own best interest: sometimes that means helping each other, sometimes it means leaving someone behind.

  3. Carl Klutzke linked this article for me. I feel that one of the keys to prevent “The General” (my group calls them the Alpha Gamer) is to make the scenario have so many moving pieces that one person cannot analyze everything. This is the difference between Forbidden Island/Desert and Pandemic. In Pandemic, there are so many moving pieces that you can effectively disagree with the General and still come out ahead.

    The way I mitigate this in MY co-op design is to assign each player a section of the board (it makes sense when you see the board). The player who controls that section has the final say over anything that happens there.

    • Sentinels of the Multiverse works for me for this reason as well. While the game can be played solo (on the computer), in a multiplayer game there are so many cards in hand and in play that it’s hard for a “general” to dictate specific actions for other players. In our gaming group this complexity tends to result in players collaborating by talking about general tactics and outcomes rather than dictating specific actions, which is how I believe it should be.

  4. Oh! I also want to plug an excellent episode of The Game Crafter Official Podcast, in which JT Smith and Jeff King discuss the topic of cooperative games at length.

  5. Brent Lloyd says:

    I agree with designing to avoid “The General”. Things that help:

    1) Hidden info for each player. (Hands of Cards or Tiles)
    2) Time Limits (like in the Queen Game Escape)
    3) Sense of Identity like in games with heroes and such (Defenders of the Realm)
    4) Game with Random Elements – If there are random elements attached to a players actions it makes it hard to be The General.

    Those four just came off the top of my head, I am sure others can come up with a lot more ideas.


    • Thank you for sharing these Brent!

      Of Brent’s suggestions, I’m most strongly drawn to (2) Time Limits. Space Cadets did this particularly well and I’m ashamed it didn’t make it into the article.

      I’ve seen games that try to limit information but unless that information is truly strictly enforced–such as in Hanabi–there are always Generals who will bypass it.

      I haven’t had the chance to try Defenders of the Realm yet. Clearly, it should move to the “must try” list.

      Do random elements really prevent generals? The general might still tell another player what actions to take, which I worry would still lead to player disenfranchisement.

  6. Brent Lloyd says:

    Yer welcome Kevin,

    Defenders of the Realm should be on every bodies play list! One of my top 5 games of all time.

    Yes, random elements do help curb the General, because random elements limit the perfect information that allow for the General to be the General. The General can tell you what he thinks you should do on your turn, but the higher the random elements the greater uncertainty of him being “right”. Being right is what enables The General in the first place.


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