Board game design

OK, we’re all in this together! Going nowhere…
Recently I’ve been thinking about designing a board-game where players cooperate, even though there could only be a single winner.

Thus far I’ve found it hard going; it’s all too clear that cooperating means helping another win and thus getting yourself to lose.

So, it’s time to go to first principles, think deep and hard about different ways of engendering cooperation. The best way I’ve found for that is by writing about it: Nothing makes vague thoughts clear as committing them to paper (electrons). And who knows, maybe others will read this and come up with some brilliant ideas to help me further as well (do leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!)

What is cooperation?

Cooperation is anything where two or more people interact and those who interact benefit.

Note that this does not mean that all should benefit equally, only that all gain something from the cooperation.

Why have cooperation in your board-game?

Interaction between players is a strong driver of depth in board-games: Players are infinitely more complex than anything that can be captured in card-board (see this post on player interaction).

Interaction in most board-games is “negative”: Preventing another player from achieving their goals. This can either be very direct, by attacking them, more passively, by “getting in the way” or in a myriad of other ways.

Cooperation is a second form of interaction, one that is much more “positive”: All of those interacting gain. As such I believe it can be a source of additional fun in board-games.

Cooperation in real life

In real life cooperation is very often a good idea. ”Let’s go hunt with the entire group so we can take down a mammoth and have ample food for the entire village!”

This is because in real life we don’t normally think in winners and losers: Cooperating makes sure that we all have food and that none have to starve.

Having said that, cooperation is generally not entirely “fair”: The leader of the hunt gets more status and perhaps the juiciest bit of mammoth. But even here there is a trade-off: It takes a lot of investment to become leader of the hunt. And that investment certainly isn’t risk-free (mammoths have those tusks for a reason!)

Cooperation in board-games

Board-games have very clear winners and losers (though, do read this post for ideas on board-games without a winner). This makes that players will assess actions not only on how much it brings them but also what the others would gain: “an opponent’s gain is my loss”. In a two-player game this is very clear: There is little difference between my opponent gaining a point and myself losing one.

This makes it difficult to foster cooperation: My gain has to weigh up to what the other(s) gets.

But, there are board-games that do get people to cooperate. Let’s take a look at some ways in which this can be done.

1. Trading

How many bricks was I getting?
In Catan players can trade resources; they give something they have in high supply and get something that is scarce for them, in the process increasing the value for themselves (see this post about value and cost in board-games and this one on scarcity).

The player on the other side of the trade however gains in the same way. One player might get a better deal, but both players must agree that it’s good enough else they wouldn’t be willing to make the trade.

There are losers in this though: Anybody not in the trade. The traders increased the value of what they have in their hand and thus moved a little bit ahead, leaving anybody outside the trade a little bit behind.

Thus trading only really works when there are more than two players.

2. Moving ahead together

The idea of trading can be generalized to any action that benefits two or more players while leaving the other players behind.

In Munchkin players can work together to defeat a monster that a single player wouldn’t be able to handle. Any treasure that results from the encounter is then split by the cooperating players. There can be barter involved, but it’s not a real trade, as the resources are “new” (coming from the defeated monster).

3. Ganging up

In Risk it at some point becomes clear that a player is surging ahead. At this point every other player is at a serious risk (pun intended) of losing the game. There is then a clear incentive to gang up on the leader to bring her down a notch.

Once the playing field has been equalized again however there is no real reason to continue the cooperation; yesterday’s ally could well be tomorrow’s greatest threat!

This only works if there is a way of directly attacking other players, something that a lot of people are not particularly fond of.

And while the players who are bringing the leader low are cooperating, this is very directly at the cost of another player.

4. Accidental help

In Puerto Rico each player selects a role, which can then be executed by all players. This means that every role selected helps you, but it also helps all the other players.

Here you’re not only trying to find the role that help you most, but also the ones that benefit all the other players least.

Though this is a form of interaction that is “positive” for all players, it does not feel to me that it’s really “cooperating”. Still, it is a very powerful way of creating interesting forms of player interaction.

5. For the greater good

If there is a goal that needs to be achieved by all players, then people will very naturally cooperate to reach that goal.

In true cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) this is an optimal way of playing. However this need not be the case in semi-cooperative games.

In Dead of Winter there is a mutual goal whilst players also have their own goals (and there is a chance of having a betrayer). Here people in general want to work together to reach the mutual goal, but they would much rather have the other players contribute more than they do themselves, as that leaves more resources for them to pursue their own individual goals.

This can even be implemented in non-cooperative games, if the penalty of non-cooperation is high enough (e.g. everybody loses the game).

6. Cooperative synergy

When trading, resources chance hands, but the total number of resources remains the same; value is created by having different preferences for resources.

Value however can also be created explicitly: Do an action on your own and you get two resources, but do the action together with someone else and you get five resources for the two of you.

Terra Mystica uses a form of this, where building buildings next to your opponent’s makes (some of them) cheaper, while at the same time allowing your opponent to take magical power.

In this case the game rules give a “multiplier” to incentivize cooperation (see this post on incentives in board games).

7. Hidden goals

This is a sure-fire way to getting someone to inadvertently help you!
When you cooperate you’re helping your opponent. This means that they are closer to winning and thus that you might lose the game.

One way to mitigate this somewhat is by having hidden goals; if you don’t know exactly what your opponent is trying to achieve, it becomes harder to see how much you’re helping them (and vice versa). This allows players to act more “selfishly”, looking more at what they will gain from the cooperation and taking less account of how much they are helping the other.

Though it’s not the best example, Risk can have this. If it’s my goal to eliminate yellow, then any player who attack attacks yellow is actually helping me achieve my goal.

While this technically complies with my definition of cooperation (both players benefit), it’s unknown to the player taking the action (attacking yellow) that she’s helping another player. As such this also feels like a weak form of cooperation.

Closing thoughts

Cooperation is a positive way of engendering interaction between players, with all the benefits that that entails. There are however natural barriers to cooperation in board-games, all stemming from the idea that any help to my opponent brings her closer to winning.

In the sections above I give a number of ways in which a board-game can make cooperation between players more likely. Hopefully these can be helpful to you in creating interesting and positive player interactions. And while I give a fair number, I’m sure that with a bit of thought you can come up with many more. If you find an interesting one do let me know?

Further reading

Cooperation is a form of player interaction. Read more about the subject here:
7 forms of player interaction
How to use player interaction for better board games

About the author

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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