Though games where all involved players play on a single team have been a popular part of electronic gaming nearly since its inception, their popularity has only recently ramped up when it comes to traditional gaming. Board games and card games have been around for orders of magnitude longer than electronic games, but the earliest known board games are almost invariably tests of skill between two players. They frequently simulated war or politics and required one player to outthink his opponent to achieve victory. More recent games have placed players on opposing teams or have even set a single player against all other involved players, but it’s only been in very recent years that truly cooperative games have emerged and subsequently become one of the fastest-growing segments of the traditional gaming market.
The electronic roots of the cooperative game shine through even in the jargon. The systems that govern the obstacles for the players to overcome are usually called the game’s AI. Such systems can be as simple as flipping over a card to see the next challenge or can involve a complex “program” of conditions and results not unlike rudimentary computer programming. No matter the complexity of the resolution, however, the complexities of co-op game design considerations are high. Without a human intelligence behind the game’s challenges, there is a delicate balance between a cooperative board game that is too difficult for players to find enjoyable and one that is too simple to provide an engaging challenge. This is why cooperative game reviews on sites like Board Game Geek often focus on critiquing a cooperative game’s difficulty level.
One common way to address some of these difficulty level concerns is to include rules that allow the players to adjust the difficulty level before start of the game. There is a host of ways that different game developers have provided this “dial” to their players, ranging from very simple and elegant tweaks to substantially reworking game rules to alter the experience. When done well, though, such rules allow a game to provide a challenge to veteran gamers while keeping the game accessible to a more casual crowd.
Cooperative games have proven so popular because of their inclusivity. Whether the players win or lose, no one player is defeated by his fellow gamers. If they win, everyone gets to enjoy the victory, and even if they lose, they can focus on what they can do next time rather than focusing on the defeat itself. No matter your own gaming group’s preferences, I’d strongly encourage you to check out a cooperative game or two sometime. These games are a fascinating and rapidly-growing segment of the traditional games market, and they provide a change of pace from competitive gaming options.