Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cooperative games - the very definition of multiplayer solitaire?

One of my least favorite things about the cooperative games I've seen so far - mostly Lord of the Rings and Shadows over Camelot, as well as various role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons - is that they can and often are more or less driven by the most dominant (or stubborn) person in the room. It's like that person is playing solitaire, and everyone else is just watching. For some people that might be OK, or even fun, but for me... well, I'd like to see a game in which each player must make their own choices, do their own thing, and yet still be encouraged to help the other players.

In Knizia's Lord of the Rings cooperative game, an attempt is made to make the game effectively multiplayer by giving each player different cards, and it's presumably up to each player how he spends those cards. It would be a much different game if the players played the game in seclusion, without being able to discuss each others' plays, and in theory, you're not supposed to tell people what cards you have, but really - where do you draw the line? What's the difference between "That next event looks dangerous, maybe we should fight our way through the board as fast as possible," and "If you have fight cards, you should advance the main track or we're going to lose," and "play your fight card and a friendship card, so player 2 can get the Heart they need, and I can finish off the board with the cards in my hand."

Shadows over Camelot adds a particularly effective deterrent for this kind of thing... namely the player coaching everyone else might in fact be a traitor! This is a novel idea, and it goes a long way toward solving the solitaire problem, but not all the way. In practice, it's still possible (easy, even) for a dominant personality to drive everyone's play, whether they're a traitor or not. Statements like "You should go to the Grail challenge and play a Grail card, unless of course you're the traitor!" can go a long way toward dominating a game. In that particular game, not working as a team is a good way to lose, so either you do what the dominant guy says, or you do your on thing and people think you're the traitor, or you do your own thing and the team loses because everyone's doing their own thing. In Shadows over Camelot you're also not supposed to discuss what you have in your hand, but to a lot of people it's just tedious to say "That's an awfully pathetic looking Black Knight" when placing a face down Fight-1 card there, or "I feel anxious to start the fight against the Saxons, but I fear I cannot finish!" Is the intent to promote role playing in order to communicate what you have in hand? Or is the intent that you're not supposed to know what people have in hand? I propose the latter would be more fun as a game, because the former leads to solitaire.

So how do you do it? How do you create a game in which players want to work together, but also have to think for themselves and make their own decisions? Here are some thoughts I've been having so far - no guarantee they'll work:

- I'd like to see team building and team dynamics, but I'd also like to see each member of the team have to do their own thing.

- I like the idea of team strategy - a discussion of who's going to have what responsibility, and that could theoretically by dominated by an Alpha player, but then in the resolution of each member's duties I'd like to see players have to act for themselves. Maybe little solo mini-games.

- The player interaction is in preparation for multiple (simultaneous?) mini-games, the result of which feeds back into the group's next strategy session.

- I also like the idea of a player not being "on the team" (i.e. a Traitor). Specifically, I like the idea that any player may become a traitor sometime mid game, and nobody knows ahead of time who or when.

The idea here is a cooperative game, where all players are on the same team (except for the potential traitor), and they're working together to accomplish a common goal. The theme I've had in mind for this is the TV show 24, where players are CTU agents working to avert a terrorist attack. Jack Bauer, being the show's hero, would make an appearance in the game, but as an NPC - a character or resource players could make use of, but not a personality any single player would play. The theme could be made generically anti-terrorist, even on a larger scale, where players control various branches or departments (CTU, Homeland security, FBI, CIA...) - but I personally think there's some value to tapping into a cool, established franchise for a theme. Most licensed games don't impress, but that's because the people doing them aren't trying to make a good game, they're trying to sell some crap based on the license. I'd like to make a good game with a licensed theme.


Mohan said...

Interesting post. I basically agree with all of your criticism of co-op gameplay, but am not sure about your proposed solutions.

To me, an interesting way to think about co-op board games is to examine co-op video games and why they work. My take is that two things make it work in that context: time pressure, and individual responsibility. Both of these emphasize the role on an individual as part of a team.

Time pressure means that, to some extent, players must think for themselves, since the leader can't spell out every detail in the time available. Decisions must be delegated, and the leader must rely on individual judgement.

Individual responsibilty in this context is the idea that even if a team member knows what to do, it's up to them to execute. This means player skill in video games, (moving a charcter, executing attacks, dodging obstacles, etc). Success depends on the individual ability; no other player can, through their ability, ensure the outcome.

In short, in co-op video games players must both think for themselves and act for themselves. Neither of these tends to be required in board games

Seth Jaffee said...

Good insight, looking at the computer game side of things. I'm not sure I have a 'solution' in mind yet - I'd like to one day work on a cooperative game (probably with the CTU/24/Jack Bauer theme), and to be sure my design goals will be to ensure it's not just solitaire.

Your point is well taken about time pressure, but in a board game there's generally no such pressure. A game can limit the number of turns a player has, but that doesn't limit the physical time people can spend discussing it.

Maybe a board game that includes a countdown timer is a step in the right direction. Heh, with the 24 theme, a countdown timer (maybe 24 minutes long) would certainly fit :)

But would that help at all? Maybe it would, like in the video game you might not have time for 1 player to dictate everyone's play.

On the up side, playing at your own pace in a sort of simultaneous play fashion with a physical time constraint would keep downtime to a bare minimum - and it might even be fun! As a side note, I can imagine 1 player getting to a point where they need info from another player, and the reply being "1 sec, I've almost got it!"

Mohan said...

I like the mini-games idea, but it's kinda funny cause that sounds *more* like simultaneous solitaire. Even so, I think mini-games is the right idea.

I'm reminded of a video game called Pipe Dream. It's your standard connect the pipes game, laying down tiles to get from point A to point B before the liquid in the pipes advances past where pipes have been placed. Recently I've been playing the two player version of it, which is really interesting because it's co-op, in an environment where solitary planning seems more effective.

It works because there isn't enough time for 1 person to lay all the pipes down effectively. The tricky part is finding a way to divide the challenge into subtasks ("you get from A to C, and I'll get from C to B") in the right way, and then trusting the other player to execute. What makes it good co-op is that, at any time, you can choose to help with your partner's task, or request help for your own. In fact, since each player has there own set of "next" pieces, you can look and see if the other player is about to get something you need, and tell him to help you.

This sounds quite a lot like what you've proposed for each player having mini-games, contributing to a larger overall task, with an initial planning phase where cooperation happens. But I kind of think that the key point is that interaction is also possible at any time.

But, again, maybe this is a time issues, as moderated time constraints just work naturally in video games and not as well in board games. But I can imagine maybe a roborally style cooperative game where each player has a bunch of cards, they are all communally trying to program the robot, there's a timer, each is given a subtask (generally corresponding to a contiguous set of registers), but anyone is free to place program cards in anyone's registers.

Another crucial feature of Pipe Dream is that you can't easily take back moves. Maybe having a feature like that would encourage people to complete their own tasks as best they can, since faster players who finish early can't just completely redo a slower players partial solution.