The Co-operation Problem

Got my Kickstarter copy of Zombicide: Green Horde in the other day. It really checked all the boxes for me: high fantasy theme, quality miniatures and co-operative play. The latter is a game mechanic I’ve steered further towards in my purchases recently. The idea of working with, not against my friends to achieve a goal makes for a far more wholesome experience. And so in Zombicide my wife and I picked 2 survivors each, played our first game and it was great fun! But after a while, I got that niggling in the back of my mind. This wasn’t a co-op game. It was a democracy.

The first thing that tipped me off to this thought was that any player could control any number of characters (as long as you ended up with the recommended number for a given mission). Furthermore, every piece of information received about the board state or player ability was public. We all knew who had what and their capabilities. In theory, then, any one player could just control the team of characters and play solo (this is in fact a feature of the game!). So this begs the question: Why do you need anybody else?

I honestly don’t have a good answer for you. I suppose you could argue that more minds working to solve the puzzle each turn makes the game easier. Do I then boot people from my game to increase the difficulty level? Well that would be rude, leaving people out like that. Which leads to another argument: You add more people to share the experience the game offers. And that’s a fine endeavor. But Zombicide simply doesn’t change when more players are added. You may put a character mat in front of someone else, but that’s it.

I say Zombicide is like a democracy because instead of thinking up an action and performing it, you need to pass everything through the other players. The more players, the more deliberation. Again, adding these players does not change anything rules-wise. All you are doing is adding a persuasion element to a puzzle game. This is to say nothing of the well-documented “Quarterbacking” phenomenon. The most experienced players in a game will invariably begin commanding the rest on the optimal move. And how can the newer players argue?

So I’d say games like Zombicide are not co-operative games. The title I would throw on is ‘Shared Game’ or a ‘United Nations simulator’. In the same way a single toy does not change nor is designed to accommodate more kids, the only option is to share it. So what IS a co-operative game by ol’ Dougy’s terms, then? The key is that everyone knowing and being capable of everything in a space eliminates the need for co-operation. So we need to sever that. We need to section off information and/or player ability, such that a complete game can not be played by a single player. We also need to have players interacting less with the game and more at each other, such that one player trying to play multiple roles will defeat the purpose of the game.

Codenames is the first title that springs to mind. One player is the spymaster, knowing where the spies are and the rest of the team guessing. Additionally, the spymaster can only speak in codes of a single word and number to help the others. The restrictions put in place make the co-operation meaningful. Mysterium does same tactic via Salvador-Dali-esque vision cards. And these games are mad cool. So could we throw this design back into Zombicide? Gloomhaven has a go at it by forcing players to not be precise in describing their moves each round, forcing co-operation. It also dampens the effect of the quarterback, as not only do players not share info on their abilities, but everyone has many completely unique move-sets to perform.

So is that the answer to turn any game co-op? fragment information then make sure to overload it beyond a single player’s mental capacity? Many ‘share’ games like Zombicide have very simple premises, solvable by any one player. If we were to present each player with a lot of information and personal ability every turn, we may bring more value to adding extra players.

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