Our first iteration of Meeples Together covered a broader spectrum of cooperative play, before we whittled it down to the precise focus of the final manuscript. In that original version, our first case study covered American Football. Though it’s slightly outside of the scope of the final release, it nonetheless remains a great example of how to create meaningful cooperation and how to limit it.
Publisher: Public Domain (1869)
Cooperative Style: Teamwork
Play Style: Sports
American football is a sport played between two teams of eleven players. Each team is trying to advance the ball down the playing field to their opponent’s end zone. A team must advance at least 10 yards for every four plays in order to maintain possession of the ball. If a team gets the ball to their opponent’s end zone, they score a variable number of points — but most frequently six. The team with the best score after 60 minutes of play wins.
Cooperative Game System
The eleven players who comprise an American football team have one goal at any time: either getting the football down the field or preventing their opponents from doing the same. They do so largely by taking advantage of specialization. Different players are selected for different skill sets.
Broadly, players are divided into three units that take the field at different times: the offensive unit, the defensive unit, and the special teams unit (which primarily focuses on kicking). Within a unit, players also have specific expertise. The quarterback — who throws the ball and sometimes calls plays — is the best-known specialist; however there are also runners, blockers, receivers, and more. By meshing together a variety of skills, a football team can create a whole that’s greater than its parts, which is why the idea of character specialization is also popular in tabletop cooperative games.
Any cooperative game needs to have cooperative limitations, to keep the players from engaging in perfect (and therefore boring) gameplay. Within American football, these limitations center on what players can do. For example, at the start of an offensive play, at least seven of the eleven players must be on the “scrimmage line” and no more than four may be behind it, acting as “backs”. This is important because only the backs and the two players at the ends of the line of scrimmage are allowed to carry the ball. Offering only six of the players on a team the special power of “carry ball” has a large effect on how the players strategize and on what moves they can make.
Many cooperative games also limit communication — again, to prevent cooperative perfection. American football does so by keeping everything running on a (somewhat) real-time clock. A team usually has 25-40 seconds to strategize and setup for a new play after the last one is completed. If they need more time, they can use one of three “time out” resources that are available to them during each half of the game. Space Alert (2008) was the first major tabletop board game to similarly try to limit cooperation through the use of a real-time clock; it’s since been used in a few other designs, but isn’t common.
Despite the strong teamwork ethos of American Football, there also can be strong anti-cooperative incentives. Most of these incentives are created by elements external to the game. A player may try and make himself look better (often to the detriment of his team) in order to aid in his recruiting or his trading or even to support a potential endorsement deal. Alternatively, a player may opt not to work as a good team player due to sheer arrogance: the feeling that he’s better than his teammates and more likely to lead them to success.
The critically acclaimed football TV show Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) twice ran story arcs about players getting too big for their britches and thinking they didn’t need their teammates’ help: a short arc centered on a Smash Williams, then a more extensive arc concentrated on Vince Howard. Each time the anti-cooperative incentives were clear, as the players were working to getting recruited to college teams; each time the show made the point that an individual couldn’t succeed without the cooperative help of his team.
These anti-cooperative incentives arise organically in American football (and in most sports) and are generally considered undesirable to the team as a whole. Contrariwise in cooperative board games, anti-cooperative incentives of this sort can be highly desirable, because they’re yet another way to minimize perfect cooperation.
No Challenge System Elements. Teamwork.
American football offers a non-tabletop look at how cooperation can develop within the context of a game. Nonetheless, its lessons generally apply to the tabletop form, starting with its player specialization.
Though sports focus on how to get players to cooperate, board games often have to take the opposite tack: preventing players from cooperating too efficiently. Rules limitations, conversation limitations, and anti-cooperative incentives — all of which show up in American Football — are just a few of the methods found in tabletop games.
“Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about. They didn’t do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another.”
—Vince Lombardi, Run To Win: Vince Lombardi on Coaching and Leadership (2001)
The public-domain football picture at the head of this article was drawn from the Library of Congress.