In Meeples Together we write quite a bit about subverting cooperation. For the most part, cooperation is easy, so a designer needs to figure out how to convince players not to work together — through limitations, restrictions, or anti-cooperative limitations. The more a design can convince players to spoil their own game … the better!
This year, I’ve been introduced to a new anti-cooperative mechanic: roleplaying.
It started a few months ago when my friend E.K. Lytle, the co-designer of Race to Adventure!, suggested that we play a new Pathfinder ACG game. The campaign would be Wrath of the Righteous, which we’d only played the back half of, due to an experiment with Mike Selinker’s “Adventure 7” design. But to give it some variety we’d take on the roles of bad guys, using Paizo’s two goblin class decks and two villainous “Hell’s Vengeance” class decks for our character creation. E.K. called it “Wrath of the Unrighteous”. It seemed like a fun concept that would introduce some variety to a campaign that we were already somewhat experienced with.
From the start, we saw that the goblin and villainous characters were mechanically encouraged to be selfish. The goblins, for example, have a blessing that they can use to automatically acquire a new blessing … at the cost of one of the cards in the blessing deck, which acts as a timer for the whole game. So we goblins were immediately improving our characters at the potential cost of winning the game.
We soon saw this selfishness spreading to our strategic decisions, even when not backed up by selfish mechanics. This came to a head in game four, “The Traitor’s Lodge”, which contains a very rich locale called the “Manor House”, which is not only full of good loot, but also gives you the chance to always choose between two loot options. It’s one of the best locations in the whole game. So, it was somewhat disappointing when my goblin arsonist found a Henchman almost immediately, which would usually mean the end of fun Manor House explorations.
“I think I’m not going to close the location,” I said, after defeating the Henchman. There was no comment, so I said, “That’s OK?” And there was agreement that it was appropriate for the characters we were playing. I didn’t close the location. We ran down our clock. We lost the game. Then we laughed about our greed. It was a terrific experience.
Subverting cooperation through roleplaying isn’t something that you can introduce to a game purely through mechanics — though those Blessings of the Gobs are effectively anti-cooperative cues, which can put you on that path. (See their flipside, cooperative cues, on page 84 of Meeples Together.) Instead, a game needs to include great character descriptions, to get players thinking about how they might act in ways that don’t support the rest of the group. The more your game is focused on adventure mechanics, and the more it’s centered on those characters, the more likely this is to work.
Don’t make your game’s balance depend on subverted cooperation, because maybe it’ll occur and maybe it won’t. But do give your players the opportunity, so that each group can decide whether to go down that (wicked) path or not.