In Meeples Together, one of our prime assumptions is that you’re playing the game to win. Certainly, there can be any number of anti-cooperative incentives that encourage players to do things that are contrary to victory, but they still occur within the spectrum of winning and losing: players often angst about their anti-cooperative incentives because they know that they might cost them victory.
So, it’s somewhat surprising to note that there are many cooperative games where players can be perfectly happy playing a game where they know, and even plan, that they’re going to lose.
This seems to occur most often in campaign games.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) was the game that brought it to my attention — not surprisingly, since it continues to be my most played co-op. Certainly, you can get cool stuff even when you lose, as you build your decks; in fact, you might even choose to lose to get that loot. But, I don’t think that’s the reason that losing in Pathfinder ACG is so innocuous. Rather, it’s that there is no penalty. You don’t lose anything, other than the time you spent to play the game. Maybe that third try at a specific scenario is pretty fraught, when you really don’t want to do the darned thing again, but the first isn’t. Some of the adventure paths have tried to add a bit of a sting to loss: Skull & Shackles (2014) adds pirate loot that you only get if you win, while Mummy’s Mask (2016) only allows you to visit traders if you win. They add a tiny bit of tension, but the only times I’ve really cared about losing Pathfinder ACG were when I had a huge pile of loot in Skull & Shackles.
T.I.M.E Stories (2015) takes the next step because you’re actually expected to lose each scenario a time or two before you win it. Currently my record is two “runs” to complete “Asylum”, four to complete The Marcy Case (2015), three to complete Under the Mask (2016), and three to complete Expedition — Endurance (2017). The thing is that these losses cleverly dovetail into the game’s time-travel theme: you play the game, gain some information, lose, and then try it again with the new stuff you know. It’s “Groundhog Day: The Board Game”. And there’s perhaps a bit more tension here, because you know you’ll be graded on how many times you had to run the adventure before you won. But that first run is usually pretty casual, because you know that you’re exploring and finding information, with the goal of putting it together in some quick and careful future run. (The idea of it being OK to lose if you gain information is actually pretty common: at the last game of Pathfinder Adventure Card Game that we lost, where we ended up exactly one blessing timer short, we said, “Ah, I see, we need to close this location first next time, and everything else will be easier.”)
Pandemic Legacy: Season Two (2017) is probably the campaign game that most closely straddles the line between making loss both a requirement and something you want to avoid. The need to win originates, I think, with the fact that Pandemic is much less of a storytelling game than the others. It feels more like a game that should be won or lost, because of its non-campaign origins. However, some games feel impossible when you have a bit of bad luck at the start; when you also know you could do things that would improve your long-term game, like explore territories or build up cities, then you might sometimes decide to lose. (Or, in the case of our local games, *I* might decide we should lose, and one of my fellow gamers might insist that we still have a chance and need to push on. And he’s sometimes right, so apparently *I* take loss even lighter than some other players.)
Players can also be happy to lose in experiential games, which are more about a fun experience than the end-game score.
Just One (2018), which was just nominated for the SdJ, falls into this category. Though it’s a scored co-op, you’re really trying to guess all of the words right, for a 13-point “perfect” score. Nonetheless, every single word you guess is a fun and joyful experience — and those ones that you guess wrong, they’re pretty fun too! There’s enough excitement in the gameplay itself — enough thrill of victory and agony of defeat — that the end-game results matter less.
I’ve similarly seen my wife play the competitive game Taboo (1989) in a fully cooperative mode: one player tries to encourage the rest of the group to guess the word, and there’s great joy when it’s discovered.
So, more generally, why is it OK to “lose” all of these games? I think it’s because they contain fun and rewarding experiences whether you win or not: in the campaigns you’re improving characters, discovering mysteries, learning information, and exploring locations; and in both sorts of games you’re “winning” by individual actions, even if you’re not victorious in the full game.
But what does this really mean for a co-op designer? Does it mean that the loss conditions aren’t harsh enough and you need to make losing feel worse, to maintain tension in the game? Or, does it mean that you need to work harder to make the game fun, and feel victorious, no matter whether the players win or lose?