When is a co-op not a co-op? When it subverts its own framing. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned in this competitive game.
Oar Else! by Jason Fleming, Bob Heubel & Julia Huff
Publisher: Flatcar6 Studios (2013)
Cooperative Style: Faux Cooperative
Play Style: Card Management, Take That
Oar Else! is a competitive game overlaid by the façade of cooperation. Players are marooned on a lifeboat. They can play paddle cards to get the lifeboat to shore, bid for food in auctions, and play attack cards on other players; if the lifeboat is rowed to shore, the player with the most oars and food wins. However, a player can also go overboard to strike out on his own and then wins based on his own personal goals.
The first clue that Oar Else! isn’t actually a cooperative game is the lack of any challenge system. Though players draw cards every turn, none of them are bad. Further, there’s no chance that the players will fail to reach the shore. This removes any tension from the question of whether players should cooperate or not — and means that there’s not even a survival focus on Oar Else!, despite the theming.
The decision point as to whether a player should cooperate to help the lifeboat get to shore or go it alone should be a superb one. In a true co-op game, it could work very well, as each player constantly decides whether to become a traitor or not. However, in Oar Else! the idea of cooperating is totally subverted.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, as already noted, there’s no chance to fail. As a result, there’s nothing that encourages players to cooperate.
Second, there’s actually no chance to win cooperatively either. If players finish in the boat together, then one of them is still a winner, based on the play of rowing and food cards.
As a result, the cooperate-or-not decision actually becomes a purely competitive decision, where a player decides if he’s more likely to win by tricking the other players into getting him to shore or if he’s going to have to go it on its own.
Oar Else! ultimately shows the importance of framing within a game design. If all the players who got to shore together were said to win jointly, with a best winner declared, that’d feel very different than the current situation, where there’s an absolute winner.
Oar Else! contains a great idea for cooperative gaming: the decision to cooperate or compete, which is reconsidered by every player every turn. Its own design undercuts this decision by neglecting challenges and by disallowing true cooperation. Still, the idea could be adapted for true co-op gaming and could result in some interesting, innovative designs.
Oar Else (2013) is the only game designed by Jason Fleming, Bob Heubel, and Julia Huff and the only game released through Flatcar6 Studios.