We continue to play co-ops, and we continue to learn new things about cooperative games as we do. Thus, this is our second article to focus exclusively on new concepts that integrate with those found in Meeples Together, based on games that we played after we locked the content of the book in July 2018. Whereas our first Apocrypha article focused on challenge machinery, this one is about the art of cooperation. It’s mainly drawn from observations about the gameplay of Pathfinder Adventure Card Game 2e (2018), but also some from the small-press adventure co-op Shadows of Malice (2014).
Meeples Together covers the mechanics of cooperation in Chapter 5, then the theory of cooperation in Chapter 10. This new Apocrypha supplements those ideas, offering more details on who cooperates and how.
The Essence of Shared Tasks (pp. 87-88)
There are two major sorts of cooperation: strategic cooperation (pp. 85-87), where players coordinate for the common benefit, and tactical cooperation (pp. 87-92), where players cooperate with common effort. And, it turns out that there are lots of ways that designers can differentiate the ways in which people interact in the shared tasks of tactical cooperation, going far beyond the common mechanic that allows players in the same space to add up their skills (or roll multiple dice, or take the best of several dice, or use whatever other simple methodology for shared tasks that a particular game allows).
Some basic questions can further differentiate the design of shared tasks in a cooperative game. Consider this an addendum to “The Essence of Cooperation” (pp. 83-84) that drills down to the specific design of tactical cooperation.
Who can share in a task?
If there is no opportunity to work together on a task, then only the active player can participate; this is a non-shared task. This means that there is no tactical cooperation for the task (and possibly no tactical cooperation in the game). In the opposite situation, every one can share in a task. This is most often the case in a game with no strategic cooperation, where everyone is working on the same big puzzle.
If a game instead allows both tactical and strategic cooperation, then it tends to also allow an intermediate level of task sharing. Usually this means that everyone at the same location can share a task — whether that be when gathered at a particular space in Ghost Stories (2008) or when fighting a particular monster in Shadows of Malice (2014). There might be more levels of distinction: Pathfinder ACG 2e (2018), for example, defines two ranges, “local” and “remote”. Some cards and powers allow players to help a fellow locally, some remotely. Finally, there can also be a higher level of granularity, making players more likely to be able to help the closer they are. The clever dice system of Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2005, 2012) supports exactly this sort of nuance: archers can help out their fellows, and they’re more likely to be successful if someone is a few spaces away and less likely the more that distance grows.
Of course this “geographical limitation” (p. 95) is just one way to restrict who shares in a task — albeit the most common one. Other cooperative limitations and anti-cooperative incentives (pp. 94-101) can all limit task sharing, including a new restriction called a “quantity limitation”, which is discussed more below as a new gear in a game’s cooperative machinery.
How does a task scale?
For tasks to scale, they must be stabilized, so that the resistance of a task does not increase precisely with additional effort of other players (p. 88). Arkham Horror 2e (2005) is the traditional example of a game that didn’t task-scale well, because each new attack on a monster gives it a new counter-attack, meaning that more players offer very little value to the shared task. However, note that shared tasks can be stabilized and still have diminishing returns as more players join in (p. 88). Shadows of Malice offers an excellent example: each player that joins a combat adds one die to the task … but the players take the highest roll of all the dice, not the sum. This means that one players rolls an average of 3.5 on his die, two players roll an average of 4.5 (28% better than one die), and three roll an average of 5 (only 14% better than two dice).
ASIDE: These ideas all already appear in Meeples Together but are important to reiterate because the question at their base is a crucial element in the essential design of shared tasks.
Are contributions to a task even?
Mosts tasks in co-ops are effort-based: a player expends an action (or takes a risk) and so participates in the task. But, tasks can also have variable costs (p. 97) and when this is the case, players can contribute unequally. This could mean that player contribute unequally to a somewhat abstract, shared task, such as the crisis skill tests of Battlestar Galactica (2008), but it can also be a much more personal question as in Pathfinder ACG (2013, 2018).
In PACG, players are occasionally asked to individually fight a monster or barrier as part of a larger test. In each of these individual tests, players must decide how much effort to exert. Some players will find the tasks easy, some hard. Some will care if they lose, some won’t. It all adds up to an intense challenge that encompasses the whole group, gives each player individual agency, yet also draws them back together because they can still help each other.
Are contributions to a task open?
Battlestar Galactica also begs the question: does everyone know what a player contributes to a shared task? In BSG, the answer is definitively “no”, because someone might be a traitor: not contributing, or even contributing negatively to a task. But, one can also imagine cooperative games with disincentives for working together where players might hide their lack of contributions due to greed or even shame.
Are contribution to a task serialized?
Many cooperative tasks are resolved instantaneously, but they can instead be serialized, with players cooperating over time. That’s effectively the case in Shadows over Camelot (2005), where players serialize the play of cards to Quests over multiple turns, and in Mansions of Madness (2011), where players solve puzzles over multiple turns. Both of these games have set levels of success, where it’s obvious that a task is done because all of the cards have been played; however, task serialization could also involve challenges where the level of success is unknown, and players just have to decide that they’re “done” at some time, and “let the dice fall where they may”.
How is success measured?
A simple task succeeds or fails as a whole, based upon a single die roll, a single set of card plays, or some other unified means. However, when multiple players are involved, a game can use more complex measurements of success, provided that each player is achieving success or failure individually.
The success of a shared task might only require the active player to succeed, it might require any one player to succeed, it might require a majority of players to succeed (or some other arbitrary level of success), or it might require everyone to succeed. Then, there might be rewards or penalties for specific players, based on whether they succeeded or failed.
Pathfinder ACG offers all of these possibilities in various challenges. Most shared tasks just allow other players to add bonuses to the active player’s roll, which then ends in success or failure. However, battles against the armies of Wrath of the Righteous (2015) force each of the players to take on an asymmetric task and require all of them to succeed in order to defeat the challenge. Many other challenges create secondary challenges that could inflict damage on another character, but leave the success of the main challenge entirely in the hands of the active player.
Are there levels of success?
Any challenge can have levels of success. For examples, battles against vermin in PACG usually grant a light success at a low target number (temporarily banishing the vermin) and a better success at a slightly higher target number (permanently banishing it). A shared task can create even more interesting levels of success, based on how many players succeeded at the task.
Quantity Limitation (p. 95)
The first essential question of shared tasks, “who can share in a task?”, is closely linked to the topic of cooperative limitations (pp. 94-98), which define how certain people are restricted from tactically supporting a task. The main three sorts of cooperative limitation are: the player limitation (where some players just can’t help), the resource limitation (where players must have certain things to help), and the geographical limitation (where players must be in certain places to help).
The quantity limitation is a fourth cooperative limitation, one which can either stack with other limitations or be wholly separate. It limits the total amount of help that players can contribute to a task based solely on a numerical cap.
PACG offers an intriguing example of quantity limitation because the design changed from 1e to 2e. In 1e, each player could only play one card of each type into a challenge. This typically meant that the active player played either a weapon or a spell, and optionally supplemented it with an ally and/or a blessing, then other players tended to play blessings as well. That’s a cooperative quantity limitation, of one card of each type for each player. In 2e, the group as a whole can only play one card of each type into a challenge, which is s notably smaller limitation. As a result, in 1e, players could totally overkill big challenges, while in 2e there’s much more tension, because even if players expend all of their resources, they’re still facing big restrictions on how much can be played. This tends to result in a more intriguing game, because tension = fun in most co-ops.
ASIDE: Pathfinder ACG 2e’s new rules also encourage “niche protection”, where each player is an expert in one domain and can support the whole group in his expertise. This naturally evolves because violating niche protection is a waste of effort: players end up with duplicate cards that can’t be played. But, the whole idea of niche protection goes far beyond cooperative board games, to the large cooperative sphere.