On January 1, I took a long airplane flight to Hawaii. In preparation for that flight, I got a copy of a Steam adaptation of one of my favorite co-op games, for play on my laptop during the trip. It was The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (DFCO).
Now, this raises a question: when is a cooperative game not a cooperative game? Because DFCO plays identically in solo mode as in regular cooperative mode, you just control three different hands of cards (and powers) rather than one. You have all the challenge of the original, but obviously no cooperation, because there’s just you.
As I played games of DFCO while the Pacific whizzed by under me, I came to a better understanding of what that lack of cooperation cost me. To be specific, even though I’ve literally written the strategy guide for the game, I was playing pretty badly, and that was because I’d lost the advantages of the cooperative hivemind, even if I was holding all of their resources.
- I couldn’t keep track of all of the cards. There were a total of three hands of cards, of which I could only see one at a time. That left me struggling to keep track of eighteen cards, twelve of which were invisible to me at any time (with the numbers decreasing as the game went on). Besides not being able to keep track of cards, I’d also lose track of the overall resources we had. Did I have enough clues to finish off a case, or was everyone out of investigation cards? I often didn’t know.
- I couldn’t keep track of all of the abilities. There are a lot of nuanced character powers in The Dresden Files, and I found that quite often I’d take an action that would then make it impossible to use an ability: I’d put clues on cases before Mortimer or Sanya could get to them; I’d use other abilities before Molly could mimic then; and I’d ruin a front-line setup that Thomas could have taken advantage of.
- I couldn’t keep track of all of the consequences. Finally, I’d frequently take an action without fully understanding its repercussions. I might give a player the ability to recover a card from his discard, without realizing that he hadn’t discarded anything good, or I might accidentally force someone to discard their best cards. Because DFCO is all about optimizing your use of resources, even a small misstep could turn victory into loss
Now some of these problems were the result of the quick, sloppy play that tends to be the natural result of playing a computer game rather than its tabletop brethren. But many of these problems were because I didn’t have a pair of cooperators to help me out. Though Meeples Together sometimes speaks derogatorily of the “hivemind”, where one player can take over a group, there’s also a real wonder in everyone coming together. It happens naturally in a good co-op, where players will individually talk about their resources and their abilities, will together look at repercussions, and with each of the players holding their share of the information, like a USB stick, then will together compute the best odds.
Mechanics aside, that’s one of the things that makes a great co-op game, and something that you lose when playing a co-op solitaire.
Besides the lack of hivemind support, I also noticed one other flaw in my playing:
- I took stupid chances. In DFCO, each player can make game-ending mistakes, especially if they accidentally spend too many Fate Points. I would never do that in the tabletop game, unless I had the support and encouragement of the whole table, and even then I’d be pretty darned hesitant. But when you’re playing solo, you can take a big chance and shrug your shoulders if you lose, because no one else is harmed: you just Resign the Game and try it again.
I’m not sure whether the need to think about the rest of your group is an advantage or a disadvantage for co-op game, but it’s certainly an interesting element of co-op design, and something that you can play up to make a game that much harder for everyone.
So maybe the lesson here is that you should play your co-op design as a solo game, and if it doesn’t lose anything from the experience, you’re probably doing something wrong!