When we first began work on the book that eventually became Meeples Together, our scope was much larger. We were thinking about all sorts of cooperative play. This resulted in us writing four case studies that didn’t appear in the final book: Dungeons & Dragons, American Football, World of Warcraft, and now the final one: the Microscope story game. (There’s actually a fifth case study on Scrabble, but that’s not a cooperative game at all, so it’s much further afield.)
We’ve been happy to present these four “lost studies”, which look at the wider sorts of cooperative play using the lens of our cooperative gaming terminology. However, we’re not done with the core ideas of cooperative play yet! We are currently working on a followup book to Meeples Together, tentatively called “A Shared Adventure: The Patterns of Cooperative Play”. That title probably won’t stick, but we expect our current contents will: it will be a pattern-based design book covering the whole spectrum of cooperative play.
We’ve written complete chapters on roleplaying design and board game design and got partway into a section on improv drama before other priorities called us away. We hope to get back to it this year and continue on with drama and with other chapters, which will probably also include freeform cooperation and work-based cooperation.
But that’s still a ways off. In the meantime here’s one last look at a case study of the wider cooperative world. In the future we’ll also be scouring our archives to see if the partial chapters that we discarded following our third draft (when we tightened up the book) have any material that you might find of interest.
Microscope by Ben Robbins
Publisher: Lame Mage (2011)
Cooperative Style: Co-Op Story Game
Play Style: Storytelling
Microscope isn’t a board or card game. Instead it comes from the field of story games, a subgenre of roleplaying games that focuses on players creating narratives. In Microscope, the players fractally create an epic history, detailing periods and events. In addition, they collectively play out scenes, to determine the answers to unknown questions within the history.
It’s a game that could theoretically be played without end, as the players could (over time) discover deeper and deeper secrets of the setting that they’re creating.
Microscope places more focus on the philosophy of its cooperation than almost any other game within the cooperative field. It could have been a game about design-by-committee — where players talk about what they’d like to see happen in their history, then build out the periods, events, and scenes to make that occur. Instead, Microscope insists that each player independently decide what he’s going to create, without input from the other players.
The rules are very explicit about this philosophy, saying: “If you collaborate and discuss ideas as a group, you’ll get a very smooth and very boring history. But if you wait and let people come up with their own ideas, they may take the history in surprising and fascinating directions. It can be hard to sit silently and watch someone think, but the results can be awesome.”
Because players act independently and serially, you might think that cooperation is harmed, but it’s not. It just acts in a different way, with the players implicitly collaborating instead of explicitly working together. The rules address this too, saying: “On the surface, you make history all by yourself: if it’s your turn, you make whatever you want, and no one else has any say unless you play a Scene. But the rules intentionally only let a player make a single layer of history at a time … so you’re forced to work with what’s already on the table, building on what other players created and enticing them to explore and flesh out what you start.”
The result expands the bounds of traditional cooperative gaming in several ways.
First, it harnesses the creativity of the players to create a memorable narrative that everyone owns a part of. Ensuring that everyone contributes is a great methodology for creating something that people will remember.
Second, it builds a true multiplayer gaming experience — where everyone is interacting with a cohesive whole created by a group. Remarkably, it does so despite the players taking individual, sequential turns. The multiplayer interaction comes via the created object and through the fact that players interact with it instead of each other.
Microscope does a great job of shaping its cooperation in very specific ways. Designers of other sorts of cooperative games should similarly think about not just how their mechanics work, but also about what sort of human behaviors and thoughts those mechanics will create.
Robbins got his creative start in 2005 writing adventures for the Mutants & Masterminds roleplaying game under his own company name, Lame Mage Productions. He’s since published three story games, Microscope (2011), Kingdom (2013), and Follow (2017), each of which focuses on players collaboratively telling a story.