Designers used to create cooperative games just for children because you can’t have Johnny and Suzie fighting about who has the most money or the most dudes, and any day that doesn’t include, “I’m not playing with you—you cheat” is a win. Cooperative games eliminate the need for cheating. I guess you could cheat, but at least when you do cheat, you cheat as a team.
I won’t include the litany of older children’s games that use the cooperative mechanism, but the last decade has seen a lot of stellar cooperative games that adults — and sometimes kids – can enjoy. These games dominate the board game market, but the following is our list of the best games of this genre.
Before we get started, we have a public service announcement. You’ll find two notable exclusions from this list: Fury of Dracula and Battlestar Galactica. Both of these games are fantastic, but they go back and forth from getting labeled games that use the cooperative and partnership mechanisms, so we took them out of the running. Sorry, FoD and BSG fans.
We lead off with a game unlike any other on this list. Hanabi is a small cooperative card game that plays in twenty minutes or less.
I included Hanabi on this list because you always need a filler game, a game that you play while you wait for the rest of your gaming group to finish eating or using the restroom. It’s also easy to teach, learn, and play.
Hanabi is Japanese for firework, and you work together to create the greatest fireworks display. You can’t start with the biggest explosions first – you have to build up to them – so you’re given four colors of bursts, numbered 1-5. You have to form four separate piles of cards (based on explosion color) that begin with one and progress in numerical order to five. The only catch is that you can’t see your cards. You and your teammates hold your cards away from yourselves. Your teammates have to give you clues as to which cards you have in your hand.
Hanabi burst into gaming stores a couple of years back, earning game designer Antoine Bauza his first Spiel des Jahres.
4) Forbidden Desert
Next we have a game by a designer, Matt Leacock, who specializes in cooperative games. I’m sure we’ll see more from Leacock further down this list. Forbidden Desert may be the sequel to Leacock’s Forbidden Island, which in turn, borrows a lot from Leacock’s own Pandemic, but Forbidden Desert adds enough gaming elements that you can’t say it mimics the other two games.
But the shifting desert tiles of Forbidden Desert do mimic getting lost in a desert with little hope of making it out alive. Players start the game stranded in the middle of a desert that’s prone to massive sand storms, and everyone has their own unique ability with which they have to use in order to escape.
Forbidden Desert allows you to adjust the difficulty level, so if you have someone new to the game or if you’re playing with younger gamers, you can make the game more accessible. But the game already gets you going in a jiff. You’ll be halfway to constructing your own Jules Verne flying device in no time.
3) Ghost Stories
Here’s another offering from Antoine Bauza. Ghost Stories also marks the only entry of a horror game in this list. Now, horror games tend to use the cooperative game mechanism, but despite how popular and plentiful these games are, many horror games fall flat. That’s not the case with Ghost Stories.
I wouldn’t say that I was ever scared while playing Ghost Stories. Sure, players explore a haunted mansion, where ghastly specters crowd every hall, but each player takes on the role of a martial arts master. You never fear for your character’s safety because your character could kick your butt in five seconds.
If your characters can’t defeat the ghosts, no one can. And usually, you can’t take on all the ghosts. Most games start with the players roundhouse kicking their way to victory, but then, the ghosts keep coming and you can’t keep up. I love Ghost Stories, but it has to be one of the toughest – if not the toughest – game on this list. Still, if you haven’t played it, you should.
2) Shadows over Camelot
Bruno Cathala is the most accomplished designer on this list, and no list of the best cooperative games would be complete without his Shadows over Camelot. Okay, Shadows over Camelot was a cooperative effort between Cathala and designer Serge Laget, but we’re splitting hairs.
Shadows over Camelot marked the beginning of the modern, cooperative game renaissance. Each player controls one knight of the Round Table, and they must team up in order to accomplish various quests like defeating the Black Knight or finding the Holy Grail, but the best part of Shadows over Camelot is the inclusion of a possible traitor.
I mentioned Battlestar Galactica before getting to this list, and BSG takes a lot from Shadows over Camelot, but you’re guaranteed a cylon or two. Shadows over Camelot makes no such promises. Some of the best games don’t even have a traitor. Players spend the entire game accusing other players of being the traitor – thwarting their comrades along the way – only to find that it was all in their heads. The name fits, and I challenge you to play one game without making a Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference. You can’t do it, can you?
I promised another Matt Leacock game and here it is: Pandemic. The reason Pandemic beats out Shadows over Camelot is because while Shadows over Camelot marked the beginning of the cooperative game renaissance, Pandemic popularized cooperative games, causing them to fly off shelves.
Players assume roles like scientist, medic, and researcher in order to stop four deadly viruses from spreading and becoming a global pandemic. There are many ways to lose but only one way to win. You have to cure all four diseases.
The game elements and mechanisms are simple and elegant, the premise topical, and no two games of Pandemic play the same way. Like other Leacock games, you can scale the difficulty which is perfect for new and/or young players. And while the diseases don’t have names, I’ve never played a game where players don’t name each of the four diseases. You can feel the tension rise with each epidemic.
Best of all, Pandemic attracts people who aren’t typical gamers. It earns our top spot because of this crossover quality.
Did we get our list right? Let us know and give us more ideas for future Top Fives.