Co-operative Games


A co-operative game is one on which all the players are on the same side. Everyone is working together to achieve a common goal, and either all win together or all lose together.

The first “co-op” game I ever played was Forbidden Island. In this, the players are explorers who arrive on, you guessed it, an island, looking for treasure, despite the fact they were… you know … “forbidden”. Why was the island forbidden? Well, my guess is health and safety, because as soon as the explorers arrive, the island starts to collapse around them, and the waters rise. Players are in an exciting race against time to find the treasure and make it back to the helicopter launchpad before the island sinks into the sea.

There are many other great co-ops out there, with a huge range of different themes.

In Flash Point: Fire Rescue, the players are all firefighters, rushing into a burning building to rescue trapped victims (and their pets) and avoiding explosions caused by all the “hazardous materials” lying around. I don’t know why the house has so many hazardous materials in it – maybe the building’s owner runs a home oil-refinery business? Or maybe he/she is part of a terrorist cell? Or maybe the building is a meth lab? Whatever the reason, it makes no difference to those brave men and women of the Fire Department, who will do their best to rescue them all irregardless. And their pets.

At the opposite end of the heroism scale, the players in Burgle Bros are criminals (and also great examples of nominative determinism) who have broken into a bank. They have to find the safes, while avoiding alarms and security guards.

Mechs vs Minions is a hugely popular game where players “program” the movements of their mechs (which is what the kids are calling robots these days, apparently) to kill minions – though not the adorable minions from Despicable Me, thankfully.

In Mysterium, one player is the ghost of a murder victim, in a stately home, and the others are psychics investigating the crime. The ghost cannot speak, and must communicate the identity of the killer to the psychics through their dreams (i.e. handing them cryptic but beautifully drawn picture cards). Legend has it that Mysterium first appeared nine months after Dixit and Cluedo got drunk at a party, while Dixit’s boyfriend was out of town. Mysterium is a great looking game, with a great theme, and is such fun to play – I have played it with a lot of people, even people who don’t usually like games, and everyone has loved it.

If you prefer your co-op-psychic-investigator-games to have more cosmic horror, insanity, and tentacles, however, and you don’t mind if they last for hours, then you will be interested to learn that there are a number of such board games set in the creepy world of the Lovecraft Mythos – games like Mansions of Madness, Eldrich Horror, Elder Sign, and Arkham Horror. There is also a very popular co-operative one or two player card game called Arkham Horror: The Card Game.



I am just going to pause for a moment to explain, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, what the Lovecraft Mythos is, because it is going to be mentioned quite a lot in this book.

Lovecraft Mythos is genre of horror fiction – one that is not especially well-known in mainstream culture, but has, for some reason, become a huge favourite with tabletop gamers, inspiring hundreds of games over the years.

H.P.Lovecraft was an American novelist and short story writer, who was active about a hundred years ago, writing in pulp fiction magazines. He wrote many stories that appeared to have a common theme – ancient and powerful aliens, mistaken by humans for gods and demons, living on Earth, indifferent to humanity. Some of Lovecraft’s contemporary writers used to contribute stories of their own to the milieu, and after his death, even more were produced, and continue to be produced today.

Although he never expressly said so in his lifetime, many of his readers believed that these stories were set in the same universe, and that Lovecraft had in his head an overarching history and a set of rules for the reality. This universe is what is meant, when people refer to the Lovecraft Mythos.

(Note – Some people prefer the alternative term “Cthulhu Mythos” which references the giant tentacle-faced creature from one of his more famous stories, Call of Cthulhu. I have decided not to use this term though, as Cthulhu is actually a relatively minor character in the universe, and the attention he gets is a bit misleading.)

Despite that fact that Lovecraft was from almost the same era as Bram Stoker (he was six years old when Dracula was published), his mythos tales have never been part of mainstream culture in the same way that vampire tales have. Perhaps if Lovecraft’s stories had been as successful as Stoker’s, we would all by now be watching movies and TV shows where Cthulhu is portrayed as a misunderstood and sensitive cosmic entity, who falls in love with a schoolgirl.



Some co-operative games that add a twist – the “traitor mechanic”.  Now, if you are imagining a “traitor mechanic” is … no, sorry, forget that, I have done that joke already.

The traitor mechanic is where maybe (but not necessarily) one of the players will be a traitor who is secretly trying to sabotage the mission.

My favourite example of this type of game is Shadows over Camelot. In this game, the players are knights of the round table, and they work together to do the sorts of things that knights of the round table do: defending Camelot, searching for the Holy Grail, building shrubberies… you know the sort of thing. The objective is to earn more white swords than the forces of evil earn black swords. At the beginning of the game, though, players are dealt a card that tells them whether they are loyal knights, or traitors. What I love about this game, is that if somebody makes a bad move, the other players must figure out if he/she is deliberately working against them, or just genuinely hopeless.

Another traitor-mechanic classic is Dead of Winter, which is set in a post-zombie-apocalypse world. This game has more cardboard zombies than you can shake a cardboard shotgun at, and it is very exciting to play, but the tone of the game is quite bleak – more The Walking Dead than Zombieland. Players must work together to survive, but all have their own motivations, and betrayal is a real possibility.

In the world of co-operative games though, one title stands head and shoulders above all the others, both in terms of sales, and in terms of the affection in which it is held by boardgamers. That game is Pandemic.

So what is a Pandemic?

According to the dictionary, a pandemic is a disease that affects people over a wide geographical area.

But can we trust the dictionary?

Well, yes, obviously we can. It is written by highly trained experts; they aren’t going to get something like that wrong are they?  I don’t know why I queried it really.

So anyway, Pandemic is a board game about infectious diseases.  That sounds nasty – but honestly, it’s great. The board is a map of the world.  All the major cities of the world are included – New York, London, Paris, Berlin (… no, wait … it’s not Berlin. It’s Essen. Oh, I see what they did there – very good). As deadly viruses spring up in random cities, players must work together to co-ordinate a response.

Everybody has different roles to play, such as scientist, dispatcher, or medic; some will travel to the disease hotspots to fight the outbreak, others will focus on trying to find cures.

I like it best when I am the medic, because I have always had dreams of being a doctor. Recent government policy regarding working conditions for junior doctors in the UK means they are now dreams from which I wake up screaming, but they are dreams nevertheless. Playing Pandemic is probably the closest I will ever come to practicing medicine, and I did not have to spend years of studying and running up debt before I was allowed to do it.  I love being the medic, even though it does usually make me question my life choices.

The spread of the diseases in the game are represented on the board by the placing of coloured cubes – black, yellow, red and blue.  It is common practice for players to give names to these diseases. The ones I have heard most often are:

Black Death
Yellow Fever
Scarlet Fever
Bluebonic Plague

I was once in a game though, where the black, yellow, red and blue diseases were named respectively:

Zombie Apocalypse
Twitter Storm

I remember that I found it quite satisfying to send in a team to eradicate Coldplay.

Pandemic is a really enjoyable gateway game.  It starts off calmly, with players making plans, discussing strategies, and having some initial success; then suddenly there is an outbreak which spreads across multiple cities and you are all thrown into a panic; but in a good way.

I just want to pass on a tip for when you play a co-op game. This tip applies to Pandemic, as well as all the other games I have mentioned so far, and it is this: have fun, and let everybody else have fun too.  If one player knows the game better than the others, (or even just thinks he/she does) it can spoil it for everyone else if that player just tells them exactly what to play; the other players might as well not be there, and they will resent being bossed around.

Also, while it is undoubtedly nice to beat the game, it can also be exciting and fun to lose too.  The best game of Pandemic I have ever played included a sudden outbreak of Communism in Bogota that spread to neighbouring cities creating a chain reaction.  The outbreak counter suddenly moved up to six and we were down to our last two red cubes. All four players immediately converged on the region and desperately fought the disease.  We were just starting to get it under control and two of the players even went as far as high-fiving each other. Then, a freak consecutive infection-deck draw of Atlanta and San Francisco created a mini chain-reaction that caused two outbreaks on the other side of the world, and finished us off there instead.  Millions of people died. It was hilarious.