Gaming Evolution: Co-Op Games, Part One: Honored Ancestors

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the evolution of a new genre of gaming: the co-op game. Because we’re still here in the early days of the genre, we’ve had the good fortune over the last decade (and to a smaller extent, since 1987) to really see the genre evolve. It’s something that I find really fascinating, as I see new games show up and introduce new mechanics to the melting pot.

As a result, I’ve decided to talk about that evolution over the course of two or three articles, wherein I’ll be approaching the topic chronologically, looking at the major games which have appeared in a variety of time periods and what they added.

I’m not necessarily saying that each game introduced the element in question, but rather it was the one that was important enough to imprint it on the gaming psyche. I’d love to hear your thoughts, about the games that I missed (though I went through several lists as I wrote this, so if I snubbed something, it was probably purposeful) and the gaming elements that I might not have considered.

Before I go any further, I should probably define what I mean by a co-op game. Broadly, I mean “cooperative board games”, where most or all of the players are trying to accomplish a group goal — and where they might either accomplish that goal or be defeated. As we’ll see, players may be fighting against either the game system itself or else a lesser number of opponents (usually one). The most well-know co-op games today are probably Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, and Pandemic — so if you’re familiar with any of those, that’s what I’m talking about.

Part I: Honored Ancestors (1983-2000)

Scotland Yard (1983). In this game — the earliest major ancestor that I’m aware of for the co-op genre, Mr. X tries to elude all the other players, but in doing so leaves behind clues that those other players may use to deduce his location. They must then work together to capture him.

To a certain extent this sort of game stretches the definition of where a co-op game ends and where simple team play begins. However, I feel pretty comfortable saying that when you have one player against everyone else, that’s probably co-op. It definitely feels similar, as everyone talks about what to do about the bad player.

I really consider Scotland Yard a precursor to the co-op movement because it predates the other games by several years and because it comes from outside of the hobbyist market (meaning roleplaying and miniatures companies) that actually made co-op into a genre. Nonetheless, it’s a very important precursor because it defines the first major sort of co-op play: the players versus one opponent.

Arkham Horror (1987). Within the hobbyist field, Arkham Horror — where players work together to try and close all the gates in Arkham before the world is destroyed — is the primordial co-op game. It really pioneered the idea of players working against a game system that relentlessly marched forward. It also introduced the idea of there being a singular best player (“the first citizen of Arkham”) among the winners, something which hasn’t shown up very often among co-op descendents.

Seeing Arkham Horror as the first cobble in the co-op road is interesting, because Richard Launius very specifically tried to model the RPG play of Call of Cthulhu when creating Arkham Horror, which would mean that role-playing games are also an important ancestor in the evolution of co-ops.

Though it was clearly ground-breaking, Arkham Horror — and the other co-op games of the first wave, from 1987-1992 — aren’t necessarily direct ancestors of that which came afterward. There was such a big break after them, that it’s really what came in the 2000s that drives most modern co-op game design. However, I do believe that Arkham Horror affected the gaming gestalt, I know that it influences the co-op work being down at FFG, and I also think it offers a clear definition of the first major stream of co-op design: where players fight against the system.

The Fury of Dracula (1987). Meanwhile, Games Workshop was simultaneously working to bring Scotland Yard‘s sort-of-mostly-co-op play into the hobbyist market through a release called The Fury of Dracula. Here one player takes on the role of Dracula, who moves secretly, while the others try to deduce his location, then to defeat him. Which all sounds kind of familiar.

Overall, The Fury of Dracula is an interesting design, but its biggest contribution to the co-operative gaming is probably bringing that core idea of one-against-many into the hobbyist world, since its mechanics mostly have to do with secret movement and other stuff not relevant to the discussion of co-op play.

Werewolf/Mafia (1987?). I find it pretty astounding that you could go back decades previous to the 1980s and not find much that you’d call co-operative play, then in 1987 three different games all pushed the same idea. The dating on the public-domain Mafia game is actually more up-in-the-air than the obvious publications of Arkham Horror and The Fury of Dracula, but the most recent research seems to say that it was being developed in 1986 and played in 1987.

With all that said, I don’t think that Mafia is a co-op game. Sure, two or more Werewolves can work together ever so slightly, but the amount of tactical choice is so limited and the amount of information you have is so low, that there’s not really cooperation here, just mob mentality.

However, games outside a genre can still introduce interesting evolutionary elements to that genre, and I think that’s exactly what Mafia did. It introduced the idea of hidden roles which have not only allowed for the creation of other pseudo-co-op games like Bang! (2003) but also turned the evil player of The Fury of Dracula into the hidden evil of more recent co-op games.

HeroQuest (1989). Just as Arkham Horror tried to model Call of Cthulhu play as a board game, HeroQuest tried to model Dungeons & Dragons play. The result was a different sort of co-op game. First up, it adapted the idea of a human adversary from The Fury of Dracula to the role of the gamemaster — but unlike more recent one-versus-all games he doesn’t necessarily have a lot of free will.

HeroQuest also shows off another potential difference in the one-versus-all gameplay (as opposed to system-versus-all). Where the system-centric co-op is about trying to hold off a constant deluge of terrible things, HeroQuest is much more about the players setting goals and trying to succeed at them. You can still get killed, but the game feels like it’s centered around the expectation of success, with some chance of failure, rather than the expectation of failure, with the valiant hope for success.

HeroQuest continued onto the 1990s with supplements, but then fizzled out, leaving another evolutionary dead-end … until (once more) the modern-day FFG releases.

After HeroQuest we moved through a decade in which co-op games were almost unheard of. I blame the miniaturization of Games Workshop and the CCG fever that subsequently hit the hobbyist market. Where a lot of roleplaying companies had previously been doing cutting-edge board game design, now they suddenly found themselves with other priorities. Then a decade later, you had a new style of games that was now evolved enough to take some chances … Eurogames.

It’s possible that those hobbyist co-op games from the late 1980s and early 1990s might have made a resurgence on their own under FFG, but as things actually occurred, I believe that the main force behind the co-op game evolution of the 2000s is Reiner Knizia.

Lord of the Rings (2000). Lord of the Rings is, in many ways, the quintessential modern co-op game. It marries a well-polished Eurogame system with the idea of that same system being a timer that the players must work against, thus forcing co-operation.

To a certain extent, there’s nothing new in Lord of the Rings. The resource management of the game and the tactical choices that it allows are fairly standard for Euros — and even relatively simplistic compared to many. However when united with co-op play, they produced something that was new and different enough from anything that came before, that I think it’s pretty easy to call Lord of the Rings the ancestor of at least half the co-op games that have come since (with the others instead harkening back to those games from the 1980s).

To be more specific, Lord of the Rings is a game that’s tighter, more strategic, more balanced, and shorter than most of the co-ops that came before it. Of course, it offered the typical Eurogame tradeoff in being somewhat less thematic.

With all that change, it really opened up the field for the new Euro-co-ops that have come since.

Conclusion

I’ve got more to talk about concerning co-ops. I expect to return to the topic in several weeks, when I’ll begin talking about the co-ops that have appeared after 2000. In the meantime, if you think I missed any honored ancestors that were developed in the 20th century or earlier, or if you think I missed anything these games added to the genre, let me know in the comments below.

While you’re waiting for my next article, you may also want to read my revent reviews: Small World: Tales & LegendsRailways of the World: The Card Game, and Bang!: Wild West Show. It’s apparently expansion and redevelopment season.


Author’s Note: This was the series that I was in the middle of when BGN died and I never got back to it at BGi. The two immediate adjuncts to this article are an interview with Richard Launius about Arkham Horror and a (rare) interview with Reiner Knizia about Lord of the Rings. Now that I’ve got a new blog begging for content, I hope to return with Part II of this article, which’ll cover the first generation of modern co-op games. —2/16/11, 6/21/12

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