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Playing cooperative games can feel like being the fat kid on sports day

I haven't played a great deal of cooperative games and I'm happy to admit I thoroughly enjoyed T.I.M.E Stories, Xenoshyft: Onslaught and Ghost Stories. However, in general I have mixed feelings about games that involve working collaboratively. Each person comes to the game with their own expectations and strategic approach. Where do I fit in this team pursuing victory? It takes a mature group to allow each person to use their unique strengths and also to allow individuals to make mistakes. As much as I've enjoyed co-ops, the hours spent around the table aren't always relaxing and can have their uncomfortable moments.

I remember as a child being at school and being chubby. It was the 80s and I was great at doing the "shuffle truffle". When it came to sports day we all had to take part and compete against other house teams. I ran the race and lost by a mile. The walk back to my team mates was painful, knowing that I didn't contribute any success or victory. This is what it can feel like when playing cooperative games with the wrong group. Let me take you through some of my experiences...

T.I.M.E Stories

I have played every expansion of T.I.M.E Stories and absolutely loved the hours spent exploring each landscape. The minimalistic game board becomes the frame for the exquisite cards that reveal the story and a panorama of artwork. Each turn, we all get the chance to build on our understanding of the developing story and communicate the clues as if we were the very characters in the game. As I mentioned in my last post, having Dyslexia means I have a powerful imagination and T.I.M.E Stories enables me to escape into another world.

T.I.M.E stories

However, what brings me back to reality with a crash is the strength of opinion of others playing the game. When it gets to making decisions the “alpha gamer” can grow antlers and charge at others, trying to convince them that their strategy is somehow the game designers master plan. This causes tension and can turn active players into passive observers whose participation in the game becomes superficial. Whilst it is ok to be passionate, it’s not ok to annihilate someone else’s contribution to the game. However, I do believe a level of passionate deliberating is healthy and brings drama to the team’s experience, particularly when you reach the end in victory: that passion turns to jubilant relief, especially if each team member’s morale has remained intact to the end!

The other thing to watch out for is scapegoating. T.I.M.E Stories is a game to be approached with patience – you need to go with the flow. It is designed so that most people will fail on their first attempt. Once you hit zero on the "TU" (time unit) tracker, you have to reset and start again, working through what you've already done in order to find more clues and identify what you have missed. When you've already spent 5 hours and you're on your third run through (because you’ve failed to notice something in the clues) it can cause the team frustration. It is very easy at this stage to make someone the scapegoat for failure. The alpha gamer spits their dummy out, the analyst scratches their head going over all the detail and the unconfident people pleaser (me) feels a sense it must be their fault because they have poor sequential thinking.

Have you ever completed a "Myers Briggs" or "StengthsFinder" test? Most employers get you to do some kind of personality test these days for staff development. You can get some interesting insights into your personality and strength characteristics. I jest when I say that personality tests should be done on your gaming group before playing games because it may save any conflicts that arise, but it is true: we all come with different qualities that can contribute to a game. In my group, after our first expansion of T.I.M.E Stories, we changed our strategy by giving each other responsibilities that matched our strengths. Instead of everyone trying to track everything, we would each take note of different aspects of the game so that when we deliberated we could all equally bring something to the planning. Because I love theme I was given the task of noting the storyline and clues which was supported by my Dyslexic strength of intuition. Other players were sequentially driven so they would note where clues were and what steps we had to take to complete certain tasks etc. I believe this helped the game run smoothly and supported the team morale.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories, another cooperative game that I really enjoyed, is difficult to win but lots of fun to play. In this game you're a Taoist monk protecting a village from Wu Feng, the Lord of Hell. He sends his legions of ghosts to haunt the villagers and it's our responsibility to prevent them from succeeding and ultimately destroy Wu Feng! Each Taoist you control has an individual ability and as a team you have to prioritise what actions to take.

Ghost stories

As a cooperative game, I found this isn't as intense as T.I.M.E Stories because it is fairly straight forward and heavily reliant on dice rolling. Instead of making scapegoats of each other we made scapegoats out of the dice! Also, I played this game with just one other person which reduced the number of overbearing opinions. In addition, by the time I played Ghost Stories I had been able to learn from the other co-op games and express my expectations regarding collaborative etiquette before the game started. I would recommend having this conversation when starting up a group as it gives everyone the freedom to feel comfortable and hopefully keeps the alpha gamer spirit from rising. I also found the fact that Ghost Stories can be played in under an hour took away the build-up of frustration which can happen more in collaborative games.

Xenoshyft: Onslaught

Xenoshyft gives you the opportunity to defend the “Base” from the onslaught of aliens known as the “Hive”. The goal is to mine a planet of its valuable resource whilst being the military protecting the base. This game is a deck builder where you draft cards in the hope that you build a stronger team that can defeat the enemy. To me this game feels like a semi-co-op because each person has their own individual hand of cards. I find that other players are so focussed on their own drafting, you can play your own role without the heavy persuasion of others. I also find the fact that there is so much going on distracts people from significant scapegoating. As a Dyslexic with issues in Maths my only annoyance is that as I’m working out the hit points, others tend to jump in and tell me the result of my line before I can work it out. This can feel like someone telling you the ending of your favourite TV series!

Xenoshyft: Onslaught

Conclusion

If you lack confidence or have a learning difficulty then don't be put off by cooperative games as they can give you such a buzz and once you've achieved the game as a group there is a real sense of lively camaraderie. What I would recommend is the following:

  1. Have "the chat" about the etiquette of cooperative play and talk about how to avoid alpha gamer syndrome.
  2. Start with games that don't take too long. This helps build the relationships and encourages awareness of each other and the correct etiquette.
  3. Try playing games that are semi-cooperative first, to give you the opportunity to see if they're appropriate for your gaming group.
  4. Try co-operative games with just 2 players.
  5. For larger groups you can try to assign individual responsibilities / goals if the game allows it.
  6. For longer games (over 3 hours) take a break and get away from the table for 15-20 mins - especially if it is getting intense!
  7. Let your turn be your turn! Take onboard the advice of others, but when it comes to it, play your action according to your own judgement.

Thanks for reading.