Part 1 if you missed it.
3. Arkham Horror
In my third favorite cooperative board game, Arkham Horror, players find themselves in a dark Massachusetts town straight from the works of early twentieth century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. A great ancient evil is trying to break into our world through portals leading from other dimensions. Players are residents of the town who must battle monsters spilling from these portals while gathering clues to try and close them. Time is short as portals are constantly opening around town and if too many breach our plane, the Ancient One invades our reality. The townsfolk have one last chance to save the world by battling the great evil but the odds are stacked against them. To win, depending on how many people are playing, players must close and seal a certain number of gates and the Ancient One is banished to its realm forever.
Arkham Horror’s mechanics revolve around a system of skill checks: stamina, sanity, sneak, speed, fight, lore, luck, and will. These skills govern players’ ability to avoid and fight monsters, find useful items, close and seal gates, and resist descending into madness as they face unspeakable horrors.
Arkham Horror seems complicated at first glance, especially after unpacking a couple hundred tokens and cards, as there are many special items and spells you can acquire. Plus you’re able to gain powers and privileges through different affiliations in the game, such as becoming the Sherriff of Arkham or joining the Silver Twilight lodge. However it’s the sheer number of options that makes the game so much fun, gives it great replay value, and allows players to approach each session in a different way.
The skill check system in Arkham Horror can also be a bit overwhelming for players not used to that type of gaming — as a Dungeons and Dragons player I’m not daunted by a few six-sided dice and basic modifiers — but to be fair it’s very different than most games. It takes some time for new players to get used to adding and subtracting various amounts to and from their multiple dice rolls.
Arkham Horror can get bogged down later in the game, especially with more players (up to eight people can play). You need clue tokens to seal gates and they sometimes don’t appear as frequently as you need them to. There are definitely some character roles that aren’t as powerful as others so it’s important that players make everyone feel involved in the game and play to each character’s strengths. With different roles players must work together to maximize their usefulness; the Gangster is great at physical combat, the Magician is best at magical attacks, the Therapist can restore lost sanity, and the Nun can never be “lost in time and space”
Arkham Horror is often thrilling. The game has a great, dark atmosphere especially when gates start opening up and monsters pour into the town’s streets. With many character roles and a sliding difficulty scale, veteran players can give themselves a greater challenge by randomly selecting roles or choosing to face a tougher Ancient One. Arkham Horror’s steep learning curve, lengthy playing time, and slow mid-game play keep it from being my most favorite cooperative game but if you can organize a day and some dedicated friends it’ll be well worth it.
2. Battlestar Galactica
Based off of the television series (which if you haven’t watched, get right on that), Battlestar Galactica is a co-op game where you play as the characters aboard the spaceship Galactica. As the last remnants of the human race you’re on the run from the Cylons, a race of robots who once served humanity. Turns consist of fending off Cylon attacks, dealing with problems in the human fleet, and hoping that you can jump through hyperspace closer to the human’s ultimate destination, the lost planet Kobol. At the end of each player’s turn a crisis card is drawn which can either place more enemy ships on the board or create internal crises like food shortages or mutinous drops in morale.
There are three ways to lose in Battlestar Galactica: the morale, fuel, food, or population meters fall to zero, the ship itself sustains too much damage from attacks, or if Cylon Centurions board and take over the ship. To win the game Galactica needs to jump through hyperspace enough times to reach Kobol.
The twist of the game is that one of the players is secretly a Cylon agent. The robot race has designed models that look and function just like humans – ready to be activated for espionage and sabotage. The game is divided into two parts and if none of the players are the agent in the first phase, depending on how many people are playing, there will definitely be at least one in the second phase. The Cylon agent’s mission is to secretly work against the other players. Crises are resolved by the players turning in sets of cards and the agent may turn in the wrong cards to try and trigger failures. These cards are turned in anonymously with some being drawn from a separate deck to help hide the Cylon’s actions. Agents have to be careful because if they’re outed by the other players, they’re killed. Not permanently though, as their consciousnesses are downloaded into a new body at a Cylon base. There they may still try to disrupt the humans’ escape but may not be as effective as before.
You don’t need to know the TV series to play Battlestar Galactica. Each character has a certain skill set which gives players an active role in the game. Some can hop into smaller fighter ships and engage Cylon Raiders in dogfights, some characters can draw special cards that help deal with crises, and others can repair damage to Galactica.
Knowing that one of the players is working against you ferments a real sense of mistrust with each other. Sometimes dealing with crises forces you to make a leap of faith in trusting another player – occasionally to your regret. In the last game I played everyone was convinced that our friend Scott was the Cylon agent when it was actually me. Jason, playing as the president, almost made me his chief of staff where I could have done some real damage. Sadly for Cylon ambitions the game took a turn that pretty much forced me to reveal myself; eventually the humans won that game.
I like Battlestar Galactica because it feels action packed and players are rarely idle. You just about always have something to work towards or some crisis to manage. The game has a strong sense of narrative as players do what they can to escape the Cylons while huge enemy basestars loom, heavy raiders carrying merciless Cylon killers swarm around Galactica, mutinous feelings murmur throughout the human fleet, and one of you is a traitor just waiting for the right moment to destroy the remnants of the human race.
In the cooperative board game Pandemic, players are part of a crack team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who travel the world trying to contain and cure major outbreaks. There are four major diseases, represented by wooden cubes, that dominate different parts of the world. Each turn, cards representing different cities are drawn and disease cubes of that city’s color are added.
There are three ways to lose in Pandemic and only one way to win. You can lose by running out of city cards, running out of cubes of one particular disease, or through the occurrence of too many outbreaks. An outbreak ensues when an infection card is drawn for a city already containing three disease cubes; the disease then breaks out to surrounding cities. The world can only handle this event so many times (the outbreak track reaches its end) before infection overwhelms its population and you lose. The way to beat Pandemic is to cure all four diseases by turning in five city cards of the appropriate color at a research station. It’s rare that a disease is completely eradicated from a game but it’s easier to manage once cured.
Hidden among the city cards are epidemic cards which not only ratchet up the number of cities infected each turn but shuffle already used infection cards back on top of the deck; ensuring quick re-infection. The number of epidemic cards hidden in the deck is selected before starting allowing players to decide on how difficult they want the game to be.
Pandemic creates a great, growing tension throughout the game and it’s rare that players ever feel truly in control of the situation. Players can clear an area of disease only to have illness crop up again, stronger than before. Besting the game takes supreme coordination between players, efficient movement and use of actions, and using each player’s special abilities to maximum effect. There are several character roles to choose from including, among others, the medic who removes disease cubes in groups, the scientist only needs four city cards to cure a disease, and the dispatcher who can quickly move teammates about the world.
The game is easy to learn and its rules are fairly straightforward, however, Pandemic can be truly unforgiving. The first time I played was at a party where Liz, myself, and two friends were introduced to the game and proceeded to shut ourselves up in a separate room and lose repeatedly. While the rest of the party raged on we were determined to win, no matter how many games it took – we ended up playing four times before we finally beat it.
Pandemic is my favorite cooperative board game. One of the best parts about it is that while the game can be cruel you never feel that it’s unfair; why you lost is always clear. The game demands exacting coordination from its players and it’s a great feeling of relief and joy when you beat it using teamwork.
Pandemic does everything about cooperative gaming right. Every player’s turn is important and everyone’s role must be completely utilized. It was a close decision between Pandemic and Battlestar Galactica as they’re both great. Pandemic’s simplicity is what won the day for me. The game takes neither little time to explain nor much time to set up, and yet each session always feels new, exciting, and challenging.
I’m glad I was introduced to the cooperative board game genre. While I do still love regular competitive games against other people, cooperative games are a good change of pace. It’s nice to play board games that allow all players to be involved regardless of experience and skill.
I find it intriguing that all the cooperative games I’ve played feature a theme of some sort of impending disaster or world-ending event. I guess the natural direction of a cooperative game, in order to eliminate competition, is to make players face something that threatens them equally; triumphs and failures awarded alike. I’d be interested in playing a game that is cooperative but takes the narrative and mechanics along a different route. Surely people can work together towards a goal where success is something other than avoiding losing their lives or keeping the world from ending? But then would there be any sense of urgency or tension for the players? I don’t have the answer but if someone wants to get a cooperative game going, I’m in.