Co-Operative Boardgames - how most of them are not...

...and, following on from that, how I really struggled to come up with one that was, and was fun.

I'll be referencing what I shall refer to as "the L4D Boardgame", which doesn't exist, but various design notes and thoughts can be seen here.

In summary, after playing through Doom and Descent campaign games for 2-3 years, I came to a number of theories about boardgames;

1) Co-Op games are rarely that. Most de-generate into a single player ordering the others around. There is rarely any individualism, and the players combine to form a gestalt, typically with a single leader doing 90% of the game, while others are simply piece-movers, and dice-rollers.
Typical Culprit : Pandemic

2) Dice are quick, yet inherently random when used in low numbers. Too often success or failure comes down to luck rather than good play. Boardgames often have low volumes of rolls compared to (for example) wargames, where dice are rolled in 10's, rather than 1's, and thus the bell-curve of probability often does not properly develop.
Typical Culprit : Arkham Horror

3) Player elimination should be avoided whenever possible. It's no fun watching others play.

4) A game that can be lost by everyone should not take too long to play (it's no fun). Also, individual turns should be quick, keeping downtime for individual players to a minimum.
Typical Culprit : Descent

With Co-Op games it is a "us against the system" style of play, and results can fit into 1 of 3 brackets

1) System is impossible to beat
2) System is possible to beat, however error/luck causes failure
3) System is possible to beat, and skill/luck allows win

Looking at Pandemic again, often the lie of the card decks means that victory is impossible, whereas other times it may almost be a certainty. The game is fairly effective at disguising these scenarios, however at the end of the game there is no way of knowing for sure if you ever had a chance of winning, or if victory was almost pre-determined. There ideally needs to be some way of reducing the impact of luck (while not eliminating it, otherwise optimal routes are found and following, leading to a rail-roaded playing style), while maximising skill returns, and also reducing "System cannot be beaten" chances, so you end closer to the "ideal" state of;

1) System is possible to beat, however error AND/OR bad luck causes failure
2) System is possible to beat, skill allows win (maybe a bit of luck)

So I challenged myself to come up with a game concept that rewarded skillful and true co-operative play, didn't take too long to play, and was fun. I fucked up. The basis was taken from Left4Dead, which is an exceptional co-operative game in that it didn't just involve 4 people running the same way, but player interaction and support was required (and fun).

The initial concepts can be seen on the Wiki, but boiled down to;
1) No dice, instead cards would be used which held dice roll results, ensuring that a given player would always produce results within a standard probability bell-curve. They could choose when to roll well, and when to roll badly within certain parameters (hand size/deck cycling etc)

2) Individual secret player goals to stop gestalt play.To win the game to your own goals, you also had to support the team, or risk failure.

3) All players on same side (no "dungeonmaster"), requiring a simple and robust system for the opposition monsters

4) 2 levels of zombie. The "horde" zombies, which were due to be mowed down, and "specials", which would provide a challenge. These would be introduced against the players by some method to keep challenge high, yet close (the mythical "sweet point" for a game, which I think we hit once or twice within Descent and Doom, where both sides feel victory can be reached if played well, rather than a cakewalk or butchering)

5) Random boards. These speed up gameplay, by minimising set-up time, as well as increasing re-playability.

I bashed together some rules, based on hexagonal floorpieces, and generation of a map based on drawn cards. Challenge would be provided from a "Director Deck", which would vary the level of opposition based on the overall state of the players (for example, a well-tooled, healthy team would be more lightly to meet swarms and specials, while a weak team may be lucky enough to find a health-pack). There was a basic time system for introduction of special zombies, and some basic ideas for individual goals (the team goal being to reach the end), and even a way to link them into a campaign basis (so in return for XP you could either increase the ability of your character, or select potential win-goals).

I did a couple of solo playtests, and the immediat eissue that came up was that re-presenting a swarm of zombies with models is extremely slow, even moreso if you want to have a good visceral feeling of mowing them down. Specials were very hard to make effective in the L4D-style (a simple automated set of move rules does not really properly translate the challenge of taking down a smoker, whereas simple zombie horde moves of "approach closest and bite" is fairly quick).

Balancing the guns was a complete nightmare...

I put the project onto a back-burner, though since then I have had some other thoughts. Rather than re-present all the models in a horde, instead you have an abstracted phase where the players combine their firepower to "suppress" hordes, and only where the suppression is not enough then models are placed, such as;

4 players each have a hand(clip) of cards (ammo), with values from 1-4, and possibly "MISS". In the zombie phase a number is determined (probably from the Director Deck) to indicate the number of targets visible. Players must then add in one card from their hand hidden to counter the threat (think BSG challenge overcome). These cards are taken off the number of zombies, and then remaining models are placed, and become much harder to kill (think of these as the swervy bastards that get past your shots in the computer game). This reduces the number of models to move, adds in more "co-op" (and fucking over the team if your individual goals require it).

For Specials, I think it would probably be better to ignore Smokers, and stick with "approach and attack" type zombies, as the move rules are far simpler. This is the route that games such as "Last Night on Earth" have gone with...


Perhaps something like the smoker/jokey could be dealt with as a random event card. It get's played then a player selected at random for the attack there is some way to prevent it or else player get's dragged off from the group in some random direction and they have to rescue them.

Evilmatt's picture

Not a bad idea!

Random event cards fit in pretty well with the general concept (Director Deck would be all events effectively, with some balancing mechanism). The player is dragged to the edge of the tile they are on, and needs to be shot by a team-mate...

The jockey is similar, only they move in a random direction every turn...

Prevention could be by a similar "suppression" model. If a horde card is failed by too much then a special attack is triggered... That way teh game phases would be kept simple;

1) Draw Director Card - determines required "suppression level"
2) Players pool ammo for test
3) resolve Suppresion
a) Place surviving models
b) Any additional effects (special zombie triggers)
4) Move horde zombies/attack (if end move next to player 1 damage)
5) Players move/fire

That way you always get a chance to stop an attack (in Suppression), but failure will pretty much ensure damage...

babychaos's picture

I think Nibbles random event is good too. Boomer would chunder on up to 4 of the players and start a new horde off. The only two that would be characters on the board would be Charger and Tank - which is really a boss.

Another way to allow players to help each other is for cards in their hand to be used to benefit others. So, if Pete is running out of ammo, Nibbles has an ammo card or something. Health packs, pipe bombs and even weapons could be passed around the team.

What about player death? Much like L4D, where they appear in a room to be rescued?

How were you going to generate buildings and stuff with random hexes? Different piles like Settlers of Catan? I think it would be fun to build-as-you-go.

brainwipe's picture

Ammo for suppression test should be secret.

Also how about putting some zombies on the tiles (there are always some placid zombies that get dotted about in L4d.) They could become active if a horde card comes up, or if you fire close to them.

fish's picture

I never got round to item control, though there was an implicit theory that player A could use item on Player B. Not so sure about hand-over though. If nothing else you tend to end up with runners.

Boomers are fairly simple, and could be treated a model possibly (1 vomit special, then treat as normal zombie with blast death). For slimed any slimed player could be forced to play cards blind from their ammo deck (to indicate wild spray...some cards were to be flagged as "Team damage")

Player Death was planned to be via "cupboards", and the next tile spawned would also have a player on a board edge, who would need to be freed. I never got to a player state section, which was to cover hit points, down vs dead etc etc. I think for the trial runs it was 10 HP, and each adjacent swarm zombie caused 1HP damage (so max 6 in a turn). Down at 0, and dead at -10. Recover to 2HP. I think at the time I though Bleeding Out was tricky to manage.

The plan was for simple hexagonal tiles, and the buildings would be implicit in the design. Building up a board as you go is good, however it needs to be fairly quick, and ideally all the info you need to create the tile should fit easily on a single playing card.

babychaos's picture

re: fish

Zombie placement on tiles would be a yes, and this was also the plan for Witches and Tanks (so some tiles would be treated as a special encounter area effectively). Like the idea about adding them to a horde (or triggered when someone enters the tile?)

Agreed on secret ammo tests. That's a far better word than "hidden". Goo'ed characters would have to play blind AND secret.

babychaos's picture

Each "round" of the director deck should reveal more than one card as standard. Maybe 2-3. Individual tiles could modify the number of cards drawn.

Similarly you could adjust difficulty by modifying the cards per turn.

fish's picture

If you based the number of cards on the tile then you may end up with an impassable area, where x cards are appearing per turn simply due to location. To simulate a crescendo section, you might want "3 cards for 5 rounds" as some kind of trigger somewhere, ensuring a flood against the players for a sustained period.

There is in the design a "Tile Deck", which would determine the next tile to be placed (I think I said the map was generated 1 tile ahead, to represent LOS limitations) would be easy enough to add tile-specific rules on there (eg;

  • once tile is placed always draw 3 Director Deck cards until condition Y is met (example condition being Player Starts turn on a given Hex, or expends 5 ammo points on a hex)

  • Place a witch on this tile
  • Place a tank on this tile
  • Place a health pack on this tile

    You could also add "road blocks" to tiles in this way, stopping progression until the crescendo is complete (which would stop people trying to dash to the end).

    You could potentially have D3 cards per turn normally? Difficulty levels would be D3+1, D3+2 and/or make special encounter challenges harder (for example, more HP on the tank, or need to score 2 hits to free a pinned player rather than 1).

  • babychaos's picture

    Similarly you could have respite tiles that penalise the die roll, (but maybe only for a turn or two.)

    fish's picture

    That would tie in well with restock points too...

    babychaos's picture

    I took the stuff from above, and hammered it into a basic set of rules to work from last night.

    Fairly high-level, plenty of areas for complexity expansion (mainly in Tile Deck and Director Deck cards, though also with Items and Weapons...

    babychaos's picture

    It's looking very good.

    Couple of suggestions.
    Revive - Only a player who has taken no damage this turn may make a revive action
    Inactive Zombies - The player is within 5 hexes and expended an ammo card. (Gives you the opportunity to sneak.)

    fish's picture

    Should Director cards be drawn every turn or only when players enter a tile? What happens if they re-enter a tile, what if they are in more than one tile?

    fish's picture

    Revive and Inactive - both good, I'll get them swapped over.

    //added. Currently Melee attacks place a zombie in an Inactive status. This could lead to weird situations where a zombie is melee'd, and then the player runs off/doesn't shoot, and the zombie would stay inactive. Might need to add an alternate zombie status (stunned), which is automatically recovered at the end of the turn. Need to think of a quick way of showing this with models.

    Also, I would say that a zombie would always become active if a player is adjacent?


    Director Cards - I would say every turn, otherwise there is an encouragement to stay still to re-couperate. You could say 1 normally, however when a new tile is revealed/entered, do D3. That way you will never be fully clear.

    Regarding which tile to spawn on, I had a half-formed idea about "Primary Target" players, where bad stuff happens around the least healthy player, so spawn on teh tile with the least healthy player?. Harsh, but fairly in keeping with the game, and it would encourage team-mates to protect the weakest by standing nearby to take the "move towards nearest player" movement...

    Alternately, you could just roll a D4, and assign a number to each player (basic rules, and advanced is the "dick on the weak one" option?)

    babychaos's picture

    How about a 4b (or new 5). Inactive Zombies adjacent to a character become active (after movement has been completed.)

    Also add a note on Ammo cards or in rules, if used activate all zombies within 5 hexes.

    As for Target dick on the weakest player. Perhaps multiple hordes could split between the weaker ones.

    fish's picture

    For now I have added in;
    4 - (after zombie movement) Inactive zombies adjacent to players are Activated.
    5 - (inflict wounds) after wounds are inflicted, any Stunned zombies are un-stunned
    6 - (player attacks) If an attakc card is used within 5 spaces on an inactive Zombie, it becomes Active
    6 - (Melee action) Now causes Stun.

    So zombies can now move from inactive to Active in;
    - Resolve Director Deck cards
    - Zombie Movement
    - Player Shooting

    I was thinking of one Tile-specific rule (for example) as;

    Car Alarm - if a Suppression check is passed by more than 2, a horde is formed for the next X turns, and all inactive Zombies become Active.
    Discard this card once triggered.
    Worth 1VP for each surviving member of the team at the end of the level if not triggered.

    Putting a note on weapon cards could make sense re: triggering zombies, as in the expansion there are silenced weapons, and they could be a rule exception (only being adjacent would trigger it for this character).

    babychaos's picture

    Like the Car Alarm - Could tie in with one of your player goals

    fish's picture

    Try and get a play test version ready for Baycon.

    fish's picture

    No pressure then!

    Fortunately I have a job lot of blank playing cards (though not yet worked out a decent way of printing onto them...)

    babychaos's picture

    I would cut out a stencil in cardboard and the use a marker pen to print onto the cards. If you stick anything to the playing cards, they won't come out well.

    brainwipe's picture

    For testing purposes in Magic I would spray glue a paper copy to a shit card and put it in a card sleeve to stop it separating.

    fish's picture

    What Fish said.

    brainwipe's picture

    Ok, question...

    We are talking about multiple Director cards per turn. Should this mean Multiple Suppression checks, or a single one on the combined values? Do you do a single check, but only trigger checks for cards that are not beaten collectively? (wow, that's really badly worded)

    OK, as an example. 3 Director Cards are drawn, each with a Special Attack (a Boomer, a Hunter and a Smoker) if the Suppression Check fails. The Values to beat are 3, 4 and 5 respectively. A combined value of 12.

    The players put down a total of 10 on the Suppression check. This would put 2 normal zombies on the board, however do we count it as 3 failures for Special Attacks, or say that 10 beats the first 2 cards (the 3 and the 4 as drawn), and only the third special attack is triggered?

    The risk of single check on multiple cards is that if all the cards can potentially trigger a special attack on failure you could get a party wipe in one turn...

    I was thinking on another idea, which is sort of blatantly stolen from BSG, but is similar to an initial idea I had. Special Attacks are triggered from a timer board (think the Jump track), and results on the Director Card Suppression checks move Special Attacks further along the track.

    This would mean failing multiple cards at once (as in the above example) would move 3 special attacks forward faster in some way, but in all probability not all hit at the same time...

    Having written it out, I quite like the "check all, but only trigger those in excess of" that I walked through in the example. Is it too complex though?

    babychaos's picture

    Initially I thought each player should only put cards against one horde but I think that will lead to more failures and perhaps be too difficult. So I think your right and check all as a group but make the hordes stack in numerical order (one way or the other) rather than order drawn.

    fish's picture

    I ordered a job lot of cheap card sleeves last night (about 0.6p each including postage). What is this "spray glue" you speak of?

    Last night's effort was starting to flowchart the game (as it's how my brain works)

    Decided the game splits fairly well into 4 phases
    1) Director Phase
    2) Zombie Phase
    3) Player Phase
    4) Admin / Clean-up

    Done most of the walkthrough for the Director Phase last night...will try and break the back of the Zombie phase tonight...

    re: Stacking order of Director Cards. What we are talking about here is effectively ordering the cards by percieved difficulty? My first thought is a mechanism used in Dungeon Lords (partly as we played it at the weekend), where incoming adventurers are sorted by strength in some arbitary manner. You could (in theory) assign each Director Card a difficulty level, and then clear them in that order.

    The downside of this is unless the party completely ignore the Suppressing Fire phase, you will only ever get one special condition. I think there is an assumption that they will always be bad (whereas Tile Cards, which will determine initial spawns and objects will tend to be slightly more neutral, as they will determine re-stock points as well as Witches, Tanks and Crescendo events), so this might be OK.

    one thought I had was that of "lurking" Director Cards. These are ones that can roll over from phase to phase (there is one in the exampel of the gameflow page...if you do not succeed by enough then the card is added to the next Director Phase). You could potentially have special attacks as these, so the Director Deck would take the form of 2 sets of cards
    1) Horde Cards, which produce a number to be Overcome with Suppressing Fire, or spawn normal zombies
    2) Lurkers, which also add Horde Numbers, but can roll over if not beaten (or not beaten by enough).

    You then check only against Total Horde vs Total Suppression, but Lurkers have a conditon such as "if the Suppression Check passed by less than 3, then add this card to the next Director Deck phase", and a Special Attack that triggers if the check is failed...

    This would represent either monsters keeping in shadows until the team are low on ammo, or a period of pressure where a card with a high horde number that appear turn after turn until beaten... This would also add pressure to the team to not allow Lurkers to build up, as they may end up with a brutal phase where 3 or 4 trigger at once.

    ...going on from that, you could have Tile Cards that also act as Director Cards, so simulate set events. For example, a Tile Card may State "Add this card to the Director Deck phase for the next 5 turns. Horde Number 10" would give you a rather good rush attack...

    //added (while it's still in my mind)
    Alternately, a Tile Card may have instructions such as "Take 15 Director Cards, and add 3 per turn into the Director Phase until they are all gone" to act as a Crescendo Timer. This would stop the cards getting mixed up (which is a bugger in the post-game sorting out)

    I rather like this idea of;
    1) Cards that can hang around from turn to turn, slowly building up pressure on the team
    2) Mini-Timers within the game in the form of additional Director Cards, controlled by Tile Cards
    3) The really nasty combination of the "must be beaten by x" type Lurker cards in combination with Tile Cards such as "Car Alarm", where is a check is beaten by too much then bad things happen.

    babychaos's picture
    fish's picture

    I like all those ideas but remember to use them in moderation as they could make the game go on too long or be too hard.

    fish's picture

    I've put it to be just total checks (total suppression vs total Horde Numbers), and lurking cards.

    When I get to Tile Cards I will add in a mini-timer, but it will be used the same as Lurkers effectively (so a Tile Card will read "every round for X rounds, add Y cards to the Lurking pile before drawing Director Cards")

    No more individual checks against cards... it will just be total vs total, and if the team let lurkers get too bad it's their own fault. The composition of the Director Deck will be that lurker-capable cards will be about 1/3 or 1/4, to allow slow build up, but not a sudden glut of them (apart from maybe crescendos).

    The card sleeves have arrived today, so I shall try and get hold of some SprayMount, and spend Saturday doing some work...

    babychaos's picture

    Looking at your tile photo have you got a way of dealing with what to do if the tiles loop back on themselves or dead end. Presumably there is a goal tile that is put to the bottom of the deck before you start so you can't just cycle them?

    fish's picture

    Nope. I also hit that during play-testing. Haven't come up with a good way yet... Probably remove the hairpin tiles for starters.

    Yeah...the plan was for Finale cards that would be used after X tile cards, and that would also be part of the difficulty (so easy = 10 TileCard level, hard = 20 TileCard level). The tile with 5 exits (at the top) the baisc idea.

    babychaos's picture

    Thread resurrection!

    I still occasionally look at this, and spend some time thinking on the issue of a random hex-generated route looping back on itself. The basic problem is a series of tiles coming out that causes the core route to head back on itself like so;

    (here the placement of tile 3 has caused a collision with the ege of tile 1...the path cannot continue)

    I've had a think on various different ways of trying to deal with this. Removing hairpins (where the entry and exit edges are adjacent) lowers, but does not remove the problem. Having some kind of tile clearance process (where once a tile has been vacated by the players it is removed) again reduces but does not remove the issue. If you add in branching routes the problem grows.

    Overlaying tiles gets really confusing very quickly... does trying to come up with some kind of comedy multi-dimensional structure to allow play in 3 dimensions.

    I think the best way of dealing with it is to create a new game area, and use a link token between them, similar to how old Space Hulk would deal with multiple levels (and various other games).

    (continuing the above example, when tile 3 is placed, where the collision is due to occur a z-axis is placed, and the other end is placed on a new tile, showing the continuation of the path)

    So if a collision is caused by placing a new tile (where the exit is blocked by a previously placed tile) where the exit would be a z-axis is instead created by way of a hex token (representing a ladder, or entry into sewers etc)

    Another tile is then drawn, placed in a separate location, and the other end of the z-axis is placed on it's entry side. To swap between levels players spend x movement points on the token, and are moved to the other end.

    If you look at branching routes this could end up with a scattering of mini-maps, to in conjunction with this a limitation on adjacent entry/exit tiles, and some kind of clean-up of vacant tiles would make sense...

    babychaos's picture

    YES! That's a fucking brilliant solution.

    brainwipe's picture

    Could you also stipulate that there is no way back, once all characters have vacated an area in this fashion it is removed from play.

    fish's picture

    That would work for a main route, however need to be careful if the route is a branch.

    It would be easy enough to say that a given z-axis is one way (a drop down into sewers for example), or that once all players are past a z-axis on a main route the previous section is removed from play (probably a step in the admin phase to remove vacated tiles and vacant sections).

    Taking this further you could use a change in level to have a controlled finale a final tile have a "lift" z-axis, where all players need to stand on a given area, and are then moved to another section, which gives free reign for size layout (as a game example think the hospital roof finale in a boardgame you may want to set up a large section

    ...and specify a place with some goodies, then throw in a few Tanks and specials and let it all go wild. one benefit of having this sort of New z-axis finale is that it allows you to ensure that all tiles are available for building up the area.

    babychaos's picture

    nice one mate, sounds like its really coming together...

    byrn's picture