Winning and gloating over your friends sure is great, ain’t it? However, some days I prefer to team up with my table mates and accomplish some sort of task together, regardless if its monumental or miniscule in nature. In fact, I might wager to say that cooperative is my favorite way to play games, as I do enjoy the thrill of working together in a way that feels meaningful. So, I thought I would share a handful of cooperative games that I absolutely adore, with two caveats.
First, as always, our Game Recommendations feature is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of co-op board games that I just haven’t played yet. For example, I’m incredibly ashamed to admit I haven’t played Ghost Stories yet, as it’s not only designed by Antoine Bauza (whom I adore), but the praise for the game has been deafening. Ditto for Space Alert.
Secondly, I wanted to focus exclusively on pure cooperative games, meaning it can’t feature a “traitor” mechanic or team-versus-team gameplay. These are games designed to be completely enjoyed with others without the added element of competition against your partners. The point of these columns is to provide a very clear set of recommendations, for those potentially interested in this particular genre. And before you scream at me, yes, Shadows Over Camelot’s traitor mechanic is technically optional but don’t expect to see that game on my lists. Personally, I don’t care for it much.
Anyway, without further ado…
Are you ready for adventure? If you’ve ever wanted to join an expedition to ancient ruins in search of lost relics, Forbidden Island might be the game for you. You and up to three friends take on unique roles, like the Pilot, Diver, or Explorer, and scour an ancient island for its treasures. However, as soon as you begin your search, the island slowly begins to sink into the ocean. It’s a race against the clock to find the four relics and escape via helicopter before everything washes away forever.
In my opinion, Forbidden Island is the best entry point into cooperative games for non-gamers. The game’s mechanics are simple, with only a small handful of possible actions to take on a given turn. You can move to a different tile, or shore up a nearby location that has been partially submerged. That’s it. Each character role grants a special ability to each player that offers some variety and strategy for the team, but turns are typically quick and simple. I’ve had success teaching Forbidden Island to players as young as 7 years old with little difficulty, and the game includes multiple levels of difficulty to accommodate gamers of all experience. Plus, it’s one of the least expensive cooperative games on the market and includes a number of high quality pieces, making it an easy choice to add to one’s collection.
In Flash Point: Fire Rescue, players assume the roles of firefighters at the scene of a home on fire. Your team must keep the flames at bay long enough to rescue seven survivors that are trapped in the residence, escorting them to the safety of the nearby ambulance. However, the fire is relentless and spreads at the end of each player’s turn through random dice rolls, and rolling numbers that already contain flames triggers an explosion that not only expands the fire in all directions, but also inflicts structural damage to the home. There are many ways to lose, such as too many victims perishing in fires or the building sustaining too much damage, but only way method to win the game.
If you’ve played Forbidden Island and are ready to tackle a bigger challenge, Flash Point will certain put your team to the test. Similar to Forbidden Island, Flash Point features unique character roles that have specific abilities; the paramedic is more efficient at rescuing victims, while the firefighter receives bonus actions exclusively for putting out fires. The rules can be a bit daunting at a glance as there are numerous options and elements that can be added or removed from the game as desired. Thankfully, the rulebook includes a great beginner’s scenario that walks players through setting up the game board.
Even when I lose, Flash Point: Fire Rescue is still a game that immediately want to jump back into and try again. The game is very similar mechanics-wise to Matt Leacock’s Pandemic, so you may be a bit disappointed if you already own that one. However, I’m about to put my credibility on the line and make a statement some will certainly find blasphemous: I would rather play Flash Point over Pandemic. I prefer the more personal scale to putting out fires and saving lives over Pandemic’s global catastrophes and abstract visuals of cubes and pawns. Both are fantastic games, but I would take the fire hose over my lab coat any day of the week.
This is a weird one for me to recommend, because if you read my story about the game’s upcoming expansion, you would know that I’ve never actually played Eldritch Horror. But how could I possibly recommend a game I’ve never played?
It’s easy. Eldritch Horror is a streamlined and more accessible reimagining of Arkham Horror, the epic cooperative horror adventure based on the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. I had the chance to play Arkham Horror once, and even though we never quite finished our session even after five hours, I was entranced. However, the barrier to entry for Arkham and Fantasy Flight’s other Lovecraft games have always been incredibly high, and wrangling others into sitting down for a 6-7 hour game is, uh, challenging.
Eldritch Horror is still a commitment, taking around 2-3 hours on average from what I’ve heard. However, if it still plays like anything remotely similar to Arkham, I am sold. If you’re looking for a lengthy, meaty cooperative board game to sink your teeth into, especially if you are fan of Lovecraft or horror in general, check this one out.
Hanabi is a unique cooperative card game where players work together to create the most spectacular fireworks show. Each card represents a specific firework with a color and number, and cards must be played in sequential order by color to score points. However, there’s a catch; players are not allowed to look at their own cards, ever. Instead, players have to give each other clues and hints on which cards to play, as putting down the wrong firework advances the timer towards the game’s conclusion.
The game is much more challenging to explain than it is to actually play. Hanabi’s mechanics are simple and easy to learn, but not looking at your own hand of cards is an instinct that can be tough to forget. But the game is very entertaining and only lasts around half an hour, ensuring it doesn’t overstay its welcome at the table. Hanabi comes highly recommended for anyone searching for a refreshing twist on the cooperative genre.
I’ve already written a number of thoughts on Mice and Mystics, so I won’t prattle on too much about the game. But a board game that is heavy on narrative and theme is ripe for disaster, but thankfully M&M infuses them into its core mechanics gracefully. Here are a few lines from my previous write-up about the game:
Mice and Mystics is an interesting hybrid of RPG and board game, with a heavy emphasis on an overarching narrative for each game session. There’s a standard rulebook, but the game also includes an additional Storybook which is used each time you play. Game sessions are broken into Chapters, which feature narration and dialogue to flesh out each scenario. The story opens with your typical fantasy kingdom enjoying an age of prosperity, which unfortunately is broken when an evil sorceress infiltrates the castle. Things quickly spiral out of control for the realm, and our main heroes are transformed into mice to evade capture. I am only a few chapters into the story, but so far it feels very “Secret of NIMH” inspired. Everything is adorable on the surface, but there are dark undertones subtly coursing through each scene.
…unlike D&D, there’s no Game Master or single individual that controls and pushes the plot. The game’s story is already written for you to simply discover, and even each character’s dialogue occurs on the pages of each chapter. Gameplay is limited to moving to and from locations and slaying enemies in order to proceed. For those looking for an actual roleplaying experience, there’s almost no wriggle-room for personal touches beyond changing the scope of the adventure. But Mice and Mystics never attempts to brand itself as a “roleplaying game.” It merely borrows certain mechanics that are necessary to create a continuous campaign where characters grow stronger each time you play. To reduce it to its core, you could call M&M a dungeon-crawling board game with minor RPG elements, but it feels like a disservice to understate the importance of the plot to the game’s enjoyment. After all, how many board games can you think of that contain a narrative which actually exists to enhance the game mechanics?
If that sounds intriguing, I strongly suggest giving Mice and Mystics a chance. From my experience, it’s a wonderful cooperative experience for two and makes a great game to play with a significant other, as the light-hearted nature of the story makes it accessible for nearly anyone.
Taking a roleplaying game and distilling it into a functional board game is nothing new (see above). However, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is one of the only games I’ve ever seen that successfully recreates the best aspects of an ongoing RPG campaign, such as fighting monsters, upgrading equipment, and leveling up over time to become increasingly more powerful.
Despite the game’s current popularity (it was on many Best of 2013 lists), I’ve read a string of complaints lobbed at it recently, blasting it for dullness and repetition. If you don’t particularly enjoy roleplaying games or high fantasy settings in general, I can see Pathfinder Adventure Card Game turning you off from enjoying it. However, it truly stands out as a unique experience by offering a level of progression that hasn’t really been seen before outside of its RPG roots. It scratches the same itches that a video game like Diablo satisfies, encouraging players to open just one more door to discover that exceptional piece of loot they desire. And as a rabid “loot whore,” the appeal is certainly strong for me.
I admit that the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is not for everyone, but those that enjoy cooperative RPG elements in their tabletop games will find much to love.