Co-operative Board Games – From Friends to Traitors

By Emily Sargeantson

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Co-operating with other players to beat a board game can be tough. You and the other players need to work together to win.

What is a co-operative board game? In a co-operative game, instead of competing against each other to determine the winner, players work together to beat the game. They win or fail as a group. The game is the ‘player’ the group is competing against. Players usually draw cards or roll dice on behalf of the game to see what it does.

Working together to beat a game might sound kind of lame and a bit dull. Where’s the competition? Isn’t the point of a game to have a winner? How is the game itself going to have a strategy?

Pandemic Pawns ready to co-operate. Go team!
Pandemic Pawns ready to co-operate. Go team!

Board game designers ask themselves all these questions and more to make some awesome games. Games that get stronger with every turn, games where players make your group do what they want for their own selfish ends, and games where there are traitors amongst you…

Playing the game

Taking the game’s turn

Co-operative board games don’t work in the same way as a traditional board game. There is no one winner. Instead, you all work together to beat the game.

Usually, the game’s turn will be controlled by any one of the players. They will draw the cards, roll the dice and move the pieces on behalf of the game.

It would be easy to cheat at a co-operative board game.

The game will never know, right?

Who’s watching?

Well, the whole group is. The group keeps each other accountable and makes sure that the game’s turn is taken fairly.

What is the point of playing a game if you’re just going to cheat? You’ll not get the satisfaction of winning.

Making it challenging and interesting enough

Getting the level of challenge right is important in any board game. If a game is too difficult, players will never win and won’t want to play the game again. But if it’s too easy the game will be boring.

When you play a regular board game, who you’re playing against massively affects the level of difficulty. If you’re playing against someone who plays the game really well, that makes the game harder.

In co-operative board games, you’re playing against the same game every time so getting that level of challenge just right is very important.

Another thing board game designers need to keep in mind is replayability. If every time you play the game it feels exactly the same and it’s too predictable, it’s boring. You just do the same things every time to win.

Thankfully, board game designers have some pretty neat ways to keep co-operative games interesting and keep you coming back for more.

Purely co-operative board games

A group of players form a team to take on the game and try to beat it. One huge perk of this kind of game is that one person can play them on their own because they are competing against the game, not other people.

Magic Maze

Magic Maze co-op board game
Magic Maze co-op board game

In Magic Maze players need to work together to move four pawns around the board to collect magic items and then get to the exit. Each player can move all the pawns but they can only move in certain directions as they are told on their card or take certain actions like use portals or escalators.

Two rules make this game really intense:

  1. No-one is allowed to talk
  2. The game is timed

Every game of Magic Maze is a lot of fun!

Hanabi

In Hanabi each player has five different colours of cards numbered 1 to 5. Players must work together to create a row of each colour in sequential order. But, players hold their cards facing away from them so the other players need to provide hints as to which cards to play.

Pandemic

Players have different roles in a task force which is trying to control and cure 4 infectious diseases before the diseases get out of control and wipe everyone out. We usually make up names for the diseases at the start of the game like Zombie Plague (black) and Freezy face (blue).

Every turn diseases spread and infect more cities around the world while the players struggle to keep up with controlling and curing them.

Several times a game, players draw an Epidemic card. This is very bad. Epidemic cards spread disease to an additional city and increase the chance of it spreading faster in the cities it has already infected.

Every time an epidemic card is drawn, it becomes more important that players work together, use all their character’s skills and think as a group to win the game.

Pandemic is one of my favourite games. It’s always really fun and the players and the game are very closely matched. It gets pretty intense.

Arkham Horror

An advanced co-operative game set in the H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu setting, players must stop the Ancient Ones invading the world. Players win either by sealing gates to other dimensions or by defeating the Ancient One in combat.

Each player is an investigator and each unique abilities. As they explore the streets of Arkham, players acquire items and skills which make them more powerful.

But there are monsters on the streets and new portals opening all the time. Players must keep on top of closing the portals. If too many portals are opened the Ancient One comes through and the only way to win is to defeat it!

Personal win conditions

Sometimes co-operative board games have the team working together against the game, but as they do, players have their own secret objectives to complete too. This means that players might not always make the best decision for the group but instead, make the best decision for themselves.

Why did you do that?!’ the other players may cry! But the player cannot tell them why, because it’s a secret. It makes for an interesting dynamic.

Castle Panic

Players take on the role of knights defending their castle from monsters.
Pressure builds every turn as more monsters arrive on the board, get closer to the castle and the knights have to get rid of them before they get too close!

Players trade cards with each other and work together to defend the castle. But, the overall winner of the game is the player who kills the most monsters. So players need to work together to defend the castle because if it falls everyone loses, but they also want to win the game.

Players may not want to trade some of the cards they have to help another player, instead choosing to save them for their turn.

Dead of Winter

In Dead of Winter, players are fighting to survive a winter in a zombie infested world. As a group, they have an objective to complete but each player also has a personal objective. When the game ends, only players who have achieved their objective actually win.

The majority of these personal objective cards do not mean the player has to betray the rest of the group. But there may be one person in the group with a betrayal objective and this person doesn’t want to be found out.

Players need to be careful in how they go about achieving their objectives, do something that looks too suspicious to the group and they’ll be suspected of being the traitor!

Gloomhaven

A scenario in Gloomhaven
A scenario in Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven is a co-operative role-playing game. But players are not allowed to discuss strategy with each other. Instead, they must draw their cards for their next turn not knowing what the others will do. It places a lot more emphasis on watching other players to learn how they play and predicting what they will do.

Before each scenario players are given two Personal Quest cards and choose one that they are going to try and complete in the scenario. They keep this quest secret from the other players. If they complete it, they get to tick a perk box or two on their character sheet which makes them stronger over time.

Board games with a traitor

In some games with a traitor, the group knows that there are traitors from the beginning of the game. In others, they know that someone will turn on them during the game. In other games, the players don’t know if there is or isn’t a traitor throughout the entire game.

Traitors generally win the game if the other players lose.

Didn’t trust you from the start

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game - who is a Cylon?
Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game – who is a Cylon?

At the beginning of the game players are handed cards which tell them whether they are a human or a Cylon. If they are a Cylon, they are trying to sabotage the human’s efforts to get to Kobol.

Werewolf

Players are given roles at the beginning of the game. Some players will be werewolves and some will be villagers of various types.

Every night the werewolves kill off villagers. It’s up to the players to figure out who the werewolves are and eliminate them from the game before they kill all the villagers.

A Fake Artist Goes to New York

In this game, one person writes a word on several boards and puts an ‘X’ on another board. They randomly hand out the boards to the players. Without any discussion, the players then take it in turns to add a line to a drawing to create a picture.

But one player doesn’t know what they’re supposed to draw! Their card says ‘X’. This player has to draw a line making it look like they know what is being drawn so people don’t suspect them of being the fake artist. However, the other players don’t make it easy for them.

If the fake artist guesses what the drawing is at the end of the game, they have won. So, the players need to draw lines which show the other players they are not the fake artist, but without being so obvious with what they are drawing that the fake artist guesses correctly!

I knew you’d betray me!

Betrayal at House on the Hill

This game is like playing a game based on a B movie. Players explore a haunted house. As they do, they uncover items called omens. Whenever an omen is found players roll dice to see if discovering that omen triggers the haunt to start.

If the haunt starts, the players use the omen item and the room it was discovered in to work out which 1 of 50 haunt scenarios now starts.

Not always, but quite often the player that triggered the haunt becomes the traitor.

That player is handed the Traitor Tome and sent away to read the rules for the haunt scenario and come up with their evil plan. The remaining players read the corresponding scenario in The Secrets of Survival to see what they need to do to defeat the traitor and win.

Every scenario is different, we’ve had to burn a magic book before the traitor got their hands on it, disarm bombs placed all around the house and even escape before the traitor alien flies the house into another dimension.

Is there a traitor amongst us?

Shadows over Camelot

In this game, players are Knights of the Round Table in the court of King Arthur. They help each other to complete quests like finding the holy grail or getting excalibur. They need to complete the quests before Camelot falls.

Each turn, players take a heroic action which helps themselves or the group, but they must also choose one of 3 evil actions which are bad for Camelot.

This sounds pretty straightforward, but an interesting addition is that lurking in the game there may or may not be a traitor.

Is that player taking the best bad action for Camelot? Have they put Camelot in a terrible position? Is there no traitor at all?

Accusations fly throughout the game because the traitor will only reveal themselves at the most opportune moment!

Related questions

Why do people play co-operative games? Co-operative games place an emphasis on teamwork rather than competition, which makes for a different type of game dynamic to competitive games. They encourage social interaction and collective strategic thinking which makes co-operative games a useful tool in schools.

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Emily Sargeantson
Hi there, I’m Emily. I’ve loved tabletop games since 2008 when I was introduced to D&D. I started My Kind of Meeple to nerd out about tabletop!