Our family’s board game collection used to consist of Life, Clue, and Battleship. We’d call them “I’m bored” games. None of us knew what “deck building,” “cooperative play,” “worker placement,” or “meeples” meant.
But a year ago, a friend shared her party word game of Taboo, and we enjoyed it so much that we revisited the world of tabletop games.
Today, our tabletop game library consists of 40 games, ranging from the time-consuming and immersive “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle: A Cooperative Deck-Building Game” to the simple yet ridiculously entertaining “Rhino Hero.”
Cooperative Board Games Defined
My social circle is made up of highly competitive people for the most part, so our games get fierce fast. (A recent gaming experience could be called “Ticked Off to Ride” instead of “Ticket to Ride.”)
However, some friends aren’t quite so… competitive. Those friends never get angry enough to knock off meeples from the board after a loss nor become gleeful enough to launch into self-congratulatory cheers in victory after a win.
Fortunately, cooperative board games exist.
The concept of a cooperative board game is to play as one team to accomplish a mission (e.g., find treasures before the Forbidden Island sinks, cure four diseases before a pandemic wipes out humanity, battle against Voldemort and the Death Eaters).
Cooperative board games, such as the best-selling Pandemic and the bookworm dream that is “Hogwarts Battle,” are engaging, fun experiences—but everyone works together rather than against each other.
Moreover, cooperative board games also provide opportunities to work on some important life skills. Here’s a look at five of them.
1. Understanding What Your Contributions and Those of Others Bring to the Table(top)
“Joint decision-making can be both fruitful and eye-opening in and of itself,” writes Douglas Maynard at Analog Game Studies. “They prompt us to consider how different perspectives and ideas can yield even better ideas which no single individual would have come up with alone.”
In Pandemic, each player has a specific role with a unique skill set. A player can be a quarantine specialist, researcher, contingency planner, dispatcher, medic, operations expert, and medic. Players must work together to help cure (and/or eradicate) a disease before it destroys the world.
Everyone must assess a situation a little differently because his/her skills are unique. All players get to figure out what they can do best and to also see the benefits of their fellow gamers’ skills.
2. Improved Communication
In playing a cooperative board game, you get to hone both your listening and speaking skills.
You need to speak up about your role, how you can help the team, and what you see as potential dangers or possible benefits. You need to make sure your thoughts are clear and easily understood by all.
But you also need to listen. Everyone’s input is important because everyone holds part of the game plan. For example, the explorer, engineer, pilot, messenger, and navigator on Forbidden Island need to talk to each other constantly to make sure treasures are found before the island sinks completely.
You either survive together or are sent to Davy Jones’ locker together.
“I have a possibly unique view of games,” says Richard Duke, who, also heads the graduate program in gaming and simulation at Michigan. “I believe they’re primarily extremely powerful tools for communication. In many situations in the world we live in, communication tends to be disconnected. If I’m talking to you, you’re generally waiting for a chance to talk, usually about something else; actual listening is a bonus. This is not exactly productive communication. But a well-designed game not only facilitates listening but demands it.”
3. Improved Focus on Details
In playing a cooperative game, you have to keep track of what you can or can’t do (because of your assigned role) as well as what your fellow players can or can’t.
For example, in Hogwarts Battle, you can’t heal people quickly as Hermione but you can as Neville. So, if you’re on the verge of being “Stunned”(capital S on purpose) and in need of some serious assistance, you need to remember to ask Neville. (Likewise, as Neville, you need to remember who you can help.)
Everyone also needs to keep track of the consequences of the Dark Events, the powers of the Death Eaters, how many lightning bolts will conquer the villains, and so forth.
You need to remember:
- Who you are
- What you can do
- What your limits are
- How you can help
- What wonders you can create
- What disasters you can prevent
- What evil you can eliminate
- What good you can do
That’s true of competitive tabletop games, too. The difference, however, is that in a cooperative board game, you have other players to help you remember. And you get to help them remember, too.
4. Planning Successful Campaigns
In “Flashpoint: Fire Rescue,” you and your fellow firefighters have limited time to rescue people and pets from a burning building. You can only perform a certain number of moves at a time, so you must talk to your fellow firefighters and devise the right campaigns to tackle the fire (because there will be explosions), carry victims to safety (because you won’t be able to rescue everyone on your own), and clear out smoky areas (because they will reignite).
The fire escalates quickly, so you cannot waste moves in this game. You need to work efficiently—together. To do so, you must have a plan. (And a Plan B, Plan C, etc.)
5. Evaluating Successes and Learning From Failures
Your team will brainstorm together and have a brilliant idea that creates a win or perhaps a terrible one that triggers a failure. You might even have both.
If you’ve seen the Netflix original series “Stranger Things,” you know how much the boys’ friendship has deepened through shared experiences playing “Dungeons & Dragons.” That friendship has been forged by fighting evil creatures, by losing major battles, and by winning some together.
“When experienced together, both the process of losing and loss as a final result carry with them opportunities for camaraderie, humor, memory-making, and storytelling,” writes Maynard. “In addition, the collaborative nature of the activity reduces the sting of failure through a shifting of focus from the self to the group.”
Throughout a cooperative tabletop game, you and your team will learn about what worked and what didn’t. Even after the game, you’ll have shared experiences of successes and failures, and lessons gleaned from both.