BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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The Wisdom of Crowds

Struck, I leant more promptly out next time, more curiously, and saw it all again in different terms.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings

I was going to write about so-called ‘cooperative’ games, following a confluence over the past week of game designers, boardgames and playtesting, and a set of lively discussions with and about the same. I was going to observe that cooperative games are tricky, mercurial constructs that rely so much on the agreement and complicity of their players for success that the games themselves almost disappear. I was also going to point out that the semantics of how these games are labelled is rather revealing. After all, here’s the dictionary definition of ‘cooperation’:

Cooperation
The act of working together for a common purpose or benefit.

Can and should, therefore, ‘cooperative’ be used as a label to describe a game which has the potential to split the players into winners and losers? It’s one thing if everyone wins or everyone loses; quite another if so-called cooperation leads to a divided and possibly divisive outcome. Another possible candidate for a useful gaming adjective is ‘collaborative’; this time the dictionary is more circumspect:

Collaboration
1. The act of working together to produce or create something.
2. Traitorous cooperation with an enemy.

Collaboration, then, not only offers a more neutral definition of the collective act, but also the possible fracture of the collective itself. And doesn’t that sound like a richer, more exciting and more surprising space for the game designer to explore?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for one minute attempting to diminish the value or success of purely cooperative games, which for my purposes I shall classify as those in which the collective must act for their common good and must stand or fall as one. This year’s deserving Spiel des Jahres nominee Forbidden Island, for example, is not only a sophisticated cooperative game — albeit one that cleverly masquerades as something rather more mainstream — it’s also whole heaps of fun.

No, I’ve nothing against cooperative games — and, as I say, I wasn’t even going to write about them — but I do think that the semantics of how we talk about them is important. Words are important. And the twin notions of cooperation and collaboration are important for the game designer because game design itself is a collective act.

The oft-stated mantra for the game designer is “playtest, playtest, playtest” and, if I’m being honest, I have at times resisted this, precisely because I knew how transformative it could be. Part of me wanted to keep my game mine; I didn’t want other people coming along, playing it and promptly telling me how it should be nurtured and how it might grow. I wanted to preserve its clarity and precision and only then, when it was done, when it was perfect, would I let them in.

What an idiot.

Here’s the thing (and I’ve said this before): Games, if they are about anything at all, are first and foremost about other people — so how can the designer design if he leaves all those other people out of the equation?

And when we playtest our games, we should be careful. It’s easy to say to ourselves: Let’s just see if the pieces fit; let’s just see if the engine starts; let’s see if the cogs turn and the lights come on and nothing snaps; let’s see if it ‘works’.

But this, to me, seems like the cheapest and least ambitious of readings. When we playtest the question shouldn’t be “Does our game work?”. We should ask instead, with rather more conviction, “Is our idea any good?”.

Our ideas, like our words, are important, but their existence doesn’t imply their virtue. And unless we can demonstrate the courage to ask, we can hardly be deserving of the wisdom to the know the difference.

Excellent post, as always. Semantics tend to annoy me, particularly when the distinctions being drawn aren't meaningful. The distinction you draw between "cooperative" and "collaborative" games is insightful. Some games, like "Shadows Over Camelot" are mistakenly referred to as cooperative games when collaborative may be the better term. For that matter, many games have collaborative moments, particularly when alliances are formed/broken as needed.

As you point out, beyond simply being a more accurate label, "collaboration games" opens up some compelling game design directions and objectives. Thanks again for another great post.

I've been referring to many of the extant "cooperative" games as "Solitaire By Committee" - and reading your post perhaps my SbC category is about the same as your more strict definition of "cooperative" - games that are collaborative rather than cooperative may be less likely to fit into my SbC definition - though frankly, games such as Shadows over Camelot tend do do so even though they involve a traitor...

I'll note that Solitaire by Committee is a perfectly valid genre or category for a game - however I for one would like to see a truly cooperative (collaborative?) game in which players have personal responsibility, but have incentives to help the group win as a whole - rather than some sort of setup which can be effectively played by the loudest player in the room.

You're not the first person I've heard refer to the difference between the terms "cooperative" and "collaborative" as they relate to games, and I agree with your assertion that some of the games the community has placed in the "cooperative game" category might better be described as "collaborative" - but I'm not sure that distinction by itself is very useful. Do you have any ideas of what might have to go into a "collaborative" game in order to make it a successful, fun game? In order to keep it from being Solitaire by Committee?

@Dallas: Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for your readership!

@Seth: Perhaps the distinction to be drawn is between the ideas of teamwork and rivalry; common good against individual benefit. And perhaps the question is whether it is possible to create a game that can genuinely combine the two into a fun, successful experience.

It’s a tough call, because (I would argue) human nature has some inescapable consequences. If players are given a mixture of both group and personal incentives, this implies that the game will create both a group outcome and individual winners and losers (or at least impose some metric of victory and loss on each player) — and then it gets tricky, since the principles of teamwork and rivalry appear to be in constant tension. What’s in it for the player who helps the group but fails himself? Can such a game deliver an enjoyable experience for such a player? Who wants to be that guy?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, and the success or failure of any cooperative or collaborative game — indeed, of *any* game — depends on the group and their interpretation, individually and collectively, of the experience. No, it’s not impossible, but it’s far from simple, and I think very basic human instincts may work in opposition to the designer in a way that they do not for purely cooperative or competitive games.

I do share your reservations about games that can be played “by the loudest player in the room”, but not your (possibly tongue-in-cheek) derision. Labelling them “Solitaire by Committee” suggests not only a personal dislike and disinterest in playing them, but also a degree of disdain for people who do. This may not be your meaning, but words, as I say, are important.

A game that comes to mind when you ask about what might make a successful (and fun!) collaborative game is TransAmerica. I would say that the game offers implicit rather than explicit collaboration, in the sense that players can only win by utilising parts of the network built by their opponents. The scale of the board and the nature of the objectives demand that this happens eventually, and the heart of the game is in trying to maximise the possible utility of your opponents’ efforts, while minimising their possible utility of yours (at least, that’s one way to play it!). The collaboration, then, is an inescapable and emergent consequence of the game’s scale and structure. Every time a player acts he expands the possible reach of the network for all; there is both common good and personal benefit, but it’s true that the common good is passive and the personal benefit active, and that may be the key distinction.

Anonymous said...

August 06, 2011 1:33 pm

David Brain mentioned this blog to me yesterday as he could see that Brett and I had been talking. I'm a strong believer in using technical terms precisely and it's particularly important when trying to develop and share new ideas.

The tension between self and group is difficult to manage from a design perspective but I think that's mainly because the sub-genre is so new (with zero published games, IMO) In principle, it's no different between an economic game's tension between investing and grabbing points. You need to have choices that are important and choices that are interesting. This can be as simple as having some choices where one option is far better than the other and others where the difference is marginal. Decisions that are both interesting and important are cool but look at your favourite games and you'll find there's only a few of those.

Ian

To be clear, "Solitaire by Committee" is not intended to be derogatory in any way. It's just what it sounds like - a game that COULD be played by a single player (Solitaire), but is intended to be played by a group, discussing the best course of action (Committee). The "problem" I've seen with games like that is that it's easy for a single loud or insistent player to basically play everybody's turn for them, which isn't fun for the other players.

As I mentioned above, SbC is a perfectly valid genre. I enjoy Pandemic, which falls squarely into that category - and I have also been accused of playing everyone's turn (when teaching the game, being met by blank stares as players didn't seem to know what to do, and so enumerating options or suggesting courses of action for them... but whether I feel like the criticism is warranted is not the point of this thread!)

I would prefer to see a game in the "cooperative" genre that could NOT be described as Solitaire by Committee, as I think that would interest me more.

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