Game Spotlights

Published: October 10, 2023

Adam Knight

Co-Op Games: Challenging

Peril’s Peak

By now, you’ve honed your collective wits, tuned your team tactics to top-tier, and have your deck-building synergies so in sync your gaming group might as well have a mind-meld. If so, then you might be ready to take on the stiffest challenges co-op gaming has to offer, the board games overflowing with opportunities to break out great combos, conquer terrible enemies, or solve puzzles with more layers than a wedding cake.

Want to up the ante on your next co-op game night?

Read on.

The Gold Standard

You’ve likely heard of these two titles, Spirit Island and Gloomhaven (along with its snowy sequel, Frosthaven), so I won’t belabor their mechanics or their quality here. Instead, let’s dig into why these are great co-op titles, ones worth stacking on your shelf for a long time to come.

Spirit Island puts forth an asymmetric puzzle, similar to Pandemic, but with too much complexity for cheap quarterbacking. Meaning, you’ll be picking your power path without your pals giving you orders, learning to work together to stop your island’s destruction like a true team rather than a top-down machine. The spirit variety is more than just surface level too, providing vast differences in play styles, letting your group nestle into their preferred duties without feeling like you’reco-op all doing the same thing. One spirit might pull their weight by buffing the others, offering more energy and cards, while another shifts the enemy all over the map, only for the third, boosted by its pals, to send the colonists running home with nightmare after nightmare.

This power combo, where everyone isn’t just focused on slaughtering nameless goons, brings Spirit Island’s co-op play into its own. Couple that with optional difficulty scaling, a mind-boggling number of spirits when you include expansions, and a reasonable price point, and Spirit Island ought to be your first stop when looking to up your co-op gaming level.

Gloomhaven and Frosthaven reward a different commitment than Spirit Island, pitching a concentrated campaign really meant for 2-4 consistent players. You’ll pick your classes from a wide range, burn through decks to destroy your enemies, and hope the wrong modifier card doesn’t blow a plotted play. What makes this a perfect co-op for players of games like Descent or even Dungeons and Dragons is its hidden information: every character gets a choice of unique, bonus-granting objectives ahead of every level. These flares ask you to, say, make sure an enemy’s always on the map till the end, or perhaps to loot most of the treasure, whether co-opyou need it or not. Kept secret from the other players, they bend your tension away from simply playing ‘optimally’, twisting Gloomhaven into something special.

The round-by-round play offered by these two dungeon delvers isn’t just flush with tactics and turnabouts, though: Gloomhaven and Frosthaven are great moment generators, their modifier decks, unexpected character synergies, and villainous surprises keeping any mission from falling into a math-filled snooze fest. While the sheer number of components, character upkeep, and box size mean these titles shouldn’t be attempted by board gaming newbies (check out Jaws of the Lion for a less demanding trial), those with a consistent group interested in fantasy card-play without the dice-chucking ought to give these twin titles a look.

Solving the Stars

Jumping away from the spirits and the snow, we head to the stars to find Unsettled, a space survival co-op game destined to crack your noggins as you try to find food, repair your ship, or just try to stay alive on mysterious and hostile worlds. Unsettled is more than a series of checks or action optimization, instead delivering story after story, salving tension with humor, and plunging your group into discussions about where to go, what to do, and how not to die when everything seems to be going wrong.

A modular experience, Unsettled lets you grow with it, beginning with the core set and then adding new planets when you’re feeling a fresh mystery. You’ll find putting your heads together is the only way to discover a planet’s secrets and escape alive.

Some people head to space to explore the planets, others do it to build a crew. ISS Vanguard puts the focus on both, relaxing Unsettled’s survival puzzleco-op and expanding the in-between traversal to a full campaign. Best played with a partner, ISS Vanguard hits that X-COM sweet spot, fleshing out a specialist crew, going on away missions, and trying to nail the right skills to meet the challenge.

Blending well-written narrative with the all-important task of customizing your lander with cool space stuff, ISS Vanguard is a unique experience, like playing Mass Effect with a friend, or watching a choose-your-own-adventure version of Star Trek. This game’s not out to burn your brain, but it’s a commitment, a tale to see through to the end. While that makes ISS Vanguard a challenging co-op, it’s also a strong solo sci-fi play, if that’s your speed, unlike many of the games on this list.

To the Deck-Builder!

Some folks reading the last couple pieces in this series might’ve wondered when I’d be getting to Fantasy Flight Games’ two big titles, Marvel Champions and Arkham Horror. Both ‘Living Card Games’, essentially similar to Magic: The Gathering but without the booster pack popping, these two games are like a Thanksgiving feast: there’s so much, and it’s all so good, it’s best to pick what you love first and go from there.

Marvel Champions is what its name implies: you and up to a few pals (though I’d recommend two or three max) choose your heroes, do some swift deck construction, and leap into battle against a chosen villain. The deck construction brings this game up a few difficulty notches, as battling higher-level adversaries like Thanos requires tweaking your team strategy to complement each other. Turning Spider-Man into a damage-dealing diva means warping the Wasp into a co-opthreat-thwarting pest, and to keep them both alive, Dr. Strange ought to stuff his deck with defensive draws. Do it right, and the game’s turns offer strong decision after decision, triumphant victories, and groaning defeats.

Arkham Horror swaps the superhero spin for a horror one, a sleuthing mystery spent slinking from one location to the next searching for answers. Combat is often best avoided, lest your hapless investigators, ranging from hard-boiled detectives to curious painters, find themselves consumed by eldritch horrors. Like in Marvel Champions, you’ll spin your deck up before play, adding in new items and unlocks as you go along, your characters specializing as you try to survive and save the world.

What makes both these games great co-op pick-ups is their bit-by-bit nature. With Marvel Champions, pick up a core set and then grab whatever heroes or villains you like. Want to team up Wolverine and Venom on a quest to stop the Red Skull? Go for it. In Arkham Horror, take a read through the various mysteries on offer and find the one that speaks most to your dark, dark soul.

It’s a delicious, challenging co-op buffet, and it’s yours for the tasting.

Hack’n’Slash, meet Strategy

Gloomhaven may have a hold on fantasy adventure, but its card-playing tactics don’t soothe the dice-chucker’s soul. If you want something that’ll let you toss chance cubes around the table without sacrificing strategy, consider Machina Arcana and Sword and Sorcery.

Machina Arcana takes Arkham Horror and turns it into a full-fledged board game, with every mission offering branching moments, treasure hunts, and terrifying monsters. You’ll be exploring demonic locales, learning their secrets, and defeating the nasty ones at their core, a co-op progression anyone can love. That said, Machina Arcana isn’t for the faint of heart, with its horror theme and length requiring dedication to get through. Thankfully, its excellent components ensure you won’t mind staying by the table, admiring the beautiful shoggoth as it devours your poor pals.

Sword and Sorcery ditches the demons for more standard fantasy fare, though its story, starting with your heroes returning from the dead, certainly dodges the usual start. Your characters gain power by, you guessed it, completing quests, acquiring magical artifacts, and doing those things we’ve all loved since Heroquest. What makes Sword and Sorcery a candidate for groups that have conquered simpler hack’n’slashers is its battle depth, with monsters using AI systems to turn battles into more than mash’em affairs. Area control, precise positioning, and the possibility that even the weakest grunts can deliver knockout blows make every combat a tactical treat.

Sword and Sorcery and Machina Arcana both offer campaign-style play, though the fantasy former is a more traditional linear style, while Machina Arcana allows easier adventure selection to fit your preference. Either one will serve you and your group well, so keep theme in mind and go where your imagination takes you.

Beach Buddies

If, however, your imagination brings you to human history, to the land of hex and counter, you might find slim co-op pickings. Team-based war games are everywhere, but purely co-op against an AI are harder to find. One option, centered on the most famous amphibious landing in recent history, is D-Day at Omaha Beach.

Recreating the World War 2 assault pits you and a partner against the Nazis, with your side trying to get the allies up the beach before time and troops run out. While the game can be played solo, the clear divide between divisions makes for an easy co-op, letting you and a friend split the mental effort and share the moments together as you climb those deadly dunes.

A card deck keeps enemy movements and events a surprise while serving double duty as dice checks, while limited, easy-to-parse actions keep things moving, ensuring you and your friend are always immersed in the conflict. What’s more, despite this being a war game, the rules load is lighter than many of its ilk, meaning you can bring this to the table without a long teach beforehand, especially if you lean into its intro scenario, portioning the invasion into sections and keeping things, if not easy, at least a digestible entry to one of history’s most dangerous days.

The Friends We Made Along the Way

Co-op games at any level bring a different feel to game night, where scrabbling over victory points suddenly turns into strategy sessions and high-fiving victory after a good dice roll, an inspired solution, or a comprehensive team takedown. Nudging your gaming group into challenging co-ops like these can deliver more of those moments, with greater reward coming with greater stakes.

So next time your co-op gaming group is looking for their next title, consider choosing some spirits, fighting off the eldritch horrors, or becoming your favorite superhero. You might find your greatest adventure yet.