Working together to solve a puzzle or defeat a demonic horde is an age-old human pastime, one you can find amply represented in cooperative board games. Picking one of these for game night means strategizing together, comparing ideas, cheering on dice rolls, and celebrating (or commiserating) at the end, rather than comparing scores. It’s a flavor change, and one worth trying.
To open this series, we’re going to explore games that make a great first step into cooperative play, including both well-known titles and ones worth a look that might be lurking out of view.
Stop the Mummy, Save the World
Puzzles. We all love’ ‘em, cooperative games and teaming up to take one down is a cooperative-gaming staple. Arguably the most famous cooperative game, Pandemic, gives you four world-crossing diseases and tasks you and your infection-fighting friends with stopping the onslaught in an action-efficiency puzzle. That description sounds a bit boring until you tack on special player powers, limited actions, and just enough randomness during outbreaks to keep everyone invested. After approximately a thousand versions, Pandemic remains a great starter coop, even if it’s not an easy game, because it’s open information. Everyone at the table can see what cards you have, where you are, and what you might do on your turn, meaning newer players can ask for help from the table and get it.
If the prospect of communal success appeals, but battling diseases doesn’t, then check out the Horrified series, which again gives your group their own unique roles trying to save a town from assault by the monsters of yore. Depending on your demonic preferences, you can choose between classic Hollywood creatures in the original Horrified or urban legends in the Horrified: American Monsters version. Dracula or Big Foot, a choice you definitely expected to make in your life.
Both Horrifieds task your heroic team with puzzling out a way to take out the monsters in question, like finding the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s . . . pond, by scouring a poor town for clues and items. You’ll have to use limited actions to save wayward villagers, lure monsters into traps, and trade crucial equipment from your buddy’s hapless screw-up to your amazing savior. The tension is dripping in theme, with art and design coming together to make Horrified a great game for Halloween, or any time you’re feeling like some haunted, cooperative fun.
A Strategic Suite
Some cooperative games thrive on trust, knowing that your fellow players will have just the right cards to carry your team to the win. The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine and its sequel, The Crew: Mission Deep Sea, task you and up to four friends with taking the correct tricks to complete dozens of missions. Played with just cards, both Crew games eschew heavy rules for tight play, where you’ll have to keep your lips zipped while making sure each player takes the tricks they need. If someone takes the wrong one, it’s an instant loss, with all the laughs, groans, and quick resets this snappy card game brings about. Anything goes wrong, reshuffle and you’re back at it. Victory gets you harder missions, though the swift play and lack of a hard story means you can jump around to your group’s preferred challenge.
While The Crew: Mission Deep Sea is a sequel, and adds a couple new mechanisms, the concepts are largely the same, meaning you’ll have a great time with either title. The price puts these in impulse buy territory or, as I like to say, the bar game box, where cost and svelte size make these cooperative games perfect for a picnic or a night out at the pub.
If you’d rather your nights have some color, then Hanabi’s fireworks are worth a look. Like The Crew, Hanabi runs on cards, but rather than working together to take tricks, you’ll be trying to place a deck of colors and numbers in the right arrangement. If that sounds simple, it would be, except you’re not allowed to look at your own hand. Instead, you hold your cards out to your fellow players, and everyone works together. That teamwork comes with some strings attached, as every turn presents you with an action choice. First, you can give a hint to another player—only a number or a color, and the number of cards matching that value. For example, if your buddy has three green cards, your hint would be just that: “You have three green cards”. No combos, no laying out poker-style straights. If you’d rather play than give hints, you can drop a card on the table and hope your friends aren’t messing with you.
And if they are? Hanabi is more forgiving than The Crew, offering three misses before your firework show falters. There’s also duplicates of most numbers and colors, ensuring you have some room for risk. For groups that take a loss personally, Hanabi is going to be a better bet. There’s also no campaign, though rainbow cards can be included to bump up the difficulty. All in all, kinda makes sense, doesn’t it? In Hanabi, you’re putting on a fun display. In The Crew, it’s dangerous exploration. Seems only right one is a little riskier than the other. Regardless, just like its more dangerous neighbor, Hanabi is the perfect size for travel, maybe to a blanket before a holiday show.
Fireworks? How about Fire-breathing?
Okay, back to the monsters. Castle Panic puts your party under siege, attempting to keep the titular castle standing as beasties awful and ugly assault it from all sides. A colored grid divides the board, with those colors applied to the cards in hand. You’ll only be able to use, say, a red archer to blast a creature coming in from the red side. As the monsters all move according to their own rules, and most cards have a strict range of either archer, knight, or swordsman, you’ll need to trade around and hope you have the right hand to save the day.
Castle Panic throws hordes at you, including bosses, and while the rules are simple, it’s enjoyably chaotic trying to keep goblins out. The game sprints by, cards flying in, while the next big beastie forces a quick reshuffling of your defensive plans. A bevy of expansions can bling out your Castle Panic experience with more devious monsters or a wizard’s tower. Personally, I like My First Castle Panic as a way to introduce cooperative games to kiddos: nothing brings the family together like stomping a few orcs.
Why protect a castle when you can protect a boat? That’s the question Jaws asks, a cooperative game made many decades after the film’s release and no less thrilling for it. Unlike the other games in this article, Jaws pits most of the players against one shark-controlling mastermind. In a unique twist, the game plays over two totally different phases, with the first half giving the shark a chance to prowl the waters off Amity Island. The team will spend their actions trying to defend swimmers and drop barrels on the shark, completing the phase when two barrels make their mark. Depending on how many tourists meet their end, the sides will start with bonuses in phase two, which has the player team defending their not-big-enough boat from the shark’s attack, where you’ll be using any tool you can find to destroy the shark before it destroys you.
Like many co-op games, communication is key, though with the shark listening to your every word and moving in secret, plotting strategies to deal enough damage and win the day is a visceral puzzle. Power-ups and fun weapons help the humans, while the shark player gets to, well, be a shark. Do shark things.
What more do you want?
Jaws keeps its play fast and light, though the shark player certainly demands some skill to keep the game from getting lopsided. Still, if your group has any interest in the movies, or in thematic gaming, Jaws is a great draw.
Off the Clock
Taking turns is a traditional game staple, but breaking away from the rotation and into real-time is a great way to jump into cooperative gaming. Escape: The Curse of the Temple takes the obvious Indiana Jones theme and gives your group the chance to roll, roll, and roll again as you try to get out alive. Rocking along to a specific soundtrack, with the audio cueing you in on when you need to use those dice to scurry to a safe room, you’ll be grabbing gems, dodging curses, and working together to flee traps before the temple collapses. The game plays in around ten minutes, but those 600 seconds feel delightfully frantic.
There are other real-time games without many rules—like Space Alert, if you’re hunting a sci-fi twist—but Escape captures the unique, zany fun of real-time gaming with few rules and such a fast playtime that you’ll be able to put it in front of most everyone and get gaming. Folks that might roll their eyes instead of their dice at more cards or perfect information puzzles vulnerable to quarterbacking will find Escape and its ilk a refreshing surprise. And if you’ve never put a real-time game in your collection, Escape meets an easy test: will it get played?
Short, cooperative, and hilarious makes that an easy yes.
Time for a Team-up
Cooperative games are growing, with new mechanics appearing all the time. Without a loser (unless, you know, you all bite it) at game night’s end, co-op games help keep things smooth, happy, and (mostly) free from hurt feelings. It’s also a perfect avenue to introduce someone to the wider world of board games, as you, the teacher, can play right along without hampering yourself or breaking the game to make for a better learning experience. All the titles above and plenty more make for great introductions, light on risk, rules, and hit to the wallet.
So next time you’re getting the group together, or even for the first time, maybe set aside the knives for some sweet, sweet teamwork instead. You might find a whole new kind of gaming to love.