Keeping co-operation interesting

I received the excellent Lord of the Rings board game this past Christmas, and it’s an interesting experience in co-operative play. (Also, a lot of fun.)

In the game, each player takes the role of one of the hobbits who attempt to bring the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it. You each have individual resources (cards, shields, and other tokens) and can be individually knocked out of the game if the Eye of Sauron reaches you. However, winning is either all or no one, and everyone must work together and strategize collectively to defeat the game. (There is a competitive variation, but it’s mostly just a way to keep individual scores while still working together to win.)

The game is pretty well-balanced, and certainly isn’t a guaranteed win. I’ve only had a chance to play it about six or seven times, but so far it seems that every time I play, the group loses the first play through and then wins the next time if they play again together.

What first drew me to this game (which, yeah, I hinted strongly for at Christmas time) was the idea of co-operative play. There aren’t very many games, board or otherwise, which are both strongly social but non-competitive. While I enjoy competitive game play in general, I tend to be really sensitive to situations where someone who is strongly competitive is taking the game “too seriously” and people are getting tense. I like my games played well, played to win, but taken lightly!

Ironically, playing Lord of the Rings together with friends can still lead to the frustrated tension of losing! There is a significant random element in the game’s progression created through the drawing of shuffled tiles. Roughly half of the tiles are Evil, with varying negative consequences, and the other half are positive tiles. The problem is, drawing an Evil tile of any kind requires that you keep drawing more tiles until you get a good one. This can result in a scenario turning very sour in the span of a single turn, and the chain effect of negative luck leaves you feeling immobilized and sometimes frustrated.

Whether the game is still mathematically balanced or not (and I actually suspect it is), the feeling of losing to a force outside of your control in a highly strategic, time-consuming game can be a bit maddening. I think this, in fact, was intentional – you really do get the sense of being pitted against a truly malevolent force with little chance of success, even if your chances are well balanced.

In fact, I think it’s exactly this sense that the game itself is a difficult and somewhat cruel puzzle that makes it work so well as a co-operative game. The game’s mechanics are fairly complex, with many different resources and movement tracks playing against each other in a way that works well with the game’s story metaphor while also providing layers of strategic elements to sort through. At first, it seems a bit overwhelming; but I think the game would fall flat if it were too straight-forward.

Is complexity required for a co-operative game to achieve a strategic sort of challenging fun? Competitive games can rely on the complexity of the opponent to create challenge within incredibly simple rules (see, for example, Go). But when the opponent is the rules themselves, is it possible for the rules to be both simple and challenging?

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