Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Importance of theme in a cooperative game

Future Wolfie of iSlayTheDragon recently reviewed Samurai Spirit (designer Antoine Bauza, artist Victor P. Corbella, publisher FunForge).  It seems like an interesting game - I've got it on my wishlist - but a couple of sentences in Future Wolfie's review jumped out at me:
In a way it’s like a cooperative version of Blackjack, with much better art and a few special powers thrown in the mix. But that’s what it really boils down to in a sense: trying to hit a maximum total card value without going over.

In that brief characterization, the concept of the game as a Blackjack variant completely undermined the premise of the game as a representation of fellow Samurais defending a village from invaders.  From that point forward, Samurai Spirit was a card game with art, rather than an adventure conflict using cards as a participation medium.  The theme became secondary.  Moreover, as a co-operative exercise, its appeal as a game diminished drastically for me.

This perspective illustrated to me that an easily abstracted (i.e. weakly themed) co-op game loses its appeal.  The corollary follows that strong theme is more important to motivate co-op gameplay than it is to motivate competitive gameplay.

A few examples and counterexamples might help to explore this thesis.  Some of the most successful co-operative games thrive on their themes.   
Besides Samurai Spirit, a couple of other interesting counterexamples illustrate the premise that weakly themed co-op games don't hold up:
The illusion of anything interesting going on dropped off very fast. Draw a card, see how many hit points you lose. Roll to hit. Draw a card, see how many hit points you lose. Roll to hit. Over and over.
So, if strong theme is so important to enjoyment of a co-op game, why are abstract competitive games still successful and engaging?  I'd hypothesize that competitive games derive their excitement from the challenge of the competition itself.  An abstract game provides a ruleset and framework for that competition; theme is secondary to the gameplay.  A co-op, on the other hand, poses the players against a game system rather than against each other.  It may be that puzzle-solving in a co-op format doesn't offer compelling competitive engagement, so a strong theme is necessary for players to lose themselves in the fantasy of danger or a narrative story arc. 

This observation helps me prioritize the thematic basis for "Reactor Scram," the co-op that I'm currently working on.  Fortunately, early feedback at UnPub playtesting events suggests that players really do feel as though they are racing to prevent a nuclear disaster.  I want to make sure that I maintain that thematic linkage as I continue to polish the gameplay mechanics.


  1. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for sharing your post.

    I agree with you on the importance of theme in co-operative games. In our experiences making and translating games it is very important that the tactics in the game work well together with the theme. Making it both a challenge and an experience to play the game. The more people feel absorbed in the theme, the more joyfull a game is. Lots to say about this: opening up more to each other because of a shared experience is a big reason why this works to deepen co-operative play, I think. Someone who makes co-operative games and is very well experienced with themes is Jim Deacove. This Canadian made over 100 co-operative boardgames since the 70's! Check out his website:
    www.familypastimes.com I love his natural themes both for children and for adults. Jim also made co-operative strategy games that work well, even without a theme http://www.familypastimes.com/category/strategy/

    Also Jouke Korf, a Dutch gamedesigner makes interesting co-op games with both interesting themes and interesting strategic challenges. Publisher: www.sunnygames.eu

    Wish you lots of fun with continuing on your game. Keep us posted :-)

    Anne Mijke van Harten

  2. Anne, thanks so much for your detailed comment. I must confess I'm familiar with neither Jim Deacove nor Jouke Korf. Nor did I recognize the Family Pastimes or Sunny Games labels. You've opened up a new world of co-op games to me.