Issue 15: 10 great cooperative board games that aren't Pandemic
Hello, and happy Monday!
This week, I’ve got a bit of a look at some of my cooperative games that aren’t named Pandemic. Before we get to the fun, though, the usual stuff.
If you know somebody who would appreciate this newsletter, please don’t hesitate to share with them. Sharing is caring, and all that. This is also my equivalent of a ‘like, share and subscribe’ moment, but hopefully it’s not too intrusive. I’ll even put a little button here for you. OK, next!
This week, we played a number of games, but I’d like to highlight Mountain Goats. It’s a really fantastic king of the hill game (note the capitalization: You will not find Bobby Hill in this game [although you will in a recent Garphill Games release, Hadrian’s Wall, as the designer happens to share a name with the cartoon boy in short pants], nor will you find John Darnielle, but you will find the best mountain goat meeples around) that sees you rolling dice, making sums, and pushing your goats ever-higher in a bid to earn points from reaching — and staying — at the top.
Finally, some applause to Ruel Gaviola, a great board game content creator who’s been running a virtual coworking space on Twitch multiple days a week. Participating in that has helped this newsletter immeasurably, and it’s also helped me maintain focus in my day job on the occasions that I have more than a couple hours to spare.
Alright! Let’s get to the games, shall we?
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of Pandemic and its many iterations, from the original to Iberia to Legacy and most things between.
It was my introduction into cooperative board games, and it’s a game that still captures my attention and imagination to this day. But it’s hardly the only cooperative game, and it’s certainly not the first, either. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some cooperative board games that aren’t Pandemic.
Real-time games are a wild sort of thing. The potential for fun can be sky-high, but there’s a real risk there, too. Now Boarding, a real-time cooperative game about running an airline, tends toward the former. There are two phases to each round, planning and execution.
Planning can be taken at a slow pace, but there is information that isn’t revealed until the execution phase takes place, chiefly where new passengers want to be delivered. If passengers aren’t picked up in a timely manner, they’ll gather unhappiness, adding some real stress to every round.
It must also be said that real-time games aren’t for everyone — people think at different speeds, and there’s no shame in that.
Escalating the idea of real-time cooperative games is Spaceteam, which you might know from the really great mobile party game from several years back. This takes that concept — you’re on a spaceship of some sort, dealing with problems that pop up by coordinating with your teammates— and it turns it into a physical game that will create ridiculous amounts of chaos.
A lot of it is passing cards back and forth at a rapid pace, yelling out what you need from your colleagues. But those cards have strange, arcane names, and some of them feature only a picture of what you need, and it’s not like those things exist in the real world. As a result, you might hear “I need the round thing with prongs!” and not really know how to process that information. That’s a super interesting challenge.
I adore word games, and I was excited to jump at the opportunity to play a cooperative one. It’s one of those games where the information you have is about the other players, and not about yourself. The core of the game, as a result, is in figuring out the letters in front of you, as one player will give a clue that’s designed to give each player a little bit of information.
Clue-givers will have to navigate the task of giving a clue — and in doing so, avoiding ambiguous words that will confuse players, avoiding clues that are arcane or difficult to parse, and avoiding using too the wild card in the middle of the table too often. It’s a neat little game, and I can’t wait to play it with more people some day.
On the more puzzly side of things is Sprawlopolis, a small wallet-sized card game that sees players building out a maze of a city. You’ll aim to meet three goals that are set at the beginning of the game, with each goal providing a thing you earn points for, and a points target for which you must aim.
It’s a game that feels like it should be easy, but it’s absolutely not — it’s a difficult, thinky puzzle that will test your planning skills. It’s a hard little puzzle, and the best part is that it’s easy to slide it into a little space in your bag for quick play, either solo or cooperative. In that way, it’s one I’ll be taking to the office some day.
This is the game with the big, red pawn that other players will aggressively slam on the table in front of you. It’s also an exciting real-time game in which you play as classic fantasy RPG characters recovering weapons from a shopping mall.
How those two things combine is exactly where the game rests: Throughout the game, communication is only sparsely allowed, and only at select locations. Players control all characters, not just one, and all will be necessary in each mission. You also have only a select set of actions you can perform — going north, south, east or west; moving on escalators; exploring new areas — and only a sliver of the map starts revealed. Everything else will be placed as you explore.
The difficulty is that you can’t talk, and you can only do select actions (depending on the number of players involved — it plays up to 8, which sounds extremely ridiculous), so to facilitate some sort of communication, the game includes the aforementioned giant red pawn.
You can place that pawn in front of a player, but you can never say why you’re doing it. Sometimes, your teammate will bang that pawn in front of you to get you to perform your one action to advance the game, but it means you have to see the reason — and the pressure might have some negative effects. This is such a weird game, but I love it.
Spirit Island is a different sort of game than the usual “‘explorers’ on an island” trope, even though it is sort of precisely that, too. As a player, you’re not an explorer — you’re instead playing as a native of the titular island, driving away the “explorers” who will eventually build on, then ravage your land. (There’s quite a bit of discussion about this online; don’t hesitate to read R. Eric Reuss’s Designer Diary on the game, found on BGG.) It is not a perfect counter to the colonialism present in many games, certainly; the designer recognizes that and has been thoughtful about it. Games explicitly anti-colonialist are few and far between, and I think there is a lot of space there for interesting expressions, especially from people who are being negatively impacted by colonialism now, or who have been so by colonialism in their heritage.
Mechanically, Spirit Island is a solid cooperative game. The game provides you advance notice for things that will happen — you know where the invaders will build and ravage, for instance — and you’re tasked with preparing against it as a group. Each player is represented by a different spirit, all of whom have varying abilities in a nice bit of asymmetry. It is not explicitly asymmetric, though, with all players working together to do essentially the same task: drive out the invaders.
Imagine combining Dixit with a seance, and you’re probably picturing something like Mysterium. It’s an interesting combination of surreal art and a mystery, with one player acting as a ghost giving visions to other players through those Dixit-like cards to communicate their murder; all other players pursue line of inquiry each, which includes a suspect, murder weapon, and location. It’s a little bit Clue, a little bit Dixit, a little bit Seance, and it’s very cool.
It’s a very approachable game — sort of like Dixit but with a longer runtime for play — and it’s a wonderful gateway into the world of board games. The longer play (though honestly, that really depends on your group — do players take a lot of time to think? Is the ghost quick at doling out visions?) can make it a great star of the show without much complexity. It’s also a perfect game to pull out around Halloween, when people will really get into the ever-so-slightly spooky theme.
Flash Point Fire Rescue
One of the first cooperative games I sunk my teeth into was Flash Point Fire Rescue, a game in which you play as firefighters attempting to save people from a burning building. It’s a bit like Pandemic, in that every turn sees the fire expanding, and if it grows too much, you’ll lose the game, either because the structure is unstable, or because too many people have been lost.
It’s certainly a bit more straightforward from a design perspective than some of these, but there’s no harm in playing a game with familiar mechanics. It’s not one I play regularly these days, but it’s still one I like to come back to occasionally. There’s perhaps not quite enough variability in the base game, but there are plenty of maps out there to give it a bit more longevity.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
You know, I actually thought I’d written about Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective here before, but it turns out that I hadn’t — and while you’ll see it again next week (spoilers!), I think it’s worth noting here as a great cooperative game. It’s a game without the boundaries provided by a board, pieces, rounds, and much of the ephemera that makes up what we think about when we think about board games. Instead, it’s a series of mysteries to solve in the Holmesian universe, and you’ll find they’re actually kind of difficult.
The game is played in a series of casebooks, a handful of newspapers (which, thankfully, are not printed on newsprint — I’ve spent enough time around that stuff,) a directory, and a map. This game will take all your mystery solving skills if you expect to perform well.
There’s a lot of reading involved here, and unless you’re playing solo — which is certainly very feasible — you’ll spend a lot of time reading aloud. Make sure you’ve got some water and snacks handy before you start this one — it’ll be at least a couple of hours if you’re thorough.
The Lord of the Rings
This one might be a little long in the tooth, given it’s been on the market for over 20 years now, but Reiner Knizia’s cooperative take on The Lord of the Rings is an experience to be had. It takes the classic tale and gives you the opportunity to fail at casting the ring into Mount Doom. It actually recently came back into print in the form of an anniversary edition, and if it’s the sort of thing that draws your attention, it’s at the very least worth a look.
After all, this is widely considered to be one of the earliest cooperative board games in modern board gaming, and it’s really quite interesting to see how things have progressed over these 20 years.
Other great non-Pandemic cooperative games I’ve written about in this newsletter
The Crew is an amazing cooperative trick-taking game that I wrote about in Issue 11: The best in 2020 board games.
The Mind is a strange adventure of playing numbers in ascending order. I wrote about in Issue 10: Great games in small boxes.
Fox in the Forest Duet made my board game gift guide for 2020 in Issue 9. It’s a two-player cooperative trick-taking game.
Burgle Bros (and Burgle Bros 2) is a fantastic game, and one I talked with designer Tim Fowers about in Issue 13.
Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle is a great deck-building game I talked about briefly in Issue 14, which focused on great games from 2016.
There are, of course, plenty more. Maybe I’ll scribe a sequel to this. There are enough great games of all sorts coming out these days that it may be nice to look at some others, too.
Wait, what about Pandemic?
I love Pandemic. I wrote about Pandemic Iberia last week in my look at great board games from 2016. So don’t take this newsletter as anything about Pandemic. Still, variety in life is always a good thing, and while Pandemic is easily the most popular cooperative board game on the market, there’s so much other great stuff to highlight.
Besides, once I play through Pandemic Legacy Season Zero, you can expect a newsletter all about Pandemic. That should be fun, right? (Also: Do you think Matt Leacock would ever do a Pandemic roll-and-write? Would that even be a good idea? I think I want to play one. Hmm!)