Last week I gave you a broad strokes view of Hanabi, the cooperative game that sets you against the game in a trial of colour-and-number-based organisation. Now we’ll get into the nitty gritty details a bit and start making comparisons between it, and other games in the cooperative genre. You’ll also start to hear a whole ‘lot more of my personal opinions on the subject so BUCKLE UP!
While researching which games to talk about, I quickly realised that there are far more cooperative games that I had anticipated. It wasn’t until writing this article that I realised just how big this genre is. A board game has always felt like a contest between people as opposed to a contest against a game but as the market has grown and better games have come out, that has become less true. With all of these choices, we need to explore the design choices of these games and what they mean.
This is the big one that all co-op games must hinge their mechanics on to be successful. Whether you choose to limit it in some way or allow all information to flow will drastically change the feel of the game.
XCOM: The Board Game says that the players can discuss anything they want… within the time limit. Adding a real time element really forces you to effectively communicate without any fluff. This creates a stressful and tense environment for both you, and your soldiers.
Pandemic is a staple in the genre, one reason being that the communication is entirely open. This is a think-tank style game where everyone has the same information and everyone has a say in what happens. The decision is TECHNICALLY up to the current player but unless you want to be the unpopular person in the group, you tend to side with the general consensus. This is my least favourite style because it allows for one player (usually the most experienced one) to take on the role of leader and dictate the the actions of the game.
Hanabi limits communication by forcing you to only give out pieces of info as well as giving every player different information. This does two major things: First off, it stops quarterbacking and the think-tank style play because no one actually knows enough to even make broad-stroke decisions. And second, the void left by the lack of words is filled with implied information. The words you use in Hanabi are less important than the time you use them, the person you use them on, and the current board state. This has created a much larger skill ceiling than the other two games and makes repeat plays more rewarding.
Although it’s very abstract, the experience of the game is more important in a cooperative setting than it is in a competitive one. You are working together, but why? Do you actually feel stressed about the disease spreading in Pandemic? Absolutely you do. Do you start to distrust one of your allies during the cold, zombie filled world of Dead of Winter? Yep, they are probably all stabbing you in the back. Experience brings everyone into the fold and allows for a rewarding play-through. If even one player doesn’t feel what everyone else feels, it can really sour the game.
Time Stories is a fantastic example of this. You go from location to location trying to unravel the mystery or survive in a setting that is completely foreign to you. Each of your characters is different in some way, you all have your own inventory and your own settings cards to look at. Only the players who are in the particular setting can see the card but you can talk about it freely afterwards. This small limitation forces players to verbally describe what they just experienced, which allows everyone else to live it through their partners. Instead of everyone hearing the professionally-written dialogue, your friend reads the card and explains that, “This guy was being a TOTAL D-BAG and said we better get out of here or something. Sounds like he’s lying but I don’t know.” That’s experience, that’s unique to the individual.
Back to Hanabi, stop getting distracted. The only knock against Hanabi‘s flawless record in my eyes is it’s theme. You are building a fireworks display under a deadline but the deadline keeps getting pushed when you throw away fireworks? Or something? I don’t really know it falls apart pretty quick. However the experience itself, for me, remains untainted. Because the game isn’t about the theme, it’s about the test of communication and mental alertness of it’s players. When the player before you chooses to discard one of his tiles, what does that mean for you? Why did he do it? Is there a hint there you aren’t getting? Was your Dad right about how stupid you are? #Experience.
Obviously without mechanics, you just have a box of cardboard pieces and cards. But mechanics are more than just “what you do”. They are there to serve the overall experience, as listed above. If your game is supposed to be stressful, allowing full information on what’s coming next doesn’t really allow for that fear to be real. Pandemic keeps you drawing cards every turn, knowing that a couple of them could mean your situation gets drastically worse. Mechanics should serve the experience.
The Big Book of Madness demonstrates this well and is much different than Hanabi in many ways. In this, you are a group of students in the magical school of NotHogwarts and you stumble across the Big Book of Madness! An ancient book full of monsters and curses. Of course you open it because you think rules are there just to mess with you, stupid millennials, and out come a mass of nightmare fuel to screw your whole day up.
There are two big mechanics I want to talk about and one of them is action passing. One of the spells in the game allows you to give a player a single action to perform out of turn. This allows the feel of a group of wizard students all teaming up to take down Bagpipe ManGhost. It feels like you are surrounding the monster, all throwing spells and magically-alley-ooping one another to some sick plays. The other mechanic is the Madness cards. These cards slowly get pooled into your decks, messing up your hands and your possibilities while the threat of the Madness Deck running out (You lose) looms over you.
Hanabi on the other hand keeps all turn orders static but what it DOES do is make your resources, including your draw deck and available clues, all community. This small change in mechanics means every decision, that you must make on your own, affects the decisions available to your teammates. This opens up a wide variety of tricky situations that you need to navigate as a group to survive the terror of building fireworks.
Hope you enjoyed this more detailed look at Hanabi and the co-op genre as a whole. Join me next week for a class on top level Hanabi play. Experienced players will want to tune in as well as beginners looking to get more perfect games.