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How to create an amazing co-op game

Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from beating your opponents and instead team up with them to accomplish something together. That’s why it’s great that so many fantastic cooperative (co-op) games are now available.

Some of the best-known and most loved co-ops are The Mind, the Forbidden series (Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and Forbidden Sky), and Pandemic, along with all its spin-offs and expansions.

There are many other fantastic co-op games as well that you might not have tried, such as Magic Maze, Escape: Curse of the Temple, and Flashpoint: Fire Rescue.

These are but a small representation of the many great co-op games now available.

But, as a game designer, how do you create an engaging co-op game that people love to play?

First, let’s explore what types of co-op games work well.

The two types of co-op games

Co-op games essentially pit players against the game. They must work together in order to win.

There’s a great podcast on the Board Game Design Lab featuring Peter Hayward, in which he goes into great detail about not only the two main types of co-op games, but also what makes them work so well.

The first type is where players are constantly needing to put out fires. This could mean anything from the outbreaking viruses in Pandemic to the literal fires you must put out as you take on the role of firefighters in Flashpoint: Fire Rescue.

Players will have a specific goal they need to accomplish, but they can’t ignore the problems that surround them, which are present right from the start of the game. There’s one way to win and often multiple ways to lose. This gives the game a constant state of tension.

The second type involves limited communication. Some examples are The Mind and Hanabi.

In The Mind, players are dealt one card each from a deck of cards with the numbers one through 100. They simply have to play them in order. Simple, right? Except players can’t talk or give signals. Each round, players have one more card than the previous round, which makes the game more challenging as it progresses.

In Hanabi, players actually hold their cards facing outwards. So, you can see everyone else’s hand but not your own. You can only give clues as to a color or a number, and players have to try to place their cards down in the proper order. This can get very tricky and may also require some memory work.

Both these game types can be very engaging. I’m going to focus more on the first, as it relates closely to a game I’m currently working on as well as the path that many co-op games take.

Making a challenging co-op game

As a designer, when you’re creating a co-op game, you want to look at what makes existing games so good, while adding your own unique spin.

We talked a bit about games that require you to constantly be putting out fires. The reason this is so effective is that you are always challenged to decide between moving closer to accomplishing your end goal, which is required to win, and taking care of other problems, which is required in order not to lose. You ignore one at the peril of the other.

Another aspect that many of these great games provides is unique player powers. All characters can perform the same basic actions, however, they each have one or more special powers that only they can perform. This provides more replay value along with different variations and combinations you can try.

I’m working on a co-op game right now, which is tentatively titled Mystery Crew. In the game, you play members of a team, trying to capture a villain, who is roaming through a building, setting bombs as he goes. Your job is to capture him, but you must also defuse as many of the bombs as you can to avoid losing. Each character has a unique power, such as the defuser, who is more effective at taking care of the bombs, and the parkour pro, who can move about more easily.

So far, it sounds like a typical co-op game, right? It has all the same key elements, but nothing that really sets it apart.

I wanted to introduce something different that hasn’t been seen in other co-op games. Players are collecting clues, trying to identify who the villain is. However, if you don’t work fast enough, you may have to capture the villain before you know who it is for sure. So, even if you catch the villain, there’s still a risk that you can lose. This is something interesting that I hadn’t seen done in a co-op game previously.

I also had a great suggestion from a playtest that led me to setting the bombs up on timers. So, as time passes, each one ticks down and gets a little closer to going off. Certain cards in the villain’s deck also escalate the timers. These features definitely increase the tension!

There are lots of different ways you can build on what already makes a great co-op game. You just have to add something new, whether it is an interesting mechanic or a fascinating theme that hasn’t been done before.

What’s your favorite co-op game? What makes it so fun or engaging?

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