Relevant To Your Interests: Cooperative Boardgames for Tough Times

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It’s been and continues to be a rough week, y’all, I dunno what to say. Part of my job is to give you a list of fun, geeky things every month, and it feels weird to do that right now, so close to such fucking devastating tragedy. But I’m going to do my best. I’ll share with you what normally makes me feel happy, my refuge of community in a culture that cares very little about my friends or me: boardgames. It’s a nerdy thing to do. But boardgames are a catalyst for getting people in a room. Eating, drinking, laughing together. Rounding up your queer fam and playing some boardgames might be just what the doctor ordered.

But what to do when you can’t bear the thought of opponents — when you can’t muster up the attitude to crush your friend at a strategy or bluffing game, when you can’t get the meanness up enough for a game of Munchkin? Enter cooperative boardgames: boardgames where some or all of the game relies on playing as a team against the game itself. They’re especially great if you want to host a game night where some people are really good at games and some aren’t gamers — because everyone’s on the same team, no one’s getting beat for not being in the know. Some of these games have individual winners at the end, some don’t, but all allow you to band together for a short time and take on a much more manageable enemy than “hate,” “the patriarchy,” and “the rest of the whole damn world.”


Castle Panic

Defend the tower against trolls, orcs and rolling boulders. It’s hard, y’all. I’ve played once and I don’t remember whether we won or lost, but I remember how much discussion there was at the top of each active player’s turn. Each player’s turn consists of drawing a card, then trading a card to another player so that the group can fight the onslaught most effectively. The active player uses a card agains the enemy, and then the enemies advance closer to the tower. AND! Each player draws and places two more monsters at the end of EACH TURN. You do get a wall around the tower, and you will need it. This game has a special place in my heart because we, as people of the internet, spend a lot of time defending our towers against trolls. May you nerds have satisfying success. The game is over when your group defeats ALL THE BAD GUYS.

Castle Panic || $22.56


Mysterium

I’ve played Mysterium a bunch of times — one person gets to be the ghost who, using image cards and nothing else, tries to communicate how she died. The rest of the group plays as psychics trying to interpret those messages before the clock strikes eight and they run out of time. While one person may win MORE than the others if you play with the intuition tokens, in general everyone wins or loses this one as a group — everyone can talk and collaborate to guess who killed the ghost and where and how, except the ghost. Ghost stays silent. This game is by the same people who brought you Dixit, so it’s beautiful. FYI, the play-through I found doesn’t depict the Intuition token aspect of the game.

Mysterium || $38.97


Forbidden Island & Forbidden Desert

I’ve played Forbidden Island a bunch of times with people who will be doctors and lawyers and it’s still so hard, but it’s really fun. The name of the game is to get the treasure and get off the Island. The catch: the Island is sinking. As you play longer, the Island will sink faster. There are a bunch of ways to lose — if you can no longer get one of the four treasures you need, if the Island sinks, if you can’t get to the helicopter pad to leave. The same designer also made Forbidden Desert, which has a few more catches and isn’t nearly as plunder-y: you’ve crash landed in the desert and you have to repair your airship before the desert kills you. In both games, the environment is dangerous and each player can do different things depending on their role.

Forbidden Island || $13.99

Forbidden Desert || $20.17


Pandemic Legacy & Pandemic

Speaking of Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, the same game designer (Matt Leacock) is responsible for what I believe is the hardest cooperative game out there: Pandemic. Most of us know Pandemic by now — you play as a group of scientists and doctors and the goal is to stop the spread of disease before it grows into a Pandemic. I have never played as part of a group that won this game, which is why I’m so afraid to play Pandemic Legacy EVEN THOUGH the entire game world has been RAVING about it. Pandemic Legacy is actually a series of games that tell a story all together. When your character dies in Pandemic Legacy, you RIP UP THE CARD and that character is out of the series of games FOREVER. When bad shit happens, you put stickers on the board. Everything is permanent and everything counts and it sounds so stressful to me, a person who is very very bad at Pandemic. And this is only season one — season two is in the works. If you’re looking for a longer commitment, say a game a week with the same or similar group, you might consider Pandemic Legacy’s episodic, playable story.

Pandemic Legacy || $72.07

Pandemic || 30.83


Eldritch Horror

I know I just told y’all about Eldritch Horror not two seconds ago, but there’s something really satisfying about defeating a giant tentacled beast who wants to drive the world to insanity. The name of the game: banish the Ancient One. If the Ancient One awakens, your whole group loses. Banish the creature by solving three mysteries before the doom track runs out. Each player plays a character with variable skill levels in Lore, Influence, Observation, Strength and Will, so each character is good at different stuff. The encounters you undertake have little stories behind them and they’re often funny. I got attacked by rats once. Someone got eaten by a fiend out of nowhere and had to draw a new character. You get the picture.

Eldritch Horror || $41.15


Flash Point: Fire Rescue

While all of these games are cooperative, many of them (like Eldritch Horror and Castle Panic) do still include violence as part of their goals. I wanted to end on one that’s about rescue and putting out fires. I haven’t played this one, but I want to. Play as different specialists for different action opportunities — move through rooms and open doors, discover points of interest and find people trapped in the fire. Win when you rescue seven people. Lose when you lose four people or when the building collapses.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue || 23.99

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 545 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Thanks for this! My inner nerd is jumping for joy as I sit at my dayjob desk. Hooray more games to add to the collection. My wife and I and a friend have been playing Pandemic legacy for a few months and it’s awesome. We play a character each, as usual, but then for the 4th person we team play them. There is so much discussion and planning it’s really great. Apparently the guy who designed it, and worked on risk legacy is developing and releasing a seafaring exploration based game in the legacy format but it’s designed that way from the start, rather than being an existing game that had been adapted. I can’t wait to play that when it comes out. You scratch off parts of the board when you discover land and the names you give ships change their skills. Gah! So excited! I’ve looked at Eldritch horror before but didn’t buy it as it seemed to need a few players rather than 2, at the time wife and I didn’t have gaming buddies, so I picked up Elder Sign, by the same folks, which is dice based but also cooperative which is cool. I love that these games all have expansions so you can play multiple stories. It’s so much fun. The only down side is trying to keep all the rules in your head. Thanks again for this article Ali!

  2. Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert are in my opinion the best introduction to co-ops, and should be in every board gamer’s collection. All the other choices are great too.

    • I tend to find they’re the sort of gameplay that leads everyone to saying “Wait, we lost? We have to play again!”

      I highly recommend having at least one of the two around (though I personally prefer Desert over Island, but that’s 100% which one I started playing first).

  3. I just wanted to rave about Mysterium! There’s never a provable “best choice” and it’s all about interpreting indirect communication :) Mysterium really promotes dialogue and perspective sharing in a really neat way. There’s never any down-time, the gameplay is suspenseful, and the cards are beautiful. This is absolutely my favorite co-operative board game.

  4. omg yes Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy!! Love love love. Pandemic was my first co-op game and I’ve played it with 2 people up to 8 (2 players per character) and trust me, I love discussing strategy with 8 people, it can get super chaotic :D

    These all seem great but I think my collection is already more co-op than not, so I might have to hold on before I buy more. But I’m super curious about Mysterium and I’ve been wanting Forbidden Island/Desert for a while but never found an English copy at my local game store.

    One I really like is Betrayal at House on the Hill. Halfway through the game one of the players becomes the traitor and then game turns semi co-op. In most games I’ve played the traitor always wins and I’ve never been the traitor so I think I’ve lost all of them. And I still love it, I think that speaks to the game.

    I’ve also just gotten Dead of Winter, it’s so great. All players are at a colony trying to survive the zombie apocalypse and they have to sometimes leave the safe space of the colony to go scavenger for items. Everyone also has a secret objective that may or may not be winning, it’s great :) And it has tons of replayability.

    I can go on and on, but let’s leave it at that. #boardgamegeek

    • Dead of Winter and Betrayal were both originally on this list and I cut them! Betrayal because you HAVE to have a traitor and that seemed like something I didn’t wanna do right now, and Dead of Winter because there’s the option for a traitor. Though I suppose you could simply take out the traitor objective?

  5. I’m so glad you mentioned Pandemic- it’s literally my favourite game. I play it with my dad and brothers and we have won it once or twice. So it IS possible but I think it’s partly discussing strategy really well and partly luck.

    Not sure if it counts as a cooperative board game but have you played Werewolves? It’s kind of cooperative- except you all do kind of turn on each other during the witch hunt. Pretty fun though- depending on how good you are at lying.

    • I have Werewolf Deluxe! I want to host a queer werewolf night for sure, but being that the group has to choose a player to figuratively “stone” each round, I was like, eh, not for this list. :0) Though now I’m hearing those words, perhaps I should change the language to exile when I GM werewolf? Like, the village will choose a player to banish instead? But really is that language any better?

      See, this is why I love queer gamer spaces. I love critically thinking of games as text.

      • Totally valid point. A game for another time maybe!

        I think it’s interesting how not everyone enjoys cooperative games. (I love them) but I’ve known people who don’t see the point if you’re not beating those around you. I wonder what it says about different kinds of psyches…

  6. Yay for this list! Plenty on here I need to check. I have been eyeing off Pandemic a lot lately.. but my sisters and I still need to beat Arkham Horror before anything else is bought.

    You know what’s tremendously satisfying to win also? The Lord of the Rings board game. It definitely involves a sense of sacrifice (people always have to give up life tokens or ‘take one for the team’ in some way), but that makes (finally) winning even more satisfying. Seriously so good.

  7. Thanks for this list! I know it may feel weird to post this kind of content right now, but it’s honestly needed. I’ve called my representatives, and cried, and posted angry statuses, and woken up in the middle of the night with the victim’s faces in my head, wishing I had died instead; now I just want to be a little distracted this weekend. Playing silly board games with my cute little cousins who are visiting will be a welcome respite.

  8. Thank you for this! I love cooperative games and there are several here I need to check out. Though not really appropriate for this list because there are cylon traitors, Battlestar Galactica is probably my favorite cooperative game. (though aren’t we all part-cylon anyway?) Need to schedule a queer game night soon.

  9. ALI YOU SPEAK TO MY SOUL. Eldritch Horror – and its predecessor Arkham Horror – are two of my favorite boardgames of all times. They just take SO SO SO long to actually complete that I haven’t actually gotten a group to play with me in like, ages though.

    I also really liked Forbidden Desert and Pandemic! I’ll have to try Mysterium – that sounds really fun.

    • More like they take so long to set up. Fantasy Flight Games never saw a game that they couldn’t make a gajillion pieces for. And bad as Arkham/Eldrich horror is, it ain’t got nothing on Battlestar Galactica.

  10. This post is amazing. I want to play all of them.

    I’ve played Mysterium last week in Women/Trans game night and it was so much fun. I was the worst at it, but we still managed to win. Co-op games are my absolute favorite.

  11. I won pandemic once with my family… because we didn’t know all the rules and unintentionally cheated the whole time. Whoops.

    I totally want to play all the rest, if only the games came with PEOPLE inside the box to play with. Can’t play co-op games (or really most board games) solo

    • Oh but you can! All co-op games can be played solo – you just control more than one character(around 3 is a good number but it depends on the game). You can even play Dead of Winter solo and it’s still an awesome game even with the traitor element removed.

      Just google solo play for a game you like the look of – there are loads of fan-made solo variants for all sorts of board games. Can’t tell you how happy I was when I discovered that – and I often prefer solo games, although maybe that’s just my anti social side….

  12. My dad’s side of the family is overly competitive, so whenever we get together, we always play board or card games and they always end in tears and/or storming out of the room. My mom’s side of the family believes in cooperative gaming…the way they have always done this is by exclusively playing Scrabble and giving each other the letter tiles that they need to make cool or interesting words and not keeping score. I got my mom Pandemic a couple of years ago and that has been a good way to bring the whole family together! So excited to see this list of more cooperative boardgames. I just put Flash Point and Forbidden Island in my cart on Amazon. Thanks, Ali!

  13. Great article, thanks Ali! For anyone that enjoys the mechanics of Pandemic but also fancies adding in some (light) dice-chucking combat and a fantasy theme I can recommend Defenders of the Realm. Ghost Stories is very good too (but very hard!).

    Also, wanted to point out that because you are playing against the game rather than each other, all co-op games can be played solo by playing more than one character. This makes it play out like a puzzle and is great fun for anyone wanting to play alone or lacking a gaming group/interested friends.

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