“Hey guys, I’ve got a new problem.”
Back in college, those were the words that energized a hall. People would stop what they were doing, grab a whiteboard, and all join together for a moment to try and break whatever thorny problem one of us managed to stumble across. Sometimes it fell quickly, sometimes it took hours, but in those moments of working through a mathematical or scientific puzzle with a bunch of other nerds while shoveling candy and over-caffeinated soda into our maws, life was perfect.
There is nothing better than getting together with a small group of like-minded folk and tackling a problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything actually useful. Unfortunately, life after college doesn’t present too many opportunities to engage in such activities. Friends specialize out into their own branches, move off to different places, and so that singularity of purpose and expansiveness of time dissipate.
But humans are clever primates, and some of the substitutes we’ve come up with can, at their best, entirely approximate the cooperative intellectual rush of bygone days. For a long while, that’s the place that tabletop roleplaying games occupied – Dungeons and Dragons, Changeling, Call of Cthulhu, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens upon dozens more all gave adults the chance to meet a few hours every week and put their resources together in a creative, spontaneous setting to solve the problems concocted by their much put-upon Dungeon Masters.
And those were (and are) fantastic, and if you are refraining from looking into them out of pride, you’re missing out on some truly memorable times. However, the start-up on these games is pretty hefty. You have to create your character, familiarize yourself with the often weighty core manuals, and get comfortable with carrying out character dialogue at a candle-lit kitchen table. For those who love problem-solving but didn’t quite have the time to go in for the whole RPG experience, then, there rose the cooperative board game.
It used to be a somewhat rare breed in the board game genre, but has steadily grown in recent years so that a well-stocked game closet can now have a good half dozen quality co-op titles. The rules are usually pretty simple to pick up, but the coordination and cleverness required can often deliciously strain a room full of the brightest brains. Here are my top four picks, and if you have a favorite, do drop me a line!
4. Shadows Over Camelot: You and your friends take up the role of the Arthurian knights as take on the manifold challenges threatening Camelot. It can be a BRUTAL experience, as no sooner do you tie up one quest than three others go absolutely critical requiring all of your combined mental dexterity to resolve. Definitely the hardest coop game I’ve played, but every time you end up winning you feel like you definitely EARNED your bowl of pretzels.
3. Ultimate Werewolf: Sort of co-op, sort of not. It’s basically the old campfire Mafia game (sit in a circle around the fire, two people are secretly appointed as mafia goons, and one as a police officer, and the game is to communally find out who is who) but with a supernatural twist and a lot more specialty roles, so that the game can actually support up to 68 players. When I had game night with my students, we tried it out and had a marvelous time piecing together the bits and pieces of psychological clues we found, or thought we found, in each other’s behavior, leading to wild accusations and much fun.
2. Arkham Horror: A classic in the Cthulhu universe, in which you and your fellow investigators have to navigate the twisting hellscape of a city slowly giving way to the invasion of the Old Ones, trying to stop the incursions of monsters and corruption before a supreme embodiment of evil awakes and wipes you off the board. Like Shadows, there’s a lot here to punish you if you’re careless with your abilities and movement, which means that every turn is open for intense discussion about how to achieve mutual optimization. So, there’s that same intense manipulation of lots of variables, but in a really cool, creepy setting.
1. Pandemic: You and a team of disease specialists are running around the world, trying to cure outbreaks of four different diseases as they arise and spread across the globe. The rules and actions are much simpler than Shadows and Camelot, so it’s a good game for people who aren’t used to board games, the challenge being how to pool your limited array of abilities to halt the steady spread of plague. It takes all of 5 minutes to explain, and a typical game only lasts about an hour, but there is a lot of subtlety there so you always feel that you are being challenged as a group to find the most elegant use of moves possible, making it the ideal starter co-op game.
So, there you have it. If a bit of group intellectual challenge is something you feel missing from your life, grab any one of those, two or three friends, and have a go if only to taste again for a moment those days when all you had was time and all you needed was a delectably devilish problem to while it away with.