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  Cooperative Board Games of 2014 02:04 PM -- Wed January 7, 2015  

So, in the year 2014, I played a lot of board games. And most of those were cooperative games! Cooperative games are truly a different experience from normal board games. As the name implies (or just plain says), in a cooperative game, the players work together to try to beat the game. You either all win or all lose. Mostly, you all lose. This creates a very different dynamic from a competitive game, which involves a lot of back and forth discussion. This is just us, and probably it would be better to play differently, but when my family and I play these games, it almost doesn't even matter which character you're playing. All that affects is who moves the pawn around the board physically. The actions that pawn is going to take are actually decided by committee through a thorough discussion. I think these games would be more fun if people kind of took their own actions a bit and kept the discussion more high-level strategy... they'd certainly be faster! But they are very fun this way as well. So let's dive in to all the cooperative board games I played in 2014:

Forbidden Island
This was the first cooperative game I played (started in 2013, actually). Maybe the first one I ever played. It also happens to be - spoiler alert - my favorite of the ones I played! Well, maybe. There's another contender to come. This is notably the easiest of the games I'll be listing, and that's its biggest selling point. You can fire it up and have some fun, rather than twisting your brain in knots trying to barely hang on to your life. The board is made of a set of tiles, which over the course of time end up getting flipped over to display that they are flooded, and if they get flipped again, they sink beneath the waves, never to be traversed again. So you have to balance your choice of actions on your turn between 'placing sandbags' (flipping tiles back upright), moving, picking up treasure if you have the right cards (collect all four and get them to the helicopter to win), and trading items with other players. Each player has unique abilities, and you will need to employ those to stay alive as the island gradually sinks around you.

Forbidden Desert
As the name suggests, this is closely related to Forbidden Island. In fact, it's almost the same game. What it is, is much much harder. This time, your board made of tiles is a sandy desert, and you flip the tiles over on purpose, in order to excavate what's underneath and find the things you need to win. Over time, sand is blown on top of the tiles (by placing cardboard pieces on the tiles), and once 2 sand pieces are on a tile, that tile is no longer usable until you remove the sand. So unlike Forbidden Island, no tile ever permanently goes away here, but when there are 5 or 6 sand on a tile, you pretty much consider it a lost cause, though there is a Dune Blaster item you can get to clear all the sand from a tile in one shot. So you balance your limited actions each turn between removing sand, flipping up tiles to find things, picking up artifacts (the goal is to get all four and bring them to the launch pad, just like Forbidden Island), moving, and trading items. What's so brutal about this game is the water. There's very limited water supply you gradually run out of and must replenish at two oases which can only be used once each. I've played this game more than any of the others, and it took us about 6 games before we ever won on the easiest difficulty. Once you get water management taken care of, you start dying by getting buried in sand (if you run out of sand tiles, the game is over), or if you're really good but not good enough to win, you die because the storm reaches epic proportions and instantly kills you. All the games I'm discussing offer difficulty options, where you add or remove cards or draw more cards each turn in order to ramp up the challenge, and I believe this is the only one of the games where I ever tried higher than the easiest difficulty, since we played it enough times. But we did not win at higher difficulty.

Just like the previous two games, this is the work of designer Matt Leacock. And it does bear similarities to those games, though this is the most different of the three. You can tell that as he made these games, he was working through his ideas on different cooperative gaming concepts, as each one plays on the ideas a little differently. In this case, you're team of scientists, trying to cure four different diseases which are ravaging the globe. Like before, you have to balance your limited actions per turn between moving from city to city, treating people (removing disease cubes from the board), working on an actual cure for the disease by spending cards, and building treatment centers which you can later use to get around the map more easily (for some reason they have teleporters built into them, I guess). This is a fun game, harder than Forbidden Island but easier than Forbidden Desert, and it really presents you with a lot of conundrums when you have to think about what disease cards you know are coming soon (because each time an epidemic card is drawn, the discard pile is shuffled and placed on TOP of the deck, so those same cities are going to get hit again right away), choose to prevent an outbreak by reducing the disease in a city, or let it go to actually work towards a cure. All three of these games also feature different characters you play as, each with a unique ability, and the combination of what abilities your team has in each game drastically changes how you play it. This game is the one I mentioned above that might also be my favorite of the list. Best of all, it has little plastic disease cubes, and everybody loves those.

This is a game about rescuing people (and cats) from a burning building before it collapses. We've only played this game about 3 times. I would say it's on the easier side, though unlike the other games, instead of a series of difficulty levels, this one offers two completely different modes - the one we played is very simple, but the other one is pretty mind-boggling, with all kinds of complex fire-spreading rules and hazardous materials that can combust. Just like the previous games, this one has you taking a limited number of actions each turn, and having to balance that between moving, hacking holes in walls, extinguishing fires, and picking up people (sometimes to find they're just a ghost and you wasted a lot of time getting to them...). It has a fair amount of similarity to the concepts of the other games, but instead of a finite deck of dangers, this one just has you roll dice each turn to see where new fires spark up. That makes it very unpredictable. Sometimes things go great, other times half the building explodes as fires chain-react. It's not bad, but it just doesn't feel up to par with the previous 3 games.

Ghost Stories
Now we get to something really different! This is a Chinese-themed game where the players are a bunch of monks who are ghostbusting a village. You win by beating the evil Wu-Feng who lurks at the bottom of the deck of cards, you lose in several ways which amount to the village being overrun by ghosts. This plays nothing like the other games, although it does have a board made of tiles, which flip over as ghosts haunt them. This game is super confusing, in large part due to the terrible instructions which don't even take you through a turn in order. There are game elements that are thrown in as an aside halfway through, and others that aren't even mentioned, you just have to extrapolate them from the reference card. We only played one time, and it was a very slow process of checking the manual over and over again to gradually piece together what the actual rules are. By the end (when we lost, of course, but we did manage to reach Wu-Feng! Well, he was the card at the top of the deck when we lost...), we had it mostly figured out and it was pretty fun. I think it's actually a good game, it's just so confusing to learn, and I have trouble imagining how we're going to teach someone else to play with us (we played with 2 players only). A tip for other people who try two players: there are special rules for 2 players, and I suspect that it will work much better to just play a 4-player game with each player manning 2 monks. More ghosts get summoned that way, but you have a lot more power at hand to deal with them, plus the rules aren't as wonky. Still hard to decipher though!

So those are the cooperative games I played in 2014! Here's to lots of other games in 2015! And hoo boy, I've been playing some awesome PC games in the end of 2014... just quick: you should be playing Borderlands (any version, I just happened to get The Pre-Sequel finally, and the moon-jumping in that really adds a lot to it, though Borderlands 2 is surely a better all-around game), and Shadow of Mordor (it's Batman, only better! So amazing!).
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