Sometimes, we board gamers get tired of trying to beat each other, and decide that we’d rather beat up a poor defenseless game. That’s where cooperative games come in. The point isn’t for one player to come out on top, but for everyone to work together against the game for a combined victory. You’ve got Pandemic, where you try to stop diseases from wiping out the planet. There’s Forbidden Island, where a bunch of idiot explorers try to escape from a sinking island without once questioning why nobody brought a boat. Legendary lets a group of you play Marvel heroes battling the bad guys. And there are plenty more. It’s a pretty popular and thriving genre, whose only drawback is the frequency with which an inanimate object like a board game seems to kick our asses.
Yesterday, some friends and I gave The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game a go. The way it works is that each player has a deck constructed from a pretty hefty array of available cards, sort of like Magic: The Gathering but without having to buy a thousand booster packs hoping to get one good card. These decks consist of three heroes and assorted allies and equipment and events. These go up against an encounter deck, basically an adventure through part of Middle-earth, with set objectives and monsters and obstacles. Every turn you draw cards from this deck equal to the number of players, who have to fight the monsters and complete objectives or else their threat gets too high and they all lose. Which we did consistently and spectacularly yesterday. Watching us, you would have thought the object was to kill your heroes as quickly as possible while cranking your threat up as high as you can. Peter Jackson’s version of our story would have been a short film. And the kicker? This was the introductory adventure. Difficulty of 1. One we’d all beaten before, both by as a group and by ourselves. And it wiped us. Twice. After the second game ended, we just sort of stared at each other and hoped nobody had been watching, then quietly put the cards away and agreed we would speak of it no more.
Later, we moved on to Sentinels of the Multiverse. It plays very much like The Lord of the Rings, except the player decks are pre-made, and there are separate decks for the villain and the environment. This time, you’re super-heroes instead of denizens of Middle-earth, and if your character dies, they’re still able to contribute in a limited way, but at least the fight goes on. It didn’t make a bit of difference though. We should have known we were in trouble when we decided to re-start the game after a particularly nasty combo got drawn from the villain deck to start the game. Failing to learn our lesson, we blundered along, managing to do some damage along the way, but first one of our group had to bow out early, then I died, and then the dominoes began to fall and evil was once again triumphant. Games 3, us 0. In all, about four hours spent on sheer, humbling futility, all at the hands of randomized decks of cards with no brain, no strategy, no plan. Which, come to think of it, made them a lot like us.
Part of the appeal of cooperative games is the shared sense of both victory and loss. If you win, you all worked together towards a common goal. If you lose, you all get to feel equally inept. And if you lose like we did, you get to question why you even played in the first place. I’d like to see you try getting that kind of philosophical soul-searching from a game of Monopoly.