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Many cooperative games (like Pandemic or Arkham Horror) could be played by a single player, even though they're intended to be played by a team of players striving against the board.

What makes a cooperative game require multiple players?

What aspects can a cooperative game have that make it actually impossible to play as a solo game?

I'm talking about a fully cooperative game here, where everyone wins or loses together.


Many cooperative games suffer when one player knows the game best, so they just tell everyone else what to do. If the other players are new enough (or meek enough), the game turns into a one-player game with a bunch of confused spectators.

If the game can't be played by a single player, the knowledgable player's advice is still advice, but it's less compelling.

Note that I'm not asking what to do about overbearing players. I'm asking what makes it impossible for a cooperative game to be played solo.

  • That can very a lot based on the type of game. Just because one player can take charge of a game doesn't mean that it has turned into a one player game. There is very little that can be done about one player controlling other players moves. – Joe W Oct 4 '14 at 20:34
  • @JoeW, I'm not asking what can be done to stop one player from controlling the game. I'm asking what makes it impossible for one player to play all by themselves. – Joe Oct 4 '14 at 21:00
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    @Jefromi It says you cannot show each other your hands, but it also say that you can openly ask and tell what cards are in each other's hands; so the lack of showing doesn't actually prevent any open knowledge; it just forces more communication. – GendoIkari Oct 4 '14 at 21:34
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    @Rainbolt, I'm assuming that the player does not have a robot capable of playing boardgames, but rather that they have just the game itself and other items you might reasonably have at home, such as a pen and paper. With that assumption, one person cannot play Hanabi. – Joe Oct 6 '14 at 15:54
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    Strong vote to stay open. Yes, there's more than one way to design a game like this, but it's actually a fairly specific game design/mechanic question, not at all overly broad. There are only so many ways you can require interaction between players. – Cascabel Oct 6 '14 at 21:41
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The biggest thing I can think of is limited knowledge. Hanabi is a cooperative game where each player has access to different information (no one can see the cards in his or her own hand, but can see everyone else's cards).

As soon as different players have access to different information, playing by yourself becomes impossible. The other examples I can think of are partnership card games: Bridge, Pinochle, Canasta, Tichu, etc. They all have strict rules against communication between partners, so you cannot let your partner know what cards are in your hand. Due to this rule, a person could not end up playing both sides of the partnership by himself.

This type of thing could easily be implemented in non-card games as well, as long as there is some information that some players have but other players don't.

The other way that one could make a co-op game actually require multiple people is to have rules against table talk. Even if all knowledge is open, you can make it illegal to discuss moves. For example, you could play a Pandemic variant where any discussion between players about what should be done is illegal. You are still allowed to ask what cards other players have (or just play open-handed; same thing really), but no other discussion allowed. Thus, each player needs to decide what he wants to do on his turn all by himself, and the challenge comes on picking up the slack where other players are lacking.

Damage Report took another approach. All players play simultaneously and asynchronously (not everyone is on the same turn), and there are enforced time limits to turns. This prevents the game from being played solo (though a dominant player can still influence others)

"Hidden roles" type games can also work this way. Battlestar Galactica, for example. You could consider this a co-op game, because most of the players are all working together. Though instead of fighting against the game itself, as with Pandemic, you are fighting against the 1 or 2 other players who are not on your team. But due to the fact that roles are hidden, each player only knows his own role. This makes it impossible to play by yourself. Of course most probably wouldn't consider this a co-op game, but the basic principle is still there.. most of the people playing the game are playing co-op with each other.

  • @ikegami, that sounds like an answer, rather than a question. I'd give it +1. – Joe Oct 4 '14 at 22:38
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    The point on Damage Report is even more evident in Space Alert, where the time and information overload typically exert extreme pressure on non-expert players. It is okay if a captain delegates and influences other players, but it is extremely hard to control the game to the extent where one could in, say, Arkham Horror or (standard) Pandemic. – Amadan Oct 6 '14 at 3:17
  • I like this answer, but I wanted to point out that sometimes Hidden Role games suffer from this more than others might... Consider the Battlestar Galactica game where they Cylon player meekly goes along with the human plan, not being confident enough to know when to deviate from it. – GWLlosa Oct 6 '14 at 18:58
  • Some games have a semi-simultaneous element...For example I think Space Hulk: Death Angel is a fantastic cooperative game, and it accomplishes tension by making all the players choose which of their 3 possible actions they will take simultaneously and secretly, even though they then execute those actions serially. – Andrew Vandever Oct 6 '14 at 21:24
  • Many-vs-one games like Scotland Yard are semi-cooperative games that implicitly discourage table talk since if you openly discuss your strategy, your adversary will know what it is and be able to play accordingly. – Zags Sep 15 '16 at 17:04
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In addition to @GendoIkari's excellent answer, a possible way to force the need for multiple players is to force simultaneous action with time constraints. Space Alert, for instance, requires that all players react to imperfect information and is simply too fast to plan perfectly.

  • FFG's upcoming XCOM board game tries to do something like this using a phone app to accompany the game. – Andrew Vandever Oct 6 '14 at 21:22
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A game whose game states are too complex for a single player to handle is another way to require multiple players, although this is subjective to the player or the design of the game.

For example, Sentinels of the Multiverse is a cooperative multiplayer game where each player makes decisions for a single a character and the players cooperatively track the antagonistic actions of the game. The game requires a minimum of three characters. The game state for this game is often very complex because characters take actions which are often modified the previous actions taken by other players, usually in the form of bonus and penalties requiring arithmetic. It is played using cards and tokens.

So if SotM is played by a single player, the player has to make decisions for three characters and track the antagonistic actions of the game, which amount to a more complex fourth character. Since it has no centralized board, information about the game state is distributed across many card (on the order of 30+) and tokens (often 70+). This can make something as simple as keeping track of whose turn it is exceedingly difficult to do without error.

As mentioned above, the design of the game can mitigate this effect. If the game visually tracks enough of the game state to allow the player to know what is going on without having to remember, then this isn't an issue. Pandemic is a good example of this kind of a game. The player's skill and memory would also play a part in mitigating the issue of complexity.

Another game mechanic which works into the games state complexity issue, is when the game allows multiple sources of hidden information to effect the current decision. For example, Let's say a 4 player game gives each player a hand of 7 cards intended to be kept secret. Players take turns taking actions, but when it isn't your turn, you may play cards from your hand to assist the active player. So at any give time, you're assessing 7 cards to determine if they can help someone else. However if you're playing this game solo, then you're actually handling a hand of 28 cards, and also attempting to make decisions about what action is most optimal.

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    In my experience a strong player can easily keep track of several times the state as a weak player and think of moves much faster. – CodesInChaos Oct 6 '14 at 17:42
  • SOTM isn't that difficult to play alone, that's even how it's played in digital and no complains from that so far. It's not really difficult to play alone, especially since a lot of the informations are around, and that's true for "real" version too, except oblivaeon where you'd be in for a rough ride... – LamaDelRay Apr 18 at 9:33
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Have you played Space Alert or Escape? Both these games force co-operation by use of a soundtrack.

In Space Alert things can go awry that cause you to be delayed or bump into each other and it is different every time. While a regular player may have ideas things can still go completely wrong and screw their plans. You have to co-operate to win and even thinking carefully is no guarantee of success.

In Escape you are forced to co-operate by having multiple objectives all over the place and a dice rolling mechanic. You don't have the time to think or plan a strategy much and so the focus on action ensures co-operation.

  • Can you describe what you mean by "force co-operation by use of a soundtrack"? – Joe Feb 20 '15 at 18:39
  • Yes! The games have a soundtrack and so you must work together in a time limit outside of your control. There is little time to assess the situation and you must think on your feet for the good of the team. A terrible player could still de-rail this of course but I have never seen that happen. – Tom Wilkinson Feb 23 '15 at 11:09
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co-operative games for children often rely on pooling resources against some sort of "ticking clock" - the wave is coming in, or the giant is going to wake up. A single person playing alone and getting one resource per turn wouldn't accumulate them fast enough to beat the clock. Three players means three chance at a resource before the clock ticks again.

I suppose one person could play all three seats, but that would feel really weird.

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    As I read the question it's all about preventing/discouraging one player from controlling multiple characters/seats. So the only part of your answer that addresses the intent of the question is "would feel really weird". – CodesInChaos Oct 6 '14 at 17:39
  • I think this would be improved by adding some games instead of just saying "often". – joedragons Nov 20 '17 at 20:31
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I had this exact question myself :) Some great answers in here!

Another factor is if there is randomness introduced before and/or during each player's turn to play. If there is no uncertainty introduced between each players' turns, that means both turns can be combined into one optimal move which has multiple sub-moves.

A major problem with Pandemic is that once disease cubes are added to the board, nothing adds to the uncertainity factor for the players until all 4 players are done with their turns. Which means it makes sense for one optimal move between all 4 players to be decided first before making any moves.

Contrast that with Battle of Hogwarts. Each player's turn begins with a Dark Event and a Villain effect as well. When you play a turn, you don't know what's going to happen next. You don't know who's going to be affected next. You have a good sense of where it could go because the hands of all players are open. However, the uncertainty factor is quite high too - and in between players' turns.

So I don't play Pandemic with others. I see it as a one-player game.

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    Why is it relevant whether you know what's going to happen next? Most games involve changes between your turns that can't be predicted with certainty, but that doesn't mean that the same one player who made an earlier play can't evaluate the new state and make a later play too. (Also you have the rules of Pandemic wrong: new disease cubes are added after each person's turn.) – Benjamin Cosman Nov 18 '17 at 12:55

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