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After watching Jumanji I wondered if the eponymous game was meant to be a co-op or a competitive game. Having difficulty figuring it out on my own, I have asked that question on a different stack exchange, and that's how I found out about games that are semi-cooperative: where one player might win, but all players can also lose.

I used to think this kind of games would be unplayable, as the cooperative part can quickly crumble once players whose assistance is required realise that they have no chance to win ("If I can't win, what's the point of me trying just to give you the win?" etc). Turns out, however, that those games do exist, as shown in the list above.

How do they circumvent the problem?

Out of all those mentioned I have only played Arkham Horror and for the life of me I was sure that it's pure co-op (wasn't the goal to defeat the Old Ones together?). Jumanji itself isn't much of help either - it basically forces the players to metagame and doesn't seem to give any reward of note to the winner (turning it into a co-op game in all but the rules).

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    Betrayal at the House on the Hill has an interesting structure somewhat like what you've described. Players all basically start on the same team, cooperatively exploring a haunted house gathering tools/skills and preparing for the betrayal. The betrayal is publicly known and the game alters drastically based on the circumstances of the betrayal. The nature of it is based on a scenario in a deterministic booklet. The end states vary based on scenario which is usually the betrayer vs everyone else but can also be a free for all and anyone can kill or be killed at all times depending on goals – Gatchwar Dec 18 '19 at 17:01
  • "If I can't win, what's the point of me trying just to give you the win?" - sorry can you clarify, from your description I understand there are three different outcomes for a player, you won, you did not lose (some one else took the first place though) and everyone has lost. If I understand correctly, one would still prefer not losing (second outcome) to losing (third outcome) - same as in any other game. So could you clarify the difference? – Andrew Savinykh Dec 18 '19 at 23:16
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The social contract does most of the heavy lifting

The social contract is an unspoken agreement between all the players of the game as to how the game should be played to maximize the enjoyment of all the players. (Sometimes it's a spoken agreement, especially in tabletop roleplaying games. Regardless, it's always present.)

The goal of a game isn't to win. The goal is to have an enjoyable play experience. That's why Cards Against Humanity is a much more popular game than Rock-Paper-Scissors, even though your odds of winning are lower.

Of course, winning generally contributes to the experience of a game. For some people, in some games, it contributes a great deal. But in other games, victory takes a back seat to the process of the game itself.

Semi-cooperative games are almost exclusively highly thematic, highly variable games. These are not the sorts of games that attract players whose primary method of enjoying games is to 'win'. Instead these games are designed to reward players who enjoy creating a narrative together, who want to do things just to see what will happen, and have a good story to tell at the end.

This means that players are less likely to feel dissatisfied because they aren't winning as much as one of the other players, and are still incentive to avoid the big loss conditions.

Also, even if a player does decide to tank the whole thing out of frustration, that doesn't necessarily mean a negative play experience for everyone else. There's a reason that LEEROOY JENKINS! became the battlecry of the internet for a while. Dramatic disaster can be just as fun as dramatic victory.

Which is not to say that a discontented player can't ruin the experience for other players. The mechanical structures that Volker talks about are built in to reinforce it against this sort of behavior, and they're there for a reason. But the bulk of the heavy lifting is done social contract, by making the focus of the game be about something other than victory.

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There is really not much that you can do in rules to totally eliminate this problem, but you can try to reduce it.
One possibility is to implement catch-up mechanisms so that it is rather unlikely that a player falls so far behind that (s)he has no chance of winning any more before the game is close to the end.
Another one is to have all or at least part of the victory points secret, so no one knows exactly who is in the lead and by what margin.
Similar to the one above is to give players secret objectives they have to fulfill, up to the point where 2, 3 or even 4 out of 5 players can win the game.

But in general it depends on players' personalities whether semi-cooperative games work or not. The players should be wise enough not to crush another player to the point where (s)he can't win anymore. Semi-cooperative games only work when players find a healthy balance between acquiring progress to their individual goal of winning and investing enough in fighting against the mechanisms of evil that threatens to defeat all players. Being too altruistic and others will win, being to selfish and all players will lose.
There are players who are so ruthless that they try to blackmail the others like "either you let me win or no one will win" - those players are unsuitable for this kind of game (or vice versa).

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I think terminology here is a big issue: semi-coop is simply a wrong way to define a game, and after a decade or playing hundreds of games with the widest possible audience I honestly can't remember anyone ever using it. I know it's used on BGG, but to me it sounds really weird.

A game is either cooperative or competitive. In a coop you must collaborate to win, in a competitive not. There are some variant to both (team vs team, traitors, alliances and diplomacy) but the bottom line is the same: a game is coop or it's not.

Why this matters? Because in a cooperative game the only way to win is to cooperate. As simple as that, that's everyone's top priority, be it playing against the game or another team, if you don't cooperate you lose. Then, once the dust has settled down, once everyone is happy because the game is won, many games have ways to declare who was the best player; that player is now the winner among the players, but every one won anyway.

That's why the idea of semi cooperative is odd. There is no semi, you either cooperate to win or you lose.


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Arcanist Lupus already mentioned the social aspect. It's something that come up every once in a while on RPG.se too, but every time I expose my theory I get downvoted brutally, so let me try here too :-D

It's really simple: no one has been kidnapped by the Nazists, put on a train, chained in a cold wooden shack and forced to play a game with other people. We are all happily living in a very nice environment where no one has a gun to our head to force us to play anything nor to force us to play with people that we don't like.

In my current city I manage a group of 850 players. We meet and play every Wednesday for 5-6 hours in a row: we get to know each others, we interact a lot, we form friendships. And we form ideas of each others play style. So on Wednesday, if someone invites me to a table, I can still say no if I don't like their gaming style an then join another table. Or I can sit there all evening drinking a beer enjoying conversations, and then invite the people I like at my place to play something else. And maybe I'll invite some specific people to play Terra Mystica because I want some very competitive players, but I'll not invite some of them to play Mage Knight because last time we tried it's been a disaster.

The game rules do not need to babysit me or solve any issue: I am an adult and I can choose which people I like to play which game with. And when. And for how long. Etc.

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    I totally disagree with your point #1. Semi-coop is a well established term in gaming. Let's assume we have a typical competetive game of economics, where the winner is who is the richest: you build factories, produce goods, sell them, use the profit to build more/better factories etc. Now add a new element to the game that can make *all players lose: environmental damage caused by your factories, hordes of barbarians jealous of the whealth of your city, civil unrest by uncontend workes or something like that. If every player still tries to maximize their whealth, that negative parameter ... – Volker Landgraf Dec 22 '19 at 2:05
  • ... will soon exceed a certain limit and the game ends without any winner - all players have lost. But there is something the players can do against that: spend some of their money not into the primary goal but into some combined effort to keep that parameter low (buying recycling equipment, building up a defence force, building facilities to make workers happy...). If the combined effort of all players is sufficient, then there will be an individual winner. That's why this type of game is semi-cooperative. – Volker Landgraf Dec 22 '19 at 2:13

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