Most board games are competitive, where you have players competing against each other, trying to win. Some board games are described as "cooperative", where the players are trying to do...what exactly?

In a competitive game, there isn't usually a single optimum path to victory, since the actions of the other players will change in response to what one player does. Someone might publish the so-called "best" strategy for Dominion, yet it isn't going to win every game, since the other players can adjust their strategies in response.

In a cooperative game, once someone has worked out an optimum strategy, the game can't respond by changing its strategies (or can it?) so there's nothing left for the players to do but carry out that optimum strategy. If they fail, it's just due to the roll of the dice (or draw of the cards, etc.).

So what makes a cooperative board game actually a game?

Just so you understand, I'm not asking this to be snarky, or to disparage cooperative games. It's that I simply don't understand how such games could retain playworthiness once they've been played a few times.

  • 11
    Have you played a coop game before?
    – Pat Ludwig
    May 18, 2012 at 1:10
  • 9
    Even in real life, we suffer from having political systems that need the existence of "winners" and "losers" to define themselves, instead of admitting a scenario where everyone wins (or, uh oh, everyone loses). If only people were better at understanding that you don't need someone else to be worse off than you, for you to be having fun! That's my slant on the issue, anyway. Someone else's might be that cooperative games are filthy commie propaganda :) May 18, 2012 at 7:13
  • I've never played a completely co-operative game myself, but it seems like they'd be fun.
    – Joe Z.
    Feb 26, 2013 at 16:31
  • 3
    By this logic, no single player game can be a game either, including all single player computer games ever. Oct 22, 2014 at 21:22

7 Answers 7


What is a game?

There's some argument about what exactly constitutes a "game" in academic and design circles. Going by Salen and Zimmerman's definition from Rules of Play:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.

Cooperative games still have rules and definite win/loss outcomes. "Artificial conflict" does not prescribe that the conflict be between players, or that it be focused on strategic competition per se.

Strategy vs. algorithm

The operative assumption in the original question is that play vs. a sentient actor requires on-the-fly decision-making, whereas cooperative play vs. random game events can necessarily be reduced to a script you can follow to win. I think this is an error.

Even when the adversity they face in the game is tied to something as simple and unthinking as the luck of the draw, the human players may still have to adjust their actions to the unpredictably changing game state. To use your Dominion example, simply knowing what an optimal strategy looks like in the abstract doesn't free you from having to adjust your turn-by-turn plays to make the best use of the cards you've actually drawn.

You could try to articulate all these tricks into a single defined "strategy," but for many games this hypothetical script will be so complex that a human player couldn't simply follow it by rote. And how is this different from trying to write out a gameplan that includes ways to compensate for intelligent opponents' moves, anyway?

Counterexamples: strategic depth without opponents

Consider these examples of challenging decision-making without a human opponent:

  • Classic solitaire games such as Klondike involve hidden information and strategic decisions analogous to classic multi-player card games.
  • Knizia's Lord of the Rings board game is a cooperative board game with a random element (some tiles in a bag) as the the source of adversity. It has an expansion that allows a player to assume the role of the antagonist; this tends to increase the difficulty a bit since the Sauron player is actively choosing the most punishing outcome, but either mode involves qualitatively similar gameplay and strategic decision-making for the ringbearer players.
  • There's a casual variant of Magic: the Gathering where players team up against a random deck representing a zombie horde. The horde just immediately casts whatever it topdecks and always attacks with all of its guys. There are certain things the horde can't do (play targeted removal, for instance), but the players still have to make strategic decisions about resource utilization, attack vs. defense, and timing their spells that are qualitatively similar to the decisions involved in a normal game of Magic. This is a mirror of the situation above: a normally head-to-head game can be played as a cooperative game against a random element, with qualitatively similar gameplay and strategic decision-making.
  • Video game AI opponents are often actually fairly simple actors just following a generally-good strategy. Despite not being particularly reactive to the actions of the human players, these rather simple opponents can still present a significant challenge to them.

Is strategic thinking an integral part of all board games?

More generally, I think your question presupposes too much about games and why people play them. Board games, like all games, can provide a variety of experiences, including:

  • Overcoming a challenge
  • Proving yourself against your peers
  • Solving a puzzle
  • The thrill of gambling
  • The visual and tactile pleasure of gameplay (think about how much enjoyment miniatures gamers get from the look and feel of their pieces)
  • Socializing with your friends
  • Experiencing the narrative of play (drama and resolution, for instance)

Among these, overcoming challenges is not always and necessarily the game's or players' primary goal. Nor is strategic play the only way to experience a challenge: games can easily involve physical and mental tests that don't depend on analysis and planning.

Some products traditionally labeled "board games" don't actually put much emphasis on overcoming challenges. Candyland is, of course, the archetypical extreme example. Some game designers and purists may say that such board games aren't really "games," but that is their popularly-accepted label.

  • 7
    To add to your already good answer: War is a card came that has no choices. You are merely observing the outcome a game which is completely predetermined by the deal. So the only elements which are present are the thrill of gambling (I'm assuming you also mean the thrill of seeing who will win here) and the visual and tactile pleasure of laying down the cards. Many cooperative games (such as Pandemic) have choice, tactics and strategy so are far more interesting than War, which is usually considered a game.
    – Joe Golton
    May 18, 2012 at 2:05
  • @JoeGolton The thrill of taking risks and the tension of waiting for an outcome. "Alea."
    – Alex P
    May 18, 2012 at 2:14
  • I wish I could vote this up more than once, it's a great answer!
    – Joe
    May 18, 2012 at 2:40
  • 3
    Great answer. +1 for that opening, which gets to the heart of it: quantifiable outcome. A cooperative game can still be lost.
    – Tynam
    May 19, 2012 at 13:12

Not going to better Alex P's great answer, but I just thought I'd throw in a comment: it depends entirely on what you consider a game to be.

Based on the question, it sounds like you consider a game to be a strategic competition between participants (nothing wrong with this view of course!). In this case, cooperative games can become barely a game at best.

If you consider a game to be a social tool, a prompt for people to interact and reason things out (together or not), then cooperative games are already that.

I'm not criticising your views (or anyone else's), but based on the question and the fact that you asked it, I think the answer to your question - with tongue in cheek - is "For you, nothing!"

  • This is basically why I was asking -- your answer brings a different perspective on what makes games worth playing, and I like that.
    – Joe
    May 18, 2012 at 15:47

When we play games, we strive to come up with optimal strategies. Optimal means that the strategy can be adjusted to suit changing circumstances, whether the circumstances are created by opponents' strategy, or by the game itself. If a game is poorly designed, then such an optimal strategy will be too easy to find, and too simple and easy to carry out, even with changing circumstances. In this case, the game will be boring. On the other hand, if the game is well-designed, the optimal strategy will be difficult to find, and complex and difficult to carry out, especially given changing circumstances. The joy of the game then comes from attempting to discover and play by this strategy, along with whatever other components of the game we enjoy. All of this is true in both cooperative and competitive games.

I think your question is mostly a reaction to the fact that it's difficult to create a well-designed cooperative game for players like you and me. It's substantially easier to rely on humans to create the complexity than to create a game which does it all on its own. But it's still possible.

(Note: I think Alex's answer is great, but I thought I'd take a shot at a concise answer.)


A cooperative game is a game because it has a win and a loss condition. You are playing against the system. Play worthiness has nothing to do with it. Tic-Tac-Toe is a game, just not a very good one.


One of the best ways to keep it interesting is to have the players competing against the system (eg as a team of firefighters trying to put out a fire) and award points for, e.g. each civilian saved; the player with most points wins.

The old Avalon Hill game 'Republic of Rome' took this to a new level; the players are factions within the Senate, and you want to divert as much tax money as you can to yourself; but if there isn't enough left in the budget the country collapses, and everybody loses. You have to choose generals to fight foreign wars, and obviously the more competent the better (if there is a string of defeats the barbarians win and everybody loses); but popular generals have a habit of seizing power, and the more victories the more popular. The players have to genuinely co-operate in many ways while trying to improve their own position; the system wins about half the time, and more if the players work for themselves too much.

  • 2
    This dynamic can make for fun play, but I'd say it's actually still a "competitive" game at that point. We're all on the same team but we're not really on the same team, y'know? True cooperative play involves shared goals and shared success and failure.
    – Alex P
    May 25, 2012 at 0:36
  • @AlexP: that's because publishers, wanting to sell games, have to have a winner. But there's no reason you couldn't have a whole team playing a 'solitaire' scenario, so that the 'firefighters' win as a team, or are defeated by the system/dicerolls. Anything less competitive than that can't really be called a game, IMHO. Jul 12, 2012 at 12:50

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think there's a more elegant/universal definition of a game that also answers your question. Taking a page from game theory,

A game is any procedure where the player(s) can make choices which influence the outcome.

This definition suggests that there's no meaningful difference between competitive and cooperative, or even single- and multiplayer, games. Your observation that cooperative games always have a pure strategy Nash equilibrium is interesting but ultimately not meaningful. Many competitive games also have a pure equilibrium. Furthermore John von Neumann proved that any zero-sum game without a pure equilibrium instead has a mixed strategy Nash equilibruum. It would seem that cooperative games are just a special case of single-player games (since everyone gets the same outcome), and a single player game obviously has a pure strategy equilibrium.

Also this definition successfully distinguishes games from things we don't consider games, like watching a simulation or carrying out instructions, along with some things we call "games" like War.

Disclaimer: I'm a computer scientist, not a game theorist, so I might have used terms incorrectly.

  • 1
    The "game" in game theory is just a pithy term for a particular kind of mathematical/procedural construct, though. There are definitely reasons why "game" was the word chosen to describe these systems, but that doesn't necessarily mean the precise details of the definition match the colloquial sense of what a game is. A lot of the standard game-theoretic "games" are more like tiny morsel of a game, individual game mechanics that created certain relationships; and often what they're used to study are real-world relationships (e.g. economic systems) rather than games as we know them.
    – Alex P
    May 10, 2017 at 21:42
  • You're absolutely right! I didn't mean to imply that the "game" as defined by game theory is the only or necessarily correct definition. But I do think that definition happens to be both insightful and accurate (in several ways) for this question.
    – Kelvin
    May 11, 2017 at 2:36

First, the distinction must be made between the types of cooperative games. Some games are wholly cooperative (Arkham Horror, Pandemic, Forbidden Island) while others are cooperative/competitive (Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Coup, Middle Earth Quest). In the former, players are competing against the board and a randomized system of variables that control difficulty level and protect against perfect optimization, ensuring that no two games will ever play out in quite the same way. In the latter, some players group together against a player or another group of players, who takes on the role of antagonist (Sauron, in Middle Earth Quest, or the traitor in Betrayal at the House on the Hill, for instance.)

So, purely cooperative games maintain their interest and their replayability factor by creating a randomized array of variables, such that the system itself becomes an enemy, and often quite a powerful one. Arkham Horror does this through a (generally randomly selected) Lovecraftian antagonist, monsters whose stats are hidden until a PC chooses to fight them, encounters at the end of every players individual turn and at the end of each collective round, etc. Pandemic pits players against the board in the form of four strains of a contagious disease, encouraging players to team up and use their individual special abilities to prevent the spread of, and ultimately cure, the diseases.

Competitive/Cooperative games (which is what I've always known them to be called, but there may well be a more official term for them) generally rely on one player, or occasionally a few players, to be immensely overpowered, but to fight, on their own, the rest of the PCs. In Betrayal at the House on the Hill, for instance, the traitor is selected midway through the game once certain conditions have met. Which PC ends up as the traitor is determined by two random variables, and there are 50+ scenarios available, also based on these variables, which offers long term replayability. As there is one traitor and a group of heroes, the traitor must then be individually more powerful to stand a chance against the other PCs. So, the traitor is given their own set of rules, hidden from the rest of the players, which allow them more power and often remove for them some of the rules that were previously in play, such as limited movement. So, even if you are in the group of heroes, the game is still very competitive.

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