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Cooperative Board Games Let Everyone Win... or Lose

  • Shelley Schlender

It's a game that is deadly serious.

In this make-believe world, humanity teeters on the brink of destruction. With each flip of a card, virulent and deadly diseases get a fiendish chance to advance across the globe.

In this world, Yaianni and his friends are valiant public health officials, racing against time to save the world from pestilence and death. So they take this game - called Pandemic - seriously.

They huddle around a table at the Victory Point Cafe in Berkeley, California, discussing strategy. The colorful board in front of them is crowded with little cubes representing diseases, and every turn could be their last. In Pandemic, Yaianni says, diseases usually win.

“People have created this game to make you lose. So it’s a challenge, mentally.”

Pandemic is based on the premise that four diseases have broken out in the world, each threatening to wipe out a region. If players cure the four diseases, they all win.
Pandemic is based on the premise that four diseases have broken out in the world, each threatening to wipe out a region. If players cure the four diseases, they all win.

It's a challenge players can overcome only if they work together. Pandemic is a cooperative game. Unlike most board games, in which one player wins and everyone else accepts defeat, in this newer style of gaming, the deck is stacked against everyone.

A deck of disease, a game of friends

Yaianni’s team must draw from a diabolical deck that is filled with cards that make even more “disease cubes” pile up. “Every turn, we’re all talking about the turn we’re taking together," he explains. To prevent another disaster, the friends decide to build a little hospital.

The Pandemic game includes a board showing 48 cities on a global map, a deck of Player cards and one of Infection cards, different color cubes for different diseases, and a pawn for each player.
The Pandemic game includes a board showing 48 cities on a global map, a deck of Player cards and one of Infection cards, different color cubes for different diseases, and a pawn for each player.

Yaianni says that when he’s hanging out with friends, he likes board games. “It’s kind of social, at the same time, it’s not something you do on your own. I used to play a lot of computer games and that’s fun. But it’s between you and the computer screen. Even if you’re on line, playing with other people. Here you’re like literally in person. And you’re, you know, you play a game together, whether it’s cooperative or competitive, you’re socializing in a way, and it’s entertaining."

To help with that socializing, the Victory Point Cafe offers patrons coffee, beer... and board games. Nora, the assistant manager, says those board games are a big part of the appeal. “You can play video games with other people, but you don’t look at them necessarily face to face over a board that you share pieces on and that sort of thing. You can’t hand things to other people. [Board games are] just very tactile, and very visual. And you know, I feel like it uses more engagement, and people crave that.”

Victory Point Board Game Cafe has a library of more than 800 games customers can check out and play while they enjoy their coffee.
Victory Point Board Game Cafe has a library of more than 800 games customers can check out and play while they enjoy their coffee.

There is a wall lined with board games that customers can borrow, and most of these games are competitive. But Nora likes the cooperative games such as Pandemic. "There’s something about cooperative games that I just find really enjoyable, and almost comforting. Because you’re working together."

Competition vs. cooperation

At Karliquin’s Game Knight in Boulder, Colorado, the board game buddies prefer competition, whether it's a colorful board and a deck of cards, or a lively game of dice. One regular at the hobby shop dismisses cooperative games. "You can’t really feel the twist of the knife," he says while rolling a pair of dice. "There’s kind of no reward and no penalty for failing in cooperative games. It’s a little better than watching television but not by much.”

Karliquin's Game Knight in Boulder, Colorado, sponsors regular game nights, featuring board games, card games and role-playing games.
Karliquin's Game Knight in Boulder, Colorado, sponsors regular game nights, featuring board games, card games and role-playing games.

But cooperative games have their fans here. One man says his favorite is a game called Ghost Stories. "You’re protecting a village against an onslaught of ghosts.” Other players list Mansions and Madness, and Super Dungeon Explorer.

Meanwhile, back at Victory Point, it’s a Pandemic cliffhanger. One turn away from the final curtain, their team strategy gets a boost with the draw of a lucky card. They save the world from pestilence and death!

As for what this means in the game of Life, Yaianni quips, "If your life is having to cure disease before it kills everyone in the world, then yes, I guess it’s a metaphor for life.” Yet in a world that needs people solving problems together, he says that playing cooperatively speaks to him. “We have a very good team when we’re playing together, and if we didn’t have this level of teamwork, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. We would have lost the game.”

Board game fans say that win, lose or cooperate, anyone who finds a game they love will have a grand adventure.

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