So, last time we spoke about some of the pros and cons of various kinds of team building activities and I promised that I had at least one more coming that was deserving of an entire article of its own. Here it is, board games. I can almost hear the eye rolling from some of you but hear me out. If the words, “board game” conjures up memories of the tedium that is The Game of Life, the interminable grind of Risk or the family destroying hate fest that is Monopoly you can be forgiven for reacting that way but listen. Board games have grown up. They’re good now, brilliant even. Independent game designers around the world have revolutionized what a board game can be. On Kickstarter right now as I’m writing this there are an educational board game about cellular biology (1648% funded), a hidden traitor deduction game set during the height of the black death (1238% funded) and a party game about lizard people who secretly control the media trying to create the most sensational headlines (not funded yet but I really hope that it gets there).
None of those games are the type I want to talk about however. I want to talk about cooperative games.
As the name implies cooperative games pit the players as a team against the game itself. Usually the game uses a randomizing mechanic such as a deck of cards to keep things changing and keep the players on their toes. The best co-op games also have multiple variants of play to add replay value and control the difficulty of the game. Even better are the asymmetric cooperative games where each player is given an ability or advantage that is different from everyone else’s to help the team accomplish their goals. These games are almost universally very difficult and the team will have to work to together and make the use of everyone’s special abilities correctly, plus be a little lucky, in order to win.
And guess what? They’re fun. Cooperative games are a blast and there’s enough great ones out there that you can almost certainly find one themed around something you and your group like. I’ll be going over some of my favorites in a little bit but first, how best to use them in your office?
The great thing about these games is that all you need is the game, some people and a table. No scheduling full day excursions to the nearest alpine swing set for some rope work here. You can keep the game in a closet or in your car and bust it out when needed. Schedule an afternoon in a conference room, order some lunch in for the team and make sure that they get copies of the rules a day or two in advance (save yourself the hassle of teaching the entire team on the fly). Then all you have to do is enjoy and observe. They’re team building, solving problems as a group, but you can be learning about them. Who takes charge if you don’t. Who wants to play conservatively, or aggressively? Who is gaming the system, by counting cards for example? That’s an incredibly effective way to play games like Pandemic, and there is nothing wrong with it in this context. It’s also a neat bit of out of the box thinking. If it’s a game where players can choose their roles see who goes for active, ‘big’, game winning roles and who goes for the more supportive ones that are sometimes more important for team success? Nothing teaches the value of skilled support personnel quite like playing a round of Pandemic without the Dispatcher.
Speaking of Pandemic, that’s the first of the games I want to talk about, and the oldest. The designer, Matt Leacock, has a gift for making savage cooperative games that will challenge even dedicated gamers. In addition to the Pandemic family of games, he’s also created pulp adventure coop games Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert and an adaptation of the horrifying puppet adventure show, Thunderbirds. In Pandemic the players take on different roles in the CDC (or equivalent) and try and cure 4 major diseases while also working to stop them from spreading in order to buy time. The board is a stylized map of the world indicating major travel routes and a deck of cards controls the behavior of the diseases. The real brilliance here is a mechanic that means that once a disease has taken hold in each city it is more likely to spread or spontaneously reappear there later. Therefore, you always know the danger zones but it’s almost impossible to totally cleanse them. It’s a great kind of frustrating. Later expansions added new variations, such as the super flu, animal vectors, mutating strains and the bioterrorist. They also brought it new roles to add variety of gameplay. There were also spin offs like a Legacy edition where what do in one game effects the next game you play, a stripped-down dice based version called The Cure, and two re-skins, the historical Pandemic: Iberia where you also have to manage infrastructure in 1848 Spain and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu where the ‘disease’ is an outbreak of deranged cultists in 1920s New England.
Next is favorite of mine but arguably the toughest sell for most offices, Sentinels of the Multiverse. While even the most ardent enemies of fun probably won’t grumble too much about a game with a ‘serious’ feel and look like Pandemic, when you bust out the brightly colored comic book inspired art of a super hero themed game you might get some funny looks. If you can get past that however, this is a great game. It’s not really a board game per se, instead each player has a deck of cards unique to the hero that they are playing, while the villain (or villains) as well as the location of the fight have their own decks and play themselves against you. Where this game shines is in teamwork and permutations. No two heroes play the same and not all villains are defeated by punching them to death. One villain is a serial killer and the key to beating him involves saving the victims that are in his deck, another is an emotionally damaged 10-year-old girl with psychic powers. If you knock her out, you lose. Even the location decks influence things in huge ways. Ultimately Sentinels is about how all these different elements work together, making tough choices in response to changing situations and in the end having it all come together to make a remarkable story. So yeah, it’s a comic book in the best possible way. Side note, since this is a game where you are allowed to pick your hero you might notice some interesting things about who people gravitate towards. This is especially true if you play with some regularity and you notice that someone keeps going back to the same hero.
One other thing, there is a LOT of this game. Since the release of the original box set in 2011 there have been 6 boxed expansions, with a 7th huge final one on the way, and 11 single deck mini expansions. There have also been a large number of promotional cards produced for conventions, Kickstarter events and such. The good news, the game is still pretty damn good with just the core box. That having been said, a lot the really neat stuff that pushes what the system can do was in the later sets. So if you get main game and like it, you should be good for birthday and Christmas wish lists for a bit.
Lastly, a game so new it’s not even in stores yet as of this writing. The Captain is Dead is a sci fi themed survival coop game in the vein of Pandemic. The idea is that it takes place during the climax of a tense episode of your favorite space opera TV show but something has gone horribly wrong, the captain is dead, aliens are running amok on the ship and everything is on fire. So, I guess, several somethings have actually gone wrong. The goal of the game is to fix the not-a-warp-core and get away as the aliens become increasingly aggressive and the ship becomes increasingly broken. One thing I love about this game is the role selection process. While Pandemic is usually random and Sentinels is usually full choice The Captain is Dead takes a middle route and randomly assigns a general role (command, engineering, security, etc) but then you get to pick one of two or three crewmembers from that role. This not only leads to the tough choice of prioritizing abilities but ensures that certain crewmen will never show up in the same game. Do you want the Chief Engineer who is the best at fixing the engine, the literal goal of the entire game, or the Transporter Chief who makes everyone else better by beaming them around the ship to where they need to be? You can never have both. Also, this game supports up to 7 players, that’s 2 more than either of the other games I mentioned. And hey, maybe your team will find space opera more palatable than super heroes.
Well, I’ve gushed and fanboyed out about my favorite games long enough. I just want you to remember You can build your team and still be having a good time.
Anyway, I’m actually going to a board game convention this weekend so if I see anything would have been on this list had I known about it I’ll pop on next week with an addendum. Until then, be well.