Board and Card Games Blog from Dragon Phoenix Games

Friends and Lovers Co-op Play Balancing

Now that we at Dragon Phoenix Games have started releasing our co-op game adaptations (including Catan, Carcassonne, and Karuba) as part of our Games for Friends and Lovers series, I thought I should talk a little bit about how we approach play-balancing these games and how that relates to the balance of the competitive games they are based upon.

There are different aspects of game balance.  One is that the various game mechanics are balanced.  This is usually all you have to worry about in a competitive game design because the other kind of game balance has to do with how hard it is to win the game.  Usually, the game mechanics aspect of play balance should have been addressed by the original designer.  Usually they have done a pretty good job and I don’t mess with that unless it is necessary to support the shift to co-op play.  This is an important consideration in a co-operative game but game-winning difficulty of a competitive game is mostly tied to the skill and experience of the players.  You can only adjust that by playing with different people or getting more experience.  In my opinion, there is a related aspect in competitive games that is often referred to as “tightness”.  Here we are referring to how hard it is to accomplish things in the game.  An example might be that it is very difficult to get enough money or a resource to do a certain thing.  A good example of that is Grand Austria Hotel.  I rarely feel like I have enough money in that game.  It is very tight.  Some other games that I feel are very tight include Le Havre and Agricola. 

Some games play even tighter in the co-op mode than in the competitive mode such as Castles of Burgundy.  The tightness of others seems to be unaffected by the transition to our co-op versions such as with Lords of Waterdeep, Tzolk’in, or Bruges.  The game mechanics play balance is usually addressed by the original design, but one good example where this changes quite a bit is Le Havre.  Although the game plays very tight in competitive mode, when we made our co-op adaptation we discovered that the access to resources loosened up quite a bit just due to the fact that we were cooperating rather than competing.  The play balance of the co-operative adaptation had to be adjusted to take this into account.

Many games, while still retaining most of the feel of the original competitive game, cause the players to think about some entirely new problems and/or old problems in new ways to adapt to the co-op versions.  Some good examples of that are our adaptations for Above and Below, Viticulture, and Splendor.  In Above and Below, the players must think about how to get an array of goods to meet the game objective.  In Viticulture, the players are racing to complete enough orders to avoid a premature loss before they can get their game engines up and running well.  In Splendor, the players must figure out how to get two players to the winning point total while usually having to actively block the dummy player.

When balancing how winnable a co-op game is, we have used a rule-of-thumb that the players should be able to win about 25-50% of the time.  Lower than that and the players get too discouraged.  Higher than that and the game will not seem challenging enough to draw the players back.  But on top of that, our adaptations are designed with the assumption that the players will actively and not just passively co-operate.  Passive co-operation occurs when players are playing together but playing to maximize their own game, not giving much consideration to what is in the greater interest of the team.  We have seen that type of co-operative play in others.  In all likelihood, you will not win our co-op designs by playing that way.  The players need to be thinking about how their actions affect not only their own play but the play of others. 
If you play our co-op adaptations of games and find yourself losing almost all the time, then you might step back and see if the players are doing a good job of actively cooperating.  If not, then maybe that is where you need to work to get better.  But regardless, most of our game adaptations include a section on how to adjust the difficulty.  If you are not having the desired experience with the game because it is too easy or too hard, you should make use of these adjustments to change the game balance to what works best and is both challenging and fun for you and your fellow gamers.

With all that said about play balancing these games, the most interesting thing about these co-op adaptations is that it should, if played right, force the players to interact with each other more than they ever would in regular competitive play versions.  That is what makes these adaptations especially fun.  Winning – or even losing – together is truly fun.  My motto is “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved – a joy shared is a joy doubled”.