When conjuring memories of board games, one might turn toward stories of epic "Risk" battles with last-turn backstabbing, hourslong games of "Monopoly" or even the tense negotiation of "Settlers of Catan."
Modern board games are not confined to the thrill of competition against your fellow players. Cooperative games are a thriving genre of games that turn the classic approach on its head.
Though cooperative games have existed in one form or another for a long time, the catalyst in the industry is largely agreed to be "Pandemic," released in 2008.
Here are seven cooperative games that are a good introduction into the genre.
'Pandemic' (Z-Man Games, 2008)
The most prominent cooperative game, “Pandemic,” was released a decade ago and since then, it’s been discovered over and over by new gamers. In "Pandemic," instead of playing against each other, players compete against the game.
While not the first cooperative designer game — that title likely belongs to Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” — Matt Leacock’s “Pandemic” is an easily accessible, engaging game. Each player is part of a team trying to save the world from a four diseases. They do that by traveling around the globe to cure and research the diseases in major international cities.
The players who beat the diseases before they take over will win, and if they can’t, well, they'll lose. It’s always harder than it initially seems, though, and a player's grasp of the diseases will often spiral out of their control. When a disease gets too intense in a given city, there will be an outbreak in surrounding cities, and there can be further chain reactions.
There are many reasons “Pandemic” has become a classic, from the familiar world — it’s basically a near-future Earth — to the ease of which the game can be taught. But it’s also seen a steady stream of sequels and expansions that regularly keep it in front of the board game community, including the smash hit "Pandemic Legacy."
'Burgle Bros' (Fowers Games, 2016)
Designed by one of Utah’s top game designers, Tim Fowers, "Burgle Bros" features players working a heist in a three-level building. While looking for loot, players have to avoid security guards, who move in roughly predictable patterns, but they'll also respond to alarms the players trigger.
Participants will take turns looking for safes to crack — there’s one on each level, and they’ll give players tools and loot. The tools help players in the game, but the loot will make things harder. As participants explore the building, they'll be weighed down by the loot, making them easier to catch.
Featuring art by local artist Ryan Goldsberry, "Burgle Bros" really stands out for all the right reasons. It has a beautiful table presence, an engaging theme and gameplay that will challenge players to find creative solutions.
'Mysterium' (Libellud, 2015)
Not all cooperative games feature each players trying to solve the same problem. “Mysterium” takes the usual model and adds a different dynamic, with one player acting as a completely silent ghost and up to six players as psychics receiving visions from the ghost as they try to solve a murder mystery.
The visions from the ghost come in the form of surreal, dreamlike cards — the art is stunning, and if you’ve played “Dixit," it’ll feel familiar. Those cards are handed to you by the ghost player as they try to direct you toward a person, place and object, in that order, that comprise one investigation in the murder mystery.
The game becomes as much about reading your ghostly teammate as it is figuring out why the cards you’re given represent one of the options in front of you. If every player figures out their corresponding suspect, place and object, the game culminates in a final round. In that round, the ghost will give the players one last psychic vision in order to suss out the correct suspect from the lineup that you've investigated.
'Spirit Island' (Greater Than Games, 2017)
Unlike many modern games, "Spirit Island" takes the popular colonization theme you see in so many games — like the award-winner "Puerto Rico" — and turns it on its head.
Instead of playing as colonizers competing to take over an area with an existing population, you'll play cooperatively as that population. Your goal is to push the colonizers off your island through your own special powers and some well-considered team play.
"Spirit Island” features some interesting asymmetry, with each player having distinct powers only they can use in addition to a standard set of actions and powers. That means every player has to think about their strategy differently to cooperatively defend the island.
To win, players must drive away the invaders using a combination of their own special powers and some coordinated teamwork.
'The Grizzled' (CMON, 2015)
Set during World War I, "The Grizzled” is a small-box cooperative game, with players acting as members of a military unit. Unlike most war games, this game is about survival, not about victory through battle.
Throughout the game, a leader, who can change every round, will decide how many cards the players will draw. Those cards represent the threats to individuals introduced by war in the trenches, ranging from poor weather to mortar shells. If the team can collectively make it through those threats, they’ll move on to the next round. If the team makes it through the deck in time, they’ll win.
Featuring art from French cartoonist Tignous, who was killed in the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, "The Grizzled" has an in-the-trenches, grizzled atmosphere — almost downtrodden and resigned. The look of the game is supported by its gameplay, which moves it far away from what you might expect from a game about war. It’s a refreshing take, but don’t let the small box and short game time — about 30 minutes — fool you. It’s still a difficult game with a not-insignificant learning curve.
'Magic Maze' (Sit Down!, 2017)
A cooperative game that is radically different from its peers, “Magic Maze” plays completely in real-time — and you can't communicate with your teammates.
You’ll play as a band of medieval adventurers — a warrior, mage, a dwarf and an elf — who must steal their adventuring equipment from the Magic Maze shopping mall and get out before security catches them. It’s a strange amalgamation of themes, but the mechanisms of the game are what make it truly interesting
In order to exit the mall, each player takes a set of instructions they can perform for the four characters on the ever-growing map of the mall. For example, one player might only be able to move south on the map, or they might be the only player who can explore new areas.
The players are forbidden from communicating outside of a few select situations and one slightly annoying method. What is that method? It comes in the form of a big, red pawn that you can place in front of your teammates when you want them to do something. Of course, the pawns are often more obnoxious or distracting than helpful, but that’s sort of the point.
'Hotshots' (Fireside Games, 2017)
In "Hotshots," you and your teammates play as members of a hotshot crew fighting a forest fire, taking your turn to build firebreaks and extinguish fire as you attempt to quell the blaze.
When you fight the fire, which is spreading in a randomly determined wind direction, you’ll roll dice and try to match the symbols on your tile. Each time you roll, you have to "lock in" at least one of your dice that matches your tile, and if you can’t, the fire will intensify — but the more symbols you match, the bigger the reward.
In that way, "Hotshots" puts the press-your-luck tension right in front, which gives it a unique pressure among its peers. While plenty of cooperative games force you to evaluate risk in your decision-making, this is one of the few that really makes it a core feature of the game.