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Cooperation Games for Coordination Protocols

Cooperative board games have a lot in common with crypto protocols

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Cooperation is coordination

Key Takeaways:

  1. Low-stakes coordination is fun. Cooperative games are based around disrupting that coordination to make a game of it.

  2. Communications Protocols provide specific ways to communicate and coordinate for computers.

  3. Board games that formalize coordination and can add delightful wrinkles to all-together co-op games!

In case you haven't heard yet, I love board games. I was the one who requested the /tabletop channel back when dwr was doing the 2nd round of channel creation in summer 2023, deep in the bear.

This article is experimental, rewrapping some old casts of mine for the content. Following some Seemore advice, thanks @cameron.

I'd like to tell you why I love cooperative board games in general, and these six in particular.

Co-op games and communications protocols

I've recently been thinking about how board games in general and cooperative games in particular are very similar to data protocols. There are strict rituals about how players can interact, non-interaction of Euro games, limited in something like a worker placement, to all-out brawling of pvp games.

Cooperatives especially put emphasis on ritualizing communication because the whole point of the game is to coordinate in order to defeat the game/forces of chaos/heat death of the universe/etc. Pandemic introduces compounded chaos through Outbreaks that force the group to put attention on specific areas of the board and the game for players becomes predicting which particular problems are likely to get unmanageable.

The rituals are often disrupted, or force specific disruptions to that communication. Sometimes you can only communicate about specific things, or at specific times, or using particular schemas. It's very interesting to see the Byzantine Generals problem play out at low stakes in real time, even though it's usually misunderstandings rather than malice at work. In other words,

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
- Hanlon's Razor

To me, novel coordination problems are very fun, and cooperative board games can provide an awesome experiment space. Here are six of my favorites.

Nerd's Favorite Cooperative Board Games

Spirit Island

Coordination comes from individual understanding of each players area of responsibility and coordinating to defeat a more-powerful threat. Extremely asymmetric player powers, area control, and card drafting make for a near infinitely-replayable game.

Spirit Island addresses coordination by making each player responsible for their own island and keeping the pressure on the entire game. There's literally too many systems with too much going on for all but the most experienced players to quarterback and tell other players what to do.

  • area control + hand management + card drafting against an ever-growing enemy

  • asymmetric player powers

  • amazing anti-colonial narrative

  • too much going on to quarterback

A truly cooperative experience with a wonderful anti-colonialist narrative, which is a direct counter to the prevailing game mechanics and themes of exploitation in 4X games.

The Crew - Quest for Planet 9 and its sequel Mission: Deep Sea

Coordination in the Crew comes from disallowing players to discuss the contents of their hands but require each player to succeed on trick-taking goals for each round.

The Crew is a fresh twist of trick-taking by giving each player goals "I will win more tricks than anyone else" and then forcing players to fulfill all goals to succeed the mission. The wrinkle is that you can't discuss what cards you have with the other players, leading to situations where players must use their experience of trick-taking games to know when they need to trump in to take a trick, when they should slough off-suit to keep another player leading, and how they are all going to fulfill their goals, together.

It's a wonderful coordination game that builds on player experiences with trick taking games like Hearts, Spades, and Bridge but the coordination requires whole new ways of thinking. For under $15, this is definitely a must-buy in my book.

  • Fresh twist on trick taking

  • Campaign missions build player skills

  • Compact box, easy to carry

Magic Maze

Another fresh take, Magic Maze tasks players with escaping a mall but they each don't get their own character, no no, in Magic Maze each player controls one or more direction of movement for all the characters.

In Magic Maze, a player controls a direction of movement for all the characters, not all movement of a single character. The team must coordinate without talking to get everyone in and out of the maze.

All characters must move left at some point so if I control left movement, I need to know when to kick in and move each character left at the correct time to not derail each character's movement throughout the maze and around obstacles. Oh, and players can't talk to each other during gameplay.

Players can discuss plans at "rest stops" throughout the maze, but it truly takes each player understanding the goal for each character, and how their role fits into the to make the experience sing as a cooperative experience. It's definitely a bit gimmicky, but so fun!


Gloomhaven, the Jaws of the Lion re-release, and sequel Frosthaven are the closest board gamers will come to a crunchy CRPG-like experience on the tabletop. It's big and brash and demands your attention to play with each session lasting several hours, it's like playing Dungeons and Dragons without relying on a DM to moderate the game sessions.

Combat is extremely satisfying with players choosing the timing of the actions, and being forced to adapt those actions on the fly after other players jump ahead of them in turn order and change the board state unexpectedly. This is the coordination negotiation that players make because you can't discuss the exact number of the speed of the actions you are playing, but can only describe them as low, mid, or high.

Player turn order is variable in Gloomhaven, which means the board state will often have changed before you get to do what you planned to do that round. So coordination comes from the dance of negotiating who will go "fast" or "slow" and working around others messing up your plans.

Very very fun, but requires a significant investment of time and money from committed players.

FUSE - stress and dice galore

Tension is high as the bomb-defusal team must coordinate against the clock to get the right dice to the right people at the right time each turn. The time stress inevitably means that players have to compromise on their plans; the negotiation and re-negotiation to avoid having to return dice to the bag keeps everyone on high alert.

With heavy collective punishment for coordination failure, each player must return a die from their bomb card goal if any of the dice drawn each round is unclaimed. High stress and high rewards await players in FUSE.

Not recommended for the faint of heart, and can only play a few of these games in a row from adrenaline fatigue. There's even an alarm and stressful sounds coming from the companion timer app as the team plays

  • high stress, high fun

  • tight schedule is forced coordination, great to play with same folks repeated

  • each game is only 10 min

Return to Dark Tower

The coordination trick here is that Return to Dark Tower (RtDT) includes random number generation (RNG) from card decks for enemies encountered in the tower and RNG to determine layouts and what a player will encounter on any given assault on the tower.

"Advantages" earned from gameplay help players to mitigate the bad things that happen in the Return to Dark Tower. Players need to build up to assault the tower while also managing the situations created from enemy outbreaks across the board. Coordination requires negotiation of asymmetric powers, area control, and hand management.

It's less RNG than dice rolls like DnD but definitely not a sure thing, requiring players to build up "advantages" from items, asymmetric powers, and companions to mitigate the Bad Things that will befall them inside.

  • Asymmetric + variable player powers

  • Variable RNG with cards but more control from "advantage" system instead of dice, limited RNG badness

  • Gimmicky but fun tower

/tabletop Giveaway

Cast a photo of yourself (no faces needed) playing your favorite board game in the /tabletop channel by 4/4/24 to be eligible for this awesome giveaway worth nearly $400 in partnership with @cameron and @bigshotklim! Click the cast below for details:

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