I was first introduced to cooperative games while visiting my good friend on his farm. He is a really competitive guy, but that aspect of his nature is always in conflict with his Buddhist philosophies, so co-ops suit his personality perfectly. The game he pulled out was called Pandemic, where disease is spreading across the world and as a team you work together to stop the germs from wiping out the world population. Now I admit, at first it was tough for me to really enjoy the concept of cooperative games. I’ve been hardwired to to pit my wits against an opponent and even with a pretty abysmal win record, that was still the experience I had come to expect from tabletop gaming. Over time I gotten to really like games that pit players against the mechanics themselves. Some are ridiculously tough and others not so much. Some co-ops require you to achieve total victory and others will give you a personal score that you have to try and beat each time you play. I haven’t played every co-op out there. Ghost Stories, Yggdrasil, Sentinels of the Multiverse and countless others have slipped past without me getting a chance to try them yet. It’s impossible to try every game out there, but here, in my opinion, are the top five toughest cooperative games.
If someone held my feet to the fire and asked me to come up with my favourite game of all time, Hanabi would be pretty close to the top of that list. It’s the one game I’ll play at any time, no questions asked.Designed by the brilliant, Antoine Bauza, Hanabi puts players in the role of fireworks experts vying to put on the best show possible for the audience. Mechanically, players are trying to play cards out in order from one to five in five different suits. Simple enough, until you add in the fact that you can’t see your own cards. Each player holds their hand of cards away from themselves. You can see what everyone else has, but not your own hand. By spending clues players will get an idea of the numbers or suits of the cards they hold, but it’s the interpretation of the clues that make Hanabi really tricky. With only a limited amount of information to go around, the clues you give are extraordinarily important and it’s going to take some leaps of faith to be successful. A perfect score of 25, requires you to safely play out the fives in each different suit. Otherwise you get points equal to the highest card in each pile. I’ve gotten a bunch of 23 point games, a couple 24 pointers, but that perfect 25 point game has always eluded me.
The original Pandemic could be pretty darn tough, especially with the ability to adjust the difficulty level. Legacy takes it to a whole new level. Not only do you have to tap into the special skills of your team members to stop the flow of disease around the world, every error you make, every mistake that happens is carried forward to the next game. Over the course of a year, cities will fall, characters will become scarred from their experiences and the rising tide of sickness will never end. Matt Leacock teamed with Rob Daviau (designer of RISK Legacy) to take his original design and turn it into an episodic adventure. The challenges that come your way are both difficult and unexpected, keeping you on your toes the whole time. I’m not yet done the campaign I’ve been working on with my friends, we’re about halfway through, but if the first six months are any indication Pandemic Legacy will be a game that will haunt me for years to come.
The King of the Co-op, Matt Leacock strikes again with this deceptively difficult puzzle of a game. Its predecessor, Forbidden Island is a game about collecting four treasures from an island and escaping before it sinks into the ocean. Island is not easy, but it’s more of a family style co-op game. Its sequel, Desert is brutally punishing. Your helicopter has crash landed in an ancient city quickly being swallowed by the desert. It’s a race against time and the shifting landscape to collect the pieces needed to construct a flying machine and escape your predicament. In Desert you’re not only fighting the sea of sand that threatens to bury you, you also have to avoid the sun. Running out of water spells death to you and failure for the team. Like many of his other games, Desert allows you to adjust the difficulty level, but even in it’s simplest incarnation, it’s a struggle for survival, let alone victory.
Surviving a tropical island would be tough in any circumstances, but if you throw in cannibals, volcanos and all sorts of wild beasts that will stalk you
around every corner, Robinson Crusoe sometimes feels like an exercise in futility. In one of the first worker placement co-op games, you will have to build a shelter, provide food for the team and stave off depression. That’s all without factoring in what your overall goal for the scenario is. Some situations will call for you to build a big enough signal fire to alert passing ships, others will have you try and save a stranded shipmate, before they succumb to the elements. The real nasty scenarios will force you to fend off attacks from the island natives or keep you on the move as molten lava covers the island. Ignacy Trzewiczek has created an adventure that will make each player sacrifice every round. It’s just a question of wether you can all keep it up until you’re able to complete your objectives. Crusoe will challenge you to your limits, but when you do manage to pull off that awesome rare victory, it’s so much sweeter. This game is a story that unfolds in front of you and there is no shortage to the different paths you can take.
Freedom the Underground Railroad
Academy Games has a pretty stellar reputation of producing historically accurate games that are also quite a bit of fun. I hesitate to refer to a game
where the goal is to free as many slaves as possible from the American south to Canada as ‘fun’, but it certainly takes great pains to be truthful to the time period. Players take on different roles and work together to move slaves north to freedom while avoiding slave catchers and working in the political arenas to advance the abolitionist movement. One of the toughest aspects of this game is not actually not found in the mechanics, but in the realization that you can’t save everyone. Brian Mayer does an excellent job blending history with gameplay. He teaches the true sacrifice that the Underground Railroad faced. The big challenge with this game is walking away unaffected.