Cooperative and Competitive Games

In the landscape of boardgames, the divide between cooperative and competitive games may be one of the most pronounced and obvious. In that light, it’s surprising how relatively recent this divide is.

All classical games that have been found or still exist today are competitive. ChessGoCheckers the uncounted card games played across Europe and Asia, they all share one very basic trait: they divide the players into winners and losers. This is the defining point of a competitive game: there will be at least one winner and at least one loser in the end. It is, however, not a requirement to have exactly one winner. Games in which teams of players compete against each other also count as competitive games.

In contrast, cooperative (or coop for short) games either have all the players as winners or all the players as losers, everyone cooperates to defeat the game. The game’s actions are usually heavily randomized to improve replayability. Cards are a favourite tool of randomness, used to great effect in the most famous and popular cooperative games like PandemicArkham Horror and Forbidden Island. Dice are, of course, another common one, but some games, notably Space Alert and Escape: The Curse of the Temple, combine those traditional randomizers with a soundtrack to impose a time limit on the players actions and add surprise events to the mix.

Note that, to qualify as a cooperative game, it’s not enough that players have to cooperate in order to win, all players have to win together. Games based on trade or diplomatic alliances have an element of cooperation, but in the end there are still winners and losers, so those games don’t qualify.

One of the first notable, true cooperative games is the 1987 Arkham Horror, although that edition did not achieve the widespread fame of the later Fantasy Flight Arkham Horror based on it. The first cooperative game to receive international recognition was Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings (2000), a rather unforgiving card-driven game based on the fantasy novel. Since then, the number of cooperative games published has steadily increased each year and they have acquired a faithful following. While some people play cooperative games exclusively to avoid the direct confrontation of competitive games, most players of cooperative games enjoy other boardgames as well.

Between cooperative and competitive games lies the ill-defined genre of semi-cooperative games, a catch-all term for everything that doesn’t quite fit either category. One common form of semi-coop is to have one player in a special role play against all the others. Which player is not part of the team may be known from the beginning. This style of game  was created by Scotland Yard (1983, Ravensburger) where one player, Mister X, secretly moved through the city of London and the other players had to deduce his current position and trap him. The Fury of Dracula added rules for combat, equipment and more, but followed the same basic formula. The single player may also take the role of a Dungeon Master like he does in Descent: Journeys in the Dark, controlling hordes of monsters to fight the other players. But while he’s following a different set of rules, he still plays to win, unlike the Dungeon Master in a traditional role playing game who’s job is to set up a story for the players to experience, but not to defeat them at all costs – although some Dungeon Masters may disagree with that definition. All these gamees are, by necessity, asymmetric: the single player has a different goal and different options available than the opposing team.

If the player playing against the rest is unknown at the start he is generally called a Traitor and the group of games is known as Cooperative Game with Traitor. Those games derive a great deal of their entertainment from trying to figure out who the traitor is while the traitor tries to sabotage the common goal without being so obvious that he is easily discovered. For added fun, the random role distribution may not put a traitor in every game, creating hilarious amounts of distrust in a group of players who all work towards the same goal. Shadows over Camelot is a very typical example of this style of play. A more recent example can be found in Battlestar Galactica where more than one traitor can be present.

Many more games that are harder to categorize go by the label semi-cooperative. Alcatraz: The Scapegoat, for instance, forces players to work together to succeed, but at the end of the game one player loses while all the others win.

And that’s what there is to know about cooperative games. To discover more cooperative games and more in-depth information about some of the games mentioned, have a look at our collection of reviews of cooperative games .

Have fun and good play!


  1. Can you think of any board games that have cooperative elements but each individual player is trying to win? The only example I can think of is Catan: Cities and Knights where you have to work together to prevent the barbarians from invading. Although I enjoy the camaraderie of cooperative games, I like to compete as an individual. Thus I’m curious about games that have a hybrid of the two (beyond just the traitor mechanic that you discuss, in which one player is competing for him/herself, but the rest of the players are working together).

  2. That’s a very good question, this style of game really deserves a mention here as well. There are some games with this type of mechanic indeed. Catan: Cities and Knights that you mention is a good example, but some games go even further, making it so that either one player wins or all players lose. The most recent example I can think of is CO2. Players compete in building environment-friendly power plants all over the world and there can be only one winner in the end. But if the players don’t meet the energy demand, new fossil fuel plants are added to the game, increasing the CO2 level – when the level gets too high, all players lose. The tension between maximizing your profit and cooperating to save the world is a very cool element.

  3. That’s the perfect example! I’ve read about CO2 but haven’t played it, and I really like how you describe it here. I need to give it a try.

Leave a Reply