Cooperative games should be difficult. People play boards games largely to be challenged in the face of adversity. In a competitive game, that challenge obviously comes from your opponents and how they manipulate the mechanics to their advantage, but in a cooperative game, that challenge has to come from the mechanics themselves.
And if a cooperative game is too easy, players can lose interest because there is no challenge.
It’s not really as simple as a set degree of difficulty, though, because players will ideally grow in skill as they play the game more and more. What was once challenging now becomes easy, so if there is only one difficulty level, again, over time players will lose interest. So it is really about offering different degrees of challenge to a game, giving players a distinct sense of progression. You play Pandemic until you’re comfortable with 5 epidemics in the deck, and then you increase it to 6. It’s more challenging, but when you successfully complete the game, you get a renewed sense of accomplishment. You rose to the challenge.
What is still simple about this structure is that you are playing the same game with the same system each time you sit down at the table. In this case the progression stems from combating harder and harder challenges, but what if the progression were more tangible and thematic? I don’t know too many details about Pandemic Legacy, but it sounds like there are a set series of scenarios where players are given 2 attempts to successfully complete them before enduring the consequences of failure and moving on. I’m interested to see how that plays out in terms of player skill – where the series of scenarios itself turns into some larger game with unskilled players going through the whole thing, do very poorly, and then start over from the beginning with more experience hoping to do better overall.
I don’t know. I must admit, though, that I am far more invested in how it turns out in my own game, Gloomhaven. Because in Gloomhaven, progression is key. That’s what the system is all about – when you successfully complete a scenario, you move on to something else. There aren’t just 6 or 7 scenarios that form a closed system, though. The game is much more open than that, giving players enough dungeons to fill up an entire world. And over the time that a player plays the game, one would expect that their own skill at playing the game will increase along side their hero’s own power.
And since this is a cooperative game of players fighting against an inanimate system of mechanics, the question becomes, “How do you successfully challenge players over the entire lifetime of the game?” It becomes especially tricky when you consider the non-linear nature of the game and how there is no clear path through it. A dungeon that might be undertaken late in the lifetime of one game will be undertaken fairly early in another game. Accounting for improvement of player skill, should that dungeon be made easy or difficult?
Is that even the right way to approach it? We’re dealing with so many variables, can the problem even be solved?
The first thing to tackle is the “difficulty knob” – essentially, how many epidemic cards do you put in the deck? This is exceptionally hard to address in Gloomhaven because no such knob exists. You could vary the values of the monsters’ statistics or the number faced in a dungeon, but that becomes infinitely harder to track then a single number. Ultimately it just doesn’t work, and it also doesn’t really approach the problem from the right angle in the first place.
If you’re thinking about it from the perspective of an RPG, players will usually win fights, but skillful players will often earn greater rewards. Yes, the game should be challenging, but the real challenge should be in how much experience and loot you can walk away with. So the idea is that an average player should be able to eek through and finish a dungeon, but a skilled player should be able to walk away from a dungeon with a lot of experience and a bag full of loot. In some sense, this even becomes a direct competition with other players because, while everyone gains experience in different ways, there’s only so much money waiting to get looted.
I hate to use the word “semi-cooperative” because that usually implies things like traitors and whatnot, but if you can inject competition into a cooperative game, then you can once again allow challenge to be generated by other players. And the beauty is how easily this competition is enhanced by the legacy aspects of the game because of how your achievements carry over from one game to the next. Sure, collectively you need to beat up the bad guys, but wouldn’t it be better if you were the one to pick up the cool new item?
Of course, a group’s mileage with this system may vary depending on how competitive they are. Even a purely cooperative team, though, should have some difficulty collecting all the loot in a dungeon and making sure it gets split fairly evenly, so I think the challenge is present either way. I could see a very competitive person coming into an otherwise cooperative group and sort of mucking everyone else up by focusing on collecting as much loot as possible, and that could definitely grate against people, but I think the benefits of the system outweigh such factors.
Even with this philosophy in mind, though, I think the game may benefit from some external difficulty system as well. Not one that allows players to tune the difficulty of a given adventure, but rather the idea that some adventures may be more challenging than others. Such that if a group is feeling really beat up by “average” difficulty dungeons, they could go do some “easy” dungeons instead until they get a better feel for the game. Of course, you do run into the problem of groups never playing “easy” dungeons because they want greater challenge. And also the idea that players would decide which dungeon to tackle next based on its difficulty rather than where their interest lies with the story doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not sold on the idea, but I’m considering it.
But, yeah, that’s basically when I am at on this. I’m really excited about the idea of interpreting challenge not with a pass/fail perspective but with a perspective of how much you are able to take away from the scenario. And I’m equally excited about giving the agency of challenge back to the other players at a table without explicit “traitor” mechanics. Everybody is ultimately as much of a “traitor” as they want to be because all your deeds will get carried over into the next mission.