I love cooperative games, but they’re not for everyone. My girlfriend, for instance, hates them because she says the whole point of playing a game is to “crush everyone.” But if you do enjoy cooperative experiences, they can be a whole lot of fun. While there are many games that fall into the semi-cooperative genre, by either having some sort of secret betrayer mechanic, or being an asynchronous one-versus-all game, I’ve chosen to only include the ones that are 100% fully cooperative. I also tried not to overlap with my “Great Games for 6 or More Players” list, so while I absolutely adore games like Mysterium and Eldritch Horror, which are fully cooperative, they’re not going to appear on this list as well. Just take my mention of them as an endorsement.
#1 – Pandemic
Pandemic is in a league of its own right now. This is the new hot stuff in the board gaming world. Everywhere you go, people are playing it. You can even find it at most big box retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target. But don’t let that mainstream attention detract from its appeal. Pandemic is still one of the finest board games ever made. The simplicity in its design and its broad thematic appeal are a recipe for success. You and up to three other friends are trying to stop and contain the spread of four deadly diseases. The various roles in the game offer substantial differences in gameplay, and there is no distinct best combination of them – they are all useful in many given situations. On your turn, you’ll perform up to 4 actions, then draw up some back actions, and a number of Infection cards as designated by the tracker on the board to show where the diseases spread to next. But be careful, because hidden within the Action deck are Epidemic cards, which rapidly increase the spread of one of the diseases, and may lead to outbreaks in certain cities that receive more than three cubes of a single color.
Players: 1-4 (5 with On the Brink expansion)
Time: 45 minutes
#2 – Ghost Stories
Ghost Stories is probably one of the most challenging board games I’ve ever played. Up to four players will work together to try to defend a village from the spirits of the underworld, all in an effort to prevent the coming of the very avatar of death, Wu Feng. On your turn, a new ghost will enter the game, and you must decide to either attempt an exorcism by rolling dice, or seek the aid of the villagers. You might often find yourself very quickly overwhelmed by ghosts, and try to rush to exorcize them all, but sometimes getting the assistance of the villagers pays in the long run. The game features gorgeous artwork, typical of an Antoine Bauza game (of 7 Wonders and 7 Wonders Duel notoriety).
Time: 1-2 hours
#3 – Xenoshyft Onslaught
If you’ve ever said to yourself after watching Starship Troopers, “I wish they turned that into a deck-building card game from Cool Mini or Not,” then you have a very specific imagination. Either way, Xenoshyft is basically an alien-invasion movie with cards. Each player will control a different base, granting you special powers, but you’re all playing for the same team. As most deck builders go, you start with a set of cards, including currency cards, and on your turn you’ll shuffle the hand and draw a number of them. The idea is that as you draw your money cards, you’ll buy newer, better cards to get shuffled into your deck for future turns. So as your decks grow, everyone’s hands become varied and unique, and better suited to handling different situations. On your turn you’ll place a number of troops with whatever type of equipment you desire to your battle lane, and attempt to fend off the alien onslaught. If they kill all of your troops and any aliens remain, they’ll damage your base. If your base is destroyed, everyone loses. The cooperative element comes in the form of being able to directly assist other players, either by playing action cards from your hand to help them on their turn, or by literally playing one of your troops to their lane. Everyone must work together to survive.
Time: 1-2 hours
#4 – Castle Panic
Castle Panic is a charming little tower defense game where you’re trying to protect a castle and its outer walls from a marauding group of orcs, trolls, and goblins coming in from the forest. Each player will have a hand of cards consisting of various offensive troops or defensive actions. The board is laid out in a way that features different sections as defined by “Forest,” “Archer,” “Knight,” “Swordsman,” and “Castle,” further separated by colors. The attack cards you have will specify exactly what section it can attack: for example, a Blue archer can deal 1 damage to a single monster in the “Blue Archer” area of the board, and so on. Players may also trade cards on their turn, which can be highly beneficial if the attacks you have now are useless but may benefit the next player. If you have that Blue Archer card and there’s nothing in the Blue zone right now, but there will be next turn, you may want to pass it along. This is great game to play with kids as well, as the art style isn’t very graphic, the concept is simple, and it’s a very fast paced, thoughtful game that promotes teamwork and strategy.
Time: 45 minutes
#5 – Flash Point: Fire Rescue
Flash Point is similar in mechanics to Pandemic, in that you have a number of limited actions to perform on your turn, and rounds play out in a similar fashion. Aside from that, I’d recommend Flash Point more for families or younger crowds, as it has a much more palatable theme. The idea of purging the world of diseases is cool but a little dark. But everyone wants to be a heroic fire fighter rescuing people from a burning building! The game includes an expert variant and double sided board to accommodate the more challenging rules, for those players who find the base version too easy.
Time: 45 minutes
#6 – Samurai Spirit
The second game on this list by Antoine Bauza (but not the last) is a Samurai themed card game where each player is defending a village from a group of violent invaders. Sense a connection here between Ghost Stories? In Samurai Spirit, each player will control a different Samurai, each with unique special powers. On your turn you’ll draw from an invader deck and choose whether to fight or defend against it, or simply let it pass so that you can lend assistance to someone else. Each invader has an attack value that will represent the damage it does to your character. If your character exceeds their total health as shown on their card, they’ll take a wound. However, if the damage they sustain were to equal their maximum health exactly, their special Kiai powers are unlocked. Should a Samurai ever suffer two wounds, then their inner beast is unleashed, and their card is flipped over to reveal their true forms. Suffer 2 more wounds, however, and you are dead; if any one Samurai is killed, or the village has suffered too much damage, the game is over.
Time: 1 hour
#7 – Hanabi
The last Bauza game on the list is a small little card game for 2 to 5 players where you’re all trying to put on the best fireworks show. It’s a quirky little theme, but there’s a catch: The idea is that you’ll want to play cards from your hand in the right numerical and color order, the problem is you can’t see your cards – only the other players can. You’ll hold your cards with the backs facing you, and the fronts facing out. And on your turn, you can either play a card from your hand that you think is what you should play based on previous clues, or give another player a clue. You can’t be so specific as to say “This is a blue 5,” but you can say one or the other: “This is a 5” or “This is blue” or even, “You should play this card soon.” Something to that effect. It’s a simple game but you’ll see just how difficult it is to come up with clues, and remember the ones given to you.
Time: 30 minutes
#8 – Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
The next few games are going to be hit or miss with a lot of people. They’re part of a genre of what I like to call “consumable games.” That is to say, they have a very limited life span because they are focused on either telling a very specific narrative, or about having long-lasting, game-changing consequences. The first of which is Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, a reprint of a book-based game from the 80s of the same name. The idea behind it remains the same: this is not a board game, per se. There are no dice, no cards, no board. There are just a bunch of little booklets. The idea is that the game is broken up into 10 different cases, and you will play as detectives on the case trying to solve the mystery faster than Sherlock Holmes. Each case has a separate booklet that will detail what happened, and then you are left alone to figure it out. You have a map of London, a directory, and your wits, and nothing more. Using the story as presented to you in the booklet, one at a time you’ll track down leads and try to find clues to help you solve the case. When you think you’re finished, you’ll flip to the last few pages, answer a few questions, score yourself, and see how you compare to the master himself. Once you’ve solved a case, however, the mystery is gone – and that is the idea behind a consumable game. You play them once through, and then they’re done.
Time: N/A. It’s as long as you take with it.
#9 – Pandemic Legacy
If you enjoy Pandemic, and the notion of a consumable game doesn’t bother you, then you absolutely MUST play Pandemic Legacy. It takes the core mechanics of Pandemic but adapts them over the course of a full year’s campaign. The idea is that each month, new events will occur that may change the shape of the game forever. Viruses will mutate, preventing players from being able to Treat or even Cure them, new roles will open up, cities will riot, preventing access, and so much more. Should you lose a month, you have a second chance to redo it. Win or lose, any time you complete a game, you’ll earn new rewards to help you in future games. include providing new powers for your characters, or improving the effects of treating diseases. As certain cards lose their effects, or should the game demand it, cards will be torn and thrown out, forever removed from the game. The notion of destroying pieces of a game might not sit well with you, but at the end of the year, when you’ve finally finished, you’ll have a custom Pandemic board that you can use with the base game, and you’ll remember every single event of Pandemic Legacy for the rest of your life. There are two different boxes of this game (red and blue), but they are IDENTICAL in every way except the box art and color.
Time: 45 minutes per session, over the course of 12 to 24 sessions.
#10 – Time Stories
The third consumable game on this list, Time Stories came out last year to widespread acclaim. It’s difficult to discuss this game became secrecy is part of the fun, so I’ll just try to give as brief an overview as possible. It’s a time-traveling mystery where players will control vessels, otherwise inhabitants of the time they’re traveling to, in hopes of solving some kind of mystery. Players will explore rooms, find clues, and sometimes fight to survive. If you fail to solve the mystery in the allotted time, everyone is sent back to the present day and can then jump back with all of the information they’ve gathered, and sometimes items and other collectibles, but must re-explore all existing rooms. The idea is that you return with more information so you can more directly head to the rooms that matter, and ignore the ones that don’t. The base game comes with the Asylum scenario, with two others out right now: The Marcy Case, and more recently, A Prophecy of Dragons.
Time: 2-3 hours per scenario