This year has been a great one for new games of all kinds. As I look back at the ones I’ve put the most time into and been most excited about, I was surprised to pick up on a pattern: most of them are cooperative games. While cooperative games are often a mixed bag for me, this year has produced some that I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of. Presented here are five of my very favorites that I encourage you to check out.
There are plenty of cooperative, dungeon crawling games out there, but none quite like Dungeon Fighter. Dungeon Fighter eschews the usual methods of monster slaying and replaces them with throwing dice at a target to determine how much damage is dealt, or if the attack misses entirely and the monster strikes back (shades of Dungeon World!) Throw into the mix all kinds of modifiers to the kind of dice throw based on the monster, the room, or the weapon you’re using (like tossing the die from under your leg, or bouncing it off your head) and you have a unique cooperative experience with very tense moments of dice tossing.
Escape combines real time frantic action, co-operative play, and lots and lots of dice rolling. Each player starts with five dice which show a variety of symbols. You can re-roll your dice as much as you want while the timer ticks down to try to roll the combinations you need to move, explore, recover treasure, and more. However, any dice that show a black mask become “locked,” so your options diminish unless you can roll the unlock symbol, or get a fellow explorer in the same room to unlock your dice. A soundtrack plays that both provides ambience to your play as you wander in an unexplored temple, and also provides cues for when everyone has to run back to the center lest you trigger a trap that makes you lose one of your dice for the rest of the game. Variants provided (that I highly recommend) lend some party game-ish twists, like not being able to talk, or having to put a hand on your head. All these factors combine to produce one of the most exciting game experiences I’ve had in a while.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve dreamed of being on the bridge of a Federation starship, serving a vital role in the ship’s operation against alien threats and cosmic disturbances. Artemis, which has been a hit on the PC for a few years and made quite a few convention appearances, makes this experience possible, and all on your iPhone or iPad. Aside from making the game more portable and easier to setup your own makeshift bridge, it also turns it into a touchscreen game, which helps complete the Star Trek console feel.
If you’re not familiar with it, up to 6 players take different roles on the bridge of a non-infringing Star Trek-esque universe. Tactical controls the laser firing and torpedo loading, Engineering re-routes power, assigns damage control teams, and gives ‘er all she’s got, Helm pilots and sets courses, Science scans for threats and helps provides headings, Communications contacts allied starships and starbases while insulting the matriarchs of the opposing forces, and finally, the Captain (who pushes no buttons himself) tries to get the bridge crew to work together as an efficient team.
An apt comparison I heard on Twitter: while Artemis is the Star Trek game, Spaceteam is the Galaxy Quest game. You and up to three of your spaceteammates each on your own iPhone or iPad in the same room are given a random console of various buttons and dials, with various technobabble and otherwise labels. In each sector, you’re given instructions to deliver to your team (and occasionally, yourself) while everyone else is likewise giving orders. What follows is a stream of commands issued to one another with various degrees of urgency, all while the commands make no sense (set Octoshaft to 5! Carmelize the onions! Disengage the hexslot! Ignore the thing behind you!) Various levels will complicate matters as well: asteroids require everyone to shake their devices simultaneously wormholes require turning the devices upside down, and environmental hazards like electrical storms or goo will make pushing the buttons more difficult. By the end, you will be grinning like crazy, mad that no one disengaged the brain symbol, awarded a posthumous medal for boldness, and working together… as a spaceteam.
Tales of the Arabian Nights is one of my all time favorites, but the actual game play and decisions you make are all pretty secondary to the storytelling experiences. There’s also some rough edges which, while greatly improved by the newest edition, can lead to some grueling experience when you’re insane, wounded, and (gasp) married.
Agents of SMERSH takes the Tales of Arabian Nights storytelling experience and puts a more interesting game framework on it, while also changing the theme to Cold War spies. First, while Tales is only vaguely competitive, Agents of SMERSH is a cooperative game where everyone must spread out to specific locations while still having their own personal adventures. The cooperative elements also put a time limit on the game, forcing the players to make some tough decisions about the right time to try to ened the game. Second, the pass/fail system is supplemented by some dice rolling (that can also be mitigated by each player spending from a limited pool of resolve) making the game much less cut and dry while diving into the massive book of tales. SMERSH does take some of the rough edges away (like significantly limiting conditions), however, it does introduce its own in the form of rules muddiness and editing issues.