February 10, 2014

Game Format: Competitive, Cooperative, and Semi-Quasi-Collaboration Games

One of my interesting side projects has been working with a few other BGG’ers in the Game Genome Project Guild. I’ve referenced this earlier on the blog, but the Game Genome Project (2.0) is an effort to start mapping all of the various characteristics of games across a number of different traits. One of the topics that’s been a fascinating source of speculation and reasoning has been the “Game Format” traits.

The “Game Format” trait is an attempt to describe the structure of a game in terms of its possible win conditions and teaming arrangements. Broadly, this trait can be used to define whether a game is cooperative or competitive (or in between), and whether formal teams are allowed and whether those teams are known, hidden, dynamic, or static over the course of the game. The effort to map all of this has led to some interesting observations – most notably that there are a lot of gaps where there do not appear to be many (or any) games that exist. Designers, get motivated!

This blog post will present the game format flow chart (enlarged at the end) by way of explaining the approach and key ideas that the brain trust developed. I should note that two fellow BGG’ers have been instrumental in developing this, and are equal collaborators on the effort. So big a shout out to FlyingArrow and Selwyth.

Frame of Reference: External vs. Internal

The system we developed to map game formats was driven firstly by identifying the various possible answers to the question “who can win this game?” Principally, there are four possible options:

- No players win
- One player wins and everyone else loses
- Multiple players, but not all players, win
- All players win

We started mapping all the permutations of these four outcomes using a 4-digit code with “I” for an impossible outcome and a “P” for that outcome being possible. The result is a healthy number of codes, but we found it useful to frame them in terms of how they shape the “external” structure of a game versus the “internal” structure.

The “External” structure refers to the relationship between the GAME and the PLAYERS in terms of winning. This corresponds to the first and last digit of the codes (i.e. no one wins or everyone wins). So, you end up with the following external frames:

I**I = Competitive Games
P**P = Cooperative Games
P**I = Collaborative Games
I**P = Quasi-Competitive Games

Note that the “*” (asterisk) means that letter can be I or P.

Competitive Games
These are games where some combination of players must win while some other combination of players must lose. The game itself cannot win or lose; hence this encompass your typical competitive game.

Cooperative Games
Conversely, cooperative games are ones where it is possible for all players to lose to the game, or for all players to collectively win. All players collectively winning could be as consequence of “beating the game” together OR everyone meeting some specified win condition together or individually.

Collaborative Games
These are games where it is possible for all players to lose to the game, as in a cooperative game. However, there is no option for all players to win. Thus, these games are most often competitive games at heart, yet there is a possibility of triggering a collective loss – hence players will need some level of collaboration to prevent that from happening.

Quasi-Competitive Games
This is a peculiar external format where it is not possible for all players to lose, but it IS possible for them to all win. There are not many examples in this format.

Miscellaneous Caveats

Where are the “Semi-Cooperative Games?”
We chose to avoid the term “Semi-Cooperative” in the game format framework because it is a term currently in use that is used in divergent ways. In some cases, it is used to refer to Collaborative type games (e.g. CO2, Cutthroat Caverns) that require cooperation but ultimately are competitive affairs where some players win and others lose. In other cases, people use “Semi-Cooperative” to refer to "game master" type games that are structured as 1-player versus all the other players that cooperate to beat the game master. Given this confusion – we stayed away from the term, and would advocate for people using the term to pick the more appropriate one from this framework instead.

There are two codes that result in “activities” and non-games: PIII and IIIP. PIII is a game where everyone always loses, not much fun. Like Russian Roulette. IIIP is a non-game like the Ungame, where regardless of what happens, everyone always ends up winning.

The “Internal” frame refers to the win conditions outcomes that are possible between players, and refers to the middle two digits in the 4-digit format code. Here are the possibilities:

*PI* = Possible for a single winner
*IP* = Possible for multiple players, but not all, to win
*PP* = Possible for a single winner or multiple players (but not all) to win
*II* = Impossible for some or one player to win, all will win/lose together

While the above codes are fairly straightforward, what is more compelling is considering the “teaming structure” for **P* games, where there is the possibility for multiple players (but not all) to win. We were interested in understanding and mapping two key dimensions of teaming arrangements; whether teams were dynamic or static, and whether teams were known or hidden. The result is that in all game format codes with **P* there is an additional letter appended to the end of the code to signify the team structure. This code is as follows:

**P* “K” = Teams are fixed and known at the start of the game
**P* “D” = Teams are known but dynamic and may be formed/changed over the course of the game.
**P* “H” = Teams are hidden, and can be either static or dynamic over the course of the game.
**P* “-“ = No formal teaming structure is possible.

We should note that when we refer to “Team” that means something specific, which is that a team shares a common winning objective and that there is a rule mechanic that signals, identifies, or otherwise enforces the teaming arrangement. In the case of **P -, where there is no formal team arrangement, it is possible for multiple players to win as consequence of each player independently meeting either their own victory condition or a common objective in the absence of any enforced teaming arrangements.

So, the full definition for the internal frame combinines the format code possibilities with the teaming arrangements. We end up with the following:

*PI* = Single winner

*IP* K = Partnerships
*IP* D = Shifting Sides
*IP* H = Hidden Teams
*IP* - = Multilateral

*PP* K = Opposition
*PP* D = Alliances
*PP* H = Clandestine
*PP* - = Independent

Game Format Descriptions

Single Winner Formats (*PI*)

IPII = Competitive Normal Game
PPII = Competitive Collaboration
PPIP = Competitive Co-op
IPIP = Quasi-Competitive

Again, this is a typical game, and when paired with a competitive frame (IPII) you get the vast majority of games where just one player wins. As a point of clarification, games where the rules don’t contain sufficient tie-breakers and could result in multiple players winning are still considered Single Winner games, as that is the intent of such games.

PPII is a fairly common single-winner case as well, and is one of the formats often labeled as Semi-Cooperative. These are games where one player wins or an all lose condition is triggered. Games like Cutthroat Caverns and CO2 fall into this category. Castle Panic, if playing as the “master player is really the winner” falls into this category as well.

PPIP, the Single-winner cooperative game is an odd case. Castle Panic would apply, if for example, there was some threshold requirement of kills that a player needs to be named the master slayer and take a solo win. If they don’t meet that requirement but otherwise survive, then all the players would win.

IPIP is also strange – where the game ends with either everyone winning or one player winning. Rhino Hero is an example where one player usually wins, but if players manage to build up to a certain level, they can all win.

True Cooperative Format (PIIP)

A true cooperative game in one in which all players either win or lose together versus the game. Lots of examples here of course, from Pandemic, to Arkham Horror, to Hanabi.

Coordinative vs. non-coordinate teams
As aside, an interesting aspect of Cooperative games, as well any formal teamed game (discussed below) is the degree to which players can coordinate their actions. Compare Forbidden Island to Hanabi. In Forbidden Island, players can freely coordinate and plan their actions and there is no hidden information. As a consequence, Forbidden Island can actually be played solo and the experience is not substantially different from gameplay standpoint. Hanabi however actually requires cooperation in the sense that it is impossible to play the game as intended due to the nature of the hidden cards.

Partnership Formats (*IP* K)

IIPI “K” = Partnership
PIPP “K” = Cooperative Partnership
PIPI “K” = Collaborative Partnership
IIPP “K” = Quasi-Competitive Partnership

Partnership games are those where there are teams that are fixed and known. In a typical competitive game case (IIPI K), this would be a game like Bridge, Rook, or Euchre that are traditional partnership card games. Also applies to games like Axis & Allies or Tichu, where there are formal teams that compete for the win.

Outside of traditional competitive partnerships, we don’t have any examples of cooperative, collaborative, or quasi-competitive partnerships.

Shifting Sides Formats (*IP* D)

IIPI “D” = Shifting Sides
PIPP “D” = Shifting Sides Cooperative
PIPI “D” = Shifting Sides Collaborative
IIPP “D” = Quasi-Competitive Shifting Sides

Shifting Sides games, of all formats, are remarkable because we don’t have a single example of one! Again, this a case where there is no option for a player to win on their own and teams are known but dynamic.

Hidden Teams Formats (*IP* H)

IIPI “H” = Hidden Teams
PIPP “H” = Hidden Teams Cooperative
PIPI “H” = Hidden Teams Collaborative
IIPP “H” = Quasi-Competitive Hidden Teams

On the other hand, there are quite a few examples of Hidden Teams games. From a competitive standpoint (IPPI “H”), games like The Resistance or Werewolf, and many other hidden loyalties / social deduction team games fall into this category. Players are trying to figure out what teams some number of players are on and work toads a win with their teammates. Note that “Hidden” doesn’t require that all players’ team information be hidden, although it could be.

In terms of Cooperation, Collaborative, and Quasi-Competitive Hidden Teams – we don’t have anything! The related format (discussed below) of Clandestine is similar to this format and there a number of good examples for that format.

Multilateral Formats (*IP* -)

IIPI “-” = Multilateral
PIPP “-” = Multilateral Cooperative
PIPI “-” = Multilateral Collaborative
IIPP “-” = Quasi-Competitive Multilateral

Multilateral games are ones where multiple players can win (but not all players) – yet the win objectives for those players don’t rely on a team structure. The mechanics of the game could be that multiple players always win, each pursuing a win independently or through informal agreement.

No examples identified.

Opposition Formats (*PP* K)

IPPI “K” = Opposition
PPPP “K” = Cooperative Opposition
PPPI “K” = Collaborative Opposition
IPPP “K” = Quasi-Competitive Opposition

Opposition games are ones that by definition are asymmetric in their teaming structure. If teams are static (and known), and it is possible for 1 player OR for multiple players to win, then at a minimum there must be a “team” of just 1 player and a team of at least 2-players in a bilateral competition. There could be additional teams beyond that.

Most frequently, Opposition game are game master-type games, like HeroQuest or Descent, where one player is a dungeon master and all the other players cooperate on a team to beat them. Some Partnership type games that allow unequal sides could also be considered Opposition. For example, War of Ring could be played with one evil player versus two players on the Alliance side (although most often War of the Ring is played as a 1v1 game).

In terms of Cooperative, Collaborative, or Quasi-Competitive formats, we came up short!

It could've been me on the back of the box. Zargon FTW!

Alliances Formats (*PP* D)

IPPI “D” = Alliances
PPPP “D” = Cooperative Alliances
PPPI “D” = Collaborative Alliances
IPPP “D” = Quasi-Competitive Alliances

Alliance games are ones where generally players can win on their own or team up through formal arrangements for a shared win. These arrangements can be constantly forming, shifting, and dissolving over the course of the game. In a competitive sense (IPPI “D”) games like Dune, Rex: Final Days of an Empire, or War on Terror are solid examples. In Dune, players can form various alliances agreements with other players to reach a joint-win by pooling together their assets, or stay out of an alliance and try to reach victory on their own.

From a cooperative standpoint (PPPP “D”) Red November provides an interesting case with its traitor mechanic. Players can all lose (the sub implodes) or all get out safe. Everyone starts on the same side, but players can chose to go rouge and try to capture a win on their own by ditching the group, and the other players will remain allied against the traitor.

A collaborative example is Alcatraz: The Scapegoat. It’s like Red November except one player is always pinned as the scapegoat (a role which changes over the course of the game), and it’s impossible for them to win if the others get off the island. But there is a chance the scapegoat and achieve a lone victory as well.

Quasi-Competitive Alliances? No idea.

Clandestine Formats (*PP* H)

IPPI “H” = Clandestine
PPPP “H” = Clandestine Cooperative
PPPI “H” = Clandestine Collaboration
IPPP “H” = Quasi-Competitive Clandestine

The Clandestine formats rely on hidden teams (which can be static or changing) and the possibility for solo or multiple player victories. From a competitive standpoint, Bang! is a good example. Many of the characters identities in the game are hidden (e.g. outlaws, renegade, deputy) and outlaws win by killing their Sheriff and his deputies, and vice versa. Or the renegade can win by being the last person standing. But no one is totally sure of each other’s identity.

From a cooperative standpoint, Shadows over Camelot pits the knights of the round table against various game-controlled threats, and they can all win or lose against the game. However, there “might” be a traitor in their midst (but not always), which can reveal themselves can steal a solo win or who might be discovered and defeated by the knights.

From a collaboration standpoint, Battlestar Galactica provides a strong example – again where there might be a traitor (or multiple traitors at higher player counts) trying to sabotage everyone else. The difference here though is that there is not an “all win” outcome possible. If the good guys win/survive, the Cylons by default lose.

Quasi-Competitive Clandestine? Stumped again.

Independent Formats (*PP* -)

IPPI “-” = Independent
PPPP “-” = Independent Cooperative
PPPI “-” = Independent Collaboration
IPPP “-” = Quasi-Competitive Independent

The independent games are one where there is no formal or structured teaming arrangement, yet it is possible for multiple players or a single player to win. Example of this format include games like Illuminati or Cosmic Encounter where each player is pursuing their own progression towards victory. However, players can take moves that result in multiple players meeting an individual or common win condition independently. Players can certainly conspire for a joint win, they there are no mechanics that require a teaming structure.

A Line in the Sand: The Battle of Iraq represents a cooperative format of Independent goals, where players each have a hidden special goal. At the end of the game, any players meeting their special goal can win. Depending on what other events or goals are in play, it might be possible for none or all players to win as well.


Phew! After having gone through this most interesting exercise, what are the takeaways?

(1) Outside of Competitive Partnerships (e.g. Bridge, Tichu) and Competitive Hidden Team games (e.g. Resistence, Werewolf), there are not many examples of games that require teaming or collaboration of some sort to win. A lot of gaps exist in those formats. Similarly with the Opposition Format outside of traditional 1 vs Rest type games.

(2) Quasi-Competitive formats are the barren wasteland of game design. What’s interesting is that they are a sort of inverse of the Collaboration type games in some respects. Consider a game that allows all players to lose or 1 player to win. From the standpoint of one player striving to win on their own, that prospect isn’t much different from a game where the outcome is all players win or 1 player wins. The all lose or all win outcomes are both effectively “ties” from the perspective of one player. More game exist that pursue the all lose route (probably for thematic reasons) – but I can’t help imagining the opposite cases are interesting too, where the game tends towards an “all win” condition but one player can “cheat” and try for a solo-win. What happens if two players cheat? Interesting prospects.

(3) Overall, there are very few examples of Dynamic Team arrangements – and we struggled to come up with more than a handful of examples.

So there you have it! Now for the special treat!

I’ll give 1 GG (at my discretion) to anyone who comes up with games that fit into the formats where we don’t have any examples or we have less than 3 examples. You can refer to the flow chart below to see where the gaps are. Obviously this doesn’t apply to big categories like normal Competitive or normal Cooperative games.

Happy hunting!

Here's the awesome flow chart: Click to see the bigger version.

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