Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, published in 2000, shows us the essential principles of designing cooperative boardgames.
The outcome is always in doubt
Every turn, you draw tiles from a bag. The tiles have either a positive effect (one step of free progress towards a goal) or a negative effect (several different ones, but the most common is one step of progress towards an intermediate but painful failure). After drawing tiles, you get to take your turn of playing up to two cards or a comparable effect.
The important part is that you draw tiles until you draw a positive tile. This means that on any turn, you could get super unlucky and draw all of the “negative progress” tiles, thereby getting the intermediate failure result. On the other hand, if you’re super lucky, you might draw only positive tiles turn after turn, giving you ample time and resources to succeed. Both these extreme results are highly unlikely, but the ever-present threat of variance means you can never be complacent. You’re never a lock to win or a lock to lose. Your decisions continue to matter, probabilistically, even if you’re doing very well or very poorly.
You have new decisions to make every turn
Turns are quick – you do very little stuff before it’s the next player’s turn and new random tiles are revealed, changing the situation again. The fact that the situation changes between each player’s turn means that it is not the correct strategy to come up with a multi-turn plan and then follow it without variation. This in turn significantly reduces alpha-player issues from what they could have been. It also reduces analysis paralysis in general by reducing the payoff you get from calculation.
The intensity of the game varies throughout, like a story
Lord of the Rings follows the story it’s based on pretty closely. There’s a fixed sequence of activities, of which four are expanded into full “scenario boards” that take several turns to traverse. Within each scenario board, it starts off gently and builds to a climax. Early on, friendly stops at Rivendell and Lothlorien space out the danger, which makes the subsequent push through hostile territory that much more significant. The last board, Mordor, is particularly difficult and intimidating, and often leads to a tense finish, as your resources are being depleted at an alarming rate.
Not everything about Lord of the Rings is rosy. It blazed the way for co-ops to follow, but unsurprisingly didn’t get everything right on the first try. Its big flaws include a fairly large alpha player problem, issues with powerful consumables that can trivialize the final act of the game if saved, and fairly low replayability due to its fixed script. In the future I hope to discuss solutions to all of these issues. I may also cover Lord of the Rings’s three expansions, each of which took the game in an interesting direction.
Thanks for reading, and discussion is always welcome.