The trouble with co-op gaming is cooperativeness.
I've now played about a dozen games of Dead of Winter, and I think that it is the best purely cooperative board game that I have ever played. The reason that this co-op game plays so well is because I play it so selfishly.
The trouble with co-op board gaming is the group. The group is always smarter than the board.
I've played Arkham Horror. It's fun... for the first five or six times.
That game is a Lovecraft inspired nightmare in which you and your friends take on the role of insignificant humans facing off against elder gods. The game is a bit clunky with overly complex rules for movement and too many systems overlapping one another. Nevertheless, the first half dozen times playing it with my gaming group, it felt pretty good.
And by “felt pretty good”, I, of course, mean that it felt pretty hopeless. You race the clock trying to prevent an evil elder god from awakening to devour the world. As the world sinks into hopeless chaos, you and your fellow investigators, of course, begin losing your minds. In other words, it captures the spirit of Lovecraft well. It feels hopeless and overwhelming and, thus, most importantly for the group playing it, challenging.
Cthulu and his other interdimensional buddies are supposed to be incomprehensible and nigh omnipotent forces outside of nature against which humans have no real defense, and the game initially seems brutally hard, capturing the feel of the nihilistic mythos of Lovecraft's universe quite exceptionally.
Well, then, you figure out how to beat it, and do so -- pretty much every time. Suddenly, elder gods are, well... meh.
Because board games lack artificial intelligence, randomness is the factor intended to keep players on their toes. However, once you have a gaming group that has a pretty good sense of the composition of card decks, what items are useful and what are not, and what strategies are best employed from the start, co-op games become too easy. Making Nyarlathotep a chump just doesn't capture the spirit of Lovecraft, and Arkham Horror becomes less than horrible.
Video games have the advantage of difficulty settings and even more variables to change up the challenge of gaming experience. Finding your game of Civ V too easy? There are what, something like eight difficulty settings to choose from?
The only co-op board games, though, that I have ever found to hold any really long term interest in my gaming group are co-op games that are not pure co-op games. The Fury of Dracula pits one player playing as Dracula against the group, for instance, or Nuns on the Run puts one player in charge of the movements of both an Abbess and a Prioress. The other players attempt to sneak through a convent as young novices out for a night of frivolity and sin, leaving that other player to basically play the role of the AI in a stealth game.
These games play out differently every time because the “board” is being played by an actual intelligence, an unpredictable and tactically and strategically savvy player. As long as the player chosen to oppose everyone else is fairly competent and familiar enough with the rules of the game, these co-op games are far more rewarding challenges for everyone involved.
Again, though, this kind of co-op game isn't “pure” in the sense that it is equally cooperative. It's a co-op experience with just a touch of antagonism, a touch that makes the play time fun because it isn't obvious how the “board” will oppose you.
Various games have introduced some other kinds of semi-antagonism into the co-op mix by adding the potential for a betrayer into the co-op group's midst, such as in games like Shadows Over Camelot or Battlestar Gallactica with the intention of creating some tension and the possibility that a wrench can get thrown into the works of a well oiled co-op party's plans through human intervention, but with those games, often playing as the betrayer is less fun than playing with the group. Often the betrayer's role and options are just not that well developed (and, as a result, less fun to play) or the player randomly assigned the role may not be cut out for playing against a group mind, which also makes the game less fun.
Dead of Winter contains that element in what is otherwise a pure co-op experience. However, we have yet to have a betrayer show up in any of our games. Still, though, most games times we have played have come down to the wire in this board game about surviving both a zombie infestation and the cold of winter. The challenge of the game remains high despite not having a betrayer cause havoc in our group.
Instead, all the hindrances to my group's success in Dead of Winter have come from within the group itself, a group that supposedly is all working together towards a shared and necessary goal: survival. What complicates this universal goal in a basically co-operative game is the distribution of one additional goal for victory for each player, a personal goal. If you want to win Dead of Winter, in other words, yes, the group must survive, but there is something else that motivates your behavior that also must be achieved to actually count yourself a victor.
Maybe you have a tendency to hoard food and need to have at least three extra cans of food at the end of the game. Maybe you're a dope fiend, and you need some extra medicine by game's end. Maybe you're a masochist and want at least one of your characters to have suffered some pain, have taken some wounds, by the game's conclusion.
What these personal agendas cause the player to do in a game about resource scarcity is to occasionally make decisions that aren't best for everyone, to take food out of the mouths of the colony at a crucial time or to risk morale loss by getting one of their characters needlessly hurt for seemingly no apparent reason. These seemingly trivial decisions to deviate from “the plan” can have horrific results in the long term, as the difference between one or two resources may make all of the difference between a dozen zombies suddenly flooding the colony late one night.
This is the stuff that great tragedies are made of. Shakespeare understood well the drama created by characters with obsessions and competing interests interacting with one another in small communities. We all have a pretty good sense of the more obvious good for individuals and for communities on the whole. Try not to hurt others. Don't kill other people. Don't take their stuff. But toss a few overriding desires and instincts among a cast of characters in a drama or among the players of a game and suddenly rationality goes out the window at sometimes critical moments and, then, well, bad things occur, interesting things occur.
All of which works out well for the tone that Dead of Winter wants to strike. This is the stuff that makes zombie narratives interesting as well. Since Night of the Living Dead, it hasn't been the zombies that are so terrifying in these kinds of stories. It is individuals' personal compulsions and their own self interest that results in a barricade falling and the dead to come crawling into what should be a somewhat manageable situation. People together are their own worst enemy seems to be part of the message of Romero's films and The Walking Dead franchise.
The cool thing about Dead of Winter is that the game models a similar theme quite naturally by simply implying the importance of such goals to each of us. As a result, this co-op game and its level of challenge becomes that much better for each player's selfishness.