So over the Thanksgiving break I went back to New Jersey for a bit for the big family gathering. I figured I'd have a few days to get a bunch of writing done. I didn't even bother telling any of my old friends from Glen Rock I would be around because, I mean, I'm only back for a few days, right? Somehow it didn't occur to me that since it was Thanksgiving they'd all be around. And so actually I ended up spending much of the time playing Space Alert with Mickey and others.
Earlier here (I can't find the entry right now) I pointed out David Sirlin's Flash Duel as an example of "co-op done right". (OK, to be honest, I've never actually played the co-op variant of Flash Duel; I only have 1st edition Flash Duel, which doesn't include the cards for it. Still, the design is worth pointing out.) Well, now I have a second example: Space Alert. And it takes a pretty different approach to the problem -- for one thing, it's pure co-op.
Let's recall the basic problem with co-op board games: The players spend all their time discussing what to do as a group. Different players will have final say over different decisions, but it hardly matters, since they can just discuss it with everyone else regardless. If one player clearly understands things better than everyone else he'll just take over. If people can't agree, the whole thing stalls out. The essential problem is that the players are just able to coordinate too well, and the result isn't fun.
A start of one solution is to give the players hidden information, which they can talk about with the other players, but not show them. Well, by itself this does nothing -- if the game is pure co-op, nobody has any reason to lie, so that it's technically hidden has no effect.
Flash Duel solves this (as do many other games) by adding a traitor mechanic: The game is not purely cooperative; rather, there may be one one player who is a traitor, trying to win the game for himself without giving himself away. (OK, the co-op mode in Flash Duel isn't pure co-op; rather it's several people (the mortals) cooperating against one player (the dragon). The traitor is a mortal who is trying to help the dragon win. But this isn't really relevant to the overall point.) Thus you want to help your teammates, yes, but you don't want to help the traitor!
Except of course that from playing other games we know that this isn't always enough. In many games it still helps your team more than it helps the traitor to share information indiscriminately, so the problem isn't solved. Some games (e.g. Shadows over Camelot) try to limit what players can say to each other but the rules on this are fuzzy and dumb, so that's not a real solution. Flash Duel instead gives the traitor a way to directly use people's hidden information against them. Hooray, a solution! Well, at least it's a solution if it actually works; I haven't played this version of Flash Duel, but other people have and seem to like it so I'll take their word that it's a solution.
Space Alert takes an entirely different approach. Let's consider. You don't typically hear this complaint about co-op video games, right? Why not? Well, typically they're real-time, not to mention they require a lot of execution. This works because people can think and act much faster than they can communicate; putting time pressure reduces how much people can communicate and thus increases how much they have to act for themselves. (Interestingly, in a slower game like Worms, you often *do* get players on a team directing one another despite the real time elements. Even the execution can to some extent be done via speech -- "Aim higher; higher; lower; OK. Fire... now!" Of course, this won't work for complicated Ninja Rope maneuvers, but there are a lot of cases where it does.)
Well, Space Alert is a board game, so we can't have much in the way of execution, but real-time is a possibility. And while often real-time is a mess, the game has a simple way of handling it: The real-time part of the game is the part where you plan out your moves, laying down cards on your board to represent what you are going to do. (The cards are face down, so communication about what people are doing has to be explicit, limiting its bandwidth -- you can't just look at another person's cards and see what they're doing.) After the 10 minutes are up and all the moves are planned, then they are executed in sequence. No mess!
I guess I haven't said much about the actual content of Space Alert but, eh, that wasn't the point of this entry. (Space Alert is a game in which you all run around a spaceship shouting at each other for 10 minutes and then you all die horribly because nobody remembered to jiggle the mouse on the computer.) Anyway it's a lot of fun and I might just get a copy if I think I'll be able to organize people for it.
A note on a fuzzy rule: If you accidentally misplay one of your cards, you can say "Oops, I tripped" and get it the way you want it, while taking a penalty for doing so. You can also do this if you get port and starboard mixed up. The rulebook is like, please don't abuse this. Blorch. I would say, allow people to deliberately trip in to change the sense of a card -- the penalty seems pretty significant (and you could make it more so if need be). And just disallow tripping entirely when it comes to getting port and starboard mixed up, because A. that's abusable and B. seriously, you shouldn't be getting port and starboard mixed up. (Looking over the rules for the expansion, I see that for the more advanced missions, the double-action missions, it suggests disallowing tripping entirely, because if you're playing such hard missions, you should be past needing tripping by then. So you might actually just disallow tripping entirely once people have played enough, even if you don't have the expansion or aren't playing a double-actions mission.)
Also when we played it was hard to get people to stop gesturing to each other while the comm system was down (sometimes they even still talked a little!) but I don't think that's a problem with the rules. I mean OK technically the rule's a little fuzzy but I think it works well enough. (Also, we totally allowed someone to abuse the tripping rules at one point, but as I said above, I'm more OK with that. And yes it was to change the sense of a card, not to swap red with blue.)
Except that in the game, they're not called "port" and "starboard"; rather, they're "red" and "blue", and anything indicating a direction is color-coded. Seeing as your cards will be turned upside down a lot, this is quite helpful.
E.g. you could make it so that your next action, whenever it might be, is delayed, even if it's not next turn.
The expansion introduces cards that allow you to take two actions in a turn. Doesn't that make things easier? Well, it would, if you used them on a normal mission, but the idea is that you only use them on special double-actions missions, which are made to be harder than anything in the base game even *if* you're using double actions (and which might be downright impossible without them). I haven't played these, so I can't say to what extent this is actually true, but I'm going to assume it is.