The Alexandrian

Arkham Horror - Fantasy Flight GamesI’m a big fan of co-op games in general and, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I think they’re a great way to introduce new players to theme-rich boardgames.

One potential drawback to co-op games, however, is the “alpha-quarterback”: A single player that dominates the game by effectively making all of the strategic gameplay decisions. The alpha-quarterback might be the person most familiar with the game, a person with generally deeper strategic insight, or just a forceful personality. Whatever the case may be, however, the result is that only one person is really playing the game and everybody else at the table is reduced to being their pawn. (A related problem can also occur if four or five more experienced players are all collaborating as a collective “alpha-quarterback”, while one or two new players are effectively turned into spectators.)

In most cases, quarterbacking can be avoided through the simple expedience of the more experienced players simply choosing not to do it: Instead of making decisions for new players (“you should go fight that monster”), they can use their expertise to discuss the general strategic situation and then offer the new player a few options of actions that they might want to consider.

Because it’s generally possible for people to choose not to be jerks, a lot of people think that quarterbacking in co-op games is only a “people problem” that isn’t really relevant to game design itself. This, however, is an over-simplification: The problem with co-op games that are trivially quarterbacked is that they’re really solo problem-solving games that are masquerading as games for multiple players. (Pandemic is an excellent example of this type of game.) It’s like adding a rule to Solitaire saying that two players should alternate turns and then claiming that it’s a two-player game.

There’s nothing wrong with alternating-play Solitaire if everybody’s having fun, of course. But it’s not an ideal way to design a game even if an individual group doesn’t default to quarterbacking while playing it.


The solutions for quarterbacking are:

HIDDEN INFORMATION. (Which often doesn’t work because there’s no motivation not to share the information, but can at least create the impression that individuals are contributing by discussing the information they have access to. However, games like Hanabi make hidden information co-op work by making the hidden nature of the information integral to the game design.)

TACTICAL DEPTH. (In these games, groups may coordinate on a large-scale strategy but there’s enough tactical depth in each player’s execution of that strategy that individual players are still allowed to play the game even with aggressive quarterbacking happening in the same room. Arkham Horror, for example, does this with a fair amount of success: Quarterback all you want, but the individual players are still responsible for playing through their encounters.)

INCOMPLETE INFORMATION. (By hiding information from all of the players, decision points are turned into a gamble. A simple version would be a draw deck containing white and black cards: If a white card is drawn, certain actions will be advantageous. If a black card is drawn, a different set of actions will be advantageous. Players can offer input about which card they think it’s going to be, but nobody really knows and so it’s ultimately up to the current player to make the guess and determine which set of actions they should be attempting. Knizia’s Lord of the Ringsfor example, does this with a stack of tiles that determine the pace and sequence of various horrible things. The shortcoming of this solution is that if the system is actually completely random, then the decisions are meaningless. And if it’s not completely random, then there’s a viable strategy and that stategy is still open to quarterbacking.)

TRAITOR MECHANICS. (These enforce the hidden information solution by providing a motivation for concealing information. Battlestar Galactica does this, for example.)

REAL-TIME PLAY. (These enforce the tactical depth solution by making it impossible for a single player to make all the decisions that need to be made within the time allowed. Space Alert and Escape: The Curse of the Temple are examples of this.)

Of these solutions, real-time play seems to be the only surefire solution to the quarterbacking problem. (Hidden information can be shared, tactical depth can still be micro-managed, incomplete information still lends itself to strategic quarterbacking, and a game with a traitor isn’t actually co-op). Other co-op games generally need to rely on a mixture of techniques to mitigate the quarterbacking problem (although exceptions like Hanabi do exist).

(It should also be noted that the “this is really just Solitaire, but you alternate turns” problem isn’t limited to co-op games. For example Dungeon Roller pretends to be a competitive game, but is really just two people playing solitaire and then comparing their scores.)

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8 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Quarterbacking in Co-Op Games”

  1. Peter Robbins says:

    I’ve been able to combat this a bit by having each player control “two” personas in Eldritch Horror. They otherwise will always complain that someone else is not helping them. Well, there you go, there is your helper. Let me do what I want to do. Problem somewhat solved. – Peter R.

  2. d47 says:

    I like cooperative games, but they do suffer this problem of quarterbacking and/or savvy players biting their tongues. I think one solution might be to design games to be semi-cooperative instead. For example, certain achievements might be required for everyone to win. Then, each player might also have personal goals. Of course, this results in some people “winning” more than others, thus undoing part of the communal success feeling of cooperative games.

    Considering RPGs, however, we can see that it is possible for everyone to “win” while individually achieving separate character goals. The trick to not turning a cooperative game into a competition might be in the framing.

    In practice, though, I am not sure how I would actually design a game to be cooperative, yet have individual objectives. I suppose players would be confronted with choosing to pursue their own personal interests at the risk of endangering the success of the entire group, which could create interesting tension.

    Of course, with any cooperative game, you could just decide as a group that people are only allowed to provide a certain amount of advice. Perhaps on each player’s turn, the other players should only be allowed to make one brief suggestion with no discussion. This is like restricting RPG players from making suggestions to each other during combat that their characters could not realistically make in the circumstances. When playing a board game, you could ask, “Are your pieces in the same space or adjacent? Do you have another means of communication?”

    When playing Forbidden Island with my 9-year-old, I try to say nothing, ask a provocative question or provide more than one option to choose from rather than stating what I think is the correct course of action. I try to make sure she understands what her options are and let her figure out the consequences.

  3. Hautamaki says:

    Building on d47’s idea, perhaps one way to limit or control quarterbacking is to make it into a specific game mechanic. By making an explicit rule about when players are allowed to give advice, you at the same time make a rule about when they are not allowed to give advice. For example, when characters are physically beside each other, in a board game. Or, in a card draw game, perhaps you can play a card to give or ask for advice.

  4. Dr. Tectonic says:

    I think there’s one more design solution worth mentioning: Fiddly Bits.

    I’d say that one of the common drivers of quarterbacking is the desire of the more familiar / insightful / savvy player to focus on the game. If she has to disengage to wait for another player to take his turn, she is tempted to “offer advice” to speed things up, and there’s a slippery slope from “helpful” to “bossy”. (I’ve been guilty of this myself, especially when a game gets me excited.)

    Tactical depth can help here, by giving the experienced player enough things to think about that there’s something to focus on even when it’s not her turn. (Simultaneous play helps, too, as do very short turns.) The danger is that if there’s too much depth, non-hardcore players will be swamped, so it helps a lot if the depth can be tuned. (Sentinels of the Multiverse is excellent on this front, as it lets each player choose a complexity level for their own deck.)

    But another way a designer can minimize downtime is to include lots of mechanical effects to be handled by “the group”. These fiddly bits act like sponges for the impatience of over-eager players, because it gives them something to DO. The quarterbacks can deal with processing the upkeep phase and the opponent turn and what-not while the other players are looking through their options for the next turn, and then catch up on their own turn options while everyone else is actually playing, and everyone is happy. I’d say that Arkham Horror and Sentinels of the Multiverse both make good use of this solution.

  5. AnonS says:

    This is a good post. I would say I’ve seen it happen in games like Battlestar where the 3 humans know each other and it becomes a team game. A less knowledgeable player will be told what to do and can’t contribute to the brainstorming of strategies. It is normally the players that can think fast are just bouncing ideas off each other and others can’t keep up (like any type of group conversation sometimes).

    This makes me more interested in real time board games, if a fantasy dungeon crawler could be made in a real time environment.

    I’ve also seen it solved in RPGs like Torchbearer that say in a way “you can’t talk about something in depth without the character volunteering for it”. So if you quarter back for another character you are considered helping and will share in the failure effects if the roll is bad.

  6. Neurocide says:

    Actually best co-op game is Robinson Crusoe. Author of this game, when designed it keeping in mind all problems that co-op games couses, and i think sucessfully avoid a lot of thier issues. Look here:

  7. Meaningful Choices In Board Games: Examples | Golden Game Barn says:

    […] of the problems about co operative games is the quarterback player. This is basically someone who knows the game inside out, tells everyone what to do, and makes the […]

  8. Camelorn says:

    One further solution to list here might be PERSONAL SUB-GOALS as in “Dead of Winter”. It does not fit easily into the other solutions given in the article. It also opens up a new sub problem:
    What should i personally prefer?
    a.) The group wins and i lose
    b.) I lose and the group loses
    That has real impact on the game: Will i sacrifice my win to help the group, or will i try not to fare worse than all others? Or in other words, in the face of not hitting my own objectives, will i play constructively or destructively?

    While Robinson Crusoe is a good game, it does not fully solve the Quarterback problem.
    It uses TACTICAL DEPTH and INCOMPLETE INFORMATION as defined in this article. But while i have just one solo game under my belt, i see myself easily falling into the trap of quarterbacking, when i play this game with a group.
    The complexity of this game might even foster this problem, as it might give an experienced quarterback even more leverage over less experienced players.

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