Competitiveness may be a pillarstone of tabletop gaming, but it doesn’t half get exhausting sometimes - especially if they're not quick board games that fit into 15 minutes. Pitting yourself against your friends and family on a regular basis (especially when games like Era: Medieval Age or Talisman are involved) has the potential to sow discord and dislike amongst your dearest fellows. Particularly if you or anyone else has the tendency to be a bad loser. (Don’t be ashamed, we’re all been there at some point.)
So thank goodness we have co-op board games to mend broken bonds and encourage good teamwork. Of course, even the best intentions mean nothing if a co-op game is designed in such a way as to still induce enraged behaviour.
Good co-op board games provide plenty of opportunities for players to band together against some great threat, or combine their intellects to create the best strategies. Co-op games aren't restricted to any one genre, as they have traits that work across game mechanics and player counts. That said, some of the best horror board games out there are often co-op, as you and your pals team up to defeat nightmares that are too frightening to face alone.
Roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons 5E (or some of the other best fantasy RPGs that aren't Dungeons & Dragons) are also excellent co-op experiences due to their collaborative storytelling. They're a bit of a different beast to co-op board games, though; check out our separate in-depth guides on how to get started with Dungeons & Dragons 5E as a player and some of the best rules-light and storytelling RPGs for beginners if you're after those.
Best co-op board games
This list contains some truly excellent co-op board games , which aren't just great cooperative experiences, but make for a fantastic time in general - in fact, many co-op games are among (a statement that can also apply to the best board games you can buy and play in 2019). Here are the top 12 co-op games to play if you want to keep your friends.
1. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
What could be a more noble ambition that curing world disease? In the original Pandemic, players formed a team of heroic germ-fighting specialists, each with their unique abilities, to neutralize the threat of multiple deadly plagues from devastating the earth’s population. Its meaty action-queuing mechanics and intense pacing, made Pandemic a certified classic within the tabletop community. The legacy version of the game has all these things and more besides, bringing even greater stakes with the addition of a series of campaigns, and permanent consequences applying to a living game world. In Pandemic Legacy, game altering events result in cards being ripped up and characters getting removed from the game entirely. But instead of causing panic and despair, these dramatic elements only serve to further strengthen the bonds between players, so that Pandemic’s people have a team of saviours in their hour of need. What’s more, is that a second season is also available, allowing for your Pandemic story to continue even further.
2. Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game
No co-operative games list would be complete without the inclusion of some classic tabletop horror. There are a ton to choose from, including several from the team at Fantasy Flight Games such as Eldritch Horror - one of the best horror board games - but we’ve picked Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game as our apocalyptic hellscape of choice. In it, players must work together to fulfill a quota required to keep the game’s survivor outpost standing; this could be collecting crucial resources like food or fuel; building barricades, or something equally important. However, resources can only be collected from areas outside the outpost, meaning that our survivors will have to venture into zombie-infested territory to get them. But unlike the myriad of other zombie games out there, the horror in Dead of Winter doesn’t really have much to do with the undead. You’ll certainly be encountering them a lot, and dealing with them is no piece of cake, but it’s the lack of resources that really brings the fear factor in Dead of Winter. Despite this being a list of co-op games, Dead of Winter does have a traitor aspect to it, but it’s really more of an enhancement to the game’s core mechanics than anything hugely disruptive.
There’s a reason why everyone in the tabletop world is talking about Gloomhaven. It’s not simply another dungeon-crawler stuffed full of miniatures with complicated movesets. Gloomhaven is a legacy-style game, wherein players adopt the role of wandering adventurers travelling one very grimy, monster-ridden corner of a brutal and violent world. Despite including several standard elements seen in many dungeon-crawlers (unit abilities, weapon stats, initiative scores), Gloomhaven sets itself apart by featuring a number of world-building aspects to go alongside these that are delivered in dramatic and permanent fashion by tearing up cards and applying stickers to the game board itself. Playing Gloomhaven doesn’t just involve intensely satisfying card-driven combat, it also allows for some pretty unusual moments of character development and storytelling. As players progress through Gloomhaven’s multiple campaigns, they’ll encounter many opportunities to make narrative decisions affecting the entire group, with some even resulting in drastic changes to the world. It’s these big moments promised by Gloomhaven’s RPG elements that make it such a memorable tabletop experience.
4. TIME Stories
Ever wanted to play the board game equivalent of Quantum Leap? Whilst there might not be a licensed Quantum Leap board game (which is an absolute travesty), there is TIME Stories, which is about the closest thing you’ll ever get to the real thing. In TIME Stories, you and your teammates become temporal agents of the TIME Agency, tasked with righting historical wrongs across the entire space-time continuum. By hjacking the bodies of various important figures throughout human history (which poses one heck of a moral issue), you and your fellow temporal agents must successfully play out a scenario in as few moves as possible. Despite appearing initially intimidating in scope, in-play the game is actually surprisingly simple. TIME Stories is essentially a puzzle game, wherein players tackle individual scenarios and collectively apply their experiences of previous mistakes, to eventually achieve a perfect run. It’s a game that encourages a lot of discussion, and provides enough variety in each scenario to keep things interesting.
5. Dungeon Fighter
Now for something a little lighter, and a lot sillier. Dungeon Fighter is a co-operative dungeon-crawling game with a twist; instead of using traditional stats and abilities to fight monsters, you’ll be bouncing dice. Yes, as you explore each level of the game’s multi-tiered castle, you’ll be undertaking a series of challenges testing your aim, your dexterity and your guts. The game comes with a unique targeting board, not unlike the dartboard hanging in your local pub, which you must attempt to bounce dice onto whilst wrestling with any number of ridiculous handicaps, such as doing it blind or turning your back to the table. There’s nothing particularly complex about Dungeon Fighter but, considering how heavy some co-operative games tend to be, it’s good to know that there are options out there if you’re after something short, sweet and joyfully stupid.
6. The Crew: Quest for Planet Nine
Talk about applying an exciting theme to an otherwise reserved gameplay experience. The Crew: Quest for Planet Nine is a co-op card game in which players are astronauts embarking on an epic journey through space. This thrilling premise is wrapped up in fairly compact gameplay that is, at its core, a trick-taking card game with an unusual set of scenarios for players to tackle in whatever order they please.
Unlike Fox in the Forest - which is a competitive two-player board game wherein cards have different abilities - The Crew’s major twist on trick-taking is that players need to win certain cards in certain ways with certain limitations. For example, some missions will have players selecting the cards that they reckon they’ll be able to win tricks with. (By laying down the highest-numbered card in the suit currently in play.) This is where the other unique element of The Crew comes in, as players cannot outwardly communicate what cards they have in their hands - being limited to using a special token on a single card to indicate whether it is the highest, lowest or only card of that suit they have.
The Crew really works as a great co-op card game because players have to pay attention to what everyone is doing in order to play their cards at the right time. Not watching what other people are playing or reading the wrong signs can quickly result in failure for everyone, so it’s a card game about responding to other players and taking the lead when you’re feeling confident to guide your team to victory.
7. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island
You know that movie, Castaway? The one where Tom Hanks makes friends with a volleyball? Well, Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island is like that film, if Tom Hanks also had to fight off a horde of ravenous wild boars, intent of rending him limb-from-limb. In Robinson Crusoe, the players find themselves in one decidedly unpleasant situation, after being stranded on a deserted island (in the grand tradition of the classic novel). Sodden and freezing cold, each player must find shelter and food before night falls, otherwise they risk the threat of hypothermia, starvation, and worse. Having to withstand the endless trials of surviving on a deserted island (including unpredictable weather patterns, scare resources, and aggressive animals, to name a few), makes playing Robinson Crusoe a tabletop masochist’s dream. But despite being brutally difficult, Robinson Crusoe remains absolute classic for its enormously impressive scope, and deeply strategic gameplay. Robinson Crusoe is a rich cooperative experience, providing a seemingly endless amount of opportunities for group discussion and careful decision making.
8. Aeon’s End
There are countless co-op deckbuilding games to choose from, but our money is on Aeon’s End. Perhaps one of the most unusual deckbuilding games out there, Aeon’s End presents the tragic story of Gravehold, an underground city containing the last remnants of a once-great civilisation that fell to ruin after a terrible disaster tore its society apart. As breach mages, individuals capable of harnessing the power left by the disaster, you and your fellow players are the only thing standing between survival and total annihilation. This threat of annihilation comes from the dreaded Nameless, a boss that can appear as one of three beasties, who must be defeated using various spells and abilities. Whilst the premise may not be anything special, the game’s unpredictable turn order (three cards are shuffled and one representing the first player is drawn randomly) and semi-organisable discard pile (players can choose to discard any cards during their turn), make it stand out from other fantasy-themed deckbuilding games. We like Aeon’s End because, despite not being one of the biggest deckbuilding franchises out there, its gameplay allows players to set up actions for their teammates, as well as themselves, making it a much more co-operative experience.
If you’re a fan of everything horror, like yours truly, Horrified feels like a greatest hits montage of all the classic characters and scenarios: werewolves, vampires, mummies, you name it. That’s because Horrified is essentially a licensed horror board game featuring all the best Universal Monsters running wild in one big love letter to scary cinema.
Of course, you aren’t playing as the monsters in Horrified, but the somewhat doomed heroes who must work together to save the innocent townsfolk and rid them of a terrible being. Each monster has a unique way of moving across the game board and enacting terror upon civilians and heroes - with the more destruction they cause pushing them closer towards their win condition. Players must quickly coordinate a strategy to fulfill the set requirements to defeat the monsters currently in play, whether that’s destroying Dracula’s coffins or teaching Frankenstein’s Monster empathy, with each villain needing to be defeated in a different way.
This is what really makes Horrified such a brilliant co-op experience, as every monster offers a new level of challenge - with the more monsters you play with adding greater difficulty- and certain combinations can significantly change things, making for a board game with huge replay value. Horrified can actually get rather tricky on higher difficulties, so mastering the balance between working to defeat the monster and managing terror levels is essential.
10. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective - The Thames Murders & Other Cases
Though its publisher may claim that Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective - The Thames Murders & Other Cases is not a board game, we’d beg to differ. Sherlock Holmes is a board game, and a damn fine one at that. In it, players test their wits against the world’s greatest detective (yeah, you heard that Batman) to solve a variety of classic Sherlockian cases, such as the mystery of Hyde Park’s murdered lions and... the missing paintings of the National Gallery? Whilst not especially well-known (I don’t see a single Hound of the Baskervilles here), the cases in Consulting Detective very much embody the spirit of the beloved character in that players will be searching for clues, interviewing suspects and eventually tying the facts together to unravel nefarious schemes of London’s various crimelords. If you’re looking for an intensely puzzling co-operative experience, and happen to enjoy the Victorian aesthetic, then you really can’t go wrong with picking Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.
11. The Mind
Not all co-operative card games have to be as big or complicated as Aeon’s End. As a game of The Mind proves, size isn’t everything and, if designed in the right way, a simple card game can make for an equally challenging co-operative experience. And no doubt about it, The Mind will challenge you, testing your mental metal and pushing you to the breaking point, before the game is done. The Mind begins with everyone receiving a hand of cards equal to the current level (which goes up to eight, 10 or 12, depending on the number of players), before each player must pick an opportunity to play cards one at a time, ensuring that the stack in the middle continues to grow in ascending order (e.g. 10, 11, 12, etc…). However, you cannot communicate what you have to the other players, and should anyone be holding a card lower than what’s been played, everyone must discard their hand and the group loses a life. Playing The Mind is a butt-clenchingly tense experience, one that keeps you guessing and never, ever gets old.
12. The Captain is Dead
As you can tell, co-operative games like putting their players in nightmarish scenarios – and The Captain is Dead is no exception. Just as the name suggests, the noble captain of your beloved spaceship is no more, so you and your fellow subordinates must step up and take control of command quickly, before the entire vessel blows up or aliens finish the rest of you off. The Captain is Dead is a game of disaster management, wherein players will be constantly responding to ever emerging threats by using their character’s unique skills and abilities. As things escalate, having the right people in the right places becomes paramount to survival, as actions like repairing the engine and firing missiles gradually require getting a greater amount of successes in a shorter amount of time. It’s one fantastically fun and frantic co-operative game, that will have you exchanging strategies and co-ordinating your fire-fighting efforts throughout.
We’re a big fan of co-op games at Dicebreaker, so you can expect more coverage like Johnny and Wheels’ catastrophic Let’s Play of Set a Watch.
Otherwise, stick around for more recommendations on what games to play next.