When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

I have been writing a lot lately about how games have a unique power to bring people together. I have also been writing about how frustrating they can be and how they are so often bent toward competition. Behind each of these explorations is the question: what is a game? Is it merely a set of rules in which we participate? Must games by their very nature be competitive?

I think there is an element of competition in every game, whether the goal merely be to complete it, every game has a goal and completing that goal requires competition against and opponent or the game itself.  There are ways of making such instances less frustrating and more fulfilling though as this has been my experiences playing Pandemic with numerous friends lately.

The best way I can describe Pandemic is that it is the opposite of Risk. In Risk you compete with your friends to conquer the world, in Pandemic, you work with your friends to save it. Each player has a unique role that gives him/her special abilities that aid in curring rapidly growing diseases that are plaguing the world. Each turn the spread of the plague is increased and so the game gets increasingly difficult as you progress.  You win together or you die together, no one player wins over and against anyone else.

If you have any hope of winning, you must work together. In my short experience with the game, play becomes so team-based that the effort really ceases to be individual and morphs into a decisively collaborative experience. I will say that in the groups I have played with (admittedly almost entirely new players), I have lost more games than I have won and yet I don’t think I have ever had more fun losing at a board game. When we lose we reflect on what we might have done better and what mistakes perhaps led to our losing and yet even though some of those mistakes can be attributed to an individual, play becomes so shared that everyone seems to take responsibility for everyone else’s mistakes. In fact when I lost recently, it was due to a mistake that I convinced my teammate to make thinking it would help.

When I announced to the group that I had encouraged the mistake that lead to our defeat I was quickly met with numerous comments about things that each of them could have done differently. We all owned this defeat and instead of blaming each other, we commiserated which was much more enjoyable. Perhaps I had this experience simply because of the wonderful people with whom I was playing, but I think game design had something to do with it as well. The idea of such thoroughly collaborative play is now something that I am looking for in more games, because I don’t think a board game has ever felt so shared and meaningful.


  1. We really enjoy this game too. My only complaint is that when you play with a new person, the more experienced ones take over and almost play their game for them. You almost have to work to hold your tongue and not totally guide someones game for them.

  2. Great point Richard, though I have only played marginally more than most of my friends with whom I have played, I have had to try to hold my tongue and not play for others. Perhaps its because its still new, but so far it has really felt uniquely collaborative which I really enjoy.

  3. We were playing this game quite a bit a month or two ago and really enjoyed it. It’s definitely one of the better collaborative games I’ve played. The only difference is that when we lose, everyone blames Rich. And rightfully so.

  4. I haven’t played Pandemic, but our co-op game of choice is Ghost Stories. It’s one of the most intense games we own and I’ve typically broken a sweat by game’s end. The problem we’ve found is the same that Richard notes: domination by better/more experienced players.

    With pvp games, each player can go all out and play to the best of their abilities. With pve, however, more experienced players have to force themselves to play at diminished ability in order not to take away the decision-making experience from the others. The game can still be fun, of course, but I find myself hamstrung by the self-handicapping that must take place to allow the game to be fun for less experienced players.

    Likewise, even with a table-full of experienced players, the more reticent in any group will tend to bow to the more confident, except when there is a glaring error in judgment. Which frustrates the quieter players because they’re not really playing and frustrates the more confident players because they feel they’re doing all the work and they feel the acquiescent players are disengaged.

  5. @Kiel–that is hilarious! Next time I am in Louisville we need to all get together for some board games!

    @Seth, yeah actually some of my students were playing at my house the other night (I was not playing) but one student quit for that reason–he said everyone was just telling him what to do and he felt like he wasn’t really doing anything. I suppose both pvp and pve games have their strengths and weaknesses.

    Is Ghost Stories easy to pick up?

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