Cooperative board games are escapism in a box. They run the gamut of theme and mechanics, but they allow you to explore these in the company of good friends without needing to worry that Bob will stab you in the back. Perhaps you are the captain of a submarine about to be swallowed by a fearsome kraken or a crew aboard a spaceship on course for a death dive into the heart of a sun. Whatever tickles your fancy, there's a co-op game for that.
This top ten list is my favourite co-op one shots, so we’re looking at non-legacy, non-campaign games that can be played in around an hour with a group of like minded individuals. Starting with...
10 - Sub Terra
Sub Terra is a game about a group of cavers trapped underground searching for an exit while pursued by creatures called The Horrors. On their turns players can take two actions safely but can push themselves to take a third at the risk of injuring themselves. The game is entirely about risk management. There are not enough turns in the game to move slowly and cautiously and still find the exit.
For example, you can choose for a single action to look at an adjacent tile, or you can move to an adjacent revealed tile, or for a single action you can move to an adjacent unrevealed tile, but at the risk of it being hazardous. You can’t always look before you leap in this game as there is an event deck ticking down to your inevitable demise.
Players can split up to cover more ground but doing so means that if, or indeed when, you get knocked unconscious by a sudden flood or unexpected cave-in no one will be there to revive you. And we’ve played this game plenty of times when the whole team has been devoured by going back to save another member of the team.
It’s amazing in Sub Terra how the theme pulls you in. You can win the game even if two cavers are left behind, but players will almost always prioritise getting everyone out over their own victory.
With eight playable characters and a different cave every time Sub Terra is very replayable and incredibly difficult to win. However it can feature player elimination, unless playing with less than four where players then control two characters instead of one.
9 - Marvel United
Marvel United is a very simple game with an approachable theme which I’ve had tons of luck with when teaching to new players. Each player takes on the role of a superhero in the Marvel Universe. All the characters in the core box are known entities from the movies so players will find the theming familiar. They also pick one of three villains in the base box to face off against.
Red Skull is trying to ratchet up the fear level in the city by inciting chaos and terrorising citizens, Ultron wants to flood the city with his drones and Taskmaster hides behind traps to avoid the heroes and run out the clock.
On their turn players play cards to provide action icons, move, fight and heroic, allowing them to move around the board, defeat thugs and villains and rescue bystanders or foil plots. Each player also gets the action icons of the card played by the player immediately before them in turn order. This fosters a spirit of cooperation as you not only try to play the card that’s best for you, but will also set up the next player to take an awesome turn as well.
Marvel United works well with families and younger gamers and plays in around half an hour. With seven heroes and three masterminds in the base box the game may lack endless variety but there are always expansions if you find yourself hungry for more.
8 - Elder Sign
Elder Sign is the original co-operative dice game and it is a blast. Based in the HP Lovecraft mythology, players are playing as investigators in the museum of Arkham, trying to prevent an ancient one awakening and devouring the world. They do this with some yahtzee style dice rolling.
In the centre of the table are six adventure cards, each requiring specific symbols to complete them. On their turn a player chooses one of these adventures to attempt. Rolling dice and matching symbols to take the card. If they succeed they gain rewards, if they fail they take penalties. Players are attempting to gather Elder Signs to seal the gateway before the Elder One gathers enough doom tokens to awaken.
The box comes stuffed with different heroes, each with unique abilities, along with 8 different big bads to face off against. Added to that is a thick stack of adventure cards to really mix up the variety. And when you get bored of that the Unseen Forces expansion adds more of everything, along with difficulty modifiers.
Elder Sign is lower on my list because ultimately the base game, as released, is too easy. While fun it often lacks challenges as player vanquish Cthulhu and his cohorts back to the otherworlds they came from. However, Elder Sign does have a series of expansions which seriously ramp up the difficulty, along with adding a healthy dose of story to boot. Gates of Arkham, Omens of the Deep, Omens of Ice and Omens of the Pharaoh all add extra game play content and an extra challenge for players who want it.
7 - Fuse
Fuse is an incredible rush. This is a real time cooperative dice game of bomb defusal that is exhilarating to play. In Fuse you and your fellow players are on a spaceship that is about to self-destruct. Only by solving a series of tasks before the timer runs out can you defuse the bomb and win the game.
Each round one player rolls a die for each player in the game, each player must then take one of the dice and place it on a card in front of them. If any of the dice cannot be taken, that die is rerolled and all the players must remove a die from their cards that matches either the colour of the die or the number rolled.
To complete their cards the players must follow the instructions printed on them. Some cards want a stack of dice, where each die must be larger or smaller in value than the one before it. Some cards need you to follow mathematical formulas, or match colours or values. It’s all fairly straight forward but with the added pressure of time ticking away and the computerised voice ringing out warnings as the game end grows nearer.
If Fuse has one problem it is that it is harder to teach simply because of the real time element. The timer app can be paused to allow you to stop and explain things but generally you want to keep things moving. The game is also dice driven so you can be at the whim of lady luck, although there’s plenty of mitigation in how you lay out your dice. And for those players who want it, the game ships with 4 levels of difficulty and an additional set of even harder cards if you’re just not being challenged enough.
6 - Horrified
The co-op darling of 2019 was Horrified, a board game from Prospero Hall all about the Universal Monsters. That’s right, in Horrified you’re defending the town from Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman all at once. Each player takes on the role of a hero working to defeat these monsters and rescue villagers in the process.
At the beginning of the game the board is seeded with a selection of items drawn from a bag. Each item has a colour and a value and can be used either to help defeat a monster or to protect you from taking wounds. Each game the players select whether to face 2, 3 or 4 of the monsters and follow the unique set up for each one chosen.
Each player can take a specified number of actions on their turn, using them to move, collect items, rescue villagers and perform tasks to defeat the monsters. For example to defeat dracula you must smash his four coffins scattered around the board before confronting him to finish him off. While for the Creature of the Black Lagoon you must first sail your boat to his lair before heading into a final confrontation.
Each monster requires different items to be defeated and presents a different puzzle as they move about the board. Players win the game if they can defeat all the monsters, but they will lose if the monster deck runs out or if the Terror Track ever reaches the skull. The terror level will rise every time a player or villager is defeated by the monsters and the more monsters on the board the faster that will happen.
Horrified provides a simple play experience, you collect items, move to a different location and drop them off, but it wraps that simple pick up and deliver mechanism around a fun crunchy theme. The game ships with 7 player characters and six monsters, all of which can be combined with the three difficulty levels for a large number of replayable scenarios. Horrified comes in at around £30 and plays in 45-60 minutes with up to five players.
5 - Mysterium
Mysterium is a weird one. I’ve had some players who love this game and others that don’t. Mysterium takes the concept of Cluedo where the players are looking to find a suspect, location and weapon and adds a ghost player who wants to tell the players what happened but can only communicate through vague and surreal dreams.
Each player takes on the role of a psychic or the ghost and each round the ghost player chooses from a hand of vision cards which ones to give to each psychic. During the first part of the game each psychic is trying to find their own suspect, room and weapon. If they manage this the players move on to the finale where the ghost player will attempt to narrow down the pool of suspects to a single one with one last vision.
The game has beautiful components, each of the suspects and locations are full of character and detail which enables the Ghost player to create meaningful visions from the cards in their hand. The vision cards are not only stunning but also rather surreal, as dreams should be, juxtaposing everyday objects and situations against nightmarish landscapes or idyllic vistas.
Mysterium relies heavily on the Ghost player, who should be someone more familiar with the game. The Ghost player acts like a facilitator or moderator and their ability to make decisions will dictate the pace the game moves at. A good ghost player will keeps clues coming at regular intervals to ensure the players always have something to be talking about while the ghost works on their next clue. But sometimes your dreams just don’t match and you have to hand out garbage visions, potentially misleading your psychics or spend one of your precious ravens drawing a new hand.
Mysterium is an excellent game, especially with more artistically inclined players and the recent release of Mysterium Park adds a smaller, cheaper, standalone variant for the game if you’re in the market for a faster version of the game.
4 - Marvel Legendary
My most played game of all time certainly has to feature quite highly on this list. It’s a big box to be sure and inside you’ll find a lot of the best known superheroes from the Marvel Universe. However, if your favourite villain or hero isn’t in the box, do not despair; they have probably made their debut in one of the twenty+ expansions you can buy!
Marvel Legendary is a deck building game. This means you begin the game with your own personal deck of cards and as you play you buy new cards to add to the deck, customising your play style. In Marvel Legendary the players choose one Mastermind to face, along with their dastardly scheme. The scheme lists how the games mechanics will change and how the villain can win. Players also choose a pool of five heroes to play with, perhaps Captain America, who powers up by having different classes of heroes on his team, or Wolverine who powers up from drawing additional cards.
Every turn the players will draw a card from the villain deck and resolve it. These cards either place villains into the city or advance the villains evil scheme. The player can then fight villains in the city and/or buy new cards to add to their deck. The players can also take the fight directly to the Mastermind. When the Mastermind loses his last life the players have won the game.
The base game of Legendary comes with 4 masterminds and eight schemes giving you 32 different combinations to try out. The rulebook also offers additional difficulty modifiers if you start to find, perhaps, that Red Skull doesn’t offer the challenge he once did. While this may seem like a fair amount of replayability for your buck, the coreset is fairly simplistic and the villains are not nearly as challenging as those found in later sets, so if you play often you’re going to want to invest in some expansions. Fortunately there’s lots to choose from and they are relatively inexpensive.
3 - Pandemic
The granddaddy of cooperative games comes in at number 3. Before Pandemic there were a handful of co-op games, afterwards the market was awash but Pandemic still manages to hold its head above the water and stay relevant, possibly because they release a new set every year.
But Pandemic has earned its legacy, it is a very simple but very engaging puzzle which correctly manages its difficulty level. Even when you lose you know that the win was possible, if only you had done this not that.
In Pandemic players take on the roles of CDC experts fighting not one, but four global epidemics, attempting to stop them taking over and becoming a pandemic. With only a handful of straight forward actions the players move around the map, treating disease and searching for a cure. At the end of their turns players draw cards, these cards might give them special abilities or trigger an epidemic, but most of the time they will be one of the four primary colours matching the diseases. By collecting a set of five cards of the same colour the players can hand them in and cure a disease, curing all four will net them the win.
However after they draw cards the player must also flip cards from an infection deck, seeding more disease cubes onto the board. Worse still when the players draw an epidemic card, all the discarded cards are shuffled and placed back on top of the deck to be drawn again. It is this mechanic that ramps up the tension, causing the same cities to be hit again and again until they outbreak spreading the disease to their neighbours.
Pandemic obviously has a weightier theme at the moment given the global situation, one that perhaps we aren’t wanting to play right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a really solid game with tons of replayability.