One thing I didn’t address in the Shadowrift review is whether, and to what extent, it addresses the Alpha Gamer problem–whereby one player starts telling everyone else what to do. To briefly address this, it takes the same approach Pandemic did, by and large–everyone has their own hand of cards, and the expectation is that that will serve as a sufficient bulwark against sock puppetry.
Many people clearly think that individual hands is insufficient. I’ve heard people condemn nearly all co-operative games need radical redress against the problem or the game is somehow automatically defective. Space Alert’s time crunch is an example of a way to address it, traitor mechanics that disincentivize complete communication are another. To those people, Shadowrift (and the other good co-op deck-builders I mention, namely XenoShyft and Shadowrun: Crossfire) will be unsatisfying.
My experience, however, has been different in two ways, and this leads me to a different conclusion.
First, my most common issue with co-ops is the reverse–people requesting too much advice on what to do. Perhaps it ought to be called the Beta Gamer problem? When playing a co-op with most people, I can pretty much expect to utter “do what you think is best” at least once. I respect the fact that people internalize pressure when playing a co-op, and I further respect that people are inclined to defer to the rules explainer (which is usually me)–but I have no inclination to micro-manage everyone else’s turns even when it’s clear that they might want that.
Second, the people that have exhibited signs of the Alpha Gamer behaviour have not limited that kind of overbearing advice-giving to co-op games. I have yet to see someone micro-manage new players in a co-op who hasn’t also seen fit to micro-manage new players in a competitive game. Indeed, the patterns are identical–typically manifesting itself in frustration and exasperation when someone isn’t playing “properly,” i.e. the exact same way the Alpha Gamer would. This phenomenon is less evident when playing a game that is multiplayer solitaire, but even those games aren’t immune from someone trying to tell everyone else how to play.
These two factors lead me to the obvious conclusion that Alpha Gaming is a problem of players, not of co-op designs. Sure, some people might be less able to engage in this unfortunate behaviour in some designs–but to me, that’s almost akin to saying the games with no hidden information are automatically preferable because it’s harder to cheat in games like that. The problem is with the cheating, not in the design. I am reminded of a great quote from Chris Rock–“There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs. Just don’t do it.”
There are innumerable social behaviours that are regrettable that we gamers experience, and some designs might be more prone to those than others–but the responsibility lies with the gamers, regardless of the game itself. So no, some co-ops don’t stop you from being an Alpha Gamer. Just don’t do it.