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Top 5 Semi-Cooperative Games

Semi-Cooperative Games Feature Image

Working Together, But Only While It Suits!

Like many aspects of life, we need to work together in order to get on and achieve a task. But sometimes working with others and altruism might be a little over-rated. Is it right that others reap the benefits of your hard work?

Semi-cooperative games belong to a rather elite genre. They are relatively few and far between, but scratch the surface on some games and you’ll soon see elements of this mechanism coming into play. These games often require a little coordination and planning. There may be alliances that facilitate a mutually beneficial outcome, but these allegiances will only hold whilst all parties are progressing. Ultimately, in these games there can be only one winner.

So who can you trust?

These games are not about hidden traitors as such, because everyone will “look after number one”. There is an old adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. So it is with semi co-op titles. The earliest game I have of this type is Risk. A number of years ago I consigned this game to the “out of reach” corner of the gaming shelves because of the need to preserve family relationships! I am still smarting from the irritation I felt when my wife and two sons had colluded together to “destroy the green” and broke the pacts that I thought I’d engineered. They forgot that I was the one who kept the roof over their heads!

But enough of my reminiscence as I recline on the gaming couch. Here are five Zatu bloggers with their thoughts on semi-cooperative games. If you like a little subterfuge and are thick-skinned and can take a few stabs in the back, then read on.

Is Rob The Cause Of The Creepy Goings-On Within Betrayal At House On The Hill?

Don’t you just love semi-cooperative games? Where everyone is striving frantically to reach a common goal and avoid total disaster and the player who’s JUST TURNED INTO A WEREWOLF! RUN, RAGGY, RUN! It is unlikely that we will ever see the Scooby-Doo version of Betrayal arrive on our shores but, let’s face it, it was pretty dang close to start with. A group of intrepid explorers, each with their own specific skill set (pipe down, Liam) explore a mysterious mansion that unfolds around them. Going from room to room (drawn from a shuffled deck) they may encounter ghostly goings-on, handy tools and ominous omens. These mysterious objects are very powerful but can bear a heavy cost – roll six dice, and if the number is lower than the number of omens you have, the Haunt begins…

Is it just me, or have Fred’s teeth and ears got a bit... pointier?

Betrayal may be 15 years old now, but it still has a great feel of "something’s not right" and building tension. The Haunt, which often turns one of your team into a monster of one sort or another, really switches the game around, though this can be problematic – if the Haunt takes too long to arrive, exploring can get a bit boring, too early and the Haunt could see the quick demise of all the players.

Plus, there’s the possible issue where the ‘baddie’ might end up with all the useful equipment – not good times. Despite this, because of the way the Haunts are chosen (depending on omen and room found in) there is plenty of replay value here – the Haunts can be really different, from werewolf ‘tag’ to finding the buried player before their air runs out (no players were harmed in the making of this game). The rules are also simple enough for new players to join in too. So, whaddya say, Old Man Whithers?

Hannah Returns To Her Roots As A Vagabond

Semi-cooperative games are difficult to pin down. To me, it seemed so weird that you could work together but ultimately there was one winner. That was until I played as the Vagabond in a four-player version of Root. Root is an asymmetric game of woodland warfare that I am incredibly glad I learned the way I did. I learned from scratch with another newbie using the playthrough guide, and this really is the best way to learn as we were both at the same level (bad).

Each faction in Root plays in a different way, has different actions available to them and needs to employ a different tactic to win. Although the win condition is generally the first to 30 VP, the way in which you achieve that can vary wildly. Because of this asymmetry, you need to know not only how to play your own faction, but also keep your head up and watch what everyone else is up to. This asymmetry can be increased still further by the addition of the expansions; The Riverfolk Company, The Underworld Expansion and the new Marauder Expansion.

In Root, you need to ensure that you work together to keep the other factions in check, you don’t want any one faction being able to build up their infrastructure so much that they can score lots of points in a single round and snatch the win. Most of my plays of Root have resulted in a pretty even final straight to victory where most players were involved in the final chase for 30 points. This is of course the best way to be, you never want to have a run-a-way victor.

On top of this, one of the base game factions is the Vagabond, who has no warriors of their own but is able to offer aid (in the form of gifted cards) to other players in order to eventually form an alliance that will score them points and allow them to move the allied warriors as if they are their own. The Vagabond can then use this ability to sabotage their pal and snatch the win. Which I guess is the very definition of semi co-op although it feels very underhand to do. But in a war game albeit with cute meeples, this is exactly what you want and Root handles this very well.

John Whispers That He’s Your Friend Before He Stabs You In The Back

So I am pushing the boundaries in calling A War of Whispers a semi-coop, but it does fill a familiar space in providing opportunities for fleeting marriages of convenience and brutal backstabbing.

While it’s far from the only game to do that, A War of Whispers is a phenomenal, fast, crunchy political experience. It looks like an area control game and to an extent it is. But the conceit here is that you aren’t playing the empires on the board. Oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, you are factions operating behind the scenes to affect their fortunes. All of you will be scoring differently (at least at the outset, in all probability) based on the conquests that the empires make. And unless you need to make a mid-game switch of your allegiances, this information will be secret from your fellow protagonists.

Over the four rounds of play, the actions that you all take will no doubt start to reveal which empires you favour and which you do not, and this is where the negotiation kicks off. “Oh, I see your agent can commit the green empire to battle… if I use my agent to give it more armies, will you commit to attacking over there, before the rat faction destroys the chance of green taking another city?” And so it goes on, often with a good dose of broken promises and active double-dealing.

Ultimately you are all in it for yourself, and the aforementioned ability to switch your allegiance to different empires means that a friend this round might become a clear adversary the next. Surely this is at the very core of the good semi-coop: friends today, bitter enemies tomorrow. SU&SD said this was akin to A Game of Thrones in 45 minutes – they weren’t wrong. Machiavelli would be proud of its lessons and the dastardly fun it brings is second to none.

Tora Tries To Stop The Train!

STOP THE TRAIN! No Really, STOP IT!

What do you get when you cross a mission that can only be completed if you work together with others and one that you can only ace if you go all back-stabby-stabby-me-me-me? Welcome to the world of semi-cooperative games, my friends!

Yes, there is a strange and marvellous microcosm of games in our hobby where you have to work in a team and also put yourself first if you are going to win. There aren’t actually many official semi-cooperative games (BGG Is THE law after all!).

However, having said that, this is probably something that you do in many different games, just without realising it. Think about it for a moment. How many times have you forged a temporary allegiance with another player’s faction, army, or character, in order to manoeuvre yourself into a prime position later on? Faux friends are a gamer’s hidden super-power (or nemesis, depending upon which end of the bargain you end up!).

Stop the Train! by Escape Plan Board Games is a brilliant example of the mechanism in play. In Stop the Train! you have to rely on teamwork to deduce which amongst you is the saboteur trying to crash the 19.05 to Paris. And that is because the sneaky sausage is trying to make the train go faster and faster in order win the game. Call them out correctly and stop the train, however, and victory will be snatched from the jaws of defeat by one perceptive passenger!

With cards controlling the speedometer up and down, you’ll be cutting, choosing and playing cards, but also discussing and deducing. Social spies, you’ll be trying to work out why everybody else seems hell-bent on accelerating the train when there is only one saboteur. After all, stopping the train is surely the name of everyone’s game (literally!)! But it is not as simple as go or slow. You see, everybody plays a character with an additional personal agenda. And whilst it might align with the shared goal at times, it won’t always be the case.

On top of that, basic democracy can work against you every time a bridge or viaduct approaches. Make enough people suspicious of your true intentions, and you could be thrown from the train altogether! Woah, Mamma! Stop the Train! is a clever mix of deducting, discussing, bluffing, bonding, and back-stabbing for 4 – 6 players! It also has wonderful components; the track really adds to the theme and you can feel the tension and momentum building as the game goes along. But don’t be fooled by the slick set-up; in Stop the Train!, you really can’t trust anybody!

Nathan Feels Smug, Knowing He’s Stolen The Last Jetpack

“We’re all going on a summer holiday, no more working for a week or two….” Well, that’s the idea in Celestia. You are off with the family, exploring new lands in your airship, each taking turns to be the captain. It’s just like Cliff Richard driving the bus in Summer Holiday. You’re island hoping, hoping to reach the land where the sun shines brightly and the sea is blue [in the game you’re aiming to reach the highest value lands and score points]. However, to get to your next island requires the next player to have sufficient cards in their hand to overcome the obstacles. Yes, Celestia is a push your luck game. Do you jump off and make do with the grubby, low value, 2-star accommodation sandwiched between the nightclub and kebab shop? Or perhaps you’ll hang on, hoping to reach the white sand and palm-fringed beaches of your own private island!

So where does the semi-cooperative element appear?

You all want to make progress. You have worked hard and you need a holiday…

Somewhere…

Anywhere…

You want the captain (fellow player) to safely bring you to the next island. They can do the driving while you kick back and watch the scenery go by. But do you really want to share your private beach? What about making him re-roll those dice again? This is akin to throwing a few tacks in front of the bus in the hope of causing a puncture and causing everyone to get off.

But why scupper your own chances of progressing? What the rest don’t know is that you have alternative travel plans in place! Puncture or no puncture your secret cards might allow you to advance and have a week of quiet away from the “great unwashed” and enjoy some prime real estate before everyone else cottons on!

Celestia is a delightful family game. It is built on a push-your-luck mechanic but if you play your cards right, you can push others off once they’ve fulfilled their purpose, throw a spanner in the works for those that remain and then jet off alone to victory and sip margaritas in your own private paradise.

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