When Graeme Jahns and I signed In the Hall of the Mountain King to Burnt Island Games, the one caveat was that they wanted us to make a co-op version for the game as well. OK, no problem. We can do that! Who doesn’t love a challenge?!

We reviewed other co-op games and noticed that they all have some sort of pressure from the game that’s more than just trying to get a certain number of points. Reviewing our game we decided that having lava come out of our mountain would be an awesome pressure for the co-op version.

The short story: We went from giving players too much control, and then to giving players no control as we tried to find that sweet spot of balance where it’s hard, but there’s some predictability to the pressure. We started with lava as the pressure and then moved to dwarves or ghouls as an enemy threat. We realized that too much of the co-op game experience was taken up by processing the elements of pressure. Once we learned that we needed to retain as much of the core game experience as possible, we knew we were heading in the right direction.
The long story: Our first stab at it was to create these mini tiles and have each player draw one tile before their turn. Then they had to place it anywhere there was an open lava flow from a previously placed tile. This looked cool as the lava flowed this way and that, but it ultimately wasn’t enough pressure because the players had so much control over where this lava flowed. While they never knew what kind of tile they would get, they did get to decide where to place it.

So, as we designers often do, we go from one side of the pendulum to the other and we removed as much choice from the players as we could. Now there was a lava totem and players were forced to place the next piece exactly where the lava totem was located. Players could spend a resource to move the lava totem before the end of their turn to better prepare for the next player’s turn. This removed some of the fun we had experienced in the previous version because the lava was so chaotic. We couldn’t plan for it at all and players were getting randomly screwed by the lava and would not have as good a time. On top of this the game was really slowing down. Having each player draw a tile and place it took a few extra seconds – more so later in the game as players were now drawing 2,3 or 4 tiles on their turn.

Ok, plan 3. Let’s get rid of the lava tiles and just use orange cubes. We came up with a system of cards that had these Tetris-esque patterns on them and once per round, the players flip a card and then place cubes matching the pattern on the card. We tried it with the lava totem and while players had some choice about how to orient the card pattern, they were still forced to go in a specific direction. This still caused players to all agree to screw over one player for the greater good – which wasn’t good. So then we gave each player a totem – and made the lava come out of different totems to make it more of a threat to everyone. Yay!

This was actually working nicely, however we soon realized that since lava flows down and we’re tunnely up – while we do have some tension there in the middle, once we tunneled past the lava, we were pretty safe and pressure free. This wasn’t good. OK, now what? We had ideas about having the lava restart back at the top if it ever made it to the bottom, but that never happened fast enough. So we tried making the Tetris shapes bigger to make it harder, but there were always these moments throughout the game where the pressure was off.
Hey, who wants to go back to the drawing board? I do I do! Sooooo, what if instead of lava, we had dwarves attacking us? OK, I’m listening. We came up with an idea where we’d draw a dwarf card at the start of a player’s turn and that player would have to pay some sort of resource to it. We tried many incarnations of this system until we realized that simply draining players of the resource that lets them do the fun things in your game does not a fun game make.

We needed to figure out a way to have pressure, but still allow players to experience all the fun a game has to offer.

What has your experience been with playtesting co-op games? Any key insights into how to maintain a pressure for the players while still ensuring they get to experience the fun of the game? I’ll share what we did in the comments below.