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Scaling Multiplayer Co-op

9 replies [Last post]
Joined: 05/04/2018

So I have a deep love for cooperative board games and one thing that always bothers me is that often games are either:
super easy 2 player or a very difficult 6 player. Or vise versa.

Does anyone know of any games that do really well multiplayer scaling in a cooperative sense? Or even any ideas how to scale the difficulty to the # of players without just multiplying everything by the number of players?

jonathanflike's picture
Joined: 03/09/2016

I think everyone swoons about how great Pandemic is, that might be a good one to check out. I need to play more co-op games, but I know the number one complaint from them is when the designer doesn't scale downward properly and makes two players play the extra characters for a four-player game etc. I think avoiding that pitfall might be a good start in thinking about scaling.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
About Pandemic

jonathanflike wrote:
I think everyone swoons about how great Pandemic is, that might be a good one to check out...

We kind of cheated when playing Pandemic. It says up to 4 players. We played 5... And beat the game on the first try. That's not to say that the game did not have tension... But because we had ALL FIVE (5) Player Abilities, we had an advantage in that we didn't need to choose 4 out 5 abilities... Everyone had a role and ability and we worked with that...

Not sure if we would have beaten the game with only 4 players... It's a difficult game to WIN and most of the time, the players lose to the game...

Just a quick FYI about Pandemic...

Joined: 05/04/2018

Pandemic is enjoyable up to a point.... But it is one of those games I believe that struggles to scale with the number of players just because of the mechanics of virus outbreaks. Its easily winnable playing as 1 player and it feels more like lucky winning it with 4 players. Its definitely a common issue in cooperative board games :/

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
kritakat wrote:Pandemic is

kritakat wrote:
Pandemic is enjoyable up to a point...

The problem I have with Pandemic (and probably MOST Co-op games) is what I believe is the "low" replayability factor...

Like I said, we kind of cheated by playing 5 players and we won. During the game there was tension... So the game was NOT "boring" at all. It actually was very FUN... BUT... And it's a BIG BUT... Having won on the first try just makes me not want to play Pandemic ever again.

I have 0% interest in playing Pandemic again. And I think it would be that way for A LOT of players, once they BEAT the game, they aren't so inclined to play the game again.

And because usually players LOSE in Pandemic, I can get the draw of trying to replay again because you keep losing... But once you win, the magic kind of dies... If you know what I mean.

So for ANY "Co-op" game, I think REPLAYABILITY is a HUGE Factor. But even more importantly is variety in Co-op play. And I'm not talking about roles or abilities, I'm talking about CAMPAIGN-Style play... You need to have some kind of Story-Arc which is different once players WIN a scenario...

Take my game "TradeWorlds".

At it's "core" is a 4 Player game with each player having his own "Asymmetric Ability". Okay fine, nothing big there. There are 2 Multiplayer Scenarios, a 1 Player Tutorial Scenario, 2 more Expansion Scenarios, a Co-op Player Scenario and lastly an AI Solo Deck...

With all that, you've got so much to experience that I'm sure it would take like 20 games (including the 2 Expansions) to have tried everything at least once.

That's what I call REAL VALUE.

The other point that I make is that EVEN if you've experience everything once... You've been having FUN all along, that it might not matter to replay one scenario you've already won at... For example.

To conclude (where was I going with all of this???) ... Oh yeah... Design a Co-op game that features CAMPAIGNS. This could allow for a larger Story-Arc and make for varied play even if one (1) campaign is WON by all the players, there are several to complete the "adventure".

I would worry less about "scalability" and focus on "replayability".

That's the weakness of Co-op games... IMHO.


X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Wargamers have it easy with this

A big single player mission could easily being broken up into smaller parts with more people.

Then the differences in approaching a problem starts. You discuss stratagies. Especially when forced to work together.

So. If it is possible to make a 1 player game where you use a lot. Maybe you can cut it into smaller pieces for multiple players.

Most wargames can be calculated in difficulty. I set my single player missions to 40 to 60 percent. The co-op are the same. But harder since it requires players to cooperate.

Joined: 05/04/2018
Thanks for the Feedback!

Okay, great! Making my game into more of a campaign would definitely be fun to design since its about a group of little mage students against various evil villains. I'm excited to get started on the design!

Thanks for the info questccg!

Lowenhigh's picture
Joined: 03/20/2018
First, I think Pandemic is a

First, I think Pandemic is a great game. It’s the sort you take on family vacations with you and show to family. That is why it is a great game.

Second, the difficulty of Pandemic with more players is the awkwardness of getting cards from one player to another for the disease cure. Most of the time, you can keep things from getting chaotic but most players lose by making it through the player deck before curing all 4 diseases. It is a really interesting mechanic with more players - I wonder if it was planned like that...

Third, my 2 bits on scaling multiplayer co-op game’s would use Pandemic as a shining example of something very specific:

Have multiple elements (more than 1) that need to be dealt with. Pandemic has the disease cubes on the board and also the cards in hand that players must trade, and these things compete for the same action pool. The need to deal with multiple elements from the same action pool is what I use to scale player counts in my co-op dungeon crawl (

The first element in Deliverance are the enemies. The next is a card-reveal mechanic that makes enemies stronger or players weaker (forever stacking until dealt with) depending on what card is revealed. It’s all about how you balance these things as you progress through the game that spells out your chances of winning in the end.

Players that want to try hard can go for higher difficulty levels, too.

Pandemic has multiple ways to lose, but only one way to win. I think an easy to explain “win condition” is important, but multiple ways to lose can be a good idea for a co-op (i.e- Outbreaks or Player Deck runs out in Pandemic). It gives people something visible to keep record of.

In my game, you only lose when everybody dies.

Joined: 01/17/2011
Event(s) per player's turn

kritakat wrote:
Does anyone know of any games that do really well multiplayer scaling in a cooperative sense? Or even any ideas how to scale the difficulty to the # of players without just multiplying everything by the number of players?

One common method of scaling difficulty by players is to trigger event(s) per player's turn. This works well in games where the players take turns (as opposed to all players acting every turn).


In Pandemic (mentioned earlier) the players take turns. On your turn you draw event cards (in which bad stuff happens), and player cards (which let you do good stuff). You have a fixed number of action points to spend on your turn. So the bad stuff and good stuff occurs at a fixed rate no matter how many players are in the game. This makes game balance easier. There are other minor mechanics which play off against each other to keep the game balanced, such as the good cards being diluted amongst many players (which makes it harder with more players because you need to collect sets to win) vs having players spread across the map (which makes it easier with more players because you can stop the bad stuff happening). Overall Pandemic is generally harder with more players, because one of the losing conditions is when the player deck runs out. More players = more cards in hand = less turns before you lose.

In Lord of the Rings the players take turns. On your turn you draw event tiles (in which bad stuff happens), and then play cards (which let you do good stuff). Same as Pandemic, the rate of good stuff and bad stuff is fixed no matter now many players there are. Unlike Pandemic, you don't lose when the player deck runs out. So the balance of the game is easier with more players, because more players = more cards in hand = more chance for good stuff. Minor mechanics help to balance the game such as having a fixed number of good cards to distribute between the players, rather than all players drawing X cards.

For your game, if the players take turns then you can consider mechanics like this and how they would interact with each other to balance (or unbalance) the game.

If the players act simultaneously in each turn, then an equivalent mechanic would be for each player to draw one event card (bad stuff) each turn, so the amount of bad stuff per turn scales with the number of players.

By "bad stuff", I'm talking about progress towards the losing condition(s). It doesn't have to be event cards or tiles like the examples above. It could be roll a dice or draw chits from a bag to trigger bad stuff. It doesn't even have to be random. It could be "move the timer 1 space closer to doomsday" or "add 1 enemy to the map".

Similarly, "good stuff" can be any combination of gaining power (i.e. building an engine), making progress towards the win condition and/or delaying the lose condition.

[Side note: It generally aids tension if building an engine, the win condition(s) and lose condition(s) are all independent of each other. This is the case in both of the Pandemic and Lord of the Rings examples. If progress towards the win automatically delays the lose then you've missed an opportunity to build tension in the end-game. Similarly if building an engine automatically makes progress towards the win then you've missed an opportunity to make strategic decisions in the early- to mid-game.]


Joined: 02/11/2015
I am working through a similar issue

I am working through scaling issues on one of my games. My game is a cooperative (with an optional competitive element) dungeon crawler-esque type game. Quick summary, two decks (Player Deck and Creature Deck), six character cards with slightly different abilities (though more could be added), Life Counters (currently D30, but want to move to dials to help balance the characters), and a few dice to determine how damage is resolved. Simply utilize the player cards to defeat the monster cards. Players can trade cards with other players, cycle cards from the player deck, attack the monsters, heal the other players or shuffle the discard deck to refresh the player deck. With this, I hope to be able to print more creature decks to generate variability in play style and difficulty. Some issues I've come across in mine (and other coop games that I tried to avoid):

Wait time between actions and total number of actions. I like Pandemic too, but when we play 4 player, it just seems to take too long to get your character to do something again. You still get to strategize with the other players, but the more players there are, the fewer actions you get to take and longer you have to wait to take them. To avoid this in scale-able coop, I have simultaneous turns. Still have a few resolution kinks to work out, but has helped the game play substantially.

Generally speaking in my game, I've found the more players there are, the more choices they have and the stronger the team is/easier the game gets. One way I've offset this, partially, is force them to "waste" turns more often. By forcing them to replenish the player deck as an action, they effectively lose a turn to fight the creatures. It's a 72 card deck, and each player uses up to 6 cards each round (one character up to 8). So more players equals more shuffling of the discard deck to replenish the player deck.

Creature deck frequency of monsters. This has been the real challenge in balancing as I scale the number of players. I've developed a system where the creatures advance along a path until they confront the players. The amount they advance is equal to the number of players. Each creature deck comes with a path length that sets the frequency. For example, a weenie creature deck has a path length of 2. For 2 players, 1 creature every turn. For 3 players, 1 creature first turn, 2 next turn, 1, 2, etc. More players yeilds more creatures each turn. For a stronger creature deck, the path may be 5. In 2 player, they would see a creature every 2 to 3 turns. In a 4 player, they would see a creature nearly every turn (every 5th turn a creature would not appear). In 6 player, every fifth turn would have 2 creatures appear. This also helps offset some of the more players equals stronger team problem.

Though I'd like to avoid this, right now I'm having to adjust the number of "bosses" in the creature deck based on the number of players. If 2 bosses come up back to back with a small group, it's pretty much "GAME OVER MAN!", which sucks. For some creature decks special shuffling is specified to minimize this, but it also lengthens game setup time (which I also want to avoid).

Along these same lines, I give instructions for shortening and lengthening the game and adjusting difficulty of each creature deck to allow for introductory level verse seasoned veteran and quick fun run verse a marathon through the gauntlet.

Hope some of my experiences might give you ideas in how to overcome any coop issues you come across.

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