Posted on

Co-op Case Study: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Publisher: Minion Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure


Dead Men Tell No Tales puts the players in the roles of pirates looting a ghost ship. Their goal is to recover sufficient treasures before the boat goes up in flames or the defending deckhands overcome the piratical forces.

Challenge System

The challenge system in Dead Men Tell No Tales centers on a rather unusual two-phase challenge system. At the start of each player’s turn, he reveals more of the pirate ship by randomly drawing and placing a tile, then placing a challenge token on that tile. This supports tile-laying play, but replaces the player-directed exploration found in games like Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and Sub Terra (2017) with a more methodical reveal of the map that ensures that the entirety of the ship appears over just twenty turns of play. The challenge tokens that are placed during the map creation don’t immediately activate, which is the other innovative part of Dead Men’s challenge system. Instead, these tokens reveal either set challenges or else pending dangers that might be activated in the challenge system’s second phase.

The set challenges revealed by the token placement are actually the victory conditions that players are working toward: six of the tokens are guards, protecting the treasure that players are trying to get off of the ship. If a player can reach a guard he activates it through his movement. He must then succeed at a skill test to defeat the guard. If he does he can grab the treasure; once four to six treasures are taken off the ship, the players win!

Meanwhile, the more active element of the challenge system occurs at the end of a round, when a “Revenge” card is drawn that can activate threats already present on the map. Most importantly, it can: increase fires; add deckhands; and move skeletons.

The fires are an ever-present force on the ghost ship. They work something like the fires in Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011). Each new tile starts off with a fire, with its strength represented with a die marked from 0 to 5. Then each Revenge card causes all of the fires of a certain value and color to increase by one. Disasters can occur in two ways: any time a fire reaches a “6”, the room explodes, destroying it and increasing the fire of all adjacent rooms. In addition, some rooms have gunpowder barrels that can explode at lower numbers, also increasing the fire in one adjacent room. Overall, the fire system is somewhat simplistic. Because of that, there’s not a lot of chance for confusing interaction: it’s pretty easy to see if a fire is going to blow up, and it’s pretty easy to see the resulting effects.

The deckhands can appear in two different ways: they either appear at rooms with trap doors, or they spread out from the trapdoors that they’re at. This system feels like the diseases of Pandemic (2007), though it’s mostly simplified. The exception is the mechanic for deckhands spreading out, where their expansion has several limitations: they can only spread through doors, to rooms without trapdoors, and that have fewer deckhands than the originating room. There is the opportunity for confusing interaction here, but it’s not necessarily beneficial to the game. It’s not just that you can’t predict where the deckhands will go; it also takes a lot of concentration to place them at all!

The skeletons are a pretty minor element in the game. They’re effectively monsters that move toward the nearest player if they’re activated … but they’re also loot, because defeating them reveals valuable prizes. The biggest issue with the skeletons is that they don’t move enough to be an actual threat. Of the 19 Revenge cards, just four move skeletons. Since they just move one space each time, they don’t surprise players very often, which means that they don’t introduce enough dread to really pull their weight.

None of the individual threat systems of Dead Men is particularly innovative. They’re all pretty obvious matches for what had previously appeared in other games. Though Dead Men contains a lot of these systems, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Paired threats often work well (such as fires vs. deckhands), but Dead Men may have spread out its focus too much with its five different threats (fires, destroyed rooms, deckhands, guards, and skeletons).

With that said, Dead Men’s challenge activation system offers some interesting innovation. By splitting up its challenges into two parts — a tile-laying phase where threats are announced and a card-drawing phase where threats are advanced — it’s created a new model for how challenge systems can work in a cooperative game. (In fact, Sub Terra later used the same model, perhaps to better effect because of a more focused challenge system.)

Challenge System Elements: Turn and Movement Activations; Arbitrary (Card and Tile) Triggers; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequences; and Combat and Replication Task Threats.

Cooperative System

As with many cooperative games, the core of Dead Men focuses on strategic cooperation. Players each work on different problems at different locations, guided in large part by their character’s abilities. With everyone working together, all of the problems are (hopefully) resolved. However, Dead Men also contains a few innovative systems that create interesting tactical cooperation.

Its first cooperative innovation lies in its action point system. Like Flash Point, Pandemic, and other games in this co-op family, players in Dead Men expend action points on their turns to do a number of different things — including moving, fighting fires, and removing deckhands. However Dead Men varies from its predecessors by offering the ability to pass a limited number of action points to the next player. This creates considerable tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together even when they’re far apart (by deciding who needs more or less actions at any time).

Its second cooperative innovation lies in its item system. Each player starts the game out with an item that provides a minor special power, while a few other are left on the table. As an action, a player may take any item — from the table or from another player. This gives players the ability to tactically decide which of them need which powers at any time, which is a real rarity in the field.

Adventure System

Each player initially gets a character and an item — providing them with lots of varied setups, chosen from 49 different possibilities (7 characters * 7 items) —which is much more variability than in most co-op games. Each of these 49 possibilities introduce some evocative adventure-game elements into the game.

The other innovation in Dead Men’s adventure system comes from its “fatigue” system. These are essentially life points, which decrease as a character enters hot rooms or is damaged in combat. The innovative element is that players accrue disadvantages as their fatigue increases by losing the ability to enter certain rooms. There are a few other games with similar decay-related disadvantages, but it’s still a ripe area for exploration.

Final Thoughts

To a certain extent, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a hodge-podge, adopting many of the general ideas from a handful of successful co-op games, particularly those in the Pandemic family of design. This comes across the most in its challenge system, which might have mashed together too many possibilities.

With that said, it’s also got quite a few innovative (or sometimes: rarely used) ideas that would be of value to the rest of the cooperative field, including: a two-phase challenge system, a two-part character system, redistributable action points, and easily redistributable power items.

Kane Klenko

Wisconsin game designer Kane Klenko appeared on the scene in 2014 and initially focused on real-time designs like Mad City (2014), Pressure Cooker (2015), and Proving Grounds (2019). The turn-based co-op Dead Men Tell No Tales (2015) was a bit of a departure, but Klenko then combined his interests in the real-time co-ops FUSE (2015), Flatline (2017), and most notably Pandemic: Rapid Response (2019).

Liked it? Take a second to support Shannon Appelcline on Patreon!

The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples