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Co-op Case Study: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Recently I’ve been writing about Eric Vogel’s Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. I wrote about how it encourages players to even out resources here, then I wrote over on the Meeples Together blog about how its solo play differs from true cooperative play. When my co-author and I at Meeples Together realized that we hadn’t yet published the Meeples Together case study on the game, which is actually one of the oldest in our archive of bonus case studies, we decided we’d better do so. Here it is!

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Evil Hat Productions (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure(ish), Card Management, Resource Management

Overview

The players take on the roles of Chicago wizard Harry Dresden and his friends. Players each hold a very limited hand of cards that they must play to jointly kill as many Foes and solve as many Cases as they can — but they also have to manage their Fate pool, which decreases with the play of every card.

Challenge System

The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (DFCO) focuses on a type of challenge system that’s relatively rare among cooperatives: it presents an abstract tableau of problems that the players must jointly solve. This abstract style of play is similar to that of classic The Lord of The Rings (2000) or the more recent Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2013), both of which tend to take a step-away from the adventure-style play of many co-ops. In the DFCO tableau, four types of cards are laid out: players may take Advantages that help them as a group, remove Obstacles that disadvantage everyone, or add clues to Cases or hits to Foes.

One of the most interesting aspects of the challenge system is that it lays out its “problem” cards in ranges: closer cards are easier to resolve, while further cards are often impossible to get to. This means that players must figure out how to resolve problems in an order that might not be optimal. They must also decide when to expend additional resources to reach a problem that’s “further away”, (literally) adding another dimension to the play.

Remarkably, all of the challenge cards are visible from the start — and players also receive a hand that contains almost all the cards they’ll play. This means that there isn’t any sort of random trigger, as is usually seen in cooperative games — or rather the randomness is baked in from the start of each game. During the actual play of the game, the uncertainty and indecision instead result from not knowing the contents of other players’ hands and how everyones’ plays will interact. Vogel calls it a “a get-the-task-done-before-the-resources-run-out system” as opposed to an “oppositional system”[1].

The other interesting element in DFCO’s challenge system is its “showdown”. The challenge system is designed so that players rarely can score an absolute victory before the end of the game. But at the game ends, they get to convert their remaining resources (Fate points) into die rolls, which can be used to finish off foes and solve cases. This isn’t as random as it sounds: players will usually know if they have enough Fate points to allow a roll that will solve a problem. Nonetheless, the die roll maintains tension up to the last second of the game, because players will feel like they could lose up to that final roll, because of the uncertainty implicit in the dice.

Challenge System Elements: Timer; (One-Time) Arbitrary Trigger; End-game Activation; End-game Goal; Environmental Consequences; Combat and Task Threats.

Cooperative System

Most obviously, players can cooperate through the play of cards. Each player has their own resources that they can use to solve the collective puzzle on the board. As is typical for cooperative games, this play might become too easy if the players knew precisely what resources everyone else held. There’s thus a very common limited-talking mandate: players can’t show their cards nor state specifics about their numbers.

However, card play is just part of the cooperative equation. Players are also jointly working with a community pool of Fate points. Each player can either add to the pool by discarding a card or subtract from the pool by playing a card. This often requires careful coordination so that the right people can play the right cards and it also creates a real need to frequently sacrifice, something that’s a bit rare in cooperative gaming.

Vogel says this approach allows “working together not just to take actions, but also formulating a strategy”[2]. It creates more of a “collective decision-making process” as opposed to simple collective play.

Adventure System

DFCO gives each player the role of a single character, who has unique cards that thematically match the abilities of that character from the novels. So it’s an adventure game, right? In actuality, the details are a façade over a fairly abstract game. It’s one of those games where players can really dive into the theming or not, depending on their preferences.

The lack of major adventure game tropes continues through the fact that there’s no way to improve characters (unless you count drawing additional cards), there’s no physical locale, and fundamentally there are none of the roleplaying-like activities that you find in typical adventure games.

However, the theming is definitely there — and includes not just the characters, but also the whole setup of the game: each play is a scenario based on a single book from the Dresden Files series, and the details of the individual scenarios strongly call back to the novels they’re based upon.

Final Thoughts

At its heart, DFCO is a nicely innovative cooperative game that changes the core gameplay of a cooperative to be more cooperative and more puzzle-oriented. It’s a big step away from the board-oriented adventure games that dominate the category. It’s also a surprisingly quick play, while still allowing for continued campaigning through multiple books, which is a lesson many co-ops could learn.

Eric B. Vogel

Vogel is an associate professor in clinical psychology whose first published work was a Land of Psymon: A Cognitive Psychotherapy Game (2004). He’s since published numerous games for the board game field, scattered across a wide variety of genres. The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game was his first co-op design, and is also his most successful game to date, as seen by its very strong Kickstarter. Like several of Vogel’s works at the time, it was produced by Evil Hat Productions.


[1] Appelcline, Shannon. 2016. “Co-op Interviews: Eric B. Vogel & The Dresden Files Co-op Card Game”. Mechanics & Meeples. http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2016/05/09/co-op-interviews-eric-b-vogel-the-dresden-files-co-op-card-game/.

[2] Ibid.

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