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Book Review: Meeples Together

Meeples Together (Christopher Allen & Shannon Appelcline) is the book I have spent about 10 years looking for. The format of this book is as close to my ideal ‘game design’ book as I have found. Now, this book isn’t perfect, but it gets so much right, it should be considered a ‘must read’, allow me to elaborate...


Review

Meeples Together is a book about co-operative game design and theory. The single strongest element of this book is the analysis and breakdown of various components and mechanics of games with cooperative elements.

The book doesn’t just look at pure cooperative games, but rather many games that have cooperative elements, such as Overlord (Descent) and Hunter games (Last Friday). They even break down different types of “pure” co-ops, such as Traitor style games (Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, etc.).

That leads to probably my biggest, legitimate critique of Meeples Together. The book talks about the various types of games; they draw a lot of interesting conclusions and toe up to a very big one, but never connect the final dots. Which is: that cooperative games are actually ‘team versus’ games. Sometimes the game is asymmetrical, such as in The Others: 7 Sins, and sometimes one team is automated (a cardboard opponent if you will).

The authors break down co-op components and identify the “challenge system” and do a lot of interesting analysis around the mechanics, but it is really just an opposing team. A non-human team to be sure, but one that can be played by cardboard mechanics or digital (Mansions of Madness 2nd ed.). Overall, this did little to change my enjoyment of the book, but it was intellectually difficult to see the book stop just shy of the finish line.

Meeples also includes a brief history of co-op games and largely lays the title of first co-op on Arkham Horror (Launius 1987) and digs into the games that set it up, such as roleplaying games. Particularly of note is of course Call of Cthulhu. It would have been interesting to see some note of solitaire games, such as Klondike, and how they form a basis of co-ops, along with RPGs.

The third thing the book does, which I think is crucial for a design book, is it provides in depth analysis of existing games. This gives a chance to for the authors to show how the break down of games applies and what exactly is included when they talk about the triumvirate of Challenge System, Cooperative System, and Adventure system.

While abstraction is crucial for a discussion of various theories, it is also easier to speak in those terms, without considering edge cases and actual application of theory. Meeples does a very good job of providing concrete examples of theoretical mechanics. Usually in the form of citing specific games (of which there is a very nice glossary), but also specific game parts, such as when discussing the idea of “supporting other players”.

Summary

The Bad

I want to preface this section by saying that these are the things that I had issues with, but in the grand scheme of things, should not deter anyone from reading this book.

One of the earliest issues I had, is that the authors did not start with a definition of cooperative play. Over the course of the book this is made clear, but early on, in Chapter 1, section “What is a Cooperative Game”, there is not a statement put forth and justified. It spends time looking at what games the authors consider cooperative, and various dictionary definitions. I felt this caused confusion when the authors unilaterally claimed Werewolf is just a voting game, but Dresden Files is a true co-op. More confusing is when this is walked back in later chapters.

There is some lack of consistency in Meeples Together. At one point, the book presents that the ‘support’ action is a critical part of cooperative play in Diplomacy, but then calls it a competitive mechanic in a sidebar about Death Angel.

Like all design books, authors will put forth many opinions, which supported properly with examples and facts will become accepted theory. Meeples largely does this, but there are some spots where I felt more support could have been provided. I acknowledge that a book can become bogged down by such discussion, but for example in the Terra analysis, the authors say it fails as a game because of Terra’s anti-cooperative mechanics (stating that greedy players usually win), but don’t discuss how greedy players winning disqualifies it as a game or even a cooperative game, specifically.

On Losing

A similar opinion, that I would have enjoyed seeing discussions and analysed, is that having an unwinnable game is only a big issue when the players can easily see that it is unwinnable. I wanted to see the authors point of view, as I emphatically and completely disagree.

When players lose, there is often evaluation (even unconsciously) of playing strategy. If players cannot see that they could not win, they will not attribute their loss correctly, and cannot learn and grow from it. For example, if a game of Pandemic is unwinnable (which the authors theorize, but do not confirm), players may suppose that their sharing of cards is what lead to their loss, and fail to share cards in future games, leading to further loss. This is clearly an undesirable cycle. In my experience, when a game is unwinnable, my group wants to identify that early and correctly. That way we can simply try again.

Meeples Together places big emphasis on winning and difficulty to win in relation to fun and enjoyment, but largely ignores players that enjoy winning or players that just enjoy the mechanics of the game (some Catan players simply like trading).

The book presents several different theories of the psychology behind fun and cooperation. However, the authors place great emphasis on Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, which boils down to an emphasis on learning. The problems of that theory as the sole theory of fun are many, but ignores all non-learning forms of fun. I absolutely agree that learning can be one of many sources of fun, but the that work is not academically rigorous, and Meeples reliance on it, is disappointing.

Along those lines, the authors spend a bit of analysis about “why players enjoy losing”, which not only frames the answer as a question, but also ignores several issues with player loss. The thrust of the analysis is that players must enjoy losing, since the authors have anecdotal evidence of groups trying to play a game again, immediately after losing.

That is the true issue that should merit much more exploration. While I agree, that a narrow loss can be memorable and excite players to play again, that is far from the only player loss scenario.

Discussion of competitiveness and desire to win (or even enjoyment of winning is ignored). Even though the players may be competing against a challenge system (Pandemic), I have not noticed any less competitive behavior or desire to triumph.

While narrative of play is discussed, the implications on winning and losing is not explored fully. Players may see loss as part of a narrative journey, and the desire to play again isn’t from enjoying the loss, but to finish the journey. Same imperative for binging a season of a television show; to finish; to resolve.

This topic could probably fill a book itself, but acknowledgement of complexity of player win and loss would make this a better book. Evidence should be offered for statements that players don’t enjoy easy wins (this differs from my experience). I challenge the assumption that players enjoyment of the game is entirely (or strongly) predicated on their ability to win. That certainly isn’t true for non-cooperative games, and I haven’t witnessed any difference with cooperative games.

The Good

Meeples Together makes good use of examples and applied theories. Great job of detailing co-ops, if nothing else, is a fairly strong listing of co-op games. However, though they claim it isn’t authoritative, there are gaps of mechanical significance. I found several gaps in pure co-ops, such as Legends of Andor, Yggdrasil, and Sentinels of the Multiverse. While Descent: Journeys in the Dark is mentioned, The Others: 7 Sins is not. Those games are popular and have unique properties, which could be explored or used as supporting examples.

The analysis of game parts is excellent. The thought behind them and the presentation make it clear what the ‘moving parts’ of a game design is. Sometimes, the hairs between mechanics might be too finely split for my taste, but overall, this is the kind of presentation that resonates with me.

The book also presents iconography for each mechanic and each category presented. This means that there are many, many icons, which I personally didn’t find useful (particularly with no icon reference section), I appreciate the creation and thought behind them.

The Conclusion

Looking at this review, you may see many more complaints than accolades. There are two reasons for this. The first, is that it is easy to complain. It is easy to nitpick and find the fault, because there is very little on the line and no responsibility to solve the issue.

The second and larger reason, is that I find it hard to praise the book without simply saying it is damn near perfect. Hopefully I have presented why I feel it is so good.

For me, a book about design should have three major components. Theory, Analysis, and Application. Meeples fully presents those components. The discussion of theory is well done and while it could be pushed, it is cohesive and well articulated. The Analysis is the strongest part of the book and almost every chapter analyzes and breaks down some aspect of cooperative play.

The Application component is usually the part that I miss when reviewing game design books. Showing specific concrete implementation of theory is the easiest way for me to connect the dots between theory and specifics.

It also helps me to tune in to the wavelength of the author(s), to get on the same page as it were. I have seen analysis based on theory that isn’t well understood, and it can be confusing and conflicted. Therefore I cannot stress enough how much I enjoy seeing specific examples. That alone greatly boosted my enjoyment of this book.

Who Should Buy This Book

Anyone who enjoys games. I imagine there are people who enjoy rigorous analysis without enjoying the subject matter, and they too should read this book! I frankly loved this book because it is about game design, it analyzes the mechanics of the games, and it shows how the theories presented are manifested in specific examples.

If you are looking for a ‘textbook’ kind of experience for game design, this is it. I have read a number of design books and they can be frustratingly vague, which makes it hard to see how theory is put into practice. It also makes it hard to spot flaws in the theory, without a commitment to examples.

In spite of any faults I present, holistically, this book is essential to any game design library.

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