In contrast to competitive board games, co-operative board games are games where the players work together in order to achieve a goal, typically either winning or losing as a group. There is little or no competition between players. Cooperative board games are characterised by joint communication, negotiation, co-operation and collaboration.

Cooperative games up until the 1990s were typically used as educational tools by parents and teachers, and lacked the dynamism or tension inherent in modern boardgames. Some popular and emerging games developed cooperative mechanics as part of the game – for example, Scotland Yard, which involved one player competing against all of the other players working together. This has come to be known as a ‘one vs many’ game, and is now regarded as a distinct category from cooperative games.

The major technical iteration in the genre occurred with the publication in 2000 of Lord of the Rings, designed by Reiner Knizia. In this game, participants played against the engine of the game itself, which introduced a new approach to design and game experience. This idea of working together to defeat the internal engine or AI of the game influenced a number of subsequent titles, including Shadows Over Camelot and Pandemic.

A further advance on the genre emerged with the introduction of the ‘traitor’ mechanic, where some cooperative games include a role of one or more players who work secretly against the group as a whole. The traitor mechanic also introduced variable win conditions for co-operative games, by enabling an outcome where it was possible for one or more players to win if the other players lose. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is a landmark in this regard, where some players receive a “Cylon” card when loyalty cards are handed out work in secret to undermine humanity.

This variation was extended again in the introduction of personal win conditions. For example, in Dead of Winter, a zombie apocalypse game, in order to win players must achieve the communal victory condition and a personal objective. In this game, it is possible for some players to win, all players to win, or some players to lose.

The following graph shows the number of products featuring a “cooperative play” mechanism each year (from cooperative game designer extraordinaire Matt Leacock):