ONCE UPON A TIME …
all board games were competitive — players had to duke it out to determine a winner. But an idea began proliferating around the board gaming community that posed the possibility of playing games together in a group effort rather than having players poised against each other. This idea gained impetus and the games it produced eventually came to be known as cooperative games.
In time, a storm of cooperative games assailed the interests of gamers all around. Caught up in the middle of this revolution, playing all manner of co-ops, I discovered a game that fascinated me but also confounded me on a couple of points. It was, first of all, an abstract — and I had never heard of an abstract cooperative game before. Secondly, it was based on Chess , but the goal was to move pieces around without capturing any pieces . As a matter of fact, if you did capture a piece in Maze, you lost immediately, and your opponent lost, too. The theme underlying the rules was one of peace. As easy as it sounds, it was an excruciatingly difficult game to win.
When Maze was released in 1982 , it was in a landscape devoid of cooperative games . When we think of the major cooperative games, Maze precedes all of them. Many gamers place the beginnings of cooperative games in the significant successes of Arkham Horror and Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. If Arkham Horror secured a cult following after its release in 1987, Lord of the Rings cemented the deal by introducing certain game mechanisms that still influence co-op designs today.
[snip]…Click to read more about the history of cooperative games including Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, Arkham Horror , Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, Freedom: The Underground Railroad download this issue of Casual Game Insider…[snip]
But where does that leave a game like Maze? Its publisher, Family Pastimes, has been publishing games since 1972. As a matter of fact, they may have been the first game company to bring a cooperative game to the market with their first release, Together. Since that time they have put out over 100 board games, every one of them invariably a cooperative game. In terms of the number of game designs, this may make them the largest publisher of co-ops.
Yet, Family Pastimes is a cottage industry in that they do most of the actual production in a rural area near Perth, Ontario. However, if the Canadian company’s goals are not the same as those of other game makers, it is because their mission statement from the beginning has been clear: competitive games don’t teach the right lessons to children.
When he first started the company, Jim Deacove, the publisher and chief game inventor, felt that there was a void in the type of games that reinforced the ideas parents should teach their kids — lessons like sharing with and being kind to others. His cooperative games were designed to fill that gap.
Deacove recounts in an article he wrote for The Games Journal an occasion when he was asking salespeople for games that stressed sharing and helping each other. “We want a good family game,” he requested. He then describes what happened next : “I remember well the first store owner laughing aloud, then seeing that we weren’ t laughing with him, gave serious consideration to our request. Then we were flabbergasted. He couldn’t find a solitary thing in the entire store.” (See http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/FamilyPastimes.shtml )
Family Pastimes’ catalog is now filled with family and children’s games reminiscent of older boardgames, except the themes provide a slight twist. In DGA-TV, you play TV producers working together to face critics, ratings, sponsors, and employees while avoiding cancellation. Space Future has the players confront a space mission, while each one is performing a specific job. Perhaps the most popular Family Pastimes game is Max, a game where the players try to get three small animals home before Max the Cat eats them.
For gamers looking for greater difficulty, Family Pastimes offers a line of abstract cooperative games, such as Yin Yang, Zen Blocks, and Warp n’ Woof — a race game in the vein of Backgammon, but the goal is to get everybody home rather than just one player.
As curious as these games sound, what compelled me to purchase an abstract cooperative game was Maze. It had a premise unlike that of any game I had ever played before . The initial idea seems to be Chess, chiefly because of the variable piece movements and their potential for capturing, but instead of advancing a war that has already started and knocking out the other player’s pieces, you are moving pieces into threatening positions to prevent a war from happening in the first place.
The object is to get your two “Mates” to the other side of the board while your opponent is trying to get his Mates to your side. However, the Mates are behind rows of your own pieces and your opponent’s pieces, and you need to somehow move these pieces out of the way. But in doing this, they come into threatening positions, slowly carving out a maze through the board. If the pieces ever lock into a configuration where a capture is inevitable or where the Mates have no way of getting to the other side, the players lose.
Except for the Mates, the pieces are randomly distributed into the starting areas, and they have different movement potential. The piece known as the Shadow hops across the board, landing on any available space adjacent to the diplomat . Similarly, the Tree also jumps anywhere across the board, moving to any available space (much like a seed in the wind) — but it can only move once throughout the game, after which you have to put it on its side to show that it is planted.
There are three types of “Time Pawns,” which must move one, two, or three spaces respectively, either forward or to the side. In the rulebook, they are described as pieces that delineate the passage of time (and if there appear to be philosophical underpinnings, they certainly seem intentional). There are pieces that hop over others or that only move diagonally. The Mates themselves move like Chess bishops, which makes crossing the board more challenging. To make matters worse, a row of spaces on either side of the board is a dead man’s zone, and if a piece ever lands on it, it is considered dead (as opposed to captured, which loses the game) , and it is placed on its side to exhibit its paralysis, creating one more permanent obstacle.
An interesting feature of the game is that you don’t control your own pieces throughout the game. You are only controlling the pieces on your side of the board. That means when your Mate or other piece crosses the halfway point, it is no longer under your control but rather in your opponent’s domain, thereafter moved by your opponent. It requires some conscious deliberation to wrap your head around this, since your inclination is to move the dark pieces if you are the dark player. In my first few games, I kept moving my pieces that were across the board before realizing my mistake. Again, when you picture your opponent moving your Mate to get it closer to her home base, it showcases the ideological underpinnings that hold this game together: the players are desperately working together to bring about peace before it’s too late. And like all great co-ops, Maze is extremely hard to beat.
A prolific game inventor, Jim Deacove revisited the main elements of Maze in the later game, Diplomatic Mission. The largest differences are that the board is more open, but this expansiveness is mitigated by the capturing dynamics: instead of capturing by substitution, you merely need to be next to an opponent’s piece, and the game is over — both players lose! Though it is a little trickier to plan out your moves, because you need to analyze who wi l l be next to whom, I found it easier than the almost indomitable Maze.
In hindsight, it seems only proper to acknowledge Jim Deacove’s place in the history of cooperative games. When we talk about games like Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings and their importance in the cooperative game genre, we need to tip our hats to Family Pastimes’ early and longstanding contributions and the commendable goals they have endeavoured to reach.