Games That Teach – Cooperative Games

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I had just recently learned about the world of table-top board gaming and how a lot of these games can be used with kids to teach and reinforce a number of different concepts.

What I neglected to talk though was the inevitable occurrence that happens to all of us whenever we play games with our kids. There comes a time during every game where you, as the adult, have to decide whether you are going to let your kid win or crush their dreams all in the name of victory.

I will be honest in saying that while I wholeheartedly agree that letting your kid win a game is probably the right thing to do, a part of me can’t help but feel a little cheated because letting somebody win goes 100% against what I believe in. I, like a lot of people, am a fairly competitive person and so allowing someone to just swoop in and win a game that we’ve been playing for an hour + feels somewhat counterintuitive.

Luckily, our family has discovered cooperative board games. Cooperative games allow for all of the fun of a traditional board game without having to deal with the competitiveness that some people (ahem…namely me) bring to the table. At first, the idea of a cooperative experience in board gaming seemed a little strange because I figured there was no way that playing with other people could be as exciting or satisfying as playing against them.

After a few plays however, I realized I was wrong (seems to be a running theme with me). Cooperative games not only have all of the excitement and tension of traditional games, but they are also a blast to play with your kids. Working together and winning (but more often losing) based on decisions we collectively make is an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience. They are also a great way to teach and explore a number of different skills with your children. Because no one is focusing on beating the other players and everything is shared, there is always time to stop and discuss different concepts, strategies, and decisions.

We have played a number of these types of games, but the following are the ones that stick out as our favourites, not only because they are fun, but because they also provide a number of educational benefits.

Forbidden Island

One thing I will say about cooperative games is that they are hard. Quite often the difficulty level of these games is very high due to the fact that the fun comes from collectively overcoming the challenge. The problem with this is that it can sometimes be frustrating feeling like you have no chance to win because the game seems to be set up for you to fail.

Forbidden Island is great beginner coop game because while it is challenging, it always feels balanced and beatable. The premise of the game is that you are a team of explorers on an island that is sinking, and you are trying to collect 4 treasures and get off the island before it is completely submerged. As a group, you need to plan, strategize, and execute a plan in order accomplish this goal but as you do, the island continues to throw obstacles in your way. The game uses tile laying, set collection, and special player abilities as its core mechanics and it usually plays in under 30 minutes.

There are a number of reasons why I really like playing this game with my kids. Most notable though is the fact that its fairly simple and so I’m able to hand them the reigns and let them make the decisions. One of the main complaints that people have about coop games is that there can be a “quarterbacking” problem where one person takes control of the game and makes the decisions while the other players end up as passive observers rather than engaged participants.

Forbidden Island doesn’t usually lend itself to this problem because the decisions are fairly simple and every player has a special ability that they can use on their turn that is unique to them. This allows for players to work together to make choices which usually always results in more engagement and fun.

I also really like this game because I find it actually plays best with 2 players, although its still really fun at 3 or 4. This works well for us because sometimes not everyone feels like playing a game and so I can sit down with my son or daughter and play as partners without sacrificing strategy, difficulty, or fun. The only negative that I can think of in this game is that due to its simple mechanics, once you’ve played it a few times, it tends to get a little repetitive. This can be remedied however by trying the thematic sequel to Forbidden Island called Forbidden Desert. It is similar to the original but adds new mechanics and extended gameplay. I haven’t tried it myself, but it seems to have received positive reviews online.

If you’re looking for a simple and fairly cheap, but tense and enjoyable coop game that you can easily play with your kids – definitely check out Forbidden Island. You can usually pick it up for under $30.

PROS
Fairly Inexpensive
Simple Decisions but Tense and Exciting Results
Great at all Player Counts

CONS
May Get Repetitive after Multiple Plays

Robinson Crusoe – Adventures on the Cursed Island

Another island game? It’s weird I know, but believe me when I say that escaping this island will be no easy task. In fact, I’m pretty sure that our family has only beaten the game once. Robinson Crusoe – Adventures on the Cursed Island is hands down the most difficult board game I have ever played. At times it feels completely unfair and the game goes out of its way to make life as difficult for you and your teammates.

Exploring the island.

So why play this game at all, and why in the world would you want to subject your kids to this type of punishment? Simply put, it’s totally worth it. For as difficult as the game can be, no game has created more memorable moments than Robinson Crusoe. I won’t get into the rules or gameplay mechanics because it is a fairly complex and involved game, but if you are interested in seeing how it works, I highly recommend checking out the Watch it Played video below. I will, however, talk a little bit about why I think that this game is great to play with kids, despite it being intended for older players.

That probably won’t end well.

First off, Robinsons Crusoe is a game that allows you to tell a story. As events and occurrences happen within the game, players will have to make decisions about how to handle them. The interesting thing is that once you’ve made your decision, there will usually be a consequence or reward based on what you chose. These consequences/rewards don’t happen immediately though. Instead, there will always be a chance that you will experience them later in the game. For example, during one game my son pulled a card that said he could build our hut using some random wood that his character found.

At first we thought it was a lucky break that we found the wood pile, but 4 rounds later that same card came up again telling us that the wood had termites and our hut had collapsed during the night. That same night there was a bad snow storm that we then had to endure without shelter which led to all sorts of bad things.

Interesting decisions.

Now that may seem frustrating and bordering on depressing, but it is actually a really neat way to incorporate narrative into a game. As the kids play as the characters, the game is giving them the events and conflicts, allowing them to create a narrative that they then get to guide and influence. The value in this, for me at least, is that it creates engagement in storytelling for them which can then be transferred to their reading choices. As I had mentioned in my 5 Tips for Helping your Child Learn to Read post, meaningful context is huge for motivating kids (and adults for that matter) to read. I find that nothing creates meaningful context more than being actively engaged in the storytelling, and Robinson Crusoe definitely allows for this.

So many things to do…so many things to go wrong!

Another aspect about this game that I think is valuable for kids is that it shows that it’s OK to lose. As we all know, it can be hard for kids to deal with losing a game (or failing in general). Playing a difficult cooperative game such as this lets you lose together, which not only softens the blow for them but shows them that losing doesn’t take away from the experience.

We always tell our kids that winning and losing doesn’t matter as long as you have fun, but sometimes that’s hard point to convince them of. A game like Robinson Crusoe allows for a concrete and tangible example of this because chances are you are not going to succeed, but you’re going to have fun regardless.


If you can get past the difficulty and the complex rules, Robinson Crusoe – Adventures on the Cursed Island is definitely worth a shot if you’re looking for something that allows for great storytelling and interesting decisions.


PROS

  • Thematic and Engaging Narrative
  • Choices have interesting and relevant consequences
  • Teaches kids that the value is in the experience, not the outcome.

CONS

  • Oh so hard…
  • Complex rules that may take time to master

Pandemic: The Cure

The original Pandemic game was one of the first commercially successful cooperative games, and has become a staple in board gaming since its release back in 2018.

The different roles you can take.

While the original version of Pandemic is great, I prefer Pandemic: The Cure when playing with my kids. Both versions have the same premise in that you and your team of scientists are tasked with eradicating diseases around the world and saving all of humanity from a catastrophic outbreak. The main difference between the two is that while the original version uses cards and text to deal with information, Pandemic: The Cure uses dice. Although card based games are some of my favourites, there are a couple of advantages to using dice when playing with younger players. First off, dice are fun. Resolving the effects of a dice roll is a lot more enjoyable for a kid than resolving the effects of a card due to the fact that they are the ones who rolled the result. The fact that they had a hand in the result (as random as it may be) tends to keep them focused and engaged, resulting in a more immersive experience.

So many dice…

Another benefit of using dice is that it allows kids who are still learning to read a chance to be as involved as the ones who are more advanced in their reading. Nothing is more frustrating for kids than when someone else has to explain to them what is going on, and so the fact that they can roll dice and read the symbols in order to know what’s going on can make for a more enjoyable and rewarding game session.

I have also included this game on the list because it deals with a science theme, and I firmly believe that exposing kids to a variety of thematic topics, both in games and in reading, opens them up to new ideas, perspectives, and opinions on topics that they may not experience in their everyday life.

In fact, we keep this game on hand in some of our science classrooms in my school for this very reason. Exposing kids to academic themes and topics through games is a proven and effective way to get them interested and thinking outside of their knowledge and comfort zone. Pandemic, and more specifically Pandemic: The Cure, are games that explore scientific concepts while also provided interesting and enjoyable team based gameplay.

The Pandemic series of games are classics for a reason. They are cooperative, strategic, and challenging while also presenting and interesting and unique theme. Pandemic: The Cure (along with its expansion Experimental Meds) is a more accessible and kid friendly version than the original that doesn’t sacrifice difficult or strategy. Check out the links above if you’re interested in a scientific take on cooperative gaming.

Rolling dice to find the cure.

Please note: the Experimental Meds expansion requires a copy of the base game to play

PROS

  • So many dice
  • Mostly non-reader friendly
  • Science based theme is interesting

CONS

  • A little on the pricey side (usually over $60)

If I told you that one activity could promote teamwork, planning, sharing, and storytelling while at the same time providing hours of enjoyment for your kids, I’m assuming you’d be pretty interested. If that’s the case, consider incorporating cooperative board games into your activity repertoire and enjoy the quality family time while also reinforcing some pretty important skills with your kids.

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Alan North

Alan has found that blending a teaching career with parenthood to be quite different than he imagined due to the fact that teaching other people's kids is a lot easier than teaching your own. His passion in the areas of literacy, music, communication and student leadership have helped him to survive/enjoy 15 years of teaching.

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