Cohabitive games so far

A cohabitive game1 is a partially cooperative, partially competitive multiplayer game that provides an anarchic dojo for development in applied cooperative bargaining, or negotiation.

Applied cooperative bargaining isn't currently taught, despite being an infrastructural literacy for peace, trade, democracy or any other form of pluralism. We suffer for that. There are many good board games that come close to meeting the criteria of a cohabitive game today, but they all2 miss in one way or another, forbidding sophisticated negotiation from being practiced.

So, over the past couple of years, we've been gradually and irregularly designing and playtesting the first2 cohabitive boardgame, which for now we can call Difference and Peace Peacewager 1, or P1. This article explains why we think this new genre is important, how it's been going, what we've learned, and where we should go next. I hope that cohabitive games will aid both laypeople and theorists in developing cooperative bargaining as theory, practice and culture, but I also expect these games to just be more fun than purely cooperative or purely competitive games, supporting livelier dialog, and a wider variety of interesting strategic relationships and dynamics.

A salve for strife and waste
In these primal lands
It can be found


We all need it

In our formative years, we make many choices, but we hold no power, so most of us don't receive experience in negotiation until we're well into adulthood. Natural experiences of conflict tend to be messy, ambiguous, with high stakes, forbidding free experimentation. It's very much not conducive to learning. So let's make games that foster clear, low-stakes scenarios where negotiation can be learned.

Democracy requires this of us. When we are not taught to recognize acceptable compromise, we wont be able to recognize legitimate political outcomes either. Most suffering comes from that.

A person without negotiation skills will lack faith in the possibility of peaceful resolution of conflict. They will consummate either as an eliminationist, or they will live in denial of conflict, they will hide it, hide from it. They won't have an appropriate sense of when to stand their ground or when to capitulate. The social norms of their cliques will expect and demand passivity, compliance, and avoidance. Conflicts will fester. When conflicts inevitably play out, the less acknowledged, the messier they will be. Instead of words and deals, death or withering and waste. We cannot live together like this.

We must teach negotiation, the graceful reckoning with difference. We must make it fun, approachable and learnable for so many more people. We must enter this uncharted genre and find the fun and signpost it so that it is easy for those in need of it to recognize the fun in it. (That is all good game designers do.)

Theorists might need it too

I also hope that cohabitive games will be helpful to game theorists or decision theorists, to build intuitions about embedded negotiation. Negotiation is reified cooperative bargaining theory, which drops hints about the ideal shape of preference aggregation. It also might be relevant to extortion resistance and averting extortion races.
There's a really interesting open question: Will advanced technological agencies, starting as separate beings without transparent cognition, converge towards merger, or towards war? I think we really might stumble onto a lot of relevant intuitions in our travels through cohabitive games.

(Also, I just expect them to be good games, this is discussed throughout)

First to Arrive (Confused, Anxious and Lonely)

Every single board game rulebook contains the line "The player with the most points at the end of the game wins." (MostPointsWins). I don't understand why, and I'm not sure anyone does. MostPointsWins makes every game it afflicts into a zero sum game. Cohabitive games, in contrast, are positive-sum, as is real life. The absoluteness of the payouts (Win or Lose and nothing in between3) pretty much forbids negotiation, because it's inherently going to be rare that any two players benefit from following the same plan for very long. If you offer a deal, you must be doing it because it increases your chance of winning, but only one person can win under the MostPointsWins rule, so that deal couldn't be very good for me, and I'll always suspect your deal of being a trick, so in most cases no detailed deals will be offered. That crucial art of weaving agreements that allow us to stably share the world with others is all but forbidden in basically every board game we have.
That probably isn't healthy.

When there's no incentive to make deals, with that you lose an incentive to inquire together and build a true shared understanding of the game within the group. That wedges a hatchet in the head of the social learning process. In contrast, in P1, sharing our understanding of the game was about all we did. That might have had something to do with it being a new kind of game which everyone was very enthusiastic to get to know, but it probably had something to do with the fact that we all had incentives to help our peers to understand what we needed from them and how we'd make it worthwhile for them, or why it would be a mistake to encroach on this territory or that. We benefited from other players knowing more, instead of being harmed by it.

Since learnability is everything, for a game, (and for many other reasons) I expect that cohabitive games will just be better games in general, as it enables far more social learning.

If the MostPointsWins rule is so destructive, why is it so common?
I can think of a lot of reasons, but we'll defeat every one of them:

So I can understand why game designers keep doing MostPointsWins over and over but I don't think it's actually good, it seems not fun nor healthy nor lucrative, relative to the alternative. It's just a bad design habit that lines up with pre-existing expectations about what a board game is, which I think people are going to be happy to re-evaluate when faced with novel contenders that actually pull it off and manage to be fun and interesting games.


Peacewager 1

Each player controls a pair of characters. Every turn, each character can move one space and perform any of its unique actions, which transform the landscape and affect other characters.
Players have a couple of value cards, which describe ways of scoring, depending on the state of the environment at the end of the game. Crucially, players' values are displayed in the open.
Examples: One player might score a point for each remaining forest, another might score for fields (mutually exclusive), and most characters will lose points for the presence of holes in one area or another. And there can be more complex criteria, like wanting forests that are next to other forests, or volcanoes that are next to lakes, or frozen lakes that are next to both a tomb and a mountain.
These give rise to complex relationships, conflicts and alliances, which in turn give meaning to the landscape. That mountain, next to a lake, isn't just any mountain, it's very important to Isla. If you volcanoize it, Isla might have Dean kill your firstborn. (Dean will do what Isla says because she is the only one who can freeze lakes.)

Peacewager 1. A small map.

Peacewager 1. A small map.

The game ends after a certain number of rounds. Players must make efficient use of the time they have.

Your goal is to score high, individually. You should be indifferent to other players' scores, they are not your score. Cooperate when it benefits you. Steal when it benefits you. The goal of the game is to reckon with all of the selfishness and atomization that exists and find the sacred patterns of coordination that survive it.

values and abilities.

values and abilities.
(there are a lot more than this, but most of them are just cruddy slips of paper with text printed onto them. For those, I found it was surprisingly crucial to put some colors on them to make it immediately clear which terrain types they concern; it's very difficult to form an understanding of the relationships between players and the land, without that degree of visual legibility.)

A challenging cohabitive game should tilt towards tragedy, it should generate visceral examples of diplomatic failure, irrational wars, costly to all sides, until players learn to coordinate to escape it. Uncoordinated action, by default, should tend to be punished in these sorts of ways:

In P1, players learn that by making sensible agreements they can easily avoid these things. (In future games, I think I'll give the challenge of avoiding these things more texture. More on that later.)

Relationships between the characters of P1 are uniquely rich. The other players are not just obstacles, they're also affordances, you will probably need their help, so try to find something to offer them. Sometimes you won't have anything they immediately need, and instead you'll have something that is wanted by a third person who has something that they need and then things get very intricate.

I think one of the things that made it difficult for new players to connect with the premise was the continuous payout scoring. There wasn't a crisp objective, at the end of a game, the game wouldn't unambiguously tell you whether you had done Well or Poorly, it wouldn't tell you which player was most skilled (because everyone was essentially playing a different game (some goals may be harder to pursue than others, and some characters may be generally stronger, or may score more easily than others)) The game wouldn't even reliably tell you whether you'd improved on your own previous score, since conditions varied so widely between sessions that a mediocre score in one scenario would be impossible in another.
That worked for me, I found a lot of the ambiguity and openendedness of multiplayer outcomes delightful and refreshing, the game didn't tell you how to feel, you had to figure that out for yourself, as it always is in life. (But it is still all clearer than life ever is.)
But I think it's important for learning players to be told what it is they'll learn and how to tell they've learned it. That's what a crisp, binary goal does.
A simple fix for this would be to find a particular score threshold that players will achieve with and only with practice, and tell the player "If you score this high, you've Succeeded (now move onto the next game module)"

I'm very aware that not all numbers will feel interesting or meaningful to optimize, so I tried to make the numbers represent things that people could viscerally relate to, goals like "grow your town", "protect trees", "create habitats for a certian blessed animal", "prevent as many murders as you can" (and the compliment, a novelty character, "do all of the murders").

To facilitate dealmaking, P1 just permits any contract and punishes violations of contracts with the removal of the violator's pieces (death) and the balancing of the violator's score to zero (torture?). On receiving this affordance, we found that we didn't quite know what to do with it, it was too big to swallow in one sitting. In retrospect, it could have been used to instrument systems of extortion ("I hereby enter into a contract where if you do not torch your own mountains, I must kill your elder piece, (otherwise, if you comply, I will not kill it for at least five turns).") I have no idea what I would have done if someone had started using it for that, but no one thought of it! (thankfully?) I remember one playtest session being during an event, and at that event was a particular contract lawyer with a love for shenanigans. I would have loved to see what he would have done with it. IIRC, I don't think I was able to convince him to join on. I should dig into that. The ones who don't show up are often the ones who have the most to tell us.

Would you like to try Peacewager 1?

If you're adamant, message me, and I can give you a copy of the makeplayingcards project and you can have a copy printed.

P1 and Friendly Cohabitive could be adapted for very different purposes.

Peacewager 2 Friendly Cohabitive (FC) (provisional title) is being considered for the purpose of gently guiding all sorts of people to let go of eliminationist preconceptions and practice sharing a world vivaciously. No tweak could turn P1 into that, but P1 could be developed into something that is worthwhile in a different way.

Resembling P1, Ritual Cohabitive would be a minimal, probably more abstract stand-alone game for game hosts who already have background in diplomacy. The game would serve a useful ritualistic social function of establishing common knowledge that both players possess an aptitude in good faith negotiation, revealing, pledging that it can be expected of us. Turning the vibe of their interactions up towards confession of difference enabling productive dialog. The sort of thing you'd play a quick round of before penning a deal, or to start a relationship with strong honesty norms. It would be nice for that to exist. P1 could develop into that. I wouldn't recommend it for that yet. Maybe soon. It needs more of a sacred air to it, less bag of parts.
If I focus on this specific purpose, P1 can probably be refined and simplified quite a bit.

Getting cards printed

The cards were printed via MakePlayingCards. I can neither recommend nor disrecommend, they're the first ones I tried, prices seemed good. The print alignment is a bit wonky. Colors aren't very vibrant, but that could just be due to printers and computer displays inevitably having different colorspaces and me not adjusting my graphics for them. The only way you can be sure of what colors you're going to get from a printer is to have them physically send you some test prints.

Friendly Cohabitive. Various thoughts on Next Steps:

Cohabitive games that aren't board games

I'm not sure whether I want to keep working on physical boardgames. I actually don't play them very often. But also, digital online games are more flexible in a couple of ways.

There are reasons the physical format is less limiting than you might expect, boardgames are very good. A boardgame requires the rules to fit in the players' head, but that's also just a pretty decent account of good game design: accessible strategic depth, the laws of those arenas of maximum fun, where we can most easily learn to generate complex strategies, must necessarily be able to fit into the player's head. Physical boardgames also require players to physically get together around a table, but that's also currently the only way to get top quality conversations. Both of these things are really well suited to cohabitive games, conversation is crucial, and negotiation is far more tractable when the rules of the world are simple and legible.

But the board game medium is still somewhat limiting. It imposes constraints on board size, setup procedure duration, and cleanup, and upkeep, and the number of calculation steps involved in scoring rules. This all makes it harder to model real systems. Physical presence isn't the only option, too: VR does promise a quality of shared presence and conversation that digital experiences haven't had before. But VR won't be good enough for this for a few years (it's currently too low-res, or too expensive), and I don't expect it to become ubiquitous enough for VR tabletop games to see wide popularity until a few years after that.

And if we start thinking more in the domain of video games, we can imagine very different kinds of cohabitive games.
A lot of online multiplayer games rest on the appeal of their character design. Think of Smash Bros, Overwatch, or League of Legends. Characters' unique abilities give rise to a dense hypergraphs of strategic relationships which players will want to learn the whole of.
But in these games, a character cannot have unique motivations. They'll have a backstory that alludes to some, but in the game, that will be forgotten. Instead, every mind will be turned towards just one game and one goal: Kill the other team, whoever they are. MostPointsWins forbids the expression of the most interesting dimensions of personality.
So imagine how much richer expressions of character could be if you had this whole other dimension of gameplay design to work with. That would be cohabitive.
This too might have to wait for VR, though. When different characters have such different intentions, where each new matchup adds up to a new game, conversation might be strictly required to collectively make sense of the situation and avoid collapsing into a boring kind of chaos. That would require good voice audio quality. Players wont reliably have good voice audio gear until VR is popular. I'm not sure, though. It might also be the case that since you actually do know other characters' motives, and you can try playing as the other characters, that could foster enough empathy, and explicit communication wont be needed (beyond simple signals like "let's cooperate", pointing, and maybe a system for addressing violations of expectations?). I'm a little bit surprised that competitive character action games work at all without voice audio, from what I can tell (?) they do, so pre-VR short match character cohabitives might work fine as well. (But I don't expect I'll be able to make one in the foreseeable future. Very open to part time roles in collaborations though.)

The development of Ritual Cohabitive, and Negotiable Cohabitive is likely to proceed pretty slowly. If anyone would be interested in developing (or already is developing) a negotiation game of your own, I'd love to know you, and I'll try to support you! Join the element chat and we'll get started.

mako yass. September 2023.

comments. tweet.

  1. The name "cohabitive" was introduced by Skyler. I decided it was a better name for the genre than the one I was using before, and I've signed on with it.

  2. It's true, as far as I can tell, there really are no other board games like this today. There are semi-cooperative games, but they're all hidden motive games, where players' unique agendas are kept secret (a highly recommendable example is Nemesis), either of which make negotiation impossible.
    I think there are eurogames that can be played as if they were cohabitive (please reply if you can think of any that work perfectly with the MostPointsWins rule removed), but the ones I've seen were not designed for it and they don't encourage or support it. It really seems like I'm the first to turn up. I'm not feeling triumphant about that, I am feeling more, confused, anxious, and lonely about it.

    There are some video games that might qualify, games like Ark or Rust, but they tend to collapse into factional eliminationism and negotiation dynamics tend to be blighted with griefing. Motives are usually ambiguous. Negotiation comes almost accidentally.

  3. I've heard objections like, no, losing isn't a zero payout, there's better and worse loss outcomes: coming second is better than coming third, losing by a hair is better than losing by a lot. I guess that is valid. I don't know how many players see the MostPointsWins rule this way. It's still presented as zero-sum, though. So finding that most resilient peace in these games is still going to be impossible almost all of the time.