The 10 Best Co-op Board Games in 2021

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Our Top 3 Picks for the Best Co-op Board Games

Best Co-op Board Games: Mysterium
2nd choice
The theme is exciting, and the components are stylish and fun. The visual clues require all players to stretch their minds in unusual ways.
Best Co-op Board Games: Codenames: Duet - The Two Player Word Deduction Game
Best overall
The reasonable price, 400 word cards, and a cool campaign mode to record progress make this quick-playing game a great choice for all levels of gamers.
Best Co-op Board Games: Forbidden Island – The Cooperative Strategy Survival Island Board Game
It’s a simple concept with a compelling incentive: the island is sinking! Brings together players of all ages.

Sometimes, game night can get a little heated. One person flushes with pride when they are declared the winner, another sulks when they realize they have the lowest score, and everyone else pretends they don’t notice how the atmosphere has changed…

The solution to this problem? Cooperative games! With a cooperative game, all players work together and either win or lose as a group. No hysterical outbursts of anger when an opponent blocks your move, no squeals of joy after the second-place competitor moves into first, and no tense, heated arguments over tools, cards, or rewards. Instead, the discussion can flow, the resources can be shared, and the joy will be mutual!

Below are our picks for the 10 best co-op board games.

The Best Co-op Board Games

10. Sherlock Holmes – Consulting Detective

This game can actually be played in three ways: as a solo player, competitively, or cooperatively. It’s best as a cooperative game though — you’ll need as much help as you can get! The object of the game is, theoretically, to solve the case FOR Sherlock Holmes because you work for him. In reality however, you want to solve the case faster than Sherlock does, or by using less leads than he does.

There are 10 cases included in the box, and each case has an accompanying newspaper. The newspapers are dated and proceed in chronological order, along with the cases. After you’ve solved a case and moved on to another, papers from the previous case or cases can still be useful — clues can be found in the past. Players can also use the included map of London. It breaks the city into quadrants and numbers the various locations in each quadrant. There’s also a London directory that contains the names and places of individuals and businesses in the city.

To begin each case, you must read a document from Sherlock. He gives you enough information and leads for you to get started, plus a list of allies that includes physical descriptions, locations where they might be found, and details about their skills/what they’re good at.

At the end of each case, players must answer a set of questions and compare their answers to Sherlock’s to make sure you’ve solved things properly. Holmes always gets 100 points, but for every lead players use, they lose 5 points.

Pros & Cons

The appeal of this game is its choose-your-own-adventure style, but it’s very difficult to get through. The leads are not easy to follow, and the clues can sometimes be extremely obscure. This is why it makes a much better cooperative than competitive game. Another downside is that once you finish the ten cases included, replay is no fun.

Playing specs
  • 1-8 players
  • Playing time: 60-120mins
  • Recommended ages: 13 & up
  • Complexity: 2.68/5

9. Hoot Owl Hoot

This adorable game is obviously intended for a younger audience, but it’s also a great opportunity for adults to join in and teach them how to use strategy to win. Playing cooperative games with kids is a great way to teach patience, communication, and collaboration. It’s also helpful to expose them to games that don’t feature one individual winner. 

The aim of Hoot Owl Hoot! is to get all the little owls to move around the board until they’re safe at home in the nest, all before the sun comes up. You can choose how many of the little owl tokens you’d like to play with. This is especially helpful when playing for the first time, or playing with particularly young kiddos.

Each player is dealt three cards, and each card is immediately replaced after use. The cards show circles of different colors, or an illustrated sunshine. On their turn, players choose any one of their cards to play, and then move an owl to the next circle on the board that corresponds with the colored card used. You can choose any owl to move on your turn; it doesn’t have to be the first or last one.

To add more urgency to the game, there is a daylight indicator on one end of the board that progresses from nighttime into sunrise. If a player chooses a sunshine 1ard from the colored card deck, they must play it before any of their colors. Playing the sun card causes the daylight indicator to move one space closer to sunrise!  

Since only one owl is allowed on a space, strategy can be employed when choosing which color card to use. For instance, if you choose a green card but the next green spot on the board is occupied, your owl can fly past and land on the NEXT green spot. Because all players are working together and everyone’s color cards are visible, it’s important to discuss who should move which owl to which spot and in what order.

Cons

Of course, not everyone is a fan of cooperative games, and kids are no different. It might be too difficult for them to work together, or they might get frustrated with not having one clear winner. Little hands should be careful with the game pieces too as they’re made of simple cardboard instead of more sturdy materials.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 15mins
  • Recommended ages: 4 & up
  • Complexity: 1/5

8. Aeon’s End

If you’re looking for a creepy, intense game to play with fellow sci-fi lovers, Aeon’s End is it. Grotesque, powerful creatures called The Nameless are poised to attack Gravehold, the underground city you and your coop inhabit. You and your fellow citizens must unite to defeat this threat.

Players begin by choosing a character, selecting a nemesis, and placing nine cards in the “shared market” — cards that include four sets of spells, two relics, and three gems. Each of these has a special ability. Spells can attack The Nameless, relics can boost other effects, and gems provide the currency of the game: aether. You use aether to buy other items from the market.

Unlike most games, turn-taking in Aeon’s End is not set in any kind of predictable pattern. Everyone takes turns drawing from the “turns pile”, but you never know if the resulting card will allow you to play or signal another player’s turn, or even allow the enemy to proceed. This variation of turns simulates the panic and chaos experienced during a real battle, which adds quite an exciting-yet-infuriating aspect to the game.

Also unique to Aeon’s End is the fact that the discard pile doesn’t get reshuffled or reused — once a card has been played, that’s it. Plan accordingly!

Cons

Although it has exceptionally high ratings, Aeon’s End has some problems. The initial setup is quite complicated. Also, some users have mentioned that the difficulty levels associated with the villains are inaccurate. They all seem to be equally difficult even though each requires a different strategy to conquer.

Aeon’s End is also mentioned in our picks for best deck-building games.

Playing specs
  • 1-4 players
  • Playing time: 60mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 2.78/5

7. Time Stories

In this campaign-style game (meaning the characters and outcome can affect future plays), players take the role of a time travel agent on a mission to go back in time and relive past events. However, you don’t go back as yourself — you go back as someone who was actually present at that moment in time. You see the world through the eyes of another “receptacle”. It’s an especially enjoyable game for anyone who loves history, solving mysteries, or getting into character.

Your mission, as well as where and when your character finds itself, simply depends on which deck of cards (expansion) you play with. The cards give details to your mission, setting and surroundings, characters you run into, and further story development.

Although players are encouraged — required, really — to discuss and cooperate, they’re not all working the same scenario or solving the same problems at the same time. Everyone is trying to solve mysteries and play out scenarios in as few moves as possible. If you don’t accomplish your goals before the time is up, you are “recalled” to the agency and must start again. Mistakes made in previous scenarios or previous games can come in handy, making discussion and cooperation even more important.

Cons

Time Stories doesn’t make for a great 2-player game. Despite what the box claims, seasoned gamers say it’s best with 3 or more. Also, as you might think, replay with this game is limited. Once you’ve played through a deck/expansion, you won’t really want to do it again. While the base game comes with only one deck, there are plenty of expansions available for purchase.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 90mins
  • Recommended ages: 12 & up
  • Complexity: 2.6/5

6. Gloomhaven

While these two categories are usually independent of each other, Gloomhaven is both a legacy and a campaign-style game. According to Board Game Geek, legacy-style games are those whose “rules and components change over time based on the outcome of each game played and the choices made by the player(s)”. Campaign-style games are when “the game and/or characters change over time, such that the result of one game may influence future plays”. Basically, it’s a completely different game every time.

This is a complicated game to explain, as you might gather when you open the box and see its thousands of cards and pieces. Players act as wandering adventurers in a violent, monster-ridden world, working together to achieve objectives while also trying to improve your character and improve the city of Gloomhaven. Setup is different depending on which campaign you play.

Players who love RPGs (Role Playing Games) will enjoy Gloomhaven. The persona and abilities of your character, and of the fictional world in general, will change with every move, every campaign, and every game.

Pros & Cons

As mentioned, one of Gloomhaven’s downsides is that it is so complicated to teach and/or learn. Plus, the price tag can be a real turnoff. True, dedicated gamers can look past these issues though, and will enjoy the immersion experience.

Playing specs
  • 1-4 players
  • Playing time: 60-120mins
  • Recommended ages: 14 & up
  • Complexity: 3.86/5

5. Pandemic

Despite the name, this game isn’t about Covid. It was released way back in 2008, and yet has ironic implications when played today. In this game, players act as elite members of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) who must stop the spread of four specific diseases. Nine cities have already been infected and it’s up to you and your colleagues to control and eliminate the diseases and return order to the world.

The three phases for each turn are: taking an action, drawing cards, and infecting cities. Players have a hand of cards to start with and they can use these to take up to four actions on each turn.

The deck contains Epidemic cards that, once drawn, cause the Infection Rate marker to move up, a new city to become infected, and any previously discarded cards to be added back into the deck. At the infection phase, a City card is drawn and new infection markers are added to that city on the map. If the chosen city already has three infection markers, no more can be added — instead, the disease spreads to all the nearby cities. The game isn’t over until all four diseases have been cured.

Pros & Cons

Even though the subject matter hits a bit close to home these days, this is still an exciting game to play with family and friends. It can be tricky to catch on at first, but once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll be wanting to increase the difficulty level in no time. The paper instructions can be hard to follow, but watching an instructional video should give players all the information they need to cooperate successfully.

Pandemic is one of our picks for a great 3-player board game too.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 45mins
  • Recommended ages: 8 & up
  • Complexity: 2.41/5

4. The Game

Yes, The Game has an uninspiring name, but serious and casual gamers alike can have fun with it. It’s inexpensive, easy to transport, and very easy to learn.

This game consists of one large deck of cards numbered from 1 to 100. The #1 and #100 cards are placed face-up in the middle of the table, and the action begins when one player starts a pile next to either of those face-up cards. Two piles can be constructed next to the #1 card, with all the numbers ascending. Two more piles can be made next to the #100 card, all in descending order. The goal is to empty the deck by adding cards to these piles.

Players must discuss with their partners before adding cards to the pile. You can’t explicitly tell your teammates what numbers you have in your hand, but you can imply things in vague terms. Particularly if you want to lay a card that will be a large jump from the one most recently laid, you’ll want to warn your partners and see if there might be an alternative move. 

Two cards must be laid on each turn, and then you add two replacements from the deck. If a player can’t lay anything from their hand on any of the ascending or descending piles, the game is lost. To win, simply play all 98 cards from the deck!

Pros & Cons

While this is an incredibly easy game to learn, it can also be incredibly frustrating. It’s easy enough to teach your kiddos, but learning to communicate and not to overreact when someone ruins your play can be challenging. It can be an exasperating combination of luck and strategy.

Playing specs
  • 1-5 players
  • Playing time: 20mins
  • Recommended ages: 8 & up
  • Complexity: 1.26/5

3. Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island – The Cooperative Strategy Survival Island Board Game
It’s a simple concept with a compelling incentive: the island is sinking! Brings together players of all ages.

Game lovers will come for the pleasing price tag and stay for the entertainment. In Forbidden Island, players are trapped on a sinking island and must make it to the safety of the helicopter. There are artifacts hidden around the island that must be found before escape is possible. 

A set of 24 tiles are laid to create the island. To begin, everyone has two “Treasure Cards” in hand, and they gain two more of these at the end of a turn. If a “Waters Rise!” card appears, the “Dangerous Water Level” meter must be adjusted. This means the island is sinking faster!

You have four possible choices on your turn and a total of three actions. The choices are (a) to move your token, (b) “shore up” or turn a tile over to prevent it from sinking into the ocean, (c) give another player one of your cards, or (d) trade cards for one of the hidden artifacts. The game is won when all players have made it to the helicopter pad with all the hidden artifacts, all before the waters rise high enough to sink the island.

Pros & Cons

Forbidden Island has multiple levels of difficulty, so it can be different every time you play if you prefer. Users have complained that the game can become quite repetitive and uninteresting if you play it often, so changing the difficulty setting is definitely helpful. Gamers have also noted that Forbidden Island plays very similar to Pandemic, only with less strategy involved.

Forbidden Island is also in the list of best 3-player board games.

Playing specs
  • 2-4 players
  • Playing time: 30mins
  • Recommended ages: 10 & up
  • Complexity: 1.74/5

2. Mysterium

Asmodee Mysterium
The theme is exciting, and the components are stylish and fun. The visual clues require all players to stretch their minds in unusual ways.

Instead of all playing cooperatively, Mysterium has most players work as combination psychic-investigators, while one person acts as the ghost haunting the mansion. Playing the ghost can be quite fun as it comes with a screen (it looks like the entryway of a mansion,  featuring a huge double staircase) and power to “transmit” visions to the other players.

The ghost communicates with players through Dream Cards. The investigators interpret these illustrated cards to the best of their abilities, trying to decipher the who, how, and where of the crime. You can ask your fellow detectives for their opinions on these clues, but each player gets their own chance to make the decision and communicate with the ghost. You can learn a lot about your fellow players this way!

The end goal is to determine why there is a ghost haunting Warwick Manor — who killed them? What was the murder weapon? And where did the crime occur? Once you’ve discovered these answers, the case and the game are complete.

Cons

Now, the Dream Cards can be extremely abstract, making it difficult for the ghost to convey their meaning and for the investigators to decipher. This part of the game can be quite frustrating, especially for anyone with a particularly logical way of thinking.

Mysterium is also one of our best 5-player board games.

Playing specs
  • 2-7 players
  • Playing time: 45mins
  • Recommended ages: 10 & up
  • Complexity: 1.91/5

1. Codenames Duet

Codenames: Duet - The Two Player Word Deduction Game
The reasonable price, 400 word cards, and a cool campaign mode to record progress make this quick-playing game a great choice for all levels of gamers.

Another notably inexpensive game is Codenames Duet. Although it can officially be played with up to 99 players, it really is best with just two.

Players begin by setting up a grid of cards — the word cards — in a 5×5 pattern. Another type of card shows you which of these 25 word cards you want to get your partner to guess. “Your” cards, the ones you’re giving clues for, are indicated by green squares, and the black squares are “Assassins” that can end the game.

On your turn, you give a one-word clue and a number. The number tells your partner how many cards on the grid your clue refers to, and the word you tell them has to somehow connect those cards. For example, you could use the word “Injury” to connect “Shoulder” and “Cane” since a shoulder can be injured and a cane is often used after an injury occurs. In this case, you should say “Injury 2” and your partner would know to look for two cards on the grid.

If your partner correctly guesses the cards you have in mind, you cover those up with one of the green tokens. If they guess wrong, however, the card is covered with an “Innocent Bystander” token or an “Assassin”. If they guess an Assassin, the game is immediately over. Otherwise, the game is over once your partner guesses all the correct word cards, or if all “Innocent Bystanders” are used up.

Yes, this concept is very similar to the original Codenames game. In this version though, both players give each other clues in turn, and each clue-giver is working with a different map of the cards. Plus, one of your correct answers is going to be one of your opponent’s Assassins, and vice versa.

Cons

Some gamers have complained about the similarities between this and the original Codenames. And, as with the original, there can be a lot of dead time between clues if the words are especially difficult. It may take longer to play through than the instructions imply.

Playing specs
  • 2-99 players
  • Playing time: 15-30mins
  • Recommended ages: 11 & up
  • Complexity: 1.33/5

Final thoughts

No matter if you’re a seasoned strategy gamer, a young Candyland-loving newbie, or a middle-ground lover of card games, cooperative games are something fun to try — especially if you don’t want game night to end in a fight! With so many different styles of cooperative games, your gaming group can play something new every day of the week, even from this list of best co-op board games alone.

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