Keep telling yourself that it’s only a game. Repeat after me – it’s only a game. It’s only a game. It’s only a game. Better now?
I love negotiation games. But you must understand that there are games that feature a negotiation mechanic and then there are negotiation games. And even then, there are negotiation games that just involve players doing simple trades with one another – I’ll give you two sheep for one wood – and then there are negotiation games that can end friendships or at least, leave you planning your revenge on at least one player.
In my previous blog about games of the 21st century, I mentioned some of the trends in games of the 21st century. One trend that I didn’t mention is multiplayer solitaire. That is, games where each player is doing their own little thing and there is limited player interaction. At worse, someone takes a tile that you wanted, so you have to rethink your next selection. Not my type of game at all. That’s also primarily why I don’t like roll and writes. I prefer games with player interaction, but I also want depth not a party game. Negotiation games can be rich with really intense discussions where you are left wondering which deal to accept. When you finally do decide, and you position your troops, you suddenly realize that you’ve been betrayed and led into a trap where your entire army has just been wiped out. And to top it all off, the person who just stabbed you in the back (and everyone else at the table) is laughing at you and wondering why you were so stupid to agree to that deal… Yeah, I can easily see why some people don’t like playing negotiation games. But then again, there are some negotiation games where you can’t lie, so you have to do what you agree to do.
As I was doing my research for this article, I discovered on BGG that Monopoly is a negotiation game. I had never played with negotiations in the game, but it’s right there in the rulebook:
Unimproved properties, railroads and utilities may be sold to any player as a private transaction for any amount the owner can get.
So because the buyer and seller must come to an agreement about the price, Monopoly is a negotiation game. Did you know that?
Another game that features negotiation is Catan. Because of the distribution of resources in the game, you will find that in order to win, you will have to trade resources with other players. This often results in one player becoming a “kingmaker”. That is, you are near the end of the game and several players are trying to get you to give them the resources that they need so that they can win. You have the power to determine who wins. Sometimes, the decision is automatic – the husband backs the wife (or vice versa) – and that always leaves the loser(s) feeling cheated.
Fastest Negotiation Game – Pit
Negotiations take time, so you have to watch that the game doesn’t outstay it’s welcome (some games have specific time limits for negotiating, but many don’t). And you also have to be aware that, if you’re not part of the negotiations, the downtime during negotiations can feel like an eternity. However, there is one really fast negotiation game that eliminates downtime [and never outstays its welcome] - Pit. In this card game, there are 8 suits (representing commodities) with 9 cards each. Reducing the number of commodities to match the numbers of players (so 4 commodities for 4 players [36 cards]), you shuffle the deck and deal nine cards to each player. The winner is the first to corner the market (get 9 cards of a suit). To play the game, you hold up between 1 and 4 cards and shout what you are offering (for example, “Trade Two!” or “Trade Four!”). No one can see what cards you are offering, but you are looking around the table for someone else to trade with. If another player is also shouting “Trade Two!”, you can exchange cards. But someone may only want one (they’re shouting “Trade One!”), so you have to decide whether to reduce your offer to one and take that deal, or wait for someone else to enter the market. That’s the whole game. You are blindly trading cards back and forth with no idea what you’ll be receiving. There is no down time in this game. You have some information as the game progresses (because you know what cards the other players have been giving you), but it’s just chaotic back and forth trading until someone wins. There is no real negotiation per say, so I’d categorize this as more of a trading game. Pit plays up to 8 players, and a typical game lasts about 40 minutes (but with 8 players, the time is closer 90 minutes), and I’ve never played this game just once. As soon as it’s over, you’ll want to play again.
Smallest Negotiation Game – Bohnanza
At first glance, Bohnanza looks like a simple card game for children. All the cards have cartoon drawings of beans – there are Blue Beans (20), Chili Beans (18), Stink Beans (16), Green Beans (14), etc. The number in parenthesis is the number of cards of that type. To start the game, shuffle the 104 cards (8 bean types) and deal 5 cards to each player. The most important rule of Bohnanza is that you can’t change the order of the cards that have been dealt to you. So, the first card you receive is at the front of your hand, and any subsequent cards you receive go to the back.
In Bohnanza, you are a bean farmer with two fields. On your turn, you can plant beans (play one of your cards to the field) or harvest beans (remove the cards that you have played to your field). Only one type of crop can be planted in each field, and the more of each crop that you plant, the more coins you will get when you harvest the crop. Each card shows how many cards of that type you need to get 1, 2, 3 or 4 coins.
In addition, on your turn, you turn the top two cards of the draw pile face up onto the table. You can keep these cards and/or trade them with the other players. You can only trade with the active player, but on your turn, you can make as many trades as you want. And those trades don’t have to be matched – you could trade 2 Blue Beans for 1 Red Bean – or you can even just give a player a card so long as they agree to receive it.
According to the rules, you have to keep playing until the draw pile has been exhausted three times, but I find that makes the game drag a little bit. Our house rule is to use the first exhaust of the draw pile as a signal that everyone has just one more go, and in this last round, three cards are turned over (instead of the usual two). Note that the 25th anniversary edition includes an extra 50 cards to add to the deck (as a variant). In this variant, everyone takes one card from the draw pile into their hands (instead of only the active player turning over two).
Best Negotiation Game Revival – Waterfall Park
When I think of negotiation games, two games instantly come to mind – Chinatown and Diplomacy. In the original Chinatown, you had a map of Chinatown on the table. There was also a deck of cards and a bag of tiles. The deck of cards contained numbers corresponding to locations on the map. The bag of tiles contained businesses that could be placed at those locations (seafood, laundry, antiques, detective agency, etc). As you might have guessed, in Chinatown, you are a businessman looking to create a business empire. As you draw tiles you have businesses and as you take cards you have locations. The more businesses of the same type that you have next to one another, the more money you make. So if someone draws a tile or card that you want, you need to negotiate for it. You can use tiles, cards or money.
Chinatown has been out of print for the last few years, but now Repros Production has come out with a new version; it’s called Waterfall Park. Here you have been hired to develop an amusement park and you have to decide which attractions to install and where to place them. Your choices are a gift shop, an ice cream stand, a ghost train, a theatre, a carousel, etc. On the table is a map of a water park with 40 locations on one side of the waterfall, and 38 locations on the other. When you draw a location (card), you place a coloured frame on the board to indicate ownership of that location. When you build an attraction, you put a tile into the recess on the board. This is a nice touch to reinforce that once an attraction has been built, you can’t move it, but ownership can change (as that just involves putting a different coloured frame over the attraction). This is a very bright and cheery looking game, that hides the ruthless negotiation that can take place. Chinatown played in about an hour (90 businesses and 85 locations), but Waterfall Park plays in only 45 minutes (72 attractions and 78 locations). As you can see, because there are fewer locations and fewer attractions, the game plays quicker than the original.
I should also mention that there was another negotiation game that almost won this title – Zoo Vadis. Zoo Vadis is a reimplementation of Reiner Knizia’s Quo Vadis. It plays 4-7 in about 40 minutes. In Zoo Vadis, there is a map of a zoo on the table (there are four entrances at the bottom and the Star Exhibit is located at the top). Each of the players has 6 standees, representing their animal species (rhinoceros, tiger, hyena, crocodile, etc), and a unique player power that they can only use twice during the game and only for the benefit of another player. Along the paths are exhibits with spaces for up to 5 animals. Once you land in one of these exhibits, you can only advance to the next one if the majority agree that you can move. So, if you’re the first one to move into a 5 space exhibit, you will only be able to move when two more animals join you and they agree to let you go. In other words, you can only move onto the next exhibit when the majority of spaces (not players) vote in favour of your move.
As you move from one exhibit to another, you might be able to pick up a laurel token worth between 1 and 5 laurels (victory points). These are scattered at various points on the paths (some paths have tokens and some do not), but they are always replenished when a player walks over the path and picks them up. On your turn you have one of four actions (including moving the zookeeper and moving the peacock), but it all comes down to convincing the other players to agree with your move. Like most negotiation games, you are always thinking “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for him/her?” I was never that keen on the original Quo Vadis, but the rules have been tweaked (eg, they added peacocks) and it’s now a much better game. The artwork and the production quality are also excellent.
In Zoo Vadis, only immediate negotiations are binding. For example, suppose it’s the rhino’s turn, and he/she agrees to pay the tiger 1 laurel for his vote (so the rhino could advance his piece). When the rhino pays the tiger 1 laurel, the tiger must vote in the rhino’s favour. However, if they agreed that if the tiger voted for the rhino now, then the rhino would for the tiger in the next round, that future action is not binding. If you sit down to play a negotiation game, understanding this difference is crucial. In the next game, nothing is binding. I could agree (cross my heart, hope to die) to offer you support in this round, and deliver nothing.
Continuous Service Award – Diplomacy
I can’t believe I had never played Diplomacy until a few months ago. It’s been described as Risk without dice, and a game where the object is to lose a friend. There is some truth in both of those statements. At its core, Diplomacy is a very simple game where you are faced with a map of pre-WWI Europe. You are one of the 7 superpowers of Europe – Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey. Although the box says it plays 2-7, this game really only works with 7 players. In theory, you could play with smaller numbers (eg, by leaving out certain countries, or playing 2 or more superpowers at the same time), but no one in the group that I played recommended it with fewer numbers. Nonetheless, if you want to give it a try, look on BGG for details of what other gamers suggest when playing at lower numbers.
In Diplomacy, each of you starts with 3 units (army or fleet) and 3 supply centres. With the full set of 7 players, that leaves 12 unoccupied supply centres. That’s important because the winner is the first player to get to 18 supply centres. So even if you could get all the free ones, you’re still going to need to attack at least one of the other players. The box says it plays in 6 hours, but my first game took just over 12 hours. Each round begins with 15 minutes of negotiation and then you sit down to write all your troop movements. Negotiations are non-binding. That is, you can agree to offer support to Germany in Portugal, but then move your unit to a completely different position instead. However, in the game the first game I played, everyone carried out the troop movements that they had agreed. But be aware that this game does have player elimination, and you could be out within an hour!
So why does the game take so long? First, there is a lot of bookkeeping. After you decide what troops you are going to move, you have to write all the moves on a sheet of paper. If it’s not written correctly, then it’s considered an illegal move and nothing happens. For example, suppose you wanted to change the order of the troops in three adjacent locations from A-B-C to B-C-A. All three of you have to write down the right move. If any of you don’t, then no one moves. This is especially important for a convey order. In a convoy order, your navy transports an army unit across the sea. It’s easy if your navy is transporting your army, but your allies can help – your navy transports their army or their navy transports your army. The second reason this game takes so long is that armies and navies can only move to adjacent territories if they are not occupied. You can’t just move your army from the north coast of Spain to Munich – you have to go through Marseilles and Burgundy first. And you can’t go into Marseilles unless it’s empty, or you have some support from an adjacent province (Gascony, Piedmont, Burgundy, or the Gulf of Lyon).
Hopefully, I haven’t put you off the game. The rules are simple and the rulebook is excellent with lots of examples of orders. The new edition by Renegade Game Studios features wooden meeples (canon meeples for the army, and battleship meeples for the navy) and these really stand out on the map. Previous editions had only included little cardboard rectangles, or cheap plastic pieces, but these meeples really make the game look great in play. I should point out that the new rulebook also includes suggestions for alternative ways to end the game. For example, you could say we’re going to play for four hours and then whoever has the most supply centres at that point is the winner.
But if getting seven players (for at least four hours) is impossible, then I have an alternative for you. Back in 1982, the team behind Cosmic Encounters [another great negotiation game] turned their minds to creating an alternative to Diplomacy that could be played by smaller numbers in less time. The result was Borderlands, which was later reimplemented as Gearworld: The Borderlands. It plays 3-4 in under two hours. Unfortunately, that game is out of print, but when the recent Dune movie came out, the team revisited the game and released Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen. In fact, Future Pastimes (a company that includes Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka, three of the four that originally designed Cosmic Encounter) have designed quite a few Dune-themed games, including the original 1979 game and the recent Gale Force Nine update. Dune does feature negotiation, but I’m not including it on this list, even though it is one of my favourite games of all time. Instead, I choose the next game.
Alliance Negotiation Game – Rising Sun
Rising Sun (7) is a great area control game, with minis and multiple paths to victory. Rising Sun is played over three seasons (technically, four, but the fourth season [winter] is just the scoring round). On the table is a map of Japan, and you are the leader of a samurai clan (each clan has with its own unique abilities). There are various phases that you go through in each season – the seasonal setup, the tea ceremony, the political phase, and the war phase. The tea ceremony is the negotiation phase. This is where you decide whether you will form an alliance, and who you will form it with.
Alliances are obviously important in the war phase (your ally won’t attack you), but they are also important because when you play a card in the political phase, not only do you gain bonuses, but so does your ally. But, during the political phase, you or your ally could play a Betray card and break the alliance. When you play this card, you remove up to two figures belonging to two different players and replace them with figures from your reserve (if you have any available). When this happens, you can also negotiate with the other players to gain some asset of theirs in exchange for not removing one of their figures. So you are not confined to negotiating only during the Tea Ceremony. In fact, you can negotiate with your ally during the political phase about what cards he should play. You don’t have to form alliances, but it would be difficult to win without forming them.
An alliance only lasts one season, so in the next season, all is forgiven (or should be). You could choose to form an alliance with another player, or you could decide to stay with the same ally, even though they played the betray card in the last season. But there are a lot of moving parts in this game, and I’ve only scratched its surface. For example, there is an honour track and some minis are more powerful when you are low on the honour track. But honour determines how ties are broken - whoever has the highest honour wins. The war phase is unlike any other game. You have to decide how to allocate your coins - you can choose to kill all your troops (seppuku), take hostages, or hire Ronin. Yes, the game has a lot of moving parts, but because each part is dealt with sequentially, I think this is a very easy game to learn and to teach. In short, this is a great game! It plays 3 to 5 in about 2 hours.
Negotiation Party Game – Sherriff Of Nottingham
This game is a really a mix of negotiation, bluffing and bribery, which plays best at 4 (or more) in about an hour. In Sherrif of Nottingham (14), you have a deck of 216 cards (144 Legal goods, 60 Contraband goods, and 12 Royal goods). The cards are shuffled and each player is given six cards. On your turn, you can discard up to five cards (face down) and draw cards from the supply to bring you back up to six cards. When you have finished, you place the cards you originally discarded onto one of the two discard piles, but now you place them face up. So the supply of cards consists of the face down deck of cards and two face up piles of discards. It should be mentioned that if you are planning to take from the discard pile, you must always take those cards first. That is, you can’t draw from the face down deck and then go to the face up piles.
After everyone has drawn cards, it’s time to load the market bag. Each player has a little velvet envelope that snaps shut. Into that envelope, they can place up to five cards. When you snap the bag closed, you make a declaration of its contents. Something like “My bag has four apples.” The number of cards must be the truth, but the contents can be a lie or the truth. Needless to say, you could have 4 contraband goods, 4 chickens, or only 2 apples and 2 chickens. In this latter case, note that you can only declare one type of legal good – so 2 apples and 2 chickens is not a valid declaration. And then it’s time for inspection!
In each round, one player takes the role of the Sheriff and he/she alone decides whether to inspect the market bag, and in which order to inspect them. When the Sheriff picks up a market bag, he/she can accept bribes to not open the bag, and let you pass. If you get a pass, you show the legal contents of the bag and place them face up on your stall. Any contraband (or Royal goods) is kept secret and is simply placed face down on your stall. If the Sheriff inspects the bag and the contents don’t match your declaration, then all your legal goods are displayed on your market stall as before, but you must pay the penalty shown on all the contraband cards to the Sheriff, and the cards are then put on one of the discard piles. If the Sherrif inspects the bag and the contents do match the declaration, then the Sherriff has to pay you the penalty shown on all the legal cards. When all the bags have been inspected (or not), the next round begins, and the player to the left of the current Sheriff becomes the new Sheriff.
The rules say that once everyone has played the role of Sheriff twice, the game is over and whoever has the most coins wins. Any goods (legal or contraband) in your market stall have coin values printed on them, so you need to translate these into coins, and then there are bonuses for being the player with the most apples, cheese, etc. However, depending on the crowd (and the previous player interactions), I might cut the game down to one rotation. More than any other game mechanic that I can think of, the enjoyment of negotiation games depends heavily on the people you are playing with. So, if one or more players didn’t enjoy that first round, there’s no reason to go through a second.
I should mention that Disney and CMON are planning on releasing Robin Hood: Sheriff of Nottingham later this year. It uses characters from the Disney film, and the game has been revised for younger audiences.
Dice Rolling Negotiation Game – Lords Of Vegas
My last nomination for best negotiation game is Lords of Vegas. This game clearly has its roots in Chinatown. On the table, you have a grid with a stylized map of Las Vegas. Each player has 12 coloured dice, and there is a deck of cards with locations on it. On your turn, you take a card and you now own that location. In addition to the location, you also announce the colour of the casino shown (let’s assume it is purple). Anyone who owns a purple casino will automatically get paid the number of pips on the die at that location (1 pip = $1m).
Let’s take a step back. If you were to take a closer look at the map, you would see that each grid square has a die face and a number on it. For example, let’s assume the die face is 5, and the number is $15m. This means that if you want to build a casino on this location, you need to pay $15m. Doing this, you would place a square of any casino colour on that space, and on top of the square you would place a die of your colour with the number shown on the map uppermost. So, if you were the yellow player, you would place a yellow die with the 5 showing. If two casinos of the same colour are adjacent, they become one big casino, with the casino boss being the player who has the largest die value showing. When a dollar payout is made (or when points are scored), only the casino boss gets paid or scores. Fortunately, you can pay to re-roll all the dice in a casino, so you might get lucky and become the casino boss.
There are a lot of trades and deals you can make in this game. You can trade locations for locations and/or money. You can pay another player to build a purple casino instead of a gold one. It really surprises me that BGG considers this a trading game, when it really should be considered a negotiation game. It’s best at 4 and plays in about 90 minutes.
So there you have it. These are my favourite negotiation games, but once again I want to reiterate that they are not for everyone. Sheriff of Nottingham is a nice and light game to test the waters. And you could play Lords of Vegas without any negotiations whatsoever, and the game would still be loads of fun, but then it becomes a pure dice chucker.
I should want to give honourable mention to two games that didn’t make the list: Sidereal Confluence and John Company. They were so close to making it! Nonetheless, there is one excellent negotiation game that was out of print when I started writing this article, but is now getting a reprint by Eagle-Gryphon Games – Sid Sackson’s I’m the Boss. It’s like Monopoly, except that when you land on a property, you have the option to negotiate a deal. It’s a very simple game, but it’s loads of fun if people enter into the spirit of a game of wheeling and dealing. I have mixed feelings about the artwork, but I’ll keep those to myself.
Until next time, roll those dice baby!