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Why is negotiation so hard to get right in games?

I want your stuff. You want my stuff. Let’s make a deal. Seems like a perfectly obvious arena for a good board game idea. So why don’t more games have negotiation as part of their game design?

Some games are explicitly about negotiation for a game component and ingrained in the rules are mechanisms for how players can come to make a deal and what game components are allowed to be traded for what terms. The first hurdle that any game designer must cross is to define what are these things? They must have some inherent value. During the game design process, just letting players negotiate for fixed victory point components isn’t very exciting. The nature of the objects being exchanged must be that their value is not always determined at the moment of transaction.

Considering the above, now players are allowed some game time to negotiate. This actually simplifies the game design somewhat because it’s a moment where the players will create the tension. The conflict inherent in making sure you’re getting something for a decent value and must make on-the-fly appraisals offers extremely enjoyable gameplay. However, this does demand more game structure. It’s unadvisable that players can negotiate for anything at any time because then the whole game is just one big haggling session. Even from-the-hip deals in Monopoly can have a negative impact unless players agree to cut off the deal-making at a certain point.

The main thing that negotiation complicates is game length. Because of the potentially lengthy discussion and the complexities of some deals, most games with negotiation in them have an undetermined game length. They can very easily go beyond the stated game time on the box. And if you have players prone to over analyzing every deal, that slows negotiation down even more.

Finally, one thing that crops up in other games is that negotiation in many games isn’t about just making a deal. It’s about politics and some people make not want that in a game. If one deal in a game goes south because one participant realizes the other player knew the real value of certain components and they didn’t, then likely trading with that player in the future will give others pause. Whenever a game has that layer of interaction, players should know that how they treat other players is as much of a game as how they’re analyzing the game.

Negotiation is great for player interaction, but before you take home a title just because players can trade stuff, take a look at how the negotiation works. Is it structured, like in Catan, or does it throw caution to the wind and allow for more open deal-making? The style of that game mechanism makes a big difference to how players interact and ultimately, the enjoyment of the game.