Wednesday, November 2, 2011


This article will cover an important part of many player games: negotiation.

Importance of Negotiations
In games which involve more than two players, the possibility of negotiations present itself.  Negotiations can become critical to success.  By coordinating efforts, two (or more) people can combine forces against another player.  The effect is to either:

  1. Increase the number of units brought to bear against the target player,
  2. Open up a new front the opponent must deal with, or
  3. Secure a player's flanks from attack

Achieving successful negotiations is common, but several elements must be considered.

Element of Trust
Both player's need to exhibit some trust.  Normally when negotiating, both players must put themselves at risk.  The risk may be greater for one player than the other, but the element of risk is there.  To that end, both players must have a degree of trust.  This means both players must have a reason to trust each other.
Sample Diagram
Looking at the diagram above, agreements could be reached between almost all players, except Red and Yellow.    Red and Yellow are in direct conflict.  In order for Red to expand its territory, it must intrude
into Yellow's territory.  This makes agreements between Red and Yellow highly unlikely without significantly complex dealings.

In the case of Yellow, Green and Blue, it is unlikely all three could reach an agreement with each other.  Again, for either of them to expand, they must move into one of the other's territories.  Two of them could reach an agreement and concentrate their efforts on the third.  The two making the agreement must trust each other to not attack the other.
Element of Fairness
Normally, factions in a negotiation must reach a degree of respective 'fairness' in their negotiations.  Ideally, both player's exchange something of equal value.  In many cases these can be simple 'non-aggression pacts', where both player's agree not to attack each other.  This could also involve 'territory swaps'.  For example, Yellow and Red could agree to 'trade' territories on a one-for one basis.  From a relative perspective, neither of them gained nor lost in the trade, but the strategic situation could change drastically.
Red and yellow Trading 1-to-1

The diagram above shows a possible configuration where Red and Yellow have traded four territories each.  Mathematically, both Red and Yellow traded identical numbers.  However, Yellow and Blue are no longer in conflict through this trade.  Meanwhile, Red is now in conflict with both Green and Blue.  Despite the initial 1-for-1 trade, the trade is not 'fair' to Red as he gains multiple opponents which were not previously in contact with.

Another complexity occurs in games where trades are not necessarily of the same type, such as the game Senji.  Senji has a 'diplomatic phase' where player's can exchange cards which represent troops, trade, or hostages.  For those on a military route to victory, troops may be more important than trade ships, whereas trade ships are more useful to those attempting a production path to victory.  Additionally, each 'family' in Senji has varying amounts of the three types of cards.  Thus, one has more trade ships to lend, while the other has more military support to give away.

In this case, the player's must determine the 'relative worth' of their cards in relation to what they are receiving.  In some cases, a player may be giving away something 'worthless' to them but very valuable to their exchanging partner, and vice versa.  The challenge becomes recognizing the value to the other player and maximizing their gain and return.
Element of Backstabbing
Nearly all agreements must come to an end at some point in time.  More than likely, one player or the other will break the agreement.  In some games there must be a a warning so the other player may prepare for the agreement breakdown.  in other games, the first announcement an agreement may be broken is when one side attacks the other.

The importance is to realize that at some point one side will "break" the contract.  Often times it should be obvious when this will occur.  Usually when the deal becomes 'unfair' to one or the other.  Another sure sign of failure is if one side of the alliance becomes the new leader.  However, sometimes it may just happen because the player sees 'greater gains' by backstabbing and getting in the first shot before the other player.

Recognizing when the deal is about to break may be difficult, but is critical for success.  The challenge is to realize when it is likely to happen.  Once that point is reached, the player must begin to prepare for the eventual 'backstab' and counterattack in force.  Depending on the situation, reinforcing areas behind the lines may accelerate the breakdown of negotiations, or it may extend the life of the contract.  The effect of this force buildup really depends on on the last element.

Element of Familiarity
This begins to broach the area of 'Meta-game'.  Two players who have played with each other for years are more likely to understand what the other expects to achieve than two players who have just met.  Similarly, two players who are more familiar with the game are more likely to understand the relative worth  than a player who is new to the game.

In the first case, the two player's familiarity with each other gives them insight into not only what needs to be offered, but also how long the agreement is likely to last.  In card games, knowing a player's "tell" can inform the other player's when they have a good hand or are bluffing.  The same formula applies to when two players enter negotiations.  If both players know each other well enough, they can quickly reach an understanding of what is going to happen, or if a deal is even possible.  Not knowing a person well usually means the deals are more conservative.

In the second case, it is simply an understanding of relative worth.  Many games require multiple plays to truly understand the value of a given piece.  Usually in these cases, it is recommended the more experienced players provide some expert guidance or insight into the negotiations.  Some people find it difficult to not "take advantage of the newb", but this is a disservice to the player and can turn a fun experience into a chore.
Final Thoughts
Negotiations are critical to success in many games.  The above are just some simple overviews of elements to consider.  However, successful negotiations in games should lead to improved negotiations in real life.  Normally we understand what "we" are after when negotiating, it is important to look at the game from the other player's viewpoint to determine if it is fair.  Hopefully, successfully negotiating agreement sin games will lead to more wins.

Anyone else have negotiation tips for games not covered here?
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