Negotiating yourself to victory: Becoming the negotiation wizard of strategy board gaming

Published 8 th May 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick
Settlers of Catan
Recently I found myself once again caught up in another game of Settlers of Catan, arguing with the other players, battling to be the first to those elusive 10 points. Despite another sweet victory, I found myself reflecting on what makes up a good strategy, what is the most important aspect of the game that determines success: it's negotiation. Central to this game amongst others, is negotiation, the art of finding mutually agreeable terms: persuading your opponents to trade, to not attack you, to 'gang-up' against someone else. This is not to trivialise the importance of negotiation, simplify its complexity or idealise its application but rather to give an example of what it involves and how it relates to a given context. Taking this into account, negotiation theory provides a rich framework for strategy board gamers, whether serious or not, to transcend the limits of luck and to begin to master the art of negotiation.

In Fisher and Ury (2011)'s widely acclaimed book on negotiation - Getting to Yes - they outline a "problem solving approach" consisting of four elements. [1] Each of these elements is based upon a soft bargaining approach, whereby through building trust and mutual gains one can better ensure that both parties in a negotiation can reach an agreement. Adopting this approach to your strategy board games will enhance your ability to win, but also help prevent the often heated conflicts which erupt.

Firstly, you need to separate the people from the problem, meaning instead of making personal attacks against your opponents and characterising them as the enemy you must focus instead on the issues at hand. If someone gets drawn into a personal vendetta against another player they will likely both end up losing as others will overtake them; personal attacks only serve to create enemies and isolate yourself. This means that players need to be empathetic, understanding what each person around them hopes to achieve, what their interests are, and whether you can work cooperatively for a shared goal. In practise this means playing in mutually beneficial ways: building alliances amongst weaker players, making trades which help you both and by refraining from obstructing/attacking others unless absolutely necessary. For all those who just can't help but needlessly block someone's road in Settlers, or vindictively refuse to trade the last card of a property set in Monopoly, or those who just love maliciously taking that one country of a completed continent in Risk, this applies to you.

Secondly, you need to focus on interests not positions, meaning that you should consider each player's position on the board, but then look behind this position to understand their strategy. By seeing beyond the mere position you can predict several turns ahead what they plan to do and often subvert it without having to be confrontational. Understanding each player's interests will ensure that you can seek areas for mutual gain. If you know what a player is hoping to achieve in their next three turns you can pre-empt them or use their goals for your collective gain. This relates closely with the third point.

UK Foreign Aid
Thirdly, you should invent multiple options for mutual gains before deciding what to do. Following from the previous points, all games are cooperative if there are three or more players involved, as at some point you will need to call on the assistance of another player. By inventing options for mutual gain one can ensure that two or more players benefit from a decision. If instead a player focuses solely on their own strategy they will be slow to progress through the game and will be at the mercy of other cooperative alliances. By trading for everyone's stupid sheep and building on a sheep port; by trading properties which are comparatively valuable; by creating a non-aggressive pact on continental borders; mutual gains can be achieved and you will move several steps closely to that final victory.

Fourthly, insist that the result be based on some objective criteria. This should almost go without saying yet surprisingly is often ignored; you must know the game rules, and have established any controversial ones at the beginning of the game, otherwise you will always risk being either accidently or intentionally misled by other players. This avoids unfortunate disappointment when someone tries to win with 5 cities, or thinks that they'll get M400 when they land on go, or that cannons equal only 5 men. Rules may be boring, but in board-games they are law; without them you are at the mercy of colloquial madness.

For those competitive strategy board-gamers then, observe these four principles and see how far luck really matters: refrain from personal attacks, seek mutual gains, know the other players' strategies and learn the rules.
Risk Strategy Board Game
There is however, one final and very important caveat: 'What if the other players won't cooperate ?' This is a real and dangerous problem reflective of positional bargaining, where individuals dig-in to their strategies and refuse to assist anyone else. We all may greatly resent these players but there are ways to overcome even this. Either just don't invite them to play...or utilize your BATNA.

The Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) is crucial in combating hard bargainers/stubborn players. By knowing your best alternative to a trade or alliance, you can ensure that whatever you agree will always be better. This works both ways though, as you will maximise your own position by knowing the other player's BATNA, meaning that you can contrast your own with theirs. If your BATNA is better than theirs you will be able to press them for a negotiated agreement quite easily (unless they are irrational...), but if theirs is better than your own you may have to simply back-down and wait for the next turn.

Bring together the above elements and you get principled negotiation. Whilst it may not always ensure you win, it should make playing that much more enjoyable, and will hopefully transform your board game related conflicts into a constructive opportunities. So I hope you gamers reading this will begin to enjoy these brilliant principles to make your board game antics that much more enjoyable.

[1] Roger Fisher and William Ury (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without giving in. 3rd Edition (Penguin Books: New York).