In another topic shared between myself and the fine folk at Growing Up Gamers, I am tackling the subject of favorite board game mechanic. The problem is, a good game is more than the sum of it's mechanical parts and no single mechanic really stands out as better than another. It just takes so much more than one specific mechanic to make a board game good, and just because a particular kind of rule works for one game does not mean that it will work in other games.
So where does that leave me answering this question? It leaves me with negotiation.
What is Negotiation?
Call it bluffing, negotiation, table talk, whatever you will. It's not precisely a game mechanic. Most games that have negotiation don't have a rule that says "and now you negotiate." At best they might call it something else like trading or allying. However, in some games a players ability to talk and negotiate with other players is a very important part of the game. These moments don't happen by accident.
Games Can Encourage or Hinder Negotiation
Even though negotiation is rarely stated directly in the rules, games has ways of providing opportunities for table talk to have an important impact on the game. It occurs in Monopoly when people trade properties and sometimes when they have to pay rent. It occurs in war games when one player begins to attack another. It occurs in Settlers of Catan when people trade resources, move the robber, and even when they build roads. Games encourage negotiation when they do one of two things. First, if a game makes players need something from their fellow players to be successful, players will negotiate. Second, if a player can choose attack or hinder one but not all of his or her opponents, players will negotiate. That second one is particularly key. Two player battle games almost never have negotiation and battle games with three or more players often have negotiation. Take Magic the Gathering for example.
Magic the Gathering...for example
If you are playing Magic one on one, there is no reason to negotiate. Your goal is to defeat your opponent and your opponent's goal is to defeat you. You will each choose the moves that you think will put you in as little risk as possible while hurting your opponent as much as possible.
When playing magic with 3 or more players, negotiation is required. You still need to defeat everyone else, but no one person is strong enough to take on all of the other players at the same time. Part of your strategy must be to convince your opponents to attack each other once in a while. You opponents, in turn, have an incentive to consider what you say because they need to convince you to attack someone besides them. In essence, though only one player can win, all players need the help of their opponents to actually be successful in the game.
Why Negotiation Is So Good
This is what I like about negotiation. It steps outside of the strict rules of the game and encourages players to get creative...and conniving. It encourages social interaction and can be very empowering for the players that are successful at it. Furthermore, it's a skill that works the same way across all games that have it. While most games have strategies that are particular to the specific mechanics of the game, building a good argument is pretty much the same no matter where you are doing it.
A game can be very good without allowing much negotiation. Dominion, for example, is a game that I love that goes out of its way to avoid negotiation. Still, the moments in a game where you get the needed resources, ward off impending danger, or steer your way toward victory through little more than wit and charisma alone are some of my favorite moments in gaming.
For fun discussion of good game mechanics, check out Growing Up Gamers for another take on the topic.