Negotiation is one of my all-time favorite ingredients in tabletop games. It’s a mechanism that steps out of the way and lets the players do the talking, literally. For me, one of the most satisfying elements of this hobby is the above-the-table interaction that happens between opponents and/or teammates, and negotiation offers this in spades. Not only that, but it often allows individuals to bring their own personalities into the competitive experience.
Are you the generous type who offers favors out like candy at Halloween, all the while earning good karma that will pay off in the long run? Or are you a greedy wheeler and dealer who tries to milk your competition for all they are worth? As long as participants are open to making deals and hearing offers, then you’re bound to have a blast with a good negotiation game.
With Bitewing Games soon launching a crowdfunding project for not one but two negotiation games, I’ve been playing and exploring many of the all-time greats in this genre. We are finally ready to reveal our own publications, so in celebration of that reveal I’d like to share my personal Top 10 Negotiation Games. Be sure to stick around after perusing my list, because I’ll have some exciting new details to reveal for fans of this mechanism.
What better way to start this list off than with the 1999 classic, Chinatown? Chinatown has become one of my all time favorite games to introduce to anybody (gamers, non-gamers, family, friends, you name it) thanks to its smooth approachability and lively antics. Players are seeking to establish the most profitable businesses on the block by acquiring connected lots and building certain businesses on those lots.
Negotiation is at the beating heart of this game, as each round you’ll secretly choose to acquire a few lots from the hand of cards that are dealt to you. You’ll also draw business tiles from a bag that range from take-out to laundry to flowers and more. Then, you’ll reveal your lots and tiles and let the wild rumpus begin! In real time (no clockwise turn structure here!), players simultaneously make offers and negotiate trades of their lots, business tiles, and money. The rules offer complete freedom in what you offer, how you trade, and how you earn the most money to win the game. The real fun comes in figuring out how to wring lot 43 from an opponent’s grasp or in realizing how desperately your neighbor wants your dim sum tile and basking in their desperation. Chinatown never fails to be a hit at our table.
The King’s Dilemma
From a decades-old classic to the second-newest release on this list, The King’s Dilemma features an exciting mix of legacy role-playing, epic kingdom politicking, and tense auction voting. This one is admittedly not quite as easy to get to the table as Chinatown, as it requires (ideally) 5-players who are willing to assemble semi-regularly and play through roughly 12-20 sessions. But if you have the right group for it, then you are certainly in for a romp!
This one sees players acting as influential advisory houses to the king. Together, your council faces an endless stream of dilemmas that have long-term consequences on the military, culture, economy, and moral of your people. You will use your power (through voting auctions), your money (through bribing), and your wit (through persuasive conversation) to decide the fate of the kingdom as you seek to fulfill your house’s secret agenda.
Might as well keep the time period whiplash going by jumping back to the oldest game on my list: the legendary Cosmic Encounter. This is one that I’ve labeled “the pizza” of board gaming, and I stand by that comparison. The real draw of Cosmic Encounter, and the reason why it has stayed relevant and seen updated versions since its 1977 release, is the fact that it offers an infinite combination of wacky alien powers for players to explore.
Yet the element that keeps its old gears greased is undoubtedly the opportunity for negotiation. It doesn’t matter that one player’s alien ability is infinitely more powerful than any other, because that simply means the opponents must team up to overcome the galaxy’s Goliath. While it’s a competitive game at its core, Cosmic Encounter allows its players to collectively dictate who crosses the finish line and victoriously colonizes five planets—resulting in one or multiple winners.
Let’s continue along the space theme with my next pick, Sidereal Confluence. While this one also features asymmetric alien powers, like Cosmic Encounter, its gameplay is actually much closer to Chinatown. If Chinatown is the simultaneous negotiation game made for anyone and everyone, then Sidereal Confluence is the hardcore hobbyist version.
This one is so outlandishly ambitious that I still can’t believe how well it comes together. I’ll tell you what: the first time I heard about this game I was immediately running in the opposite direction. Featuring 268 cubes, 9 alien factions whose names simulate a spelling stroke, and multiple hours of resource conversion. No thank you. Yet beneath this rough exterior hides one of the greatest negotiation games ever designed.
Here, you’ll find all the chaotic fun of Chinatown with infinitely more layers of strategic possibilities. All deals are binding and virtually nothing is off limits—you can promise a share of the profits from your convertor to the player who helps you fuel it, or even lend the convertor itself to a neighbor when you find it useless to your needs. You can exchange planets for ships, ships for food, food for protection, protection for research—the list goes on! While this sprawling game initially appears alien and unwieldy, it’s surprisingly straightforward, laser-focused, and entirely engaging once the rounds get going.
From the new hotness to another old classic, let’s now examine Quo Vadis. I never try to hide my biases on any post, but fair warning, I’m definitely biased and personally tied to this game (more on that later). But even if Quo Vadis was completely unrelated to Bitewing Games, it would still be on my Top 10 Negotiation Games list. That’s because this one is a playground of pure, zesty politics from one of my favorite designers, Reiner Knizia.
Believe it or not, Quo Vadis is now over 30 years old and among the very first notable releases from Dr. Knizia. It is certainly starting to look its age in board game years, yet the core experience is as spicy as ever. The game is a race to squeeze one or more of your senators into the Inner Sanctum before it fills up, because only those who have reached the Inner Sanctum qualify for victory. The only problem is that it is extremely hard to get there without the help of your opponents. Through bribing, voting, exchanging favors, and sometimes even backstabbing, only the most cunning players will rise to the top of the Roman Senate. But you can be the last to cross the finish line—getting in by the skin of your teeth—and still claim the victory for yourself! That’s because the winner will be the Inner Sanctum player who earns the most laurels from successful campaigns and lucrative deals along the way. It’s simple, it’s fast, and it is incredibly thrilling. One must balance the pressing urgency of reaching the Inner Sanctum with the lucrative opportunities to hang back and milk your opponents and the game board for laurels.
As much as I love this game, I’ll be the first to admit that has a few flaws. Most notably, the board loses some of its tightness and the table some of its tension if you’re playing with 3 people instead of 4 or ideally 5. And if those people are new to the game, then getting them excited about this grungy old box and bone-dry board is usually a challenge. Finally, those who enjoy a broader trading sandbox from games like Sidereal Confluence will obviously feel a bit more restricted here. It’s understandable for some players to come away from the relatively dry Quo Vadis being thirsty for a little more juice in their negotiations. To that end, I’m thrilled to share that Bitewing Games and Reiner Knizia have worked to address every major flaw in this classic game—so stick around to hear about Quo Vadis evolved. But for now, let’s pay our respects to the original Quo Vadis and continue on to my next pick…
Root is one of a few picks on my list that features negotiation as a secondary or supplemental mechanism to the core experience. In fact, the best place you’ll find negotiation in this game is actually within the first expansion thanks to the Riverfolk Company faction of profit-seeking otters. This commercial crew offers their services to the other woodland critters by displaying their hand at all times and setting prices on their offerings. Not only can opponents buy cards from your public hand, but they can also use your riverboats to get around the board easier and utilize your mercenaries to bully their targets more effectively.
Being a good merchant otter is not only about setting the right prices for your services, but it’s also about keeping your finger on the woodland’s pulse and enticing your opponents with offers they can’t refuse. Yet negotiation can even be found outside of the Riverfolk Company as players can form an alliance with the Vagabond or collaborate with enemies to destabilize an even bigger threat. Designer Cole Wehrle is known for embracing the memorable meta that can arise from a board game, and Root is all about gaming the players.
Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile
If gaming the players is the kind of thing you are looking for, then Mr. Wehrle’s later design, Oath, might be an even better fit for you. Oath was my favorite release from last year—I’m now 11 meaty plays into it and still having a blast. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Nooooooo way, you better know what you’re getting into with Oath before you take the plunge.
If you too want to have a blast with Oath, then you ideally need a regular group of 3-5 players. Your group needs to be totally okay with a lengthy rules explanation, a cloudy first play (or more), an unwieldy labyrinth of strategic possibilities, a wide range of emotional highs and lows, and the ever present possibility of kingmaking looming over each game’s outcome. In many ways, Oath is less about reaching a competitive conclusion and more about charting a civilization’s journey. But if you’re here for the negotiations and politicking, then you’ll find plenty to love.
Each result of a play of Oath has a direct effect on the setup of the next—like a pseudo legacy game that is constantly morphing and never ending. The winner of one game always becomes crowned (or continues) as Chancellor in the next. This Chancellor’s goal is to hold their new oath (a unique victory objective) while keeping the Exiles of the kingdom in check. Often, the Exiles and their followers can become so dangerous and unwieldy that the Chancellor may be compelled to offer citizenship to a lowly Exile in a desperate attempt to retain control. The problem is that this Exile-turned-Citizen will do everything in their power to succeed the Chancellor as they cooperate together.
One of my most recent plays of this game saw one exiled player forcing his citizenship upon me, the Chancellor of the session, and convincing me to share my war bands and power with him to help maintain order in my Empire. And each time I trusted him with my resources, he immediately stabbed me in the back by revealing secret plans and motives of his own. Fortunately, the other exiles proved to be a large enough threat that he was compelled to concede his ulterior motives for the next era and help my Empire maintain its grasp on the land.
Interestingly, Cole has cited that one of his main inspirations for Oath was in fact Inis, by Christian Martinez. That’s more due to the fact that Inis and Oath both feature multiple paths to victory within a tumultuous power struggle—yet they both possess elements of negotiation as well! Ironically, the only place that you’ll really find negotiation in Inis is within the conflicts between warring players.
The thing I love about conflict in Inis is that it is completely devoid of things like combat dice and power cards. These tropes are replaced by a simple question: “Would you like to stop fighting?” If the answer is no, then players will continue to slap valuable troops out of each other’s armies or precious cards out of each other’s hands until one retreats or is wiped out. But if the answer is yes—and both players can agree to stop before one or both are virtually annihilated—then the conflict is over. Simple as that. The different bands will simply coexist on the same board space.
Inis remains a brilliant game of political power grabbing that is further improved by several of the modules in its expansion. I’m all ears for the recently announced second installment in this “political trilogy” from designer Martinez and publisher Matagot titled Galactic Renaissance.
Lords of Vegas
Speaking of one game being the inspiration for another, Lords of Vegas actually owes some of its DNA to the previously listed Chinatown according to the designers of this next game on my list. It certainly makes sense when you look closely enough. Both games see players taking control of lots on a square grid and seeking to erect businesses across connected lots in order to gain the most profits. Yet where Chinatown is pure, unadulterated negotiation, Lords of Vegas is a game of cutthroat casinos ripe with entrepreneurial gambling and sprinkled with the opportunity for trading and negotiation.
In this 12-year-old fan favorite, players are constantly risking their hard-earned cash on ambitious endeavors. These pursuits include everything from building, upgrading, and spreading owned casinos to hostile takeovers of the competition or even high-stakes gambling to steal each other’s cash. With all of these thrillingly thematic possibilities, it can be easy to forget the advantageous opportunity to trade at any time. The ability to trade most anything—including money, lots, dice in casinos, and actions—can really help tip the scales of luck in your favor.
We’re going to close this Top 10 out with another classic trading game that has long been a favorite of many gamers across the world. Apparently the gateway to becoming a legendary German game designer is by starting with a simple negotiation game. As Reiner Knizia began his design journey with Quo Vadis (among others) so Uwe Rosenberg started his ludography with the bean-trading card game, Bohnanza. Many frown upon the garish art style of this game, but I personally find it to be quite charming and iconic.
While I personally gravitate toward games that offer more strategy and flexibly in their negotiation possibilities, Bohnanza remains a worthwhile and amusing classic thanks to its unique locked hand card play. Here, you are not allowed to rearrange any cards in your hand, and you must play them into your fields in order. This forces players to give up beans to their opponents in hopes of receiving others, as you’ll score more points if you are able to play multiple beans of a single type in a row. For those who are curious, Bohnanza sits as the most family-friendly negotiation game on this list. If you’re wanting to get gamers or non-gamers hooked on this genre, then Bohnanza, Chinatown, and Quo Vadis are the three best entry points.
No top 10 list is any good without a handful of honorable mentions, right? At the very least, these mentions help to dampen the outrage of passionate fans who saw their favorite negotiation game shafted on my list. So let’s get into them!
- John Company: Honestly, I have no doubt that the second edition of this game was merely a few months away from making my Top 10 list and pushing off another title listed above. Cole Wehrle is a favorite designer of mine (if you didn’t notice from Root and Oath being mentioned above), and John Company is his most negotiation-focused game of all. I can’t wait to dive into this one when it finally releases in Q3!
- Rising Sun: I’ve heard two main things about Rising Sun. 1) It claims to be a negotiation game but many detractors say that’s a weak claim at best. 2) Many folks also say that this is the weakest design of the Eric Lang / CMON trilogy (Blood Rage, Rising Sun, Ankh). So will I ever get the chance to try it? Who knows. But here it is.
- Twilight Imperium: These next two games are probably the ones that will get me in the most trouble with negotiation fans (because they are on my honorable mentions rather than my Top 10). I’m still not sure whether I would enjoy this 8-hour extravaganza or simply be annoyed that I didn’t spend an entire day playing 4-10 other games that I know I love instead. But from the sound of it, those who enjoy TI are hooked from their first play and ever hungry for more plays.
- Diplomacy: Another beast of a game (roughly 6 hours) that apparently must be played at exactly 6 or 7 players who will likely enter as friends and leave as mortal enemies. Diplomacy apparently takes the back-stabbing part of negotiation and makes it a glorified feature in this epic game of military might.
- Dune: Dune, like TI and Diplomacy, has been around for decades, although it recently received a facelift. These games also share the common problem of possessing many barriers to entry and requiring the perfect group (in this case 6 players hungry for a heavy 3-hour game). Dune features deeply asymmetric factions, shakey alliances, and secret treachery.
- Pax Pamir: While Pax Pamir is one of my all-time favorite board games, I couldn’t justify fitting it onto my Top 10 list when negotiation is such a light feature compared to the other games in contention. The most negotiation you’ll find here is mostly in the table talk—convincing others to join or support your faction and work against opponents. Of course, you can also waive the forced bribes present in the game if a player is seeking to help your cause—but most often those bribes are enforced because the economy is so tight here.
- Genoa: I’ve come close to tracking down a copy of Genoa, and perhaps that’ll happen before too long. This one seems to be a bit more polarizing—either you love the dynamic gameplay that Genoa provides, or you hate it for being too long and dry.
- Moonrakers: This is undoubtedly the hottest negotiation game at the moment as Moonrakers is currently having its second smash-hit Kickstarter campaign featuring all kinds of expansion content. What happens when you combine negotiation with deck-building in space? Only Moonrakers can answer that question.
- Panic on Wall Street: I rarely hear about this 2011 game, but it still has its fans. This one is about loudly negotiating and trading stocks for 3-11 players in only 30 minutes.
- Catan: “Two sheep for a wood?” How could I not mention one of the most popular trading games of all time?
- Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery: Like Quo Vadis, Spartacus is also about competing for power in Ancient Rome. Only the competition here plays out in gory gladiatorial arenas rather than dignified senatorial committees. Apparently this one got a somewhat recent reskin as well.
Introducing Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas
I started this post by sharing how negotiation is one of my all-time favorite ingredients in tabletop games. So of course, as a publisher, I’m eager to keep this genre alive and contribute to the list of legends which include the games noted above. For my tastes, this might be the most exciting project that we’ve had the privilege to work on. Let’s dive into the next two releases coming from Bitewing Games…
When I reached out to Reiner regarding Quo Vadis, I had a vision for what the game could become. We weren’t interested in simply painting over the cracks in the design. Rather, I dug through over 30 years of data (thanks BGG) and presented my analysis to Reiner including several development goals for the game. Then off he went with his decades-old design to give it new life—like a phoenix reborn from the flames. I’ll be sharing a full publisher diary before too long on all the nitty gritty details behind the evolution of Quo Vadis to Zoo Vadis, but for now let me simply explain the end result, Zoo Vadis:
What if the animals were the ones who ran the zoo?
…Presumably, this wild government would be built upon the support of fellow creatures and fueled by the fame, attention, and prestige of wide-eyed visitors. Naturally, the most aspirational beasts would lobby for a position in the star exhibit, and the lead star would be elected Zoo Mascot.
In order to join the star exhibit, each species must campaign its way up the hierarchy of enclosures with the majority support of animal voters. And the lead star will be the species that has earned the most laurels from both raving fans and jealous rivals along the way.
How does one gain support and earn laurels? Through crafty politicking, clever negotiations, and ruthless schemes. There can only be one Zoo Mascot, after all.
Where are you going? That is the ultimate question of Zoo Vadis.
Zoo Vadis is an evolution of Reiner Knizia’s cult-classic negotiation game, Quo Vadis?. It retains the elegant, political gameplay that fans have come to love while introducing many innovations and improvements by:
-Enhancing the 3-player game and tailoring the board to all player counts through neutral, bribable figures—roaming peacocks
-Widening the player count with a second game board for 6-7 players
-Expanding the possibilities for strategic negotiation with asymmetric animal abilities
-Increasing tactical opportunities with new special laurel tokens
-Broadening the appeal of the theme and presentation with vibrant zoo art by Kwanchai Moriya and Brigette Indelicato
-Enlivening the production with chunky animal figures and functional player screens
Like the original design, the game ends immediately when the Star Exhibit is full. Only the animals who have reached the Star Exhibit qualify for victory, and the winner is the player with the most laurels.
Before Bitewing Games had ever reached out to Reiner Knizia or Ryan Courtney, we had a couple designs of our own that had survived the gauntlet of playtesting and were games that we were eager to share with the community. One of those is Gussy Gorillas, and we’re jazzed to finally be publishing it alongside Zoo Vadis in our upcoming negotiation games crowdfunding campaign…
Gussy Gorillas are a peculiar group of primates that strive to keep each other gussied up and well-groomed. Through social grooming, these apes remove dirt, insects, and debris from the difficult-to-reach and difficult-to-see places of each other’s fur. Reciprocation is expected and awarded in this kind of monkey business! The player who acquires the most diverse and exotic collection of groomed goods will earn the respect of their fellow primates and be awarded the golden banana of victory.
In Gussy Gorillas, players start out with a personal deck of face-down cards. Without looking at the card(s) in their hand, players simultaneously trade or keep their hand, one or two cards at a time, to form a personal collection. Once all cards have been traded or kept, players tally their collections and the highest score wins — but pairs can cancel out and special cards are not always helpful, so trade carefully!
Similar to the popular game Hanabi, in Gussy Gorillas players hold their cards facing away from themselves…but instead of being a co-operative memory game, this is a competitive negotiation and bluffing game. Things get even more interesting once players realize that every card can either be very good or very bad for one’s collection, depending on the context. You’ll have to convince your opponents to keep bad cards for themselves and give great cards to you if you want to swing away with the win…
There are still plenty more juicy details to share over the coming months and we hope to have your support when Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas launch this January! The best way to help Bitewing Games and not miss out on these upcoming releases is to subscribe to the Bitewing Games newsletter. Bitewing Games is only made possible and kept alive by the support of backers and fans of our published games. Thanks for your support!
What is your favorite negotiation game? Share in the comments below!
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.