Where are all the negotiation games?

British TV channels marked the recent 70th anniversary of the Partition of India with a flurry of documentaries. Most of these programmes did an extremely good job of chronicling the terrible human consequences of Mountbatten’s rushed carve-up, and a pretty poor one of explaining why it happened. The missed opportunities and tangled negotiations that led up to the creation of Pakistan tended to receive scant attention. Not for the first time I found myself yearning for a thoughtful strategy game focussed on jaw-jaw rather than war-war.

If the talks that bookend wars, revolutions, strikes, nuclear arms races etc, feature at all in our historical playthings, it tends to be as crude enrichments – a multiple-choice pop-up here, a bit of unscripted territorial bartering there. They’re rarely if ever the main event and I think that’s a crying shame.

Without bespoke mechanisms and plenty of limelight the colourful personalities and varied tactics of the conference chamber have little chance of surviving gameification. In the negotiate-em-ups I pipedream negotiating styles are complex and highly cutomisable. There are chances to cultivate allies and divide adversaries… opportunities to flatter, press and horse-trade. Playing a trump card or extending an olive branch a day late or a day early may be disastrous. Dynamic external events can overtake and undermine.

The wargames that I’ve been playing for the past forty years are mesmerising things, but I’m not sure they’ve taught me any transferable skills. Perhaps if I’d spent a portion of my formative years engrossed in reality-based summit sims I’d now be a better haggler and compromise crafter. Perhaps I’d be better equipped to deal with the myriad disputes that life invariably throws up.

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37 Comments

  1. ThePuzzler says:

    Europa Universalis IV does a pretty good job of simulating negotiations to end wars. You can demand territory, or force them to change their religion, or tell them to break off their alliances, or to renounce their claims on your lands. To decide if they’ll accept they take into account lots of factors – how much you’re demanding, war weariness, relative army sizes, territory occupied, how many battles they’ve won and lost…

    The longer the war goes on, the more they’re willing to compromise. So you have to decide whether to drag things out a bit more, and hope you don’t suffer any more losses, or whether to just get it over with and take whatever they’ll give you now.

    But if you want an actual negotiate-em-up, I’d suggest boardgaming. The bribery negotiations of Sherriff of Nottingham, or the shifting alliances of Cosmic Encounter, or whatever the hell Sidereal Confluence is.

    • Turkey says:

      Yeah, if someone were to make a negotiations sim, basing it on boardgames would probably make the most sense. I can’t picture negotiating with an AI being all that satisfying.

    • Targaff says:

      Boardgamewise there’s always Article 27. Not sure you can get more negotiate-y than a game of UN negotiations.

      • courier says:

        “Credo” is a card game negotiating the Council of Nicea and writing the Nicene Creed. It is strange but realistic to the worst real-world negotiations I’ve been involved in.

    • Dogshevik says:

      “Machiavelli” the boardgame by Avalon Hill or its (less sophisticated) cousin “Diplomacy.” are excellent strategy/negotiating games.
      If spending 8 hours sweating profusely from constant fear of treason sounds like a good idea the WEGO mode, pre-written orders, the interdependent players and the negotiations behind closed doors is the way to go.

      • corinoco says:

        Except Diplomacy (of which I played a fair bit some … decades … ago, in fact the last time nuclear war was something to actually worry about) requires humans to actually do the Diplomacing. I doubt an AI has been written yet that could do it.

  2. Captain Narol says:

    Very interesting post.

    Indeed most strategy games are more focused on War itself than on Politics, while “War is the continuation of politics by other means”, as Clausewitz wrote.

    The only exception that comes to my mind would be Crusader Kings 2, where getting good opinions (throught various sort of gifts and political decisions, usually) of your vassals and rivals is key to political success.

  3. Seafoam says:

    Talking is boring, we want entertainment!
    Sure working at the power plant is a really important job that keeps the city running, and there are people who would play a simulated version of that, I’m quite sure most people wouldn’t want to play it.

    The power-plant is kind of a bad example, because simulating it requires math and working on tasks, something computers do with ease. But how do you simulate actual human negotiations? Well you make a dialog tree, and that sort of game is called a multi choice visual novel.

    • unacom says:

      In my opinion, the tree-model is basically what stands in the way of modelling negotiations in computer games. I´ll grant you, though, that it´s probably one of the few decently manageable models.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Talking isn’t boring at all.

      “But how do you simulate actual human negotiations? Well you make a dialog tree, and that sort of game is called a multi choice visual novel.”

      Interactive Fiction designers (like Emily Short) have experimented with systems that go far beyond basic dialogue trees and Choose Your Own Adventure structure.

      To make an engaging in-person negotation game you really need two things: dynamic dialogue (text or voice) and dynamic facial expression and body language (non-linear partly procedural animation, NOT just a set of captured clips). If you have those you could make something really interesting.

      • April March says:

        Yeah. I wouldn’t even disavow the notion that a game might be an interesting “summit sim” in the way Stone suggests while also fitting the visual novel genre to a tee. (Especially if Emily Short was working on it.)

      • unacom says:

        I mostly agree. But facial simulation might lead down the slippery slope of the realism-trap, where the developer needs to increase the realism of one mechanic and is then forced to follow suit with one or two other mechanics. And then ist starts snowballing.
        I think a good negotiation-game might try to work around that bit. And I would like to see that.

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          Well, I would argue we’re already well past the point where models have gotten too detailed and not enough effort has been put into getting animation to the same level. Only now is it slowly catching up and even still most energy is going into inherently un-interactive linear performance capture, while much more promising avenues (for games) like Half Life 2’s dynamic facial expressions fell by the wayside. Now though, there’s machine learning AI which might give us realistic non-linear dynamic expressions soonish. (link to arstechnica.com)

          Of course, you don’t have to go down the realism road at all. You can sidestep uncanny issues entirely by going more stylized. You could make a really good dialogue game with characters that look like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2.

          • unacom says:

            I agree and hope that the underlying problem itself will be tackled in more than just a few ways.
            Hopefully, upcoming developments (thanks for the link) will lead to a decrease in pricing and working-time, thus allowing smaller developers to have a broader means of expression.

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            Ninja Dodo says:

            Yeah, historically that seems to be the trajectory of most computer graphics tech. First it’s only for high-end pre-rendered 3D, then it becomes possible to do it real-time and eventually it becomes a thing you can just get on the Unity or Unreal Asset Store.

            Some people worry about being replaced but I think it will just take care of the boring grunt work so you can focus on the more interesting creative stuff PLUS it will enable more dynamic reactive games. And that’s a “last but not least” if ever I saw one.

    • Archonsod says:

      There’s other ways it could be modelled. The RotK series allowed for debates via a more extended rock, paper, scissors style competition (each side picked an option from debate to quoting poetry, one option would beat another and the winner would advance their position accordingly, with the options and effects modified by character stats).

      The boardgame Churchill is probably the best representation of negotiation I’ve seen outside of simply letting players negotiate (and it includes an AI for each side in case you can’t quite scrape the three players needed for the game together, so could definitely work on a computer).
      It’s a fairly simple tug of war system. Each player gets a hand of cards (each one representing one of their negotiating team, plus one which represents their countries leader). Each card has a numeric number, as well as a special ability which either modifies the strength of the card when used on certain issues or in certain situations, or otherwise provides some kind of bonus when used in particular ways.
      The premise is incredibly simple. Half of the board consists of a representation of a conference table, with each player having a chair seven spots from the centre of the table. There’s a selection of chits representing the issues that can be debated at a conference – some specific, like opening a second front or atomic research, some general, like being able to modify the post-war politics in favour of colonialism or decolonialism, or simply forcing a player to devote resources to support a specific front.
      At the start of the conference each player picks one of their cards to play, whoever plays the highest card is the conference leader. They select an issue to place in the centre of the table, then each player (starting with the player to their left) selects two issues to also place in the centre of the table (including the conference leader).
      Starting with the leader each player then picks one of the issues to bring up, and plays one of their cards. The issue is moved towards their chair on the board a number of steps equal to the strength of the card played – any issue which reaches their chair is considered agreed in their favour and removed from the negotiation, though at the end of the conference (when everyone is out of cards) any issues still on their side of the table are won in their favour. However, after playing the card either of the other players can opt to debate the point by playing one of their own cards, which is subtracted from the initial card played to either reduce the distance moved or, if it’s a negative number, move it towards their own side of the table. The end result is a surprisingly convincing simulation of negotiations.

    • theWillennium says:

      You don’t need to simulate it when you can just use actual other people. Analog games have been doing great things with negotiation, with the biggest classic of course being Diplomacy.

      As for digital games that incorporate negotiation, Subterfuge is the best that I can think of. Because any troop movements took so damn long in real time, it opens up a ton of space for negotiation between players. It reminded me of the years I spent playing e-mail Risk with people, which is a much better game when you can secretly communicate.

      • Archonsod says:

        If there’s anything guaranteed to ruin a game, it’s the introduction of real people (although I suppose by that marker, we already have plentiful negotiation games. We just call them “multiplayer lobbies”):P

        • cpt_freakout says:

          A thoughtful negotiation game wouldn’t attract the kiddie crowd as much, though. I mean there’ll always be people like Fraser, who like to turn Bohemia into dicks, but even then that’s funnier and more tolerable than some idiot calling you names in chat.

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        Ninja Dodo says:

        “Why simulate talking to people when you can just talk to them in real life” is entirely missing the point of pushing the boundaries of what videogames can do.

  4. lordcooper says:

    Like so many other ‘where are the x games’ questions, the answer is Eve.

    The map is shaped at least as much by negotiation and political manoeuvring as it is by explosions.

    • Darloth says:

      Yes, but none of that is handled by gameplay at all.

      Eve’s political tools are actually surprisingly basic. I’m often amazed it works at all! (I imagine it takes a lot of hard work from everyone concerned to make anything happen, especially anything complicated with conditions unenforcable by direct game actions. Very realistic, that is.)

      This is more about games which are about negotiation, rather than games that can be negotiated around – though I’ll agree Eve is the premier example of that category.

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    Dios says:

    Where are all the negotiation games? In the analog gaming sector. link to boardgamegeek.com

    Personally, i can recommend Sheriff of Nottingham: Players pack their pouches with legal and illegal wares and try to get them though customs. A different player takes this job every turn and players have to negotiate, bluff and cajole to influence the Sheriff to decide to let them pass unmolested or to check their stuff for contraband.

  6. unacom says:

    Amen to that. I´d really like to see more haggling, pressuring, outright blackmailing as well as subtle propaganda on the opponent´s power base modeled in computer games.
    I stumbled upon an excellent article on this here site, some time ago in which the author asked where all the real trading games were to be found. I´ll take that in the same vein.
    That last picture -is that of the Dayton Accords? Incidentally that would be a case where the personality of the negotiators had a really large part in the negotiations. I´d really like to see that taken into account. Does anybody remember the brawls in Jagged Alliance or the sabotaging Administrators in Fragile Allegiance? -Granted. Those were pretty basic mechanics, but they´d keep young me on my toes.

  7. akaks says:

    some time ago i found this man and his game about making peace and wondered why has no one made a digital game with all his knowledge

    link to ted.com

  8. rgk says:

    Play Diplomacy games in Warlight link to warlight.net

  9. gruia says:

    thats why tyranny is the bomb.
    these RPS games are a joke. who finds stimulation in such things is clearly deluded, as the real value comes from negotiations , playing with your own mind as a resource, not other peoples lives

  10. Scurra says:

    Where are all the negotiation games? In the real world, especially the megagames (e.g. http://www.megagame-makers.org.uk) with stuff like Watch The Skies etc. (Haven’t they been featured on here? Or was it at Shut Up and Sit Down?)

    • JB says:

      I came here to say “MEGAGAMES” and that was about it. But you beat me to it.

      Even so.

      MEGAGAMES

    • JB says:

      Also, yes, they were certainly featured (more than once if memory serves) on SU&SD, may have had a passing mention here too. I’d look, but the search function doesn’t always like to play with me.

  11. MikhailG says:

    Its so wild seeing passed away Slobodan Milosevic in a video game article.

  12. Sin Vega says:

    Not quite the same, but the best part of Deus Ex Orange Revolution for me was those handful of scenes where you’re using dialogue to convince someone of your position. Behind the scenes it may well have been a case of acquiring Argument Points, but on screen all you saw was the arguments/tones available to you, the great VA, and the outstanding animation telling you how your words were going down.

    There’s one conversation in particular where I remember neither the words nor the subject of the argument, but I do remember the animation of the character I was talking to as he, without a word, paused to think about what I was saying and weigh it over in his mind. It was probably the best non-verbal “acting” I’ve ever seen in a game.

    I’d love to see that and some of what Alpha Protocol did with convincing and negotiating with people. They couldn’t really be done the same way in other genres, but just having those other approaches was a refreshing change. The diplomacy in Fragile Allegiance is well worth copying and building on, too.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      They built on that rather nicely in Mankind Divided. Regular generic conversations were a little stiff and under-animated, but the full-on dialogue puzzles were quite good, with some really subtle acting. I’ve always avoiding getting the social CASIE augmentation because it’s more fun to go a 100% by reading the character’s body language and what feels like the right thing to say.

    • unacom says:

      That´s one of the things added immesurably to the game.
      Somehow finding and adjusting to the tone of the dialogue.

      In the early to mid-nineties I played a demo where the player could adjust the tone to the dialogue-options on a slide. It would then range from pleading to menacing. I found that hugely interesting, but never played the actual game or remembered its name.

  13. ahintoflime says:

    This is probably 10 years old or so but there’s a pretty fascinating game called “Peacemaker” ( link to peacemakergame.com ) It’s about the Israel/Palestine situation. If I recall right, you pick a side to play as, and the game feeds you news and events– you have to decide what policies to enact, etc with peace being the ultimate goal. I can’t really remember how complex it was but it had an impact on me. Nice to see it’s still around (and on tablets and stuff now)

    Also hello. I’ve read RPS for yeaaaars but just suddenly decided to comment for the first time.

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    samsharp99 says:

    Oh please, I’ve played Theme Park (original). I know how to negotiate. It involves biscuits.

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