I have learned more about negotiation by playing board games than from taking a college course on negotiation.
A lot of people are scared of negotiation. They’re afraid to ask for what they want. To me, this is crazy. Are you just going to stumble through life and let randos give you their trash? You gotta take the initiative!
A lot of the time, that’s fine. You don’t need to haggle over a muffin at the local cafe. But when there are a lot of zeros–say, your salary or when buying a house–you don’t want the salesman to pull the wool over your eyes.
If you’re nervous, don’t worry. No one taught you how to negotiate and you’re not expected to know everything on your first run. But negotiation is just another stat that can be leveled up. As you go down the different subtrees of Charisma, you see patterns and you develop your skills. And it can be fun, too. You’ll feel excitement when you work out a creative deal that leaves both parties happy.
Without further ado, here are six ways you can negotiate like a pro board gamer.
#1 Understand the other side
We’re playing Twilight Imperium (a huge game about space empires) and we’re trying to diffuse a ruinous war. If we can’t come to an agreement this turn, we’re both going to spend a bunch of resources fighting each other, which will let someone else win the long game.
“Can I take this planet* for 3 trade goods?” asks my neighbor.
“No way!” I reply. This particular tile is the linchpin of my defensive network and it’s a system I cannot afford to lose.
The negotiations drag on. Both sides threaten each other with force. Finally, I ask, “Why do you need this planet so badly?”
“Well, I need four industrial planets to score a victory point,” he says. Bingo!
“I have an idea. How about I give you a different industrial planet for 3 trade goods?” My rival thinks about this for a moment and then replies, “Agreed.”
Most people walk into a negotiation thinking only about themselves. A master negotiator figures out what the other side wants.
#2 Get creative
Let’s think about that previous negotiation.
One player wants an industrial planet to score a victory point.
What he really wanted was a victory point, and there are many ways to score points.
For instance, I could have suggested attacking a different rival’s planet, or I could have helped him research to score a victory point via technology. And when I help him in a creative way, he’ll reciprocate by helping me in a later turn.
Sometimes I like to sweeten the pot by throwing in something that is easy for me to do, but would be difficult for the other party. At the very least, you can emphasize that you’ll be a great ally after they help you out.
I’ve seen negotiations where one player puts in a trade good, a second player gives a promissory note to a third, a fourth player makes a specific tactical move, and the fifth activates their strategy card, all part of the same deal in order to undercut the sixth player. This kind of shenanigans wins tournaments. Get creative.
#3 Make the other side happy with honesty
Who would you rather deal with?
Person A is honest and keeps their word.
Person B is known as a backstabber who doesn’t follow through on promises.
I have a friend who always honors his alliances at the table, and guess what? Everyone wants to be his friend too. I feel much more comfortable doing long-term deals with people who have a record of honesty.
When you make deals, the point is to achieve your objectives, not to crush the other player. You must always offer reasonable deals.
(In board games, you can get away with mild extortion if that’s part of the game. In real life, that’s generally looked down upon.)
#4 Negotiate on value, not cost
We’re playing Sidereal Confluence, an asymmetric game all about trading resources with your partners at the table. This round, I have one yellow cube. Yellow cubes are rare and really valuable. Meanwhile, green cubes are very, very plentiful and cheap.**
“Can I give you a green cube for your yellow cube?” another player asks.
“Sorry, I need at least 5 greens for a yellow,” I reply.
“OK, how about 2 greens?” she asks.
“One yellow is definitely worth 5 greens right now. Try asking someone else, and when you come back, my offer still stands,” I suggest. My rival starts going around the table trying to haggle for a yellow cube. A few minutes later, she returns.
“How about 3 greens for your yellow?” she asks. “You produce 2 yellows every round anyways.”
“The price is still five,” I say. “You’re going to get like 8 points out of this, surely that’s worth 5 green cubes. I can’t do much with greens anyways.”
“Ugh!” She knows it’s true and she goes around the table. Again, she comes back.
“OK, how about 4 greens for a yellow?”
“Five greens!” I say.
“Fine!” she hands over 5 greens. Immediately, she converts all her yellows into 8 points, a huge gain.
By knowing the value of my resources and my position, I avoided getting screwed over. It’s not about what my resources are worth to me, it’s about what the other side is receiving.
#5 Have a strong alternative
In another match of Sidereal Confluence, I was the one looking for a yellow cube.
First, I asked my neighbor for her price: I had to pay 3 blues for 1 yellow.
Then I went to another neighbor and said, “Hey, so-and-so is selling each yellow for 3 blues.”
“What? I’ll trade you a yellow for just 2 blues,” he replied.
I then went to the original neighbor and reported, “My best alternative is 2 blues for one of your yellows. Want to lower your price?”
“Sure, 1 yellow for 1 blue?” she suggests.
By having a strong alternative, I was able to negotiate the price down to a reasonable level. Businesspeople call this a BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.
#6 Be willing to walk away
Another time in Sidereal Confluence, I was looking to make a deal with a notoriously good negotiator. We debated for a long time trying to work something out that would be mutually beneficial. Eventually, I decided, “This is too complicated. Let’s not trade this round.”
Sometimes walking away from a deal is the right move. My time was better spent elsewhere, and that was OK. By having the confidence to stop negotiating, we both conserved our resources, avoided a possibly unfavorable deal, and freed up time to find new opportunities. In the following round, we were able to find new deals that made both of us happy.
Because sometimes the only winning move is not to play.
*I know, you can’t technically trade planets in Twilight Imperium, but you can retreat and pull out your ground forces instead of fighting to the death.
**I know, the value of each resource is highly dependent on which factions are in play and what players choose to produce. So yellow cubes are not always valuable.