The Coven
Increasing comfort with negotiation through gameplay


Even with the rise of gender equality movements, men and women are still treated unequally in the workplace. Women continue to earn less, on average, for the same performance, and they remain underrepresented in top jobs. Research has shown that in addition to gender biases, there’s a subtler source of inequality: women often don't get what they want and deserve because they don't ask for it. Women tend to see negotiation as an aggressive act instead of starting a conversation.
How can we improve women’s view on negotiation?
We created a card game, named The Coven, using “embedded design” (hiding the product’s persuasive intent) to address this sensitive problem. The game employ techniques such as intermixing and immersive gameplay to get people more comfortable in a situation where they have to negotiate. In the game, players have to make trades verbally to achieve their goals. The game creates a light-hearted environment by focusing on getting players comfortable with free-form and organic negotiation rather than prescribing a specific approach. Our goal is to implicitly empower self-confidence in women when it comes to negotiating.
project name
the coven
CMU Persuasive Design Course
embedded design
game design
literature review
product designer
Emily Yang
Lauren Whittingham
Lorraine Zhang
Neha Chopade
10 weeks

key cards

player testimonials

“I got to know people around me and felt more comfortable negotiating.”
““It was super fun and really engaging, I didn’t see the persuasive element, which is good, and I loved it.”
““It was interesting to see how other’s negotiated.”

Problem Discovery

ideation ideation ideation
We brainstormed dozens of problems in the space including negotiating for salaries or promotion, difficulties finding role models, having imposter syndrome, being underrepresented.
idea pitch and feedback from peers
We pitched these ideas to quickly obtain feedback from our peers. As a team, we agreed with our peers that we need to specify our target audience.

Our target audience are women in male dominated industries, such as the technology sector.

choosing a focused topic
We created a self-schema map of our targeted audience that highlighted the key associations a first-time employee could have on their job in a tech company such as feeling inexperienced, nervous, isolated and under-represented. In contrast, the weak associations such as being skilled, ambitious, leader and a contributing team member needs to be strengthened through the intervention.

We landed on negotiation as our category of focus since that is a key aspect of communication, the foundation of the other tasks. Once we decided on negotiation as the focus, we needed to determine our persuasive goal.
What problem within negotiation can help women?

Literature Review

consulting a professor of negotiation
To better understand negotiation in the workplace, we consulted Linda Babcock, Head of the Social and Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University, who professionally consults for organizations that are helping their female employees learn negotiation tactics through various workshops.
source: Forbes
Our goal was to learn from the techniques she employed in her workshops and draw inferences to design the mechanics for our game.
After talking to Linda, we realized that there are no quick ways to improve negotiation skills other than practicing negotiation more often in both professional and personal settings. 
literature on negotiation
We found a number of relevant literature that informed our design going forward including Women and Salary Negotiation by Mary E. Wade and the book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

It is easier to cross the "threshold for asking" when women can see negotiation as a conversation. 

how the literature influenced our design
The literature validated that women self-advocate less not due to their skill level in negotiation or leadership, but because of other barriers, whether self-imposed or enforced by gender stereotypes and norms. This focused our project on the goal of getting people more comfortable with the idea of negotiation and not viewing it as a daunting, relationship-threatening task, but as a normal, collaborative effort. We emphasized less on negotiation-specific training and skill-building, especially since a lot of literature and tools for this training already exist. 

Furthermore, the research prompted us to think about ways to decrease the risk of negotiating too hard at the beginning, such as getting backfired later in the game. In particular, we noticed that in early iterations of our design, once it became known what a player needed, other players had the potential to determine a large part of their fate by trading or not trading with them. While some level of this effect is helpful in creating a strategic game, we were concerned that it could also be used to punish players who had negotiated too hard earlier in the game. In response, we altered the endgame to incorporate more elements of chance.
We narrowed our scope to the persuasive goal of getting players to view negotiation not as a daunting, relationship-threatening task, but as a conversation and a collaborative effort.

Concept Ideation

current products addressing negotiation
Based on our research of existing products, we realized that they focus heavily on the negotiation skills themselves, such as setting targets, were largely informational in nature and too explicit in their goals. We want our concept to focus less on negotiation-specific training and skill-building  since tools for this already exist. 
Negotiation 360 app
current board games on negotiation
We played existing board games with similar premises to gain inspiration including “Avalon”, “We didn’t playtest this at all” and “The Settlers of Catan”.
Our takeaway from Avalon was that allowing players to assume an identity or goal in a game often increases their sense of immersion in the story and susceptibility to a persuasive goal.
We took inspiration from “The Settlers of Catan” to learn how might we also incorporate the concept of trading resource in our own game. 
incorporating embedded design techniques
We primarily utilized intermixing, mixing on-top + off-topic content so that on-topic becomes more approachable. In our Action Cards, the cards which prompt users to do something when drawn, we intermixed content associated and not associated with negotiation. For example, we have actions such as  "make a successful trade this turn or you lose an ingredient of your choice" which is on-topic and “steal 3 diamonds from any player,” which is off-topic.

We also used distancing by creating a theme not related to work and giving the players a narrative to focus on. In our narrative, we primed the players to think creatively when it comes to making trades.

Rapid Prototyping

initial game prototypes
Using the insights we derived in concept ideation, we began rapid prototyping and came up with two simple games with separate mechanics

1. an office supply trading game

Each player has to acquire a different secret combination of office supplies. Players start with the correct amount of cards and trade with each other until one player achieves their goal.

2. a space trading game

Each player has to acquire a different secret combination of space materials. They draw a predetermined combination of materials each turn and trade with each other until one person achieves their goal. Each player also receives diamonds and a secondary goal relating to those diamonds, such as bankrupting the other players or making sure no one goes bankrupt.
repeatedly iterating for game mechanics
We kept the game mechanic of concealed interests and trading resources to achieve those interests from the office supply trading game. However, we noticed that people were often only trading one resource for one resource, which made trades rarer and reduced players' ability to take multiple offers and add to their bids. To combat this, we added the diamonds from the space game to the game mechanics as a lower-cost trading tool than resources and gave them a real value by allowing players to trade them in for resources from the bank.

We also noticed that players were not trading as often as we would like. To combat this, we took the action cards from a game of monopoly and assigned certain dice roles to draw action card instead. We adapted them and wrote our own action cards to encourage trading by offering rewards for doing so, or threatening punishments for not doing so.


playtesting with target audiences
During the solidification of our game mechanics, we continuously conducted playtests to refine our design. We specifically recruited female players and mixed in different personalities including both introverted and extroverted women.
pivotal points that led to design improvements
We observed that it was too easy for players to deduce another player’s potion card as players could inherently count cards and identify the missing ingredient for the winning player. This behavior not only reduced the trading activity but also cornered the winning player; thus decreased their chances of winning the grandmaster. We improved this problem by making it more difficult for the players to count cards by changing the total ingredient count a player needs to win the game. 
In playtesting, we noticed that players who were more reserved and shy can feel uncomfortable speaking up during the gameplay especially when multiple people were interested in a proposed trade. This can significantly reduce their chance to negotiate a trade with another player, which puts them in a disadvantaged position. Because of this concern, we added an interest card feature that allows players to show their interest in the proposed trade without having to talk over someone else.
To encourage less outspoken players we added an interest card feature that allows players to show their interest in the proposed trade without having to talk over someone else.
Introverted players loved the interested/not interested piece of the game. Players also commented that as they played throughout the game, they felt more comfortable speaking up. They learned trading tactics from other players and were able to use those for themselves.

Final Design

This game encourages players to advocate for their own interests and come to mutually beneficial agreements by recognizing when others' interests are compatible with their own. It also encourages players to be creative in recognizing what it is they have to offer, even if it is not in their hands at the time. The trading serves as an inoculating mechanism, allowing players to get accustomed to and comfortable with hearing "no" and view it as a normal response rather than something that can damage their relationships with negotiation partners.
In The Coven, players are tasked with creating a potion, each requiring a different combination of ingredients that is hidden from the other players. Players take turns rolling for resources, diamonds, and chance cards. Players' ingredients and diamonds are openly displayed, allowing other players to identify where resources they need lie. They use what they earn from rolls to trade with other players and become the first person to collect all the ingredients to make their potion. While chance plays a part in how quickly players are able to reach their goal, making favorable trades and being an effective negotiator plays a large part in the players' success.

game pieces

potion cards
Each participant gets a potion card, which sets their goals throughout the duration of the game. The potion card is randomly assigned and tells each participant exactly what they need to make and ingredients they need to collect to win
ingredient cards
Ingredient cards are the the cards that the player has to collect to win the game.  There are five different ingredient cards: wolfsbane, dragon scale, unicorn tears, phoenix feather, and dragonfly wings.
action cards
Action serve to motivate the player who draws these cards to trade with either positive or negative reinforcement. This forces players who might be more shy or hesitant to trade in order to gain experience in negotiating. Action cards must be played on  the player’s turn.
fire cards
Fire is a situation that occurs when a player is one ingredient away from completing their potion. Once a player declares “fire,” everyone draws one card from the fire deck. Fire cards can possibly lead to a quick victory or the current leader of the game being overthrown. These cards are more simple than the action cards. The fire cards were created after playtesting showed that the endgame can become too drawn out and deadlocked once players had one card left.
interested/not interested
These cards give shy players an opportunity to speak up and express interest when a trade is being proposed. Players that initiate the trade can quickly identify the players who are interested and allow other players to show their interest in the proposed trade without having to talk over someone.
Diamonds serve as a type of in-game currency. They can be used in trades to sweeten a deal. Their value is derived from the fact that ten diamonds can be traded in for a random ingredient.  

how to play

You are part of a coven and today is your annual meeting. This gathering is especially important because the previous grandmaster passed away and it is time to choose a new leader.  According to tradition the new grandmaster is decided by a potion making competition.  Potion-making is one of the most valued and complicated arts in the world of witchcraft.  You become the new grandmaster by making your assigned potion the fastest.

The goal of this game is to be clever, creative and a little shrewd with the given rules and be the first to make your potion.
setting up
  • Each player begins with 1 potion card, 5 diamonds, 1 interest card and 4 random ingredient cards.  
  • The potion card must be secret from the others at all times.
  • Spread your ingredient cards in front of you for everyone to see.  
  • Keep the ingredients cards and action cards in separate shuffled piles for everyone to reach easily.
  • Roll the dice to determine who starts the game.
  • Begin clockwise from the person who rolled the highest number on the dice.
on your turn
Begin your turn by rolling the die and drawing that many diamonds. If you roll is 1, 2, or 3, you draw an ingredient card from the top of the deck. If you roll a 4, 5, or 6 you get an action card.
During your turn, you can initiate as many trades as you want with anyone. You determine the terms of your trade. Feel free to push the limits. Trading is crucial for creating your potion fastest.

You could exchange 10 diamonds for an additional ingredient from the top of the deck.  If you draw an action card you have to play it on that turn.  

To initiate a trade, declare your trade terms and request for offers. Players can express their willingness to trade using their interest card.

Go clockwise from yourself and see what each interested player has to offer.

Remember you can trade however and whatever you want with whoever you want.


if I had more time, I would...
  • Conduct longitudinal study with the same player(s) through a period of time to quantitatively measure the efficacy of the game by tracking a) how often they trade over the course of the games, b) the types of trades users make, c) how often users advocate for themselves during trading and d) the number of trades to see if users are more willing to trade as they continuously play the game.
  • Measure user comfort with negotiation before and after the game. The user can complete an intermixed set of tasks, one of which involves negotiation before they play. After they play, they will again be presented with the same intermixed set of tasks. We will compare their performance in the intermixed section before and after to see if they perform better. This can help us understand if players' approach to negotiation changes outside of the game.
  • Playtest further to improve the endgame, the current conclusion can still be messy, especially when there is a tie.
if I could go back in time, I would...
  • Do more in-depth research on game design. My team went into this project with almost no knowledge of game design. Though we consulted people who were in the Educational Game Design course to get a crash course on playtesting, I feel like we could have dove into this area more deeply to better inform design decisions.
  • Conduct more user research in the beginning of the design process. We did mostly literature review to understand our problem space, but I feel like it could've helped focus our scope more if we supplemented the literature review with guerilla research.