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Subject: Why is trading such a rare mechanic in modern Board Games? rss

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Trading is one of the basic kinds of human interaction. It has probably been practiced for as long as we have existed, and can be implicitly understood by almost anyone.

With that in mind, it's not surprising that it has featured in the world of Board Games; perhaps most notably in Monopoly (There are also earlier examples, like Pit (1903)), the most famous Board game of all, and in Catan, the anti-Monopoly to which the Modern Board Gaming hobby (arguably) owes its very existence.

There are some obvious advantages to including a trading mechanic in your board game:
- It doesn't require a detailed explanation: the rules can simply state "players may trade X" and everyone understands what that means.
- It provides an opportunity for players to interact with each other and avoid the "multiplayer solitaire" aspect of many games.
- Said interaction is not generally negative or damaging, which is appealing to many players.
- It can add a considerable degree of social depth to a game.
- As it's such a common feature of human interaction, it can add thematic depth to almost any theme.

With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at how common trading is as a mechanic in modern board games. Let's take a look at the games in the BGG Top 250 (as of 9-3-17) which feature the Trading Mechanic, as defined by BGG. The top 250 is an arbitrary cut-off point of course but I think it's a big enough sample to be representative and to prove my point; if anyone cares to look further into games ranked lower than #250 then they're welcome to!

Game (Rank)
Pandemic Legacy (1)*
Twilight Imperium (38)
Pandemic (60)*
Above and Below (131)
Sid Meier's Civilization (134)
Clash of Cultures (157)
Civilization (177)
Antiquity (205)
Catan (229)
Archipelago (245)

Now, there are a number of notable things about those games:

1. That's not a lot of games.

3 games in the top 100, out of 11 in the top 250. Compare that with other popular mechanics, for example, Route building (10 in Top 100 of 20 in the top 250), Worker Placement (24 in Top 100 of 45 in the top 250), Card Drafting (28 in Top 100 of 60 in the top 250) or Auction/Bidding (12 of 20), especially looking at the top 100 and especially if you accept my second point below...

2. Are they all really trading games?
I have put *s next to Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy above as they don't seem to me to really class as using the trading mechanic in the strictest sense. Whilst they technically include swapping things between players, they are both "pure" co-ops and so the "trading" mechanic they feature is there purely as a way to transfer assets between players. Both players in a trade are concerned with the common goal, rather than their own individual goals. This isn't really trading in the sense I'm talking about in this post, even if I'm not sure what else you'd call it, because players routinely trade mutually worthless assets for valuable ones. So I'm going to say for the sake of argument that these two don't count as trading games and actually there are only 9 games in the top 250. Regardless, if you disagree with and think swapping cards in Pandemic should really be classed as trading, the rest of this post still stands as it's only two extra games.

3. They're almost all Civilization games.

I'm not completely familiar with the 9 games on the above list but it's striking that almost all of the games featured are 4X-type Civilization themed games: 3 of the 9 without question (Sid Meier's, Clash of Cultures and Civilization) and all of the others (thematically at least) if you're willing to stretch the definition a little.

4. They're heavy.

Catan is the only game of the 9 with a weight score under 2.5, and Above and Below is the only other below 3.5. Two of the nine have weight scores higher than 4, which is very unusual on BGG especially outside the world of Wargames. This, along with point 3 above, suggests that the games that do feature trading feature it as only one of a number of different mechanics, and in the games where it does feature it plays a comparatively small part.

Bearing the above observations in mind, I would like to ask the question, Why is the trading mechanic so comparatively rare in Modern Board games? As well as the gaming advantages I outlined above, there's the very fact that games as well-known as Monopoly and Catan feature it, so you'd expect to see it more often in other games, of a diverse range of types. However, in practice it is quite a rare mechanic and seems to occur almost exclusively in heavy 4X-type civilization games, in which it is only one of a number of different mechanics, rather than the primary game mechanic.

It isn't clear to me why this should be the case.

Possible hypotheses:

1. It is common but people on BGG don't like those games.

Maybe my analysis doesn't take a big enough sample, and it therefore misses lots of games which aren't highly ranked by the BGG crowd

Rebuttal: Looking a little further there only 10 more games with the trading mechanic in the top 500; and if its so hated why don't you see people complaining about Trading as a mechanic in the same way as, say, Roll and Move (which is ubiquitous in mass-market games but very rare in the BGG top 3000 or so).

2. The mechanic has been exhausted.

Maybe designers feel that the industry has already done all it can with trading, and that they can't think of new ways to incorporate it into their games. Perhaps Catan is so iconic nobody wants to be seen to be aping it.

Rebuttal: Possibly, but then when you consider how things like Auction/Bidding are always being redone in interesting and new ways, this just doesn't seem likely to me.

3. The trading mechanic is difficult to get right, so designers avoid it.

The mechanic may have serious downsides that I haven't considered, or it may just be very hard to implement effectively, and designers may avoid it for this reason.

Rebuttal: OK, but if so, why? As above, they seem to have no problem constantly reimplementing other mechanics.

4. Players don't actually like Interaction.

Elsewhere, Rob Doupe has hypothesized (https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1718193/death-mid-weight-eu...) that there is a trend of diminishing interaction in Eurogames, which would lead one to expect that mechanics like Trading to fall by the wayside in favour of "points salad" type mechanics.

Rebuttal: I do agree with Rob, but don't think it really explains the dearth of trading games - after all, the BGG top 250 doesn't only feature recent games and still has plenty of older Medium Weight Euros, even if these aren't as fashionable any more. Trading wasn't popular 10-15 years ago either so this isn't a recent trend.

So, what are your thoughts? Am I completely wrong, and there are in fact many hundreds of popular games which feature trading? Are there many games but people just don't like them, and if so why? Or are the games really just not there, and if so, why is nobody designing them?
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Trading was always a rare mechanic. Yes, there are a few notable games involving trading as you mentioned, but even in the past, they were the exception, not the rule. Line up the games from any particular period of time, and the vast majority do not include trading.
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In my group at least, the option of trading/deal making is often ignored. Any attempts often lead to one side of the deal being too greedy or stubborn, so they never reach an agreement.
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I wonder if it is because trading often relies on a greater number of players which limits the number of people able to buy the game (for example, many people play 2 player games in which trading does not really work), but also limits your opportunity to test your game as your design it. But I could be way off, this is pure speculation.

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Robert Bracey
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Your 1st reason is the main issue, but the secondary (and important) design issue is time and player count. Trading takes time, making the game longer (Settlers would be a lot faster if you replaced its trade phase with an auction), and it also limits player count (Civilization stops really working properly below five players for almost exactly this reason.
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sthrjo wrote:
I think trading in a competitive (orto-)game is just a futile design solution to introduce a catch-up mechanism, to avoid a run-away leader problem. The obvious logic to trade is when two players are straggling behind, trading with each other, thus keeping their relative position to each other but catching up with the others above them. You should seldom trade when the other guy wins the most (unless he is really behind), and it is the rule for him too, so you should only trade when both benefits the relative same amount, and that is a rare situation. I have no/little experience with trading in games, since I avoid those games.


I think your analysis is flawed in considering the unlikelihood of trading being a good idea. It can be a good idea to trade even with someone ahead of you, even when he gains more than you, as long as you gain enough. Consider that you make one such trade with each other player, net result, you gain most (in assuming a sensible ratio of gains).

Incidentally by stopping where the OP did, that loses some pure trading games. Bohnanza and Res Publica spring to mind. And negotiation games (to my mind a related but different category) such as Quo Vadis, and of course Diplomacy.

In any of those games (and many in the original list such as Catan and Civilization, plus of course Monopoly) try not trading and you'll lose heavily to those who do. You'll suffer if you try always to be a "winner" in every deal too. Though of course you need not to

And finally, note that Civilization is, in my terms above, a trading game and a negotiation game (though the former dominates).
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Dearlove wrote:
by stopping where the OP did, that loses some pure trading games. Bohnanza and Res Publica spring to mind. And negotiation games (to my mind a related but different category) such as Quo Vadis, and of course Diplomacy.
).


I did a quick count between 250 and 500 and found only 10, but you're right, it does include some trading games outside the Civilization mode like Bohnanza and Chinatown (which I guess might be the poster boy for the kind of game I'm surprised isn't more common).

I wonder whether the potential for negative game experience might be something to do with it. If nobody will trade with you there's not a lot you can do; whereas in an auction or card draft you will always get something even if it's not what you wanted.
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RobertBr wrote:
Your 1st reason is the main issue, but the secondary (and important) design issue is time and player count. Trading takes time, making the game longer (Settlers would be a lot faster if you replaced its trade phase with an auction), and it also limits player count (Civilization stops really working properly below five players for almost exactly this reason.


I very much agree. For trading to work well, players need to negotiate and barter and probably go back and fore with offer and counter-offer. This takes time and if it is an action undertaken regularly in a game (e.g. every turn) it just extends play. I imagine that for many people the enjoyment gained from the trading mechanic does not outweigh the extra time needed to play
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RobertBr wrote:
Settlers would be a lot faster if you replaced its trade phase with an auction


With players who know what they are doing, I don't believe this to be the case.

But a game in which running dealmaking as an auction does work is Traders of Genoa. Because of its heterogeneous nature (so many things to trade) it can - with the right people - work best when something is offered, counter-offers are made, and the offeror indicates at all times who he considers to be currently making the best offer.

(If someone says that may not maximise, because without that, maybe the person indicated as best might raise his offer, that's true. But it probably wins more in putting pressure on others. More importantly, that's how trading games fail, when people try to extract another 0.1% at the cost of doubling the game length. First and most obvious step there is if all the players bar one say they have finished trading, the other player has to accept that and not even try to make an offer and reopen bidding.)
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RobertBr wrote:
Your 1st reason is the main issue, but the secondary (and important) design issue is time and player count. Trading takes time, making the game longer (Settlers would be a lot faster if you replaced its trade phase with an auction), and it also limits player count (Civilization stops really working properly below five players for almost exactly this reason.


Agree with this, but I want to add another reason: money.

For the same reason bartering gave way to currency in real life, the same thing happens in board games. If you want to give me two brick for a sheep, I might not be interested, but if you want to give me the value of two bricks for a sheep, you might have my interest -- because maybe I don't need bricks, but I need shovels. Many modern games create a currency system so players can exchange goods/money directly (eg, auctions in Isle of Skye), or more indirectly (the goods/money market in Glen More).
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Quality post OP. One problem with trading as a game mechanism is that it is an easy avenue for favoritism to creep in. When there is free-form positive interaction like trading, people tend to consider first the people they know best. This can sabotage the game for someone left out of the best offers. Personally, I prefer games where skill with a little admixture of chance determines the outcome — where everyone has an a priori level playing field and relationships stay off the table.
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Robert Bracey
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UanarchyK wrote:

Agree with this, but I want to add another reason: money.

For the same reason bartering gave way to currency in real life, the same thing happens in board games. If you want to give me two brick for a sheep, I might not be interested, but if you want to give me the value of two bricks for a sheep, ...


Totally irrelevant aside. This popular idea is know as 'the myth of barter' in academic circles. It is an idea invented by Philosophers and Economists that before physical representations of money (accounts or coins) were invented people had to depend on barter but that barter suffers from a problem known as the 'mutual coincidence of wants', where in I have to want brick and you have to want sheep for a deal to be made.
While the 'mutual coincidence of wants' is a real problem with barter there is no evidence that barter existed in pre-representations of money societies*. Instead there is extensive anthropological and historical evidence for the existence of redistributive or recipricol systems of exchange that do not require monetisation. Barter, it seems, is something people from highly monetised societies do when they are deprived of money.

*It is very clear, give or take a a century, when coins were invented, and roughly when accounts (thousands of years older than coins) were invented, but it is much less obvious when money was invented (not all coins are money, not all money is coin) so a bit harder to know what was done in pre-money societies, but given the existence of many perfectly functional non-monetary exchange systems it probably was not barter.
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I don't like trading. In my experience, cliques form and somebody always gets frozen out. Often they form based not on economic interest, but upon who likes who. If you're frozen out turn after turn, it's virtual player elimination for you.
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Here are my thoughts on trading. Trading can be a positive interaction, but when I play, it usually leads to a lot of negative interaction. For example, if one person is winning early on, the rest of the players may agree not to trade with that player for the rest of the game. That player then ends up coming in last place. Everyone feels bad because they didn't realize that cutting off trade would be so costly for that person. (I have seen this happen more than once.)

Also, there is potential for a lot of lopsided trades. There may be someone who isn't very good at trading and just accepts what ever deal is offered. The game can devolve into people just using that person as a piggy bank.

I've also had cases where one player is constantly trying to trade everything to get some perfect combination, rather than collecting anything through other means. Not only does it take for ever but it can feel like trading is taking over the rest of game and no other part matters.

In lighter games, one player can choose to not invest in winning the game and decide either to trade everything or nothing. For a light 30 minute game, what does it matter? That person may have fun just by annoying everyone else.

In summary, my experience is that with trading games, I don't have a lot of fun. I think it makes sense for trading in longer, heavier game because there is more going on, making it harder for trading to over take the game and the player investment in making mutually beneficial trades will likely be higher.

P.S. I really enjoy Sheriff of Nottingham, where trading and negotiation is the central mechanic. I don't think it suffers very much from the above problems because everyone understands what the point is, and the consequences for not being a good "trader" are large. For example, the last time I played. One guy said, I don't care what you offer me, I going to open every bag. He did very poorly that round. The next time he was up, he didn't open any of the bags because he was scared of the consequences. It didn't ruin the game for anyone else, except for maybe him.
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I would agree with Henrik Johansson that trading has actually evolved in many games. Catan was always lop-sided trading if you wanted to even consider it, but in reality, trading of resources works like in 7 Wonders where there is simply a cost to buy it from elsewhere. Even if the government "forbids" trades, there will always be a way for profiteers to smuggle resources about.

You can even see this in games like Troyes where the dice are the "resources" and you can freely access them if you're willing to make the money conversion. Even games like Caylus which deal not with nations, but with individual "houses" trying to build for prestige has a trade with merchants and (indirectly) a cost for utilizing resources of others. Concorida is yet another example where you take actions and there are side benefits for others because of how the economy works. I'm sure there are a wide range of other games that simulate this also (the breadth of my game catalogue is limited).

In the end (tl;dr), "trading" should not be confused with "bartering" and as many others have noted, the barter system has been disproven as effective and efficient. MANY games allow for conversion of resources into "money" and then a conversion of that "money" into the resources you need.
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There seems to be an element here of people blaming social behaviours they don't like on the game instead of the players. Personally I love games that let players express their personalities rather than those that try to restrict social interaction to make the game more predictable and 'skilful'. (in quotes because negotiating social situations is actually a valuable skill in its own right).
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Figaro123 wrote:

4. Players don't actually like Interaction.


When you have a sample size of BGG ranking, I suspect this is more common. I'm always amazed when I play games at conventions, meetups, or FLGSs and discover that no one I'm playing with uses BGG. Or users it to just read up about agames, but they definitely don't rate games (or even make an account). So my view is this skews the ranking a bit if you are trying to view popularity among all gamers.

Trading, if done correctly in a game, should result in beneficial results for both parties. Bohnanza for example is all about trading, and making trades where both parties benefit, and the skill in the trading is ensuring you don't make a trade unless you get something also, ie 1:1 points.

What would happen to Agricola if before "upkeep" you could trade resources with all players in a market phase?
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Trading is typically a subtler way to design games, and subtlety is a hard sell compared to WHAM BAM POW WORKERPLACEMENTSETCOLLECTION.
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Figaro123 wrote:
...things like Auction/Bidding are always being redone in interesting and new ways...

3. The trading mechanic is difficult to get right, so designers avoid it.

The mechanic may have serious downsides that I haven't considered, or it may just be very hard to implement effectively, and designers may avoid it for this reason.

Rebuttal: OK, but if so, why? As above, they seem to have no problem constantly reimplementing other mechanics.


It's an interesting question. My initial thoughts are:

1) Open trading and negotiation means a free-for-all, which may not be a good thing. You need rules to constrain player behavior from wildly shifting the state of play on a game board. Rule constraints also reduce time spent taking a turn or playing a whole game since there's very little up for debate or alteration and less occasion for analysis paralysis.

2) Conversely, auctions and bidding help you allocate resources in an orderly, timely, and decisive manner. Everyone's in on it, there's no favoritism, everyone commits to a bid, then it's done. Perhaps that's why it's more commonly implemented.

3) On a personal level, I've been wondering why there are so many games about building business empires but not one single game about unions, strikes, collective bargaining and improving working conditions. (You could perhaps mention Euphoria but I'm thinking more about the real world). I'm beginning to fiddle around with some game design ideas on this topic but am finding it difficult to outline the negotiations between labor and management without implementing some sort of "card combat" system which is very much against the notion of negotiation.

EDIT: I posted this having only read the OP. I see that other comments have mentioned some of the same theories as I have... makes me feel good!
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This would be interesting to post in the Game Fesign forum, where you might get a different sample from people who design games, and see if it's not just difficult to make Trading work properly. A likely issue is that games build upon ideas that came before, therefore it's possible that because trading is rare, designers don't have much experience to build from.
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I love trading mechanisms. Our group had a lot of fun with Catan. We had a few house rules that made it hella cut throat. The biggest benefit to trading, in my opinion, is player interaction and player interaction is very important to me.
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sthrjo wrote:
I think trading in a competitive (orto-)game is just a futile design solution to introduce a catch-up mechanism, to avoid a run-away leader problem. The obvious logic to trade is when two players are straggling behind, trading with each other, thus keeping their relative position to each other but catching up with the others above them. You should seldom trade when the other guy wins the most (unless he is really behind), and it is the rule for him too, so you should only trade when both benefits the relative same amount, and that is a rare situation. I have no/little experience with trading in games, since I avoid those games.

This is baloney.

First, a trade is only a concrete manifestation of cooperation. Which is present in a vast number of games other than Euro MPS. Out of the top 25 TtA, TM, Scythe, Puerto Rico, Blood Rage, and Eclipse all can involve cooperation and negotiation. The fact that the compensation is, "I won't attack here if you don't attack there" instead of, "I will sell you a block of iron for 3 gold" is kind of inconsequential. It's still an agreement of mutual benefit.

Second, there's no reason to limit trading to only people who are behind. If you could summarize the standings by points and A had 15, B had 25, C had 27, and D had 42 and A and D wanted to trade in a way that they both got +5 then they'd do it. What does A care that he's moving D up +5 against the other 2? He's staying even with the leader and gaining ground on the others. In a game with trading, it's guaranteed to happen. And probably multiple times. It's not that rare.

@ the OP

If you look through the top 100 games, a lot of them disqualify themselves. The game can't be a co-op (for it to really matter). And it can't be 2p. And it has to have something that it makes sense to trade. So even if Twilight Struggle was more than 2 players, there's nothing to trade. Game of Thrones, there's no resources to trade. (Although there are favors and promises to behave in a certain way that people can deal for). King of Tokyo, Small World, Merchants & Mauraders, Power Grid, Ra, Glory to Rome, Galaxy Trucker, Tichu, Codenames, Dixit, 7 Wonders, Blood Rage, Dominant Species, Race for the Galaxy, El Grande, BSG.... nothing to trade.

It should be something that makes thematic sense. Lewis & Clark is something that could do trading: you have a variety of different resources and more than 2 players. It may make some sense that you're random explorers trading with each other but you are at different points in the river so only thematically when you're at the same place.

It should be something that doesn't throw off game balance. If you could freely trade cards in Ticket to Ride, for example, people would zoom to finishing the long routes way too quickly & easily. Similarly I played Via Nebula last night. And the game balance would really skew if you could trade resources with other players. Like really throw it all off.

It should be a game that you want to allot the time for it. Negotiations take time. And if you want to have something that's really short or takes up a lot of time doing its own thing then you might not want to include it.

It should be a game that isn't Multi Player Solitaire. Some people don't want interaction. And don't want players to influence each other and break their logic puzzle. Those probably don't want a lot of negotiation and especially trading.

So I think it's just a design element that makes sense in fewer games than you would think. It has to be some sort of engine builder that demand multiple types of resources in a way that it doesn't break things to make it too easy to trade around and in a game where trading makes sense for the theme. But. Negotiation games, where in reality you're also trading just not physical chits of things, aren't nearly as rare.
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qwertymartin wrote:
Personally I love games that let players express their personalities rather than those that try to restrict social interaction to make the game more predictable and 'skilful'. (in quotes because negotiating social situations is actually a valuable skill in its own right).


True. But it's a skill that I suspect a lot of modern gamers are uncomfortable with, or even resent. As seen by the comments here, a lot of gamers seem to find negotiation unfair or prone to 'non-game' (read non-mathematical) factors.

I think trading is a game mechanic that's actually a lot more welcome among the public at large than with modern boardgaming hobbyists. Monopoly and Settlers of Catan are two of the most popular boardgames of all time. And I've found Bohnanza, which is the quintessential euro trading game, to be a huge hit with non-gamer friends. I'd bet it has outsold virtually all of the top 50 games on this site.

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Very interesting and thought-provoking post, OP!

First, a quick aside to MM (Mat628):
Quote:
If you look through the top 100 games, a lot of them disqualify themselves. The game can't be a co-op (for it to really matter). And it can't be 2p. And it has to have something that it makes sense to trade. So even if Twilight Struggle was more than 2 players, there's nothing to trade. Game of Thrones, there's no resources to trade. (Although there are favors and promises to behave in a certain way that people can deal for). King of Tokyo, Small World, Merchants & Mauraders, Power Grid, Ra, Glory to Rome, Galaxy Trucker, Tichu, Codenames, Dixit, 7 Wonders, Blood Rage, Dominant Species, Race for the Galaxy, El Grande, BSG.... nothing to trade.

You're looking at that backwards. The question is not why do these top games not have trading, but why are there few trading games in the top 100? I think most folks would agree with what you said here - trading is not really appropriate for those games you identified. The question is, why do games that DO include trading not score well?

Most of the analysis others have done here is really good, and I agree with a lot of it. I'll add one more slightly different reason:

Some people are just hyper-competitive/self-serving/egotists/whatever.

That's a bit harsh; let me explain...

I have been in games where certain people would let the game bog down to a stand still rather than make a trade that isn't completely one-sided in their favor, thus killing the game experience for everyone. All players then vote the game down because it was no fun, slow, and frustrating, when it was the behavior of the one person that killed it for all.

My wife almost always makes trades in whatever games we play, even if she doesn't get a huge benefit, because she relishes the gameplay, not the win. I have made neutral or slightly unfavorable trades just to keep a game moving so we can enjoy the play. Not everyone has that mindset.

It's a cynical outlook, but I've seen it with my own two eyes. It could be a people problem, not a game mechanic problem.
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Here's a hypothesis that could explain the patterns the OP observed in the type of games that have trading.

Usually, trading in games consists of trading small numbers of discrete objects. While trades will usually be mutually beneficial,it will be rare for trades to be exactly balanced, so one person in the trade will usually gain slightly more. (This is particularly true in games like Settlers or Bohnanza where there are only commodities, not currency that is available in sufficiently small denominations to "make change" and balance a transaction.) Furthermore, the person who "wins" a trade is mostly random, and should balance out between the players in the long run. However, if a small number of trades take place during the course of the game, this would frequently lead to scenarios where one person is on the "winning" side of a disproportionate number of trades, particularly if some of the social dynamics mentioned earlier in this thread are at play, and this could easily cause dissatisfaction with the trading mechanism among the rest of the players.

This creates an incentive for a game to have a large number of distinct trades over the course of play. There are two kinds of such games:

(i) games that may be short, but that have very frequent trading, such as Bohnanza, Catan, Chinatown, or Genoa;
(ii) games that have less trading, but are long, such as most of the top games listed by OP.

While I love the games of type (i), I do understand why some people might not. Many such games have little downtime for contemplation and require constant attention to the other players' goals and possessions in order to find opportunities to make a deal, demands which are antithetical to the design aesthetic of modern Euros. I enjoy having to always be on my feet and play the people, not just the game, and perhaps as Rob said, this is why trading games can appeal more to nongamers.
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