Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Retrospective: Diplomacy

I've readily admitted that I am not now nor have I ever been a wargamer in any meaningful sense. With the exception of some microgames and a handful of "bookshelf games," I simply lack the gene for wargaming. Or it may simply be that I'm not very good at most wargames. I lack both the patience and strategic-level thought needed for such diversions, which probably explains my limited direct experience with most of them.

There's one significant exception, though, and that's Diplomacy. Of course, some might balk at the notion of calling Diplomacy a "wargame" and there's some justification in this. Diplomacy lacks most of the characteristics of the traditional hex-and-chit wargame. Its map, for example, is divided into seventy-five land and sea regions of varying sizes and movement between them is abstract, as is its combat system. Likewise, combat makes no use of a result table. Indeed, random outcomes of any kind are wholly absent from Diplomacy, since the game doesn't require dice to play. Everything that takes place within the game takes place because of specific decisions made by its players and it's for this reason that Diplomacy is, in my opinion, one of the greatest games ever made.

Designed by Allan B. Calhamer, Diplomacy made its original appearance in 1959, gaining a large following, including many people later associated with the roleplaying hobby, such as Gary Gygax and Len Lakofka. I personally never saw the original version of the game, having been introduced to Diplomacy through the 1976 Avalon Hill edition whose cover art I've included above. Diplomacy was one of those games that everyone involved in the hobby in my area played; it was part of the "background noise" of my gaming in the late 70s and early 80s. Because the game requires a minimum of five players and works best with a full seven, it wasn't a pickup game. You needed to work hard to get a game going, but it was usually worth the effort and there was no shortage of people interested in playing. In high school, I played a lot of Diplomacy with my friends and we'd often gather at one another's houses on the weekends specifically to do so. In college, my roommate ran a slow-motion one-move-per-week Diplomacy game with some of our friends and it was a lot of fun too.

The genius of this game are its simple concept and rules. Each player controls one of the Great Powers of pre-World War I Europe: Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, or Turkey. Each Great Power controls several regions on the map, some of which are designated "supply centers." For every supply center a player controls, he may build either an army or a fleet with which to conquer more territory (and thus gain more supply centers). If a player loses control of a region with a supply center and, at the end of his turn, has more military units in play than he has supply centers, he must disband any excess units. Outright victory comes when a player acquires 18 or more centers, though many games end in draws, as two (or occasionally more) players decide the game has dragged on long enough without any clear winner.

As noted, there are no dice in Diplomacy. Everything that occurs does so because a player chooses to make it happen. However, especially in the early stages of the game, most actions require the assistance of other players for success and therein lies the essence of the game. In between turns, players are expected to negotiate with other players for support in their own plans. Thus, treaties and alliances are not only commonplace but expected play elements. Of course, so are betrayals, as no one is required to abide by the terms of anything to which they agree, though players with a reputation for treachery soon find themselves popular targets of others' ire. Consequently, good Diplomacy games are a conflict between the need for others and naked self-interest, which creates a terrific dynamic.

It's easy to see why so many early roleplayers were involved with Diplomacy -- it's practically a roleplaying game itself. Goodness knows my friends and I treated it that way on more than a few occasions, penning our orders in elaborate fashions as if they'd been written by ministers in service to fanciful European monarchs. Silly though this was, it added considerably to our fun and I suspect it helped to lighten the mood of the game, which, as anyone who's ever played can tell you, can sometimes turn quite cutthroat.

I haven't played Diplomacy in many years, but I'd like to. The problem is finding six others with whom to do it and the time to set aside for it. As I understand it, the game is still published by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Avalon Hill brand and I appreciate that. The game is also avidly played by mail, which I find delightful, and on the Internet, thanks to the simple nature of its rules and its emphasis on human interaction as the driver of its events. To my mind, that remains the real genius of Diplomacy: its emphasis on human interaction and player skill, two traits old school roleplaying games have in common with it.

47 comments:

  1. Man, I suck at human interaction in games. Yet i'd play this (or Machiavelli) at anytime. This is the game I love to hate.

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  2. This is one of my favorite games. It's also amusing that an actual diplomat—Henry Kissinger—used to write articles on strategy and was known as a play–by–mail player at one point.

    There are a few online servers, including one integrated with Facebook, but I find the level of play there to be really unsatisfying, especially with many non–communicative players.

    The modern game that I find best gets the "feel" of Dip at times is GMT's Here I Stand with its secret diplomacy phase and encouragement towards historical role–playing. However, it leans more towards the grand strategy sort of wargaming, and lacks the austerity of Dip, which is a big part of what I think makes it so satisfying.

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  3. So conceptually Diplomacy would be more similar to Eurogames like Cataan or Carcassone than to Avalon Hill's more famous hex-and-chit wargames?

    Talk about old school! 1959! And it sounds like it still has plenty to teach us Moon-dwelling, dogs-in-spacesuits, jetcar-riding 21st century types...

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  4. Diplomacy is one of my favorites, too. I've had pretty good luck playing on Facebook, but nothing really beats playing in person.

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  5. Chris:

    No. I would say the distinguishing mark of Eurogames is the lack of elimination mechanics, which Dip certainly has. You can get eliminated early and see the game stretch for hours or days after you are gone. Eurogames have practically made their reputation on being able to draw in non–gamers, but Dip players will go as far as to say, "This game ruins friendships." The game is also wholly deterministic, a characteristic I cannot think of a single Eurogame possessing.

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  6. Man, I love this game, I've never played anything else quite like it. It's a game of risk that REQUIRES shifting constellations of player alliances and removes the dice as an factor in play. There's nothing left to blame except your own naivete and lack of skill.... and the treachery of your former best friends.

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  7. Diplomacy was the first ...wargame, no Avalon Hill bookshelf game, I owned; it was given to me by a loving relative one Christmas...I hate the damn game! Long, boring, incredibly tedious, we played once--one session--and went on to other pursuits. I tried to give the game away to a friend in HS who played Squad Leader, and he wouldn't take it.

    I'll agree with James, one can make the connection between the dynamics in Diplomacy and the give-and-take nature of a RPG session. But there the similarity ends...like whether you're having fun or not.

    So, to this day it sits on my shelf, mocking me like the raven in Poe's poem that sits on a pallid bust of Pallas just above his chamber door. I once threw it away, watched the garbage-men haul it off, and the next day it was back on my bookshelf.

    What a wretched game!

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  8. James, have you seen this game I am working on called Statecraft? It is like a fusion of Diplomacy and RPGs.

    I would be happy to toss you an Alpha copy of it, if you are interested.

    statecraftgsrpg.blogspot.com

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  9. If I'm not mistaken Dave Arneson was supposedly a fan.

    I've only played it once, but I enjoyed it immensely. Too bad the logistics of getting that many people together are often insurmountable.

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  10. I love Diplomacy! I have many fond memories of playing it in my high school library - we'd play 2 turns during lunch each day. The rest of the day, we'd all carry those paper maps of the board around and neogtiate with one another as we went from class to class. The game is ideally suited for this sort of thing! That said, I don't recall playing it very often as a sit-down game (and that time was reserved for D&D, in any case!).

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  11. Diplomacy is the best game of screw your neighbor ever created. Never has there been a more "wretched hive of scum and villainy" than your friends when you are playing Diplomacy. It is simpy a great game, win or lose, to be played with great relish and backstabbery.

    We had a blast with it.

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  12. @Ariston: I have a friend who has made the claim that he knew people who's marriages were destroyed by Diplomacy. I suspect that the reality is more like that Bruno Kirby quote: "Marriages don't break up on account of Diplomacy; it's a symptom that something else is wrong."

    Playing Diplomacy without social incident requires people to be able to very firmly compartmentalize because so much of the game requires management that level of meta-gaming that lies just above the surface of the table. Diplomacy is cunningly designed to piss off two kinds of gamers: those who don't want overt, player interaction in their games (or want it muted) AND those who demand that "players always play the table situation to win" (i.e. always make the emotionless, "optimal move"). The game, as written, encourages players to reject either of these approaches (in fact, practically demands it), and I can see easily why it creates such nasty play experiences amongst people.

    There really ought to be a stern Public Service Announcement warning prominently displayed on the box -- people quite often are really not emotionally prepared for the kind of intricate investment and betrayal that the game demands they suffer when played with someone in the group who really engages in the game effectively.

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  14. (corrected comment) @ken Saying it's "the best" is perhaps a wee bit of a stretch, but it's certainly one of the best. Stefan Dorra's "Intrigue" is also right up there, plays with a smaller group of players, and takes less time. Imagine Diplomacy without all that wasted "tactical counter pushing" effort, and you're not far off a picture of what Intrigue plays like.

    Again, for those who don't like bowbing, stand WELL CLEAR.

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  15. A great game. And an exhibit in the case that "wargames" were a much wider genre than the name might suggest.

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  16. In 7th grade (I think) my teacher used Diplomacy as a teaching aid, and each class was split up into groups who then played one of the 7 powers.

    I think we would play one turn a week, and did the usual negotiations between powers, etc. To this day, I think it was one of the most interesting and engaging history activities I took part in during my K-12 education.

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  17. The murky world of "Diplomacy variants" often ventured much closer to role-playing games than pure vanilla Diplomacy. I'm always fascinated to hear more about Slobbovia, which was such a variant that ran in the 1970s and 1980s. In this ongoing "campaign game," the actual moves and turns became far less important than the creative world-building.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slobbovia

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  18. For those interested in playing there is also this online version of diplomacy. Similar to playing by post but a touch faster and requires fewer stamps

    http://webdiplomacy.net

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  19. Over the years I've reflected on the mechanics of Diplomacy and believe the one mechanic which remains insufficiently explored is the time allocated for actual player interaction. The rules state (IIRC) that prior to writing orders for the first move players have 30 minutes to negotiate with the other players, and 15 minutes for subsequent moves (plus 5 minutes to write orders). Based on my personal experience and supported by other posts here, the time limit is generally ignored. In some formats (such as playing with players remotely or extended over many days/weeks) this is understandable. But it makes less sense to ignore this rule when playing in a single session face-to-face. Fifteen minutes is really not much time to study the board and make allegiances.

    I would like to play again, adhering to this limit. In fact, I would like to experiment with modifying it downward. What if you only had 7 minutes to interact with other players before writing your orders? I think it would require a different set of skills to succeed at an accelerated version of the game.

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  20. When I first joined my current gaming group, one of the members was apparently a world-class Diplomacy player, who made quite a bit of money winning competitions around the world. That is my only connection to the game; I'd barely heard of it before, and have never played it, nor even seen a copy in the flesh.

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  21. Dave Arneson was indeed a big fan. Also, try searching the net for Dippy variants and you'll find the name Ken St Andre pop up frequently.

    I claim it is one of the most important steps there are in the development of rpgs.

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  22. @robert fischer

    Interesting question, is magic the gathering a war-game and would 4e be a better game if it incorporated more of MtG 'large scale'/dominion type rules and not just the synergy of combat/deck building abilities that classes use together in an adventuring group.

    I think I would have liked 4e better if it included this aspect. James, have you played MtG?

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  23. I was introduced to Diplomacy by my Grade 12 history teacher; and like Alan above, it remains one of my strongest school memories.

    My gaming group played a fair bit of 4/5-player Diplomacy back in the late '80s. There were a couple of fanatic fans, and a few who were okay with it, but we stopped playing when one player - burned and betrayed once too often - solemnly swore he'd rather have his fingernails slowly removed then ever play Diplomacy again.

    As a junior high teacher I've used Diplomacy most years as part of the Games Club. Some years it gets really popular ... but I do get the kids to sign a note acknowledging that they it's a game where their smiling friends will probably figuratively shove a knife in their back.

    It's definitely NOT a game I run in years where Games Club members start off with deep seated internal animosities! In those cases Risk is bad enough ... shudder.

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  24. How much fun Diplomacy is depends a lot on who is playing. Because it is so exquisitely balanced, if you get two people who are willing to make a stable alliance -- let's say, one regular gamer and a casual player recruited to fill out the game -- you can have a game that is unbalanced from the start and a bore to play.

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  25. Haven't played Diplomacy in a long time...the simple matter of finding 5-7 players with time available and the willingness to completely stab others in the back and carry on life otherwise as normal is always a challenge.

    I've always wanted to play the game with some quality facial hair...waxed moustaches and the like, for maximum authenticty. I never could grow one back in the day...I'm not sure I could now...

    I do find it odd that you don't seem to think you'd have the "patience and strategic level thought" for wargames...just seeing the work and detail you put into Dwimmermount would seem to belie that statement.

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  26. Ah, Diplomacy. A most beautiful game that I am utterly unable to play. "Naivete and lack of skill" are what I have in abundance, so I was always eliminated early without even the consolation of a Risk-mad-berserker exit.

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  27. @Ariston: Caylus is a totally deterministic Eurogame. So are Steam and Niagara. And Endeavor and Imperial.

    Imperial is interesting: it is Diplomacy turned into a Eurogame! In so doing, you lose most of the Diplomacy and instead it becomes something else. (You're bankers lending money to the nations of WW1; whoever has lent the most money controls the nation...) Very interesting game.

    I played quite a bit of Diplomacy when I was at high school and later University, but not for many, many years. The number of players required and the time requirement are prohibitive - especially once you add the cutthroat nature of the game, which drops the available number of players...

    Time is a killer these days; one occasionally wonders at the LONG older games and wonder why life has changed so much... how were they able to play them then and we can't play them now?

    Not all classic Avalon Hill-era boardgames have managed to hold up that well. I think Republic of Rome (recently reprinted by Valley Games, and a good player negotiation game) still holds up well, but Kingmaker, though with a great midgame, has a horrible endgame where your best strategy is to turtle and not do anything.

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  28. I adored Diplomacy, but haven't played in years. My fondest moment came in a game where I finished 3rd as Italy (Hey, for Italy that is a major victory!), in the process of which I helped England dismember France. Ah, good times. At least, until the Russian shafted me over Vienna.... :)

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  29. In the version I have, published in 1976, the game is billed for 4-7 players. The modern version is billed for 2-7 players. I can only wonder what changes were made to make it playable for 2, and kudos, I suppose, to Avalon Hill for recognizing the unfeasibility of getting 4-7 players together.

    I share radnoff's view. Diplomacy isn't a game I was fond of, and it was quickly relegated to the fourth division after a few plays.

    @merrich one occasionally wonders at the LONG older games and wonder why life has changed so much... how were they able to play them then and we can't play them now?

    Copious amounts of free time as a young teen who was too young to drive, work, or do much of anything else except get together with a few friends in the neighborhood.

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  30. To this day I run the Diplomacy tournament at the local convention, but alas, the last couple of years nobody has expressed an interest. The newfangled games of today have overtaken it, it seems.

    Doesn't make me love it any less. I'd be up for a PBeM game.

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  31. For some reason Diplomacy and Squad Leader were just part of the RPG milieu back in the 80s for people I knew. I remember sitting in a small basement room with five or six people playing Diplomacy. It seemed more of an event, and I guess that was because you needed a quorum to play it.

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  32. I love this game (and so does, apparently, Henry Kissinger). Great game. No luck involved.

    I like Civilization from Avalon Hill slightly more since it has a greater scope of challenge and can involve a 'Diplomacy' angle as well.

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  33. My wife and I once went to a highly romantic b&b in an idyllic locale... and I noticed amidst the checkers and romance novels on the shelves next to the roaring fireplace: a Diplomacy game.

    Sadly, I and the nerd on the couch before the fireplace could not convince our wives to get a game going.

    It's one of the most out of place things I've ever seen, that Diplomacy game. They may as well have had a pistol for nice Russian roulette games.

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  34. Here's a good online site to play. Be prepared to spend oodles of time here.

    http://www.playdiplomacy.com/index.php

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  35. I haven't looked at the rules in a while but IIRC the 2-player rules turn the game into a two-way WWI slugfest. Basically straight wargame with no need for diplomacy.

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  36. I haven't looked at the rules in a while but IIRC the 2-player rules turn the game into a two-way WWI slugfest. Basically straight wargame with no need for diplomacy.

    I'll have to go to their website and check out the two-player rules. This sounds far more interesting than the four to five hour snorfest I remember.

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  37. You know, you could keep a side page right here, post photographs of the board each turn, and conduct all backstabbing and brokering in comments. . .

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  38. Diplomacy always was hit or miss, as I recall. I was a Risk guy, myself. Politics by other means and all that!
    @uwarr:
    The poster(mericcb) was referring to adults like Arneson, Gygax, Andre, and Arneson having time to play Diplomacy and the like.(See Gygax and crew's epic D&D sessions as well.) I'd say that the difference is the employer's demands on your time(flex scheduling, mandated overtime, etc..) and the willingness(or desperation) of today's workers to meet them. Not to mention, there are more options now, and a seeming shortness of attention span(Speed Monopoly? Really? Turbo Bridge? :-)) that comes with the proliferation of same. Kind of worrisome, imo. I'd like to think things will work out. Leisure time is important for development. And fun!

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  39. UWS guy wrote: “Interesting question, is magic the gathering a war-game and would 4e be a better game if it incorporated more of MtG 'large scale'/dominion type rules and not just the synergy of combat/deck building abilities that classes use together in an adventuring group.

    Although I have played both MtG and 4e, I’m not much of a fan of either, I’m not sure I should say much about that. But I don’t think either qualifies as a wargame even in my own rather broad definition.

    merricb wrote: “Time is a killer these days; one occasionally wonders at the LONG older games and wonder why life has changed so much... how were they able to play them then and we can't play them now?

    There’s that as communication technology has developed, we seem to devote more time to it. There’s that we have many more options for on-demand entertainment. There’s that our kids seem to have busier schedules—that we as parents have to keep up with—than we did.

    I don’t know that it was really all that much easier then, though. It can still be done. Plus, we have tools like eVite that can help a lot in organizing such things.

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  40. Diplomacy has ruined more friendships than anything else on earth. It should be banned.

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  41. About leisure time shrinkage: in addition to increased demands of work, I wonder too if 21st century adult males with wives & kids are just expected to spend a LOT more time supervising kids, ferrying them too and from their after-school activities, and doing household chores then was the case back "in the day.".

    I know at lunch, when the guys bemoan how little personal time they have, they frequently comment on how little in comparison their own fathers did or were expected to do.

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  42. 'increased demands of work':
    this also contributes to people not wanting to play a sustained game, I've found.

    'they frequently comment on how little in comparison their own fathers did or were expected to do.'
    8-|. Wow, my grandad worked 60+ hour weeks voluntarily as a bricklayer, helped around the house, took care of us(and we were allowed a great deal of freedom[stupidity would bring punishment, though :-)] to do whatever, glorious!), and still had time to hang out with his friends.(Mostly on the weekends.) I believe it was because he was able to make his own schedule(and his employers seemed very respectful, as well; in may ways I don't see that type of relationship anymore.), as he subcontracted for larger construction businesses. I'm holding out hope for leisure time to be prioritized again, myself.

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  43. James, have you seen this game I am working on called Statecraft?

    I have not, but I'll try and take a look at the blog sometime soon.

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  44. Playing Diplomacy without social incident requires people to be able to very firmly compartmentalize because so much of the game requires management that level of meta-gaming that lies just above the surface of the table. Diplomacy is cunningly designed to piss off two kinds of gamers: those who don't want overt, player interaction in their games (or want it muted) AND those who demand that "players always play the table situation to win" (i.e. always make the emotionless, "optimal move").. The game, as written, encourages players to reject either of these approaches (in fact, practically demands it), and I can see easily why it creates such nasty play experiences amongst people.

    Very well said.

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  45. James, have you played MtG?

    No. I avoided CCGs like the plague back in the 90s, out of fear I'd get hooked and blow lots of time and money on them and I've never regretted that decision.

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  46. I do find it odd that you don't seem to think you'd have the "patience and strategic level thought" for wargames...just seeing the work and detail you put into Dwimmermount would seem to belie that statement.

    I'm a good improviser and have a decent memory, that's all. I don't mean to minimize their value, especially when refereeing a sandbox campaign, but I don't think my talents as a referee translate very well to wargaming. Past experience bears out the truth of this; I'm really not very good at them.

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