Diplomacy the Game

As a part of our second podcast for November 2017, we are recapping Great War strategy games. Here is a deep dive into the widely play game Diplomacy.

Diplomacy is probably one of the better known WWI games. It is a slow paced, orders, intensive game of promises and backstabbing. One of the classic Avalon Hill titles that truly impacted strategy gaming. The mechanics of play leave a heavy demand on having multiple players (Preferably 1 per power), however there are methods of play to ignore the Eastern Front and/ or the Ottoman Empire to allow for play with less players. (There are also methods for multiple nations to be controlled by the same player, although I do not suggest this.) As such Diplomacy does not get played as often as one would think, in person as a board game. But is largely surviving thanks to email, or online based play. Highly recommend play online with www.playdiplomacy.com.

The objective of the game is to control of the most cities on the board. This goal changes on what method of play is used. To begin players either pick a power or randomly select them (This will be better explained once Balance is discussed). Then undergo a series of 3 phases, first comes the Negotiation Phase where players scheme with and against each other. Then at the end of that players write orders, in secret, for their units and then execute them during the Movement Phase. This is the phase that most have issues with for technically all actions happen simultaneously, thereby all the orders from all the players have to be executed, as written at once and then resolved the conflict by conflict. To note in this game ALL units has equal value (which is silly from a tactical standpoint). There is not random element in the conflicts. If two forces have equal value they offset and there is no gain. Then after two orders phases it is the build phase, where if successful in taking additional cities' powers can make more units, or if territory has been lost they must remove units such that all units in play for a nation are equal to the number of cities they hold.

Diplomacy is perhaps infamous for always ending in gridlock, much like WWI. There are some powers easier to play than others, both due to the nature of how battles work, and due to the nature of the map. For example, Britain is usually an easier power play, as most nations do not build up enough of a fleet to oppose their unusual starting 2 fleets, both focused in the Atlantic. Which means that any hopes of an invading power landing in Britain are easily dashed.

So, given that most battles, will end in stalemate and that not every nation is equally difficult to play as, how does one actually win? This game is not about tactics or brilliant offensive/ defensive doctrines, it is about negotiation and strangely enough Diplomacy is a diplomatic game at its core. Players that cooperate with each other tend to have a higher chance of victory. That chance depends on how well they cooperate and how well they can coordinate. Some nations rely on this principle to survive. Germany, Austria and Italy all are stuck without a secured border, two of them with limited expansion into non-powers. They are generally considered the most difficult to play as because of this. Such is not the case with the aforementioned Britain or Russia or the Ottomans. France is in an interesting position as it has two routes to expand into, much like Germany, but is only bordered (directly) by two powers. Britain is a naval power that will have to choose whether to contest with France and a possible Italy in Iberia or the Benelux (Belgium and Holland) with France and Germany or mess with Russia and Germany in Scandinavia. The existence of these three options means that Britain has the ability to choose sides more easily. As promises to France to not enter Iberia do not halt expansion, nor would a promise to Germany to stay out of the Benelux.       

Then there is Gunboat Diplomacy. Which I find to be enjoyable, due in part to its sped up nature and lack of having to talk for 15 minutes every turn. Gunboat differs to regular Diplomacy in that all orders are written without time for consulting other powers. This means that you are unlikely to trust anyone and that you will not normally get support on movements where you need it (like entering Warsaw). This makes the game much more challenging and suddenly all the nations with multiple bordering powers begin having to be much more careful. That and the strict time limit on turns keeps the often ponderous game flowing better. However, this feeds a conservative foreign policy, namely posturing and showing strength are the only options on the table. One cannot seek out any meaningful alliances and thereby all other nations are to be inferred as rivals until either defeated or in too weak a position to stop you. This version of Diplomacy is still a diplomatic game, but is one that relies more on reading the intentions of your rivals in their troops than trying to convince each other that no hostilities will occur. Or that two powers should band together against another.  

In conclusion, I would call this game a Strategy game. However, it is not tactical nor does it concern itself with questions of how plans are operated nor how armies work. They are made the same and treated the same across the board. Nor does the game focus on historical accuracy. Diplomacy is a game focused on the interactions between nations and whether or not they may trust each other. It is a game often used by those who study international relations, not to perfectly model the period, but to give a feeling for how countries interact, such that diplomacy will not falter to the point it did before and during WWI.  

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