by Brant Guillory, 4 October 2018
The original Diplomacy board game has a huge following, even among non-wargamers, despite being sold as a wargamer for its thirty-year lifespan. Why?
Well, it’s a wargame that abstracts battlefield prowess to the point that it’s almost irrelevant. Tactical ability is nothing – I repeat, nothing – in this game. It matters not how well you can anticipate the moment for the cavalry charge, plan the artillery bombardment, or outflank your enemy with your panzer corps. In this game, all armies, and generals, are created equal, and numerical superiority is the only relevant statistic.
In fact, the only ability of note is your ability to successfully negotiate your way through the intrigue of the game as the leader of a country. In this respect, Diplomacy has succeeded, and continues to succeed, in a class all it’s own.
Diplomacy has succeeded, and continues to succeed, in a class all it’s own.
I was first introduced to Diplomacy in the early 1990s in college. Despite playing wargames since the late 1970s, I had never picked up Diplomacy. Why not? I always found it difficult to put together a critical mass of players. Although the game works up to 7 players, my experience is that it’s best to have a pool of 10-11 to draw from when assembling a game. Besides the inevitable scheduling conflicts (often mitigated in college by staging the game a 11pm), there is always the real danger that player #7 will have double-crossed everyone in a previous game, at least twice, on his way to an overwhelming victory. This made the next game much less fun for player #7, since he tended to last about, oh, 2 turns. Thus, a large pool of players is needed to sustain a Diplomacy-playing group beyond the first weekend.
Over the course of four years in school, I played 20-30 different games, and every one included at least one good friend as a participant. And every one of those good friends completely screwed me at some point in the game. I don’t doubt for a second that I repaid every one of those favors, as well. However, the most interesting feature of those good friends was that none of them were wargamers. Although I knew some of them from role-playing groups, most of them were friends from other places – dorms, classes, sports, the radio station. None of them had played a wargame more complicated than Risk. I remember this vividly because I tried (many, many times) to ramp up a game of Squad Leader, Panzer Leader, Assault, or some other tactical game. No takers.
Diplomacy was packaged as an Avalon Hill bookcase game, which stacked up nicely on a shelf alongside Third Reich, War & Peace, and Feudal. It was solicited through wargame distribution channels and sold through wargame outlets, so it’s not a surprise that many wargamers play Diplomacy. But Diplomacy has endured by broadening its appeal. There is no manipulation of Third Reich’s Basic Resource Points. There’s no damage multiplier for triple-point-blank opportunity fire. There’s no dice!
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Most importantly, there’s no need for understanding any principles of military conflict. Tactical skill is irrelevant. Strategic planning is not useless, but easy to derail. While some nations have natural geographical advantages, there are no real battlefield bonuses for playing any particular nation. Would it surprise you that the best Diplomacy player I ever met is a lawyer with a business degree who couldn’t even give the dates of World War I?
To me, the two strengths of Diplomacy are: (1) the simplicity of the rules and (2) the requirement of social interaction. To make anything go in this game, you have to talk to other players. You can play a marathon game of ASL with little more personal interaction than “I’m stopping his movement with my triple-point-blank opportunity fire.” You can’t play Diplomacy without engaging the other players. You have to cut deals, trust, deceive, support, abandon, and (usually) beg, all in one turn. But most importantly, you’re talking. You’re interacting with other people. You’re not glued to a television with an Xbox and a controller and 15,000 rounds of of high-explosive ammo. You’re moving about a room like a stock trader on meth-amphetamines and you’re loving it.
Getting together enough people to play isn’t as tough as it seems, either, given the relative simplicity of the rules. It takes about 10 minutes to learn the rules. It takes about another 10 minutes play through an example turn or two so everyone sees how the mechanics work. And then it takes about 10 more minutes for one of those new players to stab you in the back. A group of seven can be pieced together at the office picnic. You can scrounge six friends for a game by inviting folks over for a Saturday barbeque. And if you’re living in the dorm in college, you can probably find six other people with nothing to do just by sticking your head out in the hall.
Why do I love Diplomacy? You learn how hard it can be to manipulate your way through a difficult situation. You can’t fight your way out. You can’t ‘produce’ your way out. You can’t buy your way out. You have to talk your way out. For a guy whose idea of the perfect afternoon game involves beer, pretzels, and a lot of high-volume interaction between the warring parties, gathering a few extra people around the table and forcing them to talk to each other is just whipped cream and a cherry.
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