Rating : 93/100
Diplomacy. There are few other games more likely to see a group of civilised, well mannered, Homo sapiens devolve into a murder of squawking scurrilous beasts, at one another’s throats over who promised who control of The English Channel, which coast of Spain was supposed to have been written down, and the various meretricious long term benefits of the temporary and unexpected secession from a trusted alliance and, unfortunately, sometimes real world relationship. Once touted as the favourite, or perhaps favorite, game of both John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, and no doubt many other diplomats since its first release in 1959, ‘Diplomacy’ has treachery as a major component part of its gameplay and it is often used, though not strictly necessary, to achieve victory.
The simplest way to think of the game is; if you like strategy games, then you will love this. Conversely, if you don’t like them then you probably won’t enjoy playing it – though there may be an exception to this rule depending on the style in which you do so. The board is based on Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War I, although the setting begins in 1901, and you take control of the armies and fleets of one of the ruling powers of the day. The objective is to take over as many supply centres on the board as you can until more than half of them are yours, and the number of troops you have is determined in equal measure by the number of centres you control. This in itself doesn’t make the game different from many others, what distinguishes it from the competition is that everyone makes their moves at the same time, and before revealing their orders there is always a round of diplomacy where players are encouraged to have secret, or open, discussion with one another and make, or break, alliances. Then, when everyone’s orders are revealed you find out just how well placed your confidences, or well oiled your machinations, were.
It really is a fantastic game, nerve wracking and exciting with plenty of scope for intricate plan making and deviancy, which is why if you are perhaps more into social interaction than spending hours around a board game working out all the permutations of possible moves, you could focus entirely on the diplomacy section as one’s people skills, or perhaps manipulation techniques, are every bit as important as your military tactics. Indeed, working in teams to combine the best of both worlds is to be encouraged. Players are welcome to play ‘gunboat’ diplomacy with no tactical communication between each other should they wish, and the simplistic rules, with only a few moves available for each piece (attack, support, hold, convoy), mean that it works as a fantastic pure strategy game, with no chance element (such as rolling dice or drawing cards) whatsoever. Similarly, there are guidelines for play with less than the full quotient of seven players.
‘Diplomacy’ is the brain child of Allan B. Calhamer, who came up with the idea whilst studying at Harvard university and had to finance the production of the first five hundred games himself, having been initially rejected by every publisher he approached. He sold all five hundred with relative ease, publishers were somewhat more welcoming afterward. Given Calhamer studied law, nineteenth-century European history, and political geography, it is a little disappointing to say the least that the political geography of the board looks like it was created by an uneducated school boy. Some of the regions have been geographically altered for the sake of game dynamics, but others are plain wrong, such as the United Kingdom being labelled England for example. The Red Dragon has deducted points for this. The rulebook has undergone several revisions over time, but it still could be written in a much clearer way, and with more, and indeed better, examples used throughout. Sometimes, since the idea is ultimately to win for yourself, it can feel like a negative experience – you know the alliances you make will probably end badly at some point. However, the cunning player can find ways around this, draws can be agreed upon by surviving players at any point, and the popularity of the game on the internet allows for the accruing of points per supply centre, and table rankings by points – so that as long as you gain something from your starting position you will still climb up the ladder, even if you don’t end up winning (you still have to survive until the end though).
Prior to the internet, ‘Diplomacy’ became the first commercially produced game to be played by mail, and its popularity continues to grow with several international competitions, including a world cup and world championship, and thousands of fan based (and a couple of official) variations published – check out the ‘Diplomacy’ wiki and the variant bank for a huge variety of different versions to try. In fact, ‘Diplomacy’ style rules were adopted for one of the earliest documented forms of both traditional and live action roleplaying – Slobbovia, played by post but ironically dying out just prior to the internet age that would have saved it. Playing ‘Diplomacy’ online also has the advantage of being able to choose how often to make a move, anything from once a few minutes to once a few weeks, but the disadvantage of not being able to try and read people through body language as the game goes on. There have been experimental attempts to create decent AI to represent missing players, but so far they have been universally easy to defeat and most online games, such as the server used on Facebook for example, require seven human players to sign in before the game will start, though play is anonymous via the adoption of usernames.
Easy to become obsessed with and, once again, if you are a fan of pure strategy, quite likely to end up taking pride of place on your games shelf. Make a point of emphasising to new people before you play that back stabbing is a perfectly legitimate part of the game and, hopefully, you will avoid the main pitfall of having players fall out over nothing, or everything depending on how in the moment they are. If you manage this, similarly encourage everyone to be creative with their style and, once everyone is familiar with the core game, with taking the rules and/or scenario to ever more interesting and rewarding levels.
For a look at the official rules click here.