The Beautiful Game: 1. A Unique Strategy Game

When the Great and Good ABC invented Diplomacy, he created a game that was completely unlike anything in the war-gaming or strategy-gaming world to that point. Even today, there is nothing quite like Diplomacy.

At the time, strategy games tended to be 2-player games. There’s nothing wrong with 2-player games, of course, but Diplomacy was the first multi-player pure strategy game. There was Risk but that game used dice. With Diplomacy, the element of chance was removed. (Again, I enjoy games that involve chance, too, but I’m writing about Diplomacy here.)

The only element of chance is in the power you draw at the start of the game. They’re not perfectly balanced (if you’ve ever tried to play a balanced Dip variant, you’ll understand why) and some powers are in a better strategic position than others.

You can, then, be lucky (or unlucky, of course) in the power you draw at the start of the game. However, it’s more about how you play the game in relation to the power you draw. You may have powers you prefer to play, or powers that you play better than others.

You can be lucky in the players in the game. A Dippyist (more experienced Dip player) in a game Diplopups (novices) will be rubbing their hands with glee. You might be in a game with a player controlling a power that borders your own who quits games – you get the benefits from them sloping off in a sulk when things don’t go perfectly while another player on the far side of the board ends up cursing the quitter.

You may get lucky in those situations where you’re making a guess as to which way another player will move, and get that guess right.

But luck isn’t chance. Chance, in a board game, relates to the roll of a dice, the drawing of a card, the spinning of a wheel, etc. In Diplomacy these elements are absent. Instead, you’re playing a game similar(ish) to the strategy of Chess and where the your skills of persuasion are brought to the fore.

Multi-player

The fact that Diplomacy involves 7 players makes it a unique game. Certainly, as I said above, that was the case when Calhamer invented the game. Strategy games tended to like the classics: Chess, Draughts (‘Checkers’ if you prefer), Reversi/Othello, Backgammon, etc. Diplomacy was invented to be played by a group of friends or family.

It means that, while you’re vying for the best tactical position on the board, you’re dealing not with a single opponent, but with another six opponents, all trying to achieve the same goal. It makes it a more complicated game… perhaps. And it makes communication between players so important.

Diplomacy

It’s also not a war game. It looks like a war game, sure. It’s based on a modified map of Europe; it has military units; it is about achieving dominance over the continent by imperialist means. But that’s just what happens on the board.

Diplomacy is played off the board. It’s about working with your opponents to achieve your aims. It’s about communicating with other players. It isn’t the only board game about communicating, although that’s stretching the term ‘board game’ to encompass the wider genre of ‘table-top games’. Sure, there are games like Werewolves and Pandemic, some of which are card games, others board games, but these are co-operative games, in which you win or lose as a group. Diplomacy is about cooperation to win as an individual.

Diplomacy is about communication, negotiation, persuasion, cajoling, threatening… all with the aim of achieving your own objectives. It means you have to find ways to buy an alliance that benefits the other person (why else would they cooperate with you?) as well as yourself.

When is a turn not a turn?

Diplomacy isn’t like many traditional board games, such as Monopoly or Ludo, in which players take turns to make their moves. However, it does involve turns.

A ‘turn’ in Diplomacy is a Diplomacy/Movement/Retreats/Adjustments collective. The turns are based on seasonal periods: Spring 1901, Fall 1901, Spring 1902, etc. However, it isn’t about one player moving their pieces about the board, and then other players doing so. You don’t get the chance to respond to moves made by other players in your turn… you don’t get a ‘your’ turn.

In face-to-face Diplomacy games, orders are read out and moves made ‘in turn’. So, the player controlling England might read their orders out first, shuffling their pieces about the board; then the player controlling France will do the same, then Germany, etc.

However, all the orders are said to take place simultaneously. What this means is that the player controlling France can’t change their moves based on what the player controlling England has done. You’ve written your orders, you’ve submitted them, and you have to stick with them. If England had the temerity to move their fleet to Brest, then you can’t change the order for your fleet from moving to the Western Mediterranean Sea to move to Brest! It is, as some would say, a fait accompli. Tough.

Compare this to other strategy games. If black moves in Chess, then white can move to counter it. Not so in Diplomacy: you live and die by the orders you wrote without truly knowing what the other players were planning to do.

There’s no other game like this.

Parity of units

In other war games (again, Diplomacy isn’t a war game but the movement on the board is similar to a war game so I’m going with that) different units have different strengths and abilities. Let’s take Chess, again: pawns can move one space forward; rooks can move vertically or horizontally as many spaces as possible; bishops move similarly to rooks but diagonally; queens – well, they do what the hell they like, as long as it’s in a straight line.

In other games, there are different types of units. A cavalry unit can usually move further (faster) than an infantry unit, for instance, and – in the right situation – is probably ‘stronger’ than an infantry unit (except for those wicked pikemen).

In Diplomacy, the pieces can only move one space at a time, and they are equal in strength. If two armies try to move to the same space, they stand off and bounce back to their starting positions; fleets are equal in strength to armies.

There is truly no game quite like Diplomacy.


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SEE ALSO: The Ugly Game

Published by Mal Arky

I'm a Diplomacy nut... if you haven't guessed. I write about the game Diplomacy, mainly as played online on websites, such as Playdiplomacy, webDiplomacy and Backstabbr. I write books on Diplomacy, too. First one to be published soon!

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