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Diplomatic SmŲrgŚsbord

April 7, 2009

Allan B. Calhamer is a genius. Move, support, hold, and convoy. Itís an amazingly simple system that underlies an incredibly complex game of psychological warfare. Itís also an admirably adaptable system that has been modified to fit over a thousand variants of the original. The ďgameĒ is Diplomacy. Itís infamous as the game thatís been ďDestroying Friendships since 1959.Ē Itís certainly not for the faint of heart as itís a brutal reenactment of pre-World War I political realism where alliances are merely a means to an end and allies are tools to be used and discarded. Diplomacy is the quintessential negotiation game where everything rides on your ability to make others see things your way and nothing can be accomplished without convincing your neighbors that youíre not a threat. Itís really the perfect board game, as long as your friendships are solid enough to withstand the bald-faced lies and deceitful betrayal that are an inherent part of the experience.

Diplomacy is remarkably simple. The board is a map of Europe divided into various territories and sea spaces. There are 34 supply centers scattered in territories across the board. The game is for 7 players, each of which starts the game with 3 supply centers (except Russia who starts with 4). The goal is to gain control of 18 supply centers (i.e., over half of the total). Each player begins the game with 3 units (or 4 for Russia). There are only two types of units: armies and fleets. Every unit has the same strength; the only difference is that fleets travel along coast and water. The game is divided into years beginning with 1901 and each year is divided into the following five phases: Spring Movement, Spring Retreat, Fall Movement, Fall Retreat, and Winter Adjustment. This is a simultaneous action selection game, just like the familiar modern examples of Wallenstein, RoboRally, Maharaja, and Niagara. Players write down an order for each of their units during the Spring Movement phase and then simultaneously reveal and execute those orders. There are only four possible orders: Move, Support, Hold, and Convoy. Units can move from one space to an adjacent space, units can hold in place, units can support another unit in its movement or holding, and fleets can convoy armies across water to land on the other side. All of the orders are resolved at the same time. There can only be one unit in each space, so units contesting the same space will depend on the support of other units, either their own units or those of allies. Often units will bounce (i.e., remain where they started) when two units try to move into the same space. Then there is a brief phase for retreats by any units forced out of their territory. Followed by the Fall Movement phase, which is identical to the Spring Movement phase, and then a similar Fall Retreat. The key comes in the Winter Adjustment when every player counts the number of supply centers he or she controls and the number of units, and must reconcile the two, either adding units if he or she has gained supply centers, or disbanding units if supply centers have been lost.

The mechanics of the game fail to convey the essence of the game. The Spring Movement and Fall Movement phases are not silent affairs of scribbling your orders in a vacuum. Rather, these are raucous periods of negotiation and scheming. Players can run off in pairs or groups to other rooms to make plans in secret. Players can promise the world to one another, pledging their undying support. Players can make conflicting promises and try to set their neighbors against each other by fabricating stories about how the other one is out to get the one youíre currently befriending. But when the music stops and its ultimately time to commit your troops to a course of action, itís a solitary experience (and the remainder of Hobbesí passage would apply to the rest of the game; at least itís undoubtedly nasty and brutish). You have to sit there stewing over who to trust and who to double-cross. Once those orders have been finalized and revealed, youíre locked in, whether youíre exulting in watching your troops march victoriously into your enemyís capital, or shocked and awed by the treachery and betrayal of your sweet-talking ďfriends.Ē Regardless, itís always a tense moment when those orders are revealed and the truth is laid bare.

The community of players and resources surrounding Diplomacy is impressive. Thereís The Diplomatic Pouch, required reading for any fan of the game. Other great online resources include the Diplomacy Archive and The Variant Bank. In addition, thereís the wonderful Bounced where you can play online and Realpolitik software for planning moves or playing through possible scenarios. These are just a few of the excellent online resources for learning about Diplomacy and exploring all that the game has to offer.

What about those thousands of variants? The Variant Bank lists 1,427 variants of Diplomacy. Thatís surely enough to fill many lifetimes. One of the greatest virtues of Diplomacy is its adaptability. Like Age of Steam, Ticket to Ride, and Power Grid, different maps provide completely different game experiences. In addition, different maps work best with different numbers of players. This is important because it transforms a game that only shines with 7 players into a game that can be played with any number of players Ė from 3 in the Hundred variant to 34 in the Chaos variant. The nice thing about variant maps is that they provide a new game experience without having to learn a whole new set of rules. There may be a small rules tweak, but generally you can dive right in. Itís a refreshing game experience without the investment of time normally required when learning a brand new game. This is what gives games like Age of Steam and Diplomacy the incredible shelf life that they have. The comparison between the two stops there though.

My favorite variant is the 1898 variant. The game normally begins in 1901, but this variant steps back a few years. Itís played on the normal European map, but each player only begins the game with 1 supply center and 1 unit, instead of the normal 3 (or 4 for Russia). The starting locations are: Italy in Naples, Austria in Trieste, Turkey in Smyrna, Russia in St. Petersburg, Germany in Kiel, France in Brest, and England in Edinburgh. Everyone begins with an army except England, who obviously starts with a fleet. The wonderful thing about this variant is it opens up the game and gives the players even greater flexibility in how they approach the game. The base game has great variety, but there are a handful of traditional openings for each Great Power, with small variations on each. The 1898 variant is like a blank canvas. The circumstances leading up to World War I can be molded by the players.

The crucial decision in 1898 is whether to capture a home supply center in the first year or to broaden your reach and head abroad for that first capture. This is important because players can still only build units in their traditional home supply centers, including the ones that you no longer start the game controlling, but you must first gain control of them. While this decision is crucial, the ramifications of this 1898 decision wonít be felt until 1900. This is because everyone will get 1 build at the end of the first year regardless, and have 2 units for 1899. If you captured a home supply center in 1898 then you can likely capture two supply centers in 1899, getting two builds, and going to four units in 1900. However, if you went abroad for that first capture in 1898, then even if you capture a fourth supply center in 1899, you wonít be able to build all 4 units heading in to 1900 because you wonít have two empty home supply centers in which to build. You can capture a second home supply center in 1899, but it canít possibly be empty in time for the build at the end of the year. This is an important decision facing all 7 of the Great Powers, but some are more tempted than others to leave home early in 1898. For example, Austria is sorely tempted to take Bulgaria in the first year, rather than Vienna or Budapest. For once, in this variant, Austria doesnít have to worry about Italy in the first year, who starts deep down in Naples. This allows Austria to leave Trieste unguarded. Bottling up Turkey inside Constantinople has its advantages as it slows the menace of the Sultan. Then again, that deficit of 1 unit in 1900 could come back to haunt the Archduke. Russia is another Great Power that might be tempted by the allure of blocking a neighborís early growth. Norway is traditionally considered prime English real estate, which no one can prevent in the base game, but Russia can march right in when playing 1898. This will surely slow the growth of the British armada, but the retribution and inevitable blockade in the Barents Sea may be too high a price to pay. Whatever the players decide, the canvas will be filled by their whims and follies, which is extremely satisfying, whether or not youíre king of the hill in the end.

My second favorite variant is Crowded. This is another variant that is played on the original map. The only difference with the map is that a thirty-fifth supply center is added in Ruhr. This variant is for 11 players. The four additional players represent the Balkans, Spain, Lowlands, and Scandinavia. These players begin the game occupying all of the available neutral supply centers on the board. For instance, Spain occupies Spain, Portugal, and Tunis, while Scandinavia occupies Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. This means that there are zero neutral supply centers available on the board. This takes the nasty and brutish elements of Diplomacy to a whole new level. Thereís no longer a grace period at the beginning where everyone scoops up the easy supply centers. Instead, you dive right into the fray since every gain is a loss for someone else. Every captured supply center is also a lost home supply center. Youíre forced to step on the backs of others as you reach to claim the crown. Your negotiation skills better be finely tuned if you want to take on the Crowded variant. Itís a game that embodies the ďknife fight in a phone boothĒ descriptor if I ever saw one.

It would seem I like variants that stay as true as possible to the original map, but that preference breaks down when it comes to the variety of other variants that I enjoy, such as Hundred, Colonial, Ancient, and Modern. For instance, Hundred is a surprisingly good three-player variant, where the players represent England, France, and Burgundy. Itís a finely balanced game where two players will likely work together to attack the third, but then one of the allies will backstab the other, either in an attempt to claim victory or because you think your ally is getting too greedy and growing too fast. This three-sided see-saw can tip back and forth as the players vie for an edge, while making sure not to alienate the other two completely. You canít ever win a game of Diplomacy by yourself. It takes the cooperation of someone else, whether youíre playing with seven people or just three. The Ancient variant transports five players back to the classical battle between Carthage, Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome. While the Modern variant allows ten people to compete on a modernized map of Europe. Finally, Colonial is the Peter Hawes variant published by Avalon Hill in 1994. Itís for the traditional 7 people, but takes the action a world away to Asia, where the powers are Russia, Britain, France, Holland, Turkey, Japan, and China. There are very few rules adjustments, besides the Trans-Siberian Railway allowing fast movement within Russia, but Colonial Diplomacy is a completely different (yet equally thrilling) experience. Itís not balanced, but neither is the original Diplomacy. The genius of Calhamerís design did not lie in its balance. It doesnít matter that Italy and Austria have only each won 10% of the 3,803 online games of Diplomacy at Bounced, whereas France and Turkey have each won almost 19% (with Russia, England, and Germany, in between at 13, 14, and 15 percent respectively). The genius lies in the deceptive simplicity of the game system coupled with its strategic depth and requisite negotiations. Itís impressive that Hawes was able to adapt that genius to the other side of the globe.

Those are just a few of the myriad variants for Diplomacy that youíll discover if you dive head first into the world of Diplomacy online. This is not a game that everyone will enjoy. It doesnít have the broad appeal of games like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, but despite its niche-within-a-niche nature, Diplomacy is a gem for a certain breed. Itís not an experience for everyone. Itís for John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Walter Cronkite - is it for you?

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)