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Board Game of the Month: Diplomacy

August 11, 2010

Diplomacy and I didn’t get off to the best of starts. First time I tried to play it with some friends, we didn’t realise it’s more of a day-long game than an evening one. By the time we had removed all the cardboard counters from their holders it was practically time to go home. Though not without me getting my fingers stuck in said holders first.

Photo (c) Andrew Latheron

A few days ago I had another go at Diplomacy. Relations between us don’t seem to have improved. Not only did I have the worst starting position ever, but things got worse over the next couple of hours and I would probably have sorely lost had my fellow players not graced me by saying that we would “continue next time” and now watch Basil the Great Mouse Detective instead.

Diplomacy Basil's way. Image (c) unknown, from BlingCheese website

So, what is Diplomacy? At first we described as “like Risk, but not up to dice because you decide what your troops do, but you have to collaborate with others to make it all work out”. Eventually we settled to “ModelUN on a board”. Evidently my cheeky style of ModelUN playing (I remember once promising both a free election and a theocracy in Iraq) doesn’t quite pay off in Diplomacy.

Map of Defeat

The most and least enjoyable bit of Diplomacy is the negotiations phase. You shut yourself in a room with other people and try to subtly lie to them until they bend to your will. I don’t know whether it’s the lying, the subtly, or the bending people to your will that I can’t do, but I could tell from the beginning I was not going very well. A silly betrayal of France early in the match and a scary Russia picking up the game to great level within a few turns didn’t help, and soon enough I started to actually feel rather uncomfortable with it all.
It had never happened to me to actually feel uncomfortable while playing a board game. Confused because I didn’t understand it, or self-conscious because I could tell I was losing straight away, yes. But Diplomacy rubs the knife in the wound by having you sit in negotiations with players when you are already confused, and self-conscious. I was so desperate that I gladly accepted, in typical Italian style, the dry satisfaction of a purely technical point victory (this is a good place to speak of Diplomacy’s thick and detailed rule book including headers such as “Self-Standoff” and “A Convoyed Attack Doesn’t Cut Certain Supports”), just so that I could hang on for an extra turn.

Once players are done plotting against one another they send written orders to their troops

So as you can tell by now I am a lame Diplomacy Player. But on a purely intellectual level, I enjoyed the experience of actually being made uncomfortable by a game.  On top of that, I decided to make Diplomacy the first of what I hope will be a long-running Board Game of the Month series is because of how it relates to physical place, and no I am not referring to the map of Europe it is played on (although the fact that it features many of the same cities as Ticket to Ride was odd – I did get nostalgic for some Roma-Smyrna when I saw them on the board). Because we had to negotiate secretly, we ended up moving around the house, confabulating behind closed doors of rooms we wouldn’t have otherwise been into. The other half and I found ourselves, for no other reason than myself trying to look like I was having talks, in the kitchen, with the light off – it was so paradoxical we had to giggle. My first negotiation phase of the game was a one-on-one with the night’s host, in her bedroom, a place I hardly ever ventured into since I helped her assemble the bed when she moved in. Nonchalantly discussing the future of dominion over the North Sea was a different and unexpected way to experience that part of her house. And it got differenter and unexpecteder when, shortly afterwards, I also got diplomatic in that same room with France, a girl I was meeting for the first time that evening. Surely that’s not the point of Diplomacy, but as the main point of Diplomacy is a bit lost on me, I prefer to consider it an unusual, tangential way to inhabit and explore spaces around us.

Post Scriptum: Since starting this post, in my googling I have stumbled upon Diplomacy’s rife online community of players, strategists and nerds of various degrees. My favourite quote comes from Matthew Shields, and with his words I leave you:

I’d say that the difference between a mediocre player and a good player is, as you say, being able to exploit the tactical nuances inherent in the rules to his advantage.

The great players are on a whole different level.

They can suck at the tactical nuances and still beat you because they knew what you were going to do before you did, and had already got the other 5 guys on board to kill you.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010 01:19

    Great article. I think that your frustration with the game may be quite common. I love it, but it sure is hard to get a game going. Mostly because the rules are pretty complex for people and there is a lot of lying. But with the right group of people, a game can be outstanding.

  2. August 19, 2010 10:02

    Thanks for the comment Ian! I can imagine how the complexity of the rules can cause common frustration (it took us an hour before we decided we knew enough to at least start). But my initial discomfort at not knowing exactly what to do was quickly substituted by a different type of unease: “I got the hang of it now, but can’t get it to work”. Being a terrible liar doesn’t help!

    I think it’s a fantastic board game, it’s basically a multiplayer (and vocal) version of chess. I’m just really not cut for it! On the other hand, there may be advantages to losing quickly: you can listening in on other people and observe the good players at work – it would be a bit like watching a thriller!

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