Friday, August 8, 2014

Diplomacy: Not For The Faint Hearted

 

If you don’t like playing games with intense people like this one, Diplomacy’s probably not for you.

Does anyone else remember Diplomacy fondly?   I do.   I may have been the only twelve year old ever to own a copy, and no one in my family understood it or wanted to play it.  I think my father understood it, but he wanted nothing to do with it.   I didn’t play my first game with real people until college, and usually things went fine until someone realized that the game favoured Machiavellian-style Realist game play, served up with dollops of treachery that would make a Renaissance Doge approve.   usually they realized this while watching an “ally’s” rapier emerging from their chest.

I played one game by mail in the days before computers (and won) but I recall that the poor GM had to find quite a few replacement players when others dropped out.   All negotiations and moves had to go through the GM’s postal address, and I never knew the other players, but I recall that it was one of the best experiences of my gaming life.  In my last army posting, I tried halfheartedly to get some officers together for a game of diplomacy.  The idea was that we would wear mess dress with black tie, and play over brandy and cigars, but sadly they were mostly the PS generation and it never caught fire.

I still have the original set, in the big flat red box, as published by Games Research Inc, and the map board is still a thing of beauty to this day.   I don’t think any other board game, even Charles Roberts’ Tactics Two which came out a year before Dip in 1958, is as iconic of the dawn of modern wargaming.   But I digress.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to flag an excellent essay, by David Hill, “The Board-Game of the Alpha Nerds" on the way Diplomacy is played today at the tournament level, and the psychologies of the people who thrive (or fail) in that highly competitive atmosphere.  There’s also an NPR interview with David Hill here - it is very entertaining, especially the part where he brings a “ringer”, a former US Ambassador who has counselled four Presidents, to a tournament.

The average player, David Hill says, is a middle aged male nerd.  I guess I qualify, barely.

Does anyone have any Diplomacy stories to share?

31 comments:

  1. Your post brings back many memories, Michael! I, too, listened to Hill's NPR interview. Very interesting indeed! I played FtF and by mail for a number of years. Have not touched to game in close to 20 years. I should remedy that! Oh the memories...let me ponder which story to share.

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    1. Thanks Jonathan. I'd love to hear some stories if you finish pondering.

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  2. Diplomacy was "the game" people would take about in college and after as the most difficult game ever never played myself. I do recall when i was hanging out with the creators of "Junta" that they wanted to capture the backstabbing feel of Diplomacy.

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    1. Hi Robert. I never played "Junta" but it is one of those iconic games. I suspect that a few other games were also inspired by Dip's "backstabbing feel", including AH's Kingmaker and an old TSR game called Divine Right that my younger brother and I played for a long time in the 70s.

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  3. I've only ever played actual Diplomacy once - and Errol's brother totally screwed us by not sticking with the plan and going and making some deal with the Turk... but I'm not bitter about that or anything...

    I REALLY liked the negotiating (almost "role-playing") aspect of it and have incorporated that in a number of DBA and Hordes of the Things campaigns I've run - both in person and online - there is a negotiating phase, then everyone writes orders for their field army, army movements are read out and moved simultaneously and when armies "bump" games are played.... All of those campaigns have been the very best of wargaming - or just all-round gaming - experiences.

    One of the online campaigns I ran the players didn't know each other and all their negotiating had to be sent to me (and copied and forwarded the messages on to the appropriate player). The tabletop games were played locally by people not playing in the grand strategic game and results of the games were posted on my blog... everyone had a hoot. A couple guessed who some of the others were - based on their style of negotiating, others had no idea who they had been dealing with until I let on who was playing which country at the end of the campaign.

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    1. Hi Tim:
      I'm glad you're still not bitter. :)
      It's great that you could include the idea of negotiating into other multiplayer games. Young Kinch has made the point that all gaming is, at some level, role playing and I think you make that point as well.

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  4. Never played this one. Wish I had the time to check it out, you make it sound rather interesting indeed.

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    1. Dai - if you're curious, check out the blog post after this one. Still got room for you.

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  5. This was one of the demised Avalon Hill games that never had the opportunity to acquire here in Spain. As suscriber to The General I read with curiosity and interest the different articles and clinics published over theyears. Wish I were in Canada to try with you.

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    1. Benito - still got room for you online if you're interested. See my next blog post.

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  6. You might be interested in this - http://diplomatist2.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/this-weeks-intersting-obits.html

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    1. That's a terrific obit, Edwin, thanks. I liked the bit about the notice above Mr. Calhamer's cat's food bowl, "You have to be your own cat".
      Why am i not surprised that Diplomacy was a favourite at the Nixon White House?

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  7. Don't shoot me, but I've never played the game.....love the cheesed off face on the Moggy though!

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    1. Who would want to shoot you, Ray? On second thought, that might take too much time to explore.
      That is a great Moggy face, for sure

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  8. I have it. Not a fan. The back-stabbing is just too intense.

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    1. Not a game for good chaps to play in the Mess over brandy and cigars, then?

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  9. Convergence - another war gamer posted about Diplomacy the other day, having scored a playing set (early generation, with the political map, the boat-like fleets, and artillery-shell armies: THE Diplomacy board - I never cottoned to Avalon Hill's contour map). I don't know how many times I played the game - enough to score among the many non-wins, at least two 'solos' with each of Russia, Turkey (I LIKE Turkey), Austria-Hungary and France; a three-way draw with Italy (3rd, but holding the balance of power, snh, snh, snh... :D), but I've never done any good with Germany or England (and I've played them at least twice each. Germany is extremely difficult to play - too tough for me - but England is supposed to be a lot easier).

    I found David Hill's article most interesting. His feelings as 'France' after being strung along by 'England' in my view were unnecessary hard on himself. He might well have done better even with the betrayal than otherwise, for one thing: he might yet have been well enough placed to strike some sort of 'survival deal' with England. One thing he ought to have realised: the others' rage showed that 'France's' interests were not featuring highly in their sense of having been... wronged...

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    1. Still got a few seats in the game starting here, Ion ... you know you want to.

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  10. There is one point that David Hill doesn't touch upon - well he does, but he's wrong (in my view). There are consequences to your actions. If you are the sort of player who is apt to backstab often, who can never be trusted. word gets around and you might find it difficult in future games to obtain reliable allies - or any allies at all. Haver's betrayal to win the game, however, will redound to his advantage. He's a reliable ally, and will betray you only in a good cause (in a self-centred sense) - (probably) only if the solo win - or at least a very large gain - is in prospect. Perfectly reasonable, and in the spirit of the game, in my view. That's how I play. You just guard against giving too much away to your ally or leaving yourself open to such a betrayal.

    I like the expression 'newbie whisperer.' That will be the topic of my story. This was some thirty or more years back. For the first time ever, I drew Austria-Hungary. Italy was being played by a newbie (I think). Right, sez I, let's have an understanding. The border between Venice and Vienna will be inviolate. You go after Tunis and Marseille, I'll go east, Right from the gun, I went for the Balkans, and ... Munich. That pretty much ended the game right there for Germany, though he held on for quite a while thereafter. After that, I went east.

    Meanwhile my Friend Italy was fighting a long-drawn out losing war with France. I couldn't really help him, but made lots and lots of sympathetic noises across the border. All the while I expressed my apologies for being unable (owing to other commitments, viz. beating the crap out of Turkey with Russia's help, then turning on Russia) to offer much - or any - material help. Never once did I violate our border agreement. On the far side of the board, England sailed forth conquering and to conquer, eventually capturing the entire littoral from Murmansk to Gibraltar. I had meanwhile conquered Turkey, inland Russia, and inland middle Europe. Two bases behind England throughout the entire game - and we never were allies - I figured out that England's hold on the coastlands was compromised by the limited supports his fleets could afford his armies. It was easy for me to develop 2-1 attacks on account of the topography of the map. In one fall season, I wrested something like four supply bases from him, cracked the 18 supply base threshold, and took out the win. One of my best - certainly the most memorable.

    Meanwhile I kept faith with Italy the whole time. If eventually I did cross the border, it was to keep France out, when Italy could no longer defend Venice against invasion from the West..

    I won a solo - very chuffed about that; and remained on friendly terms with the newbie. I feel certain that in a subsequent game we would have been about to deal on good terms with each other as circumstances indicated, and, had roles been reversed, I would have kept the same faith in him as he showed with me.

    If there is a 'correct' approach to the game, it is this: play for solo, but, when necessary, settle for a draw. Be prepared to settle for 'second place' whence comes to that. It's not much of a deal, but it is a deal. The only occasion I did any good with Italy, I survived to the end along with France and Russia with all the rest eliminated. Russia was the most powerful, with France not far behind (probably only two supply bases in it). But I had the balance of power (something like half-a-dozen supply bases of my own. F and R dared not attack each other, because whoever attacked, I'd swing in behind the other guy, and was strong enough for that to mean something. How about if they attacked me? The point was, whoever 'went for the solo' himself was simply going to hand the win to the other great power.

    So a three-way tie it was, and so - in all probability - it should have been.

    You gotta love that game!
    Cheers,
    Ion

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  11. Me again...

    The remarkable thing, I think, about my fondness for the game was that my first experience with it - this was 40 years back - was such a humiliating disaster. I drew Russia, and, somewhat overenthusiastic and far too naive, started talking about a three way alliance with a couple of (equally newbie) friends who were also playing. We all three got crushed, me first I think, in very short order. I never even managed to put up any kind of worthwhile fight. By the fall of 1904 - I think it was that quick - Russia was out of the game.

    Probably I would never again have played that game (Germany won it by the way), but some time later joined a game in which i knew everyone, and none of us had had more experience than one or two games. But it was pointed out to me after that initial debacle that by openly talking up an alliance right from the gun with a couple of other guys, I had put the frighteners on the more experienced players, who banded together to sort me, and the others, out.

    Lesson One: Keep your voice down.
    Cheers,
    Ion

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    1. Ion:
      Thanks for these three great posts. i think you make clear that Dip is above all a game of character. You're a good chess player and I'd like to hear your comments about how the two games compare, but I suspect that chess is more about intelligence and strategy, in that there are fewer variables and only one opponent, whereas Dip is about managing the chaos of competing interests and personalities, and so one's character, how it is displayed to and assessed by others, is crucial. if you are perceived as honest and loyal, you will, all things being equal, probably fare better than someone who is perceived as being treacherous and dishonest.

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  12. Such a great game, a true classic that holds a lot of happy memories. It is very revealing of a person's character :-)

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    1. Very true, Paul. As I said to Ion above, it is about character as much, or more than, intelligence.

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  13. I played it years ago with chaps from school and others from a youth group.I really enjoyed it and creating a newspaper etc.
    Do you know the boardgame "Kingmaker" about the WOTR perchance?It was another game of my late teens twenties...

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    1. Kingmaker was a game that seemed a lot like Diplomacy, though the mechanisms were a little clunky as I recall. A lot of multiplayer games since then have echoes of Diplomacy for me. Two years ago, I was in a mp game of GMT's Space Empires and the chap who I thought was my friend turned on me late in the game and ate me for breakfast. For a grown man, I was quite gutted. One needs a thick skin in these sorts of games.

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  14. The guys used to play quite a bit of it when I first came to Halifax. Sone of them do still pkay by mail and at cangames. You should drop Rob a note at the Captain's Blog. Feel free to say Ross sent you.

    With all the guile, cunning and strategic skill of Sir Parcival the Fool, I never really took to it

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    1. But Sir Parsifal did end up becoming the Grail Knight. That's gotta count for something.
      What is the address of Rob's blog, my google failed me.

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  15. Diplomacy is a magnificent game and beautifully put together, but so are atom bombs in their way. I played it a bit while I was in college and never took to it. The inevitable "stab" always ruined any enjoyment of the game that I had. I tend to like games where players are either in open conflict or are working together. One of the reasons I like team games so much I suppose.

    Dip is a bit like fascism or low carb diets. I can appreciate them in theory from afar - but the actuality is far less palatable.

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  16. Diplomacy is one of those simple to learn but difficult to play games. Superb. Had some games many years ago which seem to go on tip dawn and I don't recall anyone really winning.

    Maria (by German firm Histogame) is to my mind a similar game in that you don't want your allies to do too well. But the rules are more difficult.

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  17. My only two games happened at a wargame convention in Minneapolis when I was 14 or so. The gaming area was going to be open overnight, so the plan was for me to take the bus Sat. morning and my mom to pick me up Sun afternoon. (She'd probably be arrested these days for letting me do that.)

    About the only happening overnight was Diplomacy. I don't remember the first game well (Britain, I think), but the second I had Italy. Several people gave me as I was concerned being in the middle. Austria tried to be the newbie whisperer. Unlike the Archduke, he stabbed me in the back, not for any real gain that I could see, just because he could. A couple of turns later, when I realized I could trust no one, I realized, purely by accident, that I had a move that would stymie everyone, and lock up three quarters of the board. They called the game a few hours later. [Hey, I'd been awake for about 24 hours at that point.]

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  18. It's so long since I played this that I don't really remember any amusing anecdotes. But I do know that winning wasn't something I did a lot....

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