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Saturday 16 November 2019

1959: Diplomacy

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


1959 marks the publication of two classic wargames. One is Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery, the other is Risk: The Continental Game. Although they are both set in past times, one Napoleonic, one Edwardian, they could not be more different. One is card and dice driven and has been hugely successful, probably the most successful mass market wargame ever published, but the other is entirely trust and decision driven. The former is Risk, the latter Diplomacy. Both are sixty years old in 2019.

Published in 1959 by Games Research Inc. and later Avalon Hill, but now Wizards of the Coast under the Avalon Hill brand, Diplomacy is the grandfather of grand strategy games, an exploration of European national and political tensions prior to the Great War. A game of trust and negotiation, it appeals to the historian and the diplomat, whether that is the armchair historian or diplomat—like you and I, or the actual historian or diplomat—famously John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. It is a game of decision and trust and negotiation, there being no dice or luck involved whatsoever. Designed for two to seven players aged twelve and over, in Diplomacy each player will control one of the great European powers—Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Turkey—and will have under his command a number of armies and fleets. He will also hold his traditional or home provinces that his country held in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Between them are several neutral provinces, such as Norway, Tunisia, Portugal, Bulgaria, and so on. Switzerland is also neutral, but cannot be entered by any army. Some of these provinces, both home and neutral, are supply centres. Possession of these enable a power to build another army or fleet, likewise loss of these will force a power to disband an army or fleet. There are a total of thirty four such supply centres on Diplomacy’s map of Europe. If one player or power controls eighteen of these, then he wins the game. Winning though, is far from easy, and can take anywhere from between four and twelve hours—Diplomacy is a long game and it takes dedication to play.

Diplomacy is played out year by year, with two turns—Spring and Fall (Autumn)—per year beginning in 1901. On his turn, a player writes orders to each of his fleets and armies. These are to Hold (stay in position), Move (to an adjacent province), Support (support another army or fleet in moving into a province), or Convoy (a fleet transports an army across a sea province to another land province). Once written down, the orders from all powers are resolved simultaneously and this sets up the primary difficulty in taking provinces. All units are of equal strength or value—there is no rolling of dice or means to determine the strength of an attack or unit—and so when two opposing units attempt to capture the same province or one attempts to force another from a province, nothing happens. To successfully attack and hold a province, a player needs to support the attacking unit with another unit in another province. This can be a unit belonging to the attacking player or that of an ally. If successful, the defending unit can be forced to retreat, the attacking unit taking the province.

These orders are issued twice a year, but after the Fall turn, if a player has captured a Supply Centre, he can build a new army or fleet in one of his home provinces. If a player has lost a Supply Centre, he loses a unit. Play proceeds like this, from year to year until one player or power captures the eighteen supply centres necessary to win the game.

Now mechanically, this sounds simple enough, and it is. Within a turn or two though, as the powers send their armies and fleets out to capture first the supply centres in neutral territories they will clash with rival powers. Then, once the neutral supply centres have been captured, the powers will be brought into direct confrontation, and at this point, a stalemate is likely to ensue… In order to break such a stalemate, the powers and thus the players will have to co-operate and form alliances, much like the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain and the Triple Alliance formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. This is where Diplomacy begins to get interesting, challenging, and duplicitous.

Writing the orders for each turn—Spring and Fall (Autumn)—per year takes a few minutes, but a fifteen minute phase is allowed before this for negotiation between players. During this time, they can negotiate what they will write as their respective orders, reach agreements, form alliances, and so on. This might be to support an allied player’s move into a particular province, hold against an enemy, allow a convoy move for an ally, and so on. Forming alliances makes their member players very powerful, but the question is, how far can they trust each other? For not only is it within the rules of Diplomacy to reach agreements and make alliances, it is within the rules to break them as well. A betrayal and a breaking of an alliance at the right time can break a stalemate and hopefully give the betrayer the advantage to defeat his former ally, who is unlikely to make the same mistake of trusting the betrayer twice...

It is this capacity to break alliances, typically to the detriment of one member over another, to betray the trust between allies, which gives Diplomacy its primary reputation, that of being a game which breaks friendships. That though, is really down to the friendship rather than the game itself, because the game can be played by more mature players who will not necessarily put their friendships to the test by playing Diplomacy. By modern standards, if you can play The Resistance or Battlestar Galactica, both with built traitor mechanics, then Diplomacy should not be so of a test of friendships. But arguably, those games have traitors built into them by design and from the start, so the players know what to expect and can blame the game’s mechanics as much as the player betraying them. In Diplomacy is there no inbuilt mechanic for there being a traitor and it comes about through play and duplicity rather than anything else. Further, because of the trust placed in fellow allies, the betrayal of trust is likely to be all that more painful…

Nevertheless, forging the trust between players and building alliances is very much part of the play and the skill in Diplomacy. For it is a game built around negotiation and interaction as much as it is ordering fleets and armies across Europe—and in fact the need to make those order calls for that negotiation and interaction. 

In the sixty years since it was first published, there have been many editions of Diplomacy, published by many different publishers. The current version is the fiftieth anniversary edition published by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Avalon Hill imprint. It comes with eighty-four army counters and eighty-four fleet counts for the seven great power; one-hundred-and-forty-seven control markers to indicate who has control of the various supply centres; a large game board depicting Europe marked with the provinces held by the great powers at game’s start and the neutral provinces; a pad of maps for marking up orders; and the rulebook.

All of the components are solid, although it would have been nice if the armies and fleets had been wooden rather than the sturdy cardboard they are. The map is very clear and easy to read. As is the rulebook, although it would have been nice if some colour had been included in the maps used to show the examples of play. Although the rules are simple, time is taken to go through them with plenty of examples and explanations. There is also advice on how to play with fewer players and an example play through of the first seven turns of the game. This is a typical race for the supply centres in neutral territory. It is a pity that there are no illustrations for these moves, but it encourages the player to act them in order to see how the game plays.

Diplomacy is a game which demands the full seven players—it is not as fun with fewer—and the time in which to play it to its final outcome. Of course, few of us have that opportunity as often as we would like and almost from almost the very start, the play of Diplomacy was conducted via the post and in fanzines, then later online, so that games can be conducted at a more leisurely pace with greater scope for negotiation (and betrayal). Its age, its theme, and its set-up means that there has probably been more written about Diplomacy and how it can be played than any other game, except Chess (which of course, is centuries older). By modern standards, at the height of the Eurogame, Diplomacy is too confrontational, too much the wargame. It could be argued that from the start, though not necessarily later on in the game, its situation places the players and their powers finely balanced against each other. Breaking that is part of winning the game and even though Diplomacy is not strictly a wargame, it is not a Eurogame either. 

The lightness of the mechanics and the historical set-up, means that Diplomacy has the capacity to be something more. As a game of confrontation and negotiation between the European powers prior to the Great War, it has the capacity to work as an exploration of the nationalism, the politics, aims, and international relations between the powers. There is scope here for roleplaying too, as the players take on the roles of the Kings, Emperors, Sultans, Czars, and Presidents leading the great powers , and by increasing the number of players, perhaps their various ministers and generals. Such scope lies outside of Diplomacy as it comes in the box and arguably it would also require at least one Game Master.

Again by modern standards, Diplomacy is a game design with flaws. Its ts play is too long and by its very nature, will lead to player elimination who will have nothing to do whilst the surviving powers jockey for position and then confront each other. These are likely to be contributing factors to the game not being as popular as it once was. Another factor may well be the theme to Diplomacy, that of the great powers of Europe prior to the Great War, no longer having the significance that it once had, as those events were within living memory when the game was first published. And yet, Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery remains a classic because it emphasises the negotiation and interaction aspects of playing it as being key to the wargame aspect and mastering that is the path to victory—eventually. 

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