Now, I know, we’re already on the wrong foot, because
you’re saying “What kind of a stupid name is that for a
variant?” OK, now you’ve got me a little on the
defensive, because I don’t actually even know you, and
you’re already calling me stupid. And besides, it’s an
awesome name for this variant, because it’s like a cross
between Diplomacy and Tiddlywinks! Now you’re saying
“Why not call it Tiddliplomacy, because that name at
least has character, unlike that utter garbage pail of a
name you have written above.” See, now we’re both
irritated, and that’s no way to start a rulebook on how to
play a variant. Let’s start over, shall we?
Hi! So you want to learn to play DIPLOMACYWINKS,
the awesomest and most awesomely named variant of
Diplomacy you’ve ever played. Great! Let’s get started!
The first version of Diplomacywinks was invented by
Nathan Barnes and myself, who were hung over and
sleep deprived on the Sunday morning of some god-forsaken tournament. (If it was a tournament that you
organized, or won, I apologize for calling it god-forsaken.
It might have been really fun, for all I know. ) Due to the
game’s origins, I offer the standard disclaimer that if
Diplomacywinks seems insufficiently fun on your first
play through, be sure to try it again while hung over and
sleep deprived. Or get drunk, or drink a bottle of cough
syrup or something, before you play it.
Diplomacywinks is for 2-6 players (or more, I suppose, if
you have a really big table, but I don’t think we’ve tried it
with more than 5). It can theoretically take many hours to
play, but in practice every game of it is over in less than
15 minutes. It can be played on any standard Diplomacy
board, but I highly recommend playing it on the largest
board you can find, and using the wooden or fake
wooden pieces with the blocks and skinny blocks. The
plastic stars and anchors would probably just fizzle
sadly, and the metal pieces could cause somebody to
lose an eye, and I can’t live with that on my conscience,
especially since I already recommended drinking cough
syrup while you play.
There are 5 phases to a game of Diplomacywinks. Here
is a crucial detail regarding the 5 phases, with which you
should be intimately familiar before proceeding: each of
the 5 phases of Diplomacywinks is progressively less fun
than the previous phase.
Phase I: The Piece-Throwing, or “fun” Phase, in which
players get to throw armies and fleets and try to get
them to land on the board in strategic locations.
Phase II: The Cleanup, or “everybody grabs for the
pieces and yells at each other for a minute or two”
Phase, in which players look at what they have wrought,
and make clever observations like “You can’t have an
army in the Norwegian Sea”, “You can’t have a fleet in
Munich”, “Dude, you have like 3 armies in Moscow!”, and
“That army has a piece of Brest!”.
Phase III: Disambiguating, or “only part of the game
where you actually have to use a bit of real strategic
thinking” phase, in which ambiguities left over from the
previous phase are resolved by players making
decisions in sequence.
Phase IV: The Debate, or “who’s going to be a big baby”
phase, in which the players look at the final position of
the board and have a rousing debate about who would
win this game of Diplomacy if you actually bothered to
play it out.
Phase V: The Playing It Out Phase. WARNING: You
should never actually play Phase V, under any
circumstances! It is not at all fun! See below for details.
Phase I: Piece Throwing
Phase II: Cleanup
This is by far the most fun phase. Some have
argued that it is the only fun phase. I will leave this
to you to decide (Note: people who say that Phase I
is the only fun phase are correct. But don’t worry; it’s
so unbelievably fun that you’ll be very willing to
tolerate the other phases, especially if you’ve been
drinking cough syrup).
- Players select a color each, from the 7 available. If
you cannot agree on this, you have no shot to have
any more fun at this game, so stop reading now. The
number of armies and fleets you begin the game
with is based on the number of players in the game.
2 players: 8 of each. 3-4 players: 6 of each. 5 or
more players: 5 of each.
- The player who is awesomest, or oldest, or most
handsome, or who invented Diplomacywinks, or who
lost the last game, or whatever you like, goes first.
Play proceeds clockwise, as quickly as humanly
- On your turn, select either an army or a fleet
(whichever you prefer) from your pile. Take it firmly
in your fingertips, and then bounce it onto the board!
The only rule is that the piece must hit the table IN
FRONT of the board at least once before finally
landing on the board. So throw it in front of you, and
try to get it to land somewhere useful after it
bounces. You know, like Tiddlywinks. Doy.
- If the piece hits the table, but doesn’t make it as far
as the board, that’s tough. That piece is dead. If the
piece hits the table, and skitters all the way past the
board, it’s dead. If it bounces off another piece that’s
already on the board, leave them both where they
end up, on or off the board. (Yes, there is a skill to
knocking somebody else’s pieces off a province, and
thereby claiming that province for yourself. Haven’t
you ever watched curling? Branch out a little, man.
There’s more to life than Diplomacy.)
- In any event, don’t make a big thing of it. Throw your
piece, do a fist pump, cuss loudly, or whatever, and
let your opponent take his turn. Remember, this is
the only fun part of the game! Do not make it less
fun for your opponents by taking up too much time.
- When everybody has thrown all their pieces,
proceed to Phase II.
Phase III: Disambiguating
- Hopefully, you know how to play Diplomacy,
because if you don’t, why on Earth are you reading
this? Are you, like, trying to read the entire Internet
alphabetically or something?
- Good, because I’m counting on you knowing the
rules for this phase. Here’s what you do:
- Work together with the other players. You don’t have
to take turns during this part or anything. But it’s OK
to slap each other’s hands if you feel that they’re
going too fast or cheating, even if you’re wrong.
Except, don’t slap Rick Desper’s hands; that seems
Also, be extremely careful while this flurry of activity is
taking place not to move any pieces that you’re not
directly dealing with! The exact locations where they
have landed are frequently important.
- Now we can begin to narrow things down. First,
permanently remove from the board all the pieces
that have landed in completely impossible locations,
per the basic rules of Diplomacy. That is, armies that
are only touching water, and fleets that are only
touching landlocked provinces. And I guess an army
that’s on Switzerland without touching anything else
should come off too, but I’m not sure whether that’s
However, don’t get carried away. If a piece has settled in
only the teensiest corner of somewhere that it could
legally be, don’t touch it yet! This step only rids us of the
totally impossible pieces.
- Now you’re probably left with a big ol’ jumble of
pieces, some of which are entirely in the confines of
a single space, but many of which are on borders
between spaces. Also, some spaces will contain
bunches of pieces. Especially those big fat Russian
spaces. Take a deep breath. It’s going to be OK.
- Next, there will be pieces that are either entirely
located inside the borders of a single space, or else
can only legally be in one space, despite touching
multiple spaces. Go ahead and scoot those pieces
into their only legal provinces. Yes, you will
frequently be scooting multiple pieces into the same
space, because each of them can only legally be in
that space. That’s OK, we’ll figure out which one
actually owns the space later. For now, we’ll say
they have “Joint Custody”. However, at this point
you should only be doing this for pieces with only
one legal space.
- If a fleet rests partially in Picardy, and partially in
Paris, the thing is in Picardy, obviously, because
Paris is landlocked, duh. It’s OK to scoot it to
Picardy. But if the fleet stretches between Paris,
Picardy, and the English Channel, we don’t
know yet whether it’s in Picardy or the English
Channel, so don’t touch it for now. Or I guess if
you really want to, scoot it so that it’s resting
between Picardy and the English Channel,
because it still can’t be in Paris, because it’s still
a fleet, duh.
- If there is a red army that is on the border
between the Norwegian Sea and Norway, and
also a blue fleet that is entirely in Norway, then
both of them have Joint Custody of Norway for
the time being. We will settle this up later. For
now, just scoot the red army into Norway.
- On the other hand, if that same red army is on
the border between the Norwegian Sea and
Norway, but the blue fleet is also on the border
between those same two spaces, move the
army into Norway (because that’s the only legal
destination for that piece), but leave the fleet
right where it is for now, as it could legally be in
either space. We’ll deal with the fleet later, I
When a single piece - or a collection of pieces with Joint
Custody - can only legally be in one space, it gets a
special sort of importance. The fact that these pieces are
not indecisively resting in between two or more spaces
means that their claim to their space is stronger. In fact,
in that rarest of situations where there is only one piece
sitting in only one space, with no interlopers nipping at
its borders, then that space is done, owned, and
decided, and you don’t need to give it any more attention
until Phase IV.
However, more often, you will find that you have to deal
with Joint Custody in a space; or that pieces are resting
on a border between 2 or more spaces that they could
legally be; or, more terrifyingly, a combination of the two.
I know, it’s scary, but relax! Drink some cough syrup.
We’re going to get through this.
- Now we can do a little housekeeping in those
spaces which have one or more occupants that
aren’t bordering multiple spaces. If there are two
or more pieces of the same type (army or fleet),
and of the same color, and they can only
possibly be in one space, remove the excess
same-type pieces. However, don’t do this to
mixes of armies and fleets, or of different colors
of pieces. We’ll deal with these later. Right now,
we’re just taking off redundant pieces in an
attempt to help our sanity.
Example: There are two yellow fleets, one yellow army,
and one green army entirely inside the borders of
Sevastopol (either because they landed that way, or
because you scooted them there after you concluded
that Sevastopol was their only legal province). Take off
the extra yellow fleet, but leave everything else. You
don’t get any extra credit for having more than one piece
of the same type in the same spot, so you may as well
take the pieces off now.
There. At this point, some fraction of the spaces on the
board will contain one or more pieces that we know have
a claim to that space. I will call these spaces “Resolved
Spaces” for the rest of this article. I just thought of that,
which makes me awesome.
- Next, we start dealing with those meddling
pieces that rest on the borders between multiple
legal spaces, which will be most of the ones that
are left. We already know that pieces in
Resolved Spaces have the “strongest claim” to
their spaces. Pieces that have the option of
being somewhere unclaimed can now begin to
“retreat” to alternate, unclaimed destinations.
We’ll start with the easiest ones - pieces that are
bordering only two spaces, one of which is Resolved and
the other of which is entirely empty (that includes being
empty of border straddlers coming from other directions).
You can now scoot those guys into the unoccupied
space, which is now Resolved itself.
Example: The Ionian Sea contains a red fleet and a
black fleet, neither of which is touching any other
spaces. Therefore, the Ionian is considered Resolved
(despite having two fleets in it, because those fleets are
OK having Joint Custody). If another red fleet borders
both the Ionian and Tunis, and no other piece touches
Tunis, you can slide the second red fleet to Tunis, and
Tunis becomes Resolved.
You can also do this with multiple pieces that are in the
exact same situation. In the above example, if there
were two different fleets that straddled only the Ionian
and Tunis, you could put both of the fleets in Tunis and
give them Joint Custody of it. Another Resolved Space.
That’s a mercifully simple example, and is only helpful in
the event that a piece has only one retreat, and that
retreat is to a totally empty space. In the harsh, cruel
world of Diplomacywinks, it’s seldom that easy. So hang
in there, while we figure out how to retreat pieces into
spaces that may have several competing claims. This is
the hardest part to figure out. I know, because I just
figured it out like yesterday. (If I taught you to play
Diplomacywinks at a tournament already, I probably
taught you wrong. Sorry.)
- Let’s get a few more pieces off the board, shall we?
If a piece is located on the borders of two or more
spaces that are all Resolved Spaces, that piece has
no “valid retreats”, and is annihilated! Boom. Too
bad for you, piece. Off the board. You should have
been more committal, instead of waffling between
two possible destinations. Nerd.
- If a piece sits on the border of 3 (or more) spaces,
one of which is Resolved, you can scoot it to
eliminate the Resolved Space as a possible
destination. Example: if a fleet was on the border of
the Ionian, Naples, and Apulia, but the Ionian is
Resolved, you can scoot the fleet to show that it’s
trying to decide between Naples and Apulia,
because it is no longer welcome in the Ionian.
- AKA the Hardest Step, the Step of Doom, the Step
Which Should Not Be Named, the Big Unit. Here we
consider the spaces with only one retreat, but who
do have competitors for that retreat. These guys get
the next level of precedence, second only to totally
Resolved pieces. For this step to make sense, you
have to treat all of these one-retreat-only pieces as
being simultaneously resolved (you know, like in
Diplomacy, where you simultaneously resolve stuff).
When you think of it that way, the correct resolution
should be clearer. More on that in a moment.
If two (or more) pieces only have one retreat, and that
one retreat is to the same space, they can share that
space. So if Marseilles is Resolved, and Venice is
resolved, and one piece rests on the border between
Marseilles and Piedmont, and another rests of the
border between Venice and Piedmont, go ahead and
give those two pieces Joint Custody of Piedmont. You
can do this even if there is a third piece which straddles
Piedmont and the Gulf of Lyon (assuming the Gulf is not
Resolved). Why? because the first two pieces have only
one retreat from already Resolved Spaces, while the guy
between Piedmont and the Gulf had multiple, valid
retreats, therefore giving him a lower level of importance.
Whether it’s a single one-retreat-only piece or multiple
pieces with one retreat each to the same space, this
then Resolves their destination space. Sometimes, as
with PIE/GoL fleet above, this can then cause more units
This is where the simultaneous part comes in. After you
do all of the one-retreat-only retreats “simultaneously”,
you will usually have created some new one-retreat-only
pieces, and occasionally a few “no retreat” pieces, like
the ones described in step 9.
- At this point, you can go ahead and do steps 9, 10,
and 11 again and again, and keep doing them until
you get to step 11 and realize there are no more
one-retreat-only pieces that need your attention.
- Do one more round of cleanup, as you did in Step 7.
That is to say, in the last few steps, you might have
created newly redundant pieces, such as multiple
yellow fleets in the Black Sea. Go ahead and throw
out the duplicates.
- Take a congratulatory swig of cough syrup, because
you’re through the hard part! Or anyway, the hard
part for me to explain. It’s actually not that hard. But
bottoms up, anyway.
One more big giant example: You might want to set this
one up yourself, to see what I mean. Put an army in
Rumania, or two armies if you feel like it. Or two armies
One more big giant example: You might want to set this
one up yourself, to see what I mean. Put an army in
Rumania, or two armies if you feel like it. Or two armies
and a fleet. Either way, the important part is that
Rumania is Resolved. Do the same with Ankara. Now
take another fleet, and put it on the border between
Rumania and the Black Sea. And another one of the
border between Ankara and the Black Sea. Then put an
army on the border of Rumania and Sevastapol, another
on the border of Ukraine and Sevastapol, and finally,
one last fleet on the border of Sevastapol and the Black
Sea. Not an uncommon situation at all in this game. How
to untangle this web? Well, look for the ones with only
one retreat. Of the five unsettled pieces (RUM/BLA,
SEV/BLA, ANK/BLA, SEV/UKR, and RUM/SEV), three
of them of them only have one retreat initially:
RUM/SEV, RUM/BLA, and ANK/BLA. So if we were to
think of them as resolving simultaneously, the outcome
becomes obvious: RUM/SEV takes sole ownership of
Sevastapol, and RUM/BLA and ANK/BLA take Joint
Custody of the Black Sea. Now we have two more to
deal with in the next round. SEV/BLA and SEV/UKR. Uh
oh! Bad luck for SEV/BLA. Both of his possible spaces
just got Resolved. Off to that big shipyard in the sky.
SEV/UKR catches a break though - UKR is still
unclaimed, so slide him on up there, and problem
- Oh, damn. One more thing: coasts. The rule
we’ve always used is that fleets are on the coast
that it looks like they should probably be on,
based on where they landed. It’s always worked
for us. Not good enough? Perhaps I can suggest
a different, and much stodgier, Diplomacy
variant to you!
Phase IV: The Debate
- I know what you’re thinking: “Jeez, you mean there’s
still stuff that’s not resolved in this dumb game? I just
read like 15 steps, and the cough syrup is starting to
- Well, OK. It’s a fair criticism. But this phase is pretty
easy, and you actually get a little bit of control over
the board here. The first thing you do in this phase is
count up the total number of pieces you have
remaining on the board. You will be a little sad when
you realize the attrition level of your pieces. Between
pieces that sailed right past the board and landed in
Jim O’Kelley’s scotch and soda, armies that landed
in the Western Med, and pieces subjected to the
cruel, fickle whims of Phase II, you may have lost
2/3 of your force or more. But, stiff upper lip,
Diplomacywinker. There’s a slight silver lining here.
The player with the fewest pieces on the board gets
to go first in Phase III! (If there’s a tie, it goes to the
guy who went closest to last during Phase I).
- Starting with the unlucky sod, and proceeding
clockwise, each player on their turn gets to
Disambiguate something that is still ambiguous.
There are two types of ambiguous things:
- There will be spaces that contain multiple pieces
(that is, the Joint Custody spaces).
- There are some pieces that will not have been
forced to retreat during Phase II, and will
therefore still be perched on the borders of two
or more spaces without any obvious way of
deciding which one they belong in.
If, on your turn, you want to address a Joint Custody
problem, you can do that. Pick one space that has too
many pieces in it. Pick the piece you actually want to be
on that space, and take the rest off of the board! (For
example, if you’re playing yellow, and there is a yellow
fleet, a yellow army, a red army, and a black army all on
St. Petersburg, you might decide that the only proper
ruler of that province is the yellow army. Trash the other
3 pieces). You don’t actually HAVE to choose your own
piece to keep, and you’ll occasionally be called upon to
Disambiguate a space where you don’t actually have a
piece just because it’s your turn.
If you’d rather Disambiguate a piece’s location, that’s
cool too. Just pick which space you want that piece to
own, and it’s all his. This may occasionally cause a little
mini-Phase II to happen, when one decision causes a
chain reaction of pieces that have to retreat. That’s OK.
Anything that gets more pieces solved more quickly is
good by me. Remember, you are, by this point, in merely
the 3rd most fun phase.
Again, you don’t have to target only your own pieces.
You may occasionally prefer to irritate your opponent by
pushing his piece somewhere uncool. Like Bohemia, or
Example: There is a fleet that could be in any of
Denmark, Baltic Sea, or Sweden, and an army on the
border of Sweden and Finland. A player could, on his
turn, choose to put the fleet into Sweden, which would
cause the army to retreat to Finland. Or he could put the
army in Sweden, which would eliminate Sweden as a
possible destination of the fleet (that fleet would still
have to be Disambiguated between Denmark and the
Baltic on somebody else’s turn). Or he could place the
fleet in Denmark or the Baltic, which would leave the
army for someone else to decide.
- Keep taking turns doing this until all of the decisions
have been made about all of the pieces and spaces
that were still ambiguous. At the end of this phase,
believe it or not, you now have a board that looks
like an (albeit zany) regular old Diplomacy board,
with spaces occupied by a maximum of one piece
(of a legal type). I told you this wasn’t as hard as it
Phase V: The Playing it Out Phase.
Now look at the board. I mean, really look at it. (Uh
oh. Is it appearing to melt? You might have had too
much cough syrup. Don’t come crying to me. That’s
- Clear your mind. Imagine that, for whatever reason,
you and your friends had been playing Diplomacy,
and after a few seasons, the board actually looked
like the board you are now staring at.
- Ask yourself the following critical question: who is
going to win this game of Diplomacy?
- I assume that you answered “why, I am going to win
this game, of course! I am the greatest living
Diplomacy player!” because that’s what most
Diplomacy players would think first. But do yourself -
and the other Diplomacywinks players - a huge
favor: repeat step 3 a few times before saying
anything out loud about it.
- If you still genuinely feel like you are the rightful
winner of this game, go ahead and say so out loud.
In fact, if you’ve concluded that it’s one of the other
players, go ahead and say that out loud too.
- Perhaps you’re in luck! Perhaps everybody said the
same person’s name! (Except for the guy whose
name everybody else said, who probably said “Me.”
It would be weird if he didn’t. Like, if his name was
Joe, and he said “I think Joe won this game!” Keep
an eye on anybody who does this, and let me know
if he behaves the same way during regular
Diplomacy games, saying things like “Joe needs to
talk to you, Austria!” and “ooh, you backstabbed Joe.
Nobody backstabs Joe!” I think that would be funny.)
- If everybody agrees that the same player won, I
have wonderful news for you. Your game is over!
Take a moment to congratulate the lucky winner, but
be sure to congratulate yourself as well, because
your reward is that you get to start over, and go all
the way back to the (much much more fun, recall)
Phase I! (For an extra bit of fun, reward yourself by
rotating the board 90 degrees before you begin your
next game of Diplomacywinks, because then you’re
not throwing your pieces at the exact same spots. In
fact, you can do that whether you’ve ended the
game at this step, or you need to progress to the
less fun steps below. But between you and me, it
feels a little more righteous if you’re able to do it
while everybody is still enjoying themselves.)
- But this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes people
are stubborn, and they disagree about who won the
game. At this point, you are going to have to have a
Here are some tools you might use to settle the Debate:
- You can use logic to persuade your opponents of
things. For instance you can point out the
stranglehold that the yellow pieces will have on the
- You can assassinate your opponents’ characters, for
example by accusing them of being spoilsports who
can’t stand to lose at anything and who are acting
- You can remind your opponents how much more fun
it would be if you just ended the game and started
over, rather than sitting around having this absurd
Debate. Then when you see their faces light up, you
can repeat the name of your suggested winner, and
see if they shrug and agree to your result.
- You can ask Edi Birsan, if he happens to be walking
by, to look at the board and pick a winner. I suppose
you could ask somebody else who wasn’t involved in
your game, instead, but Edi seems like the best
- WARNING! YOU SHOULD NEVER USE THE
FOLLOWING SUGGESTION, UNDER ANY
CIRCUMSTANCES! You could actually require your
friends to proceed to Phase V, in which you actually
play the game.
- I cannot emphasize enough the amazingly un-fun
nature of this Phase, and the terrible things it would
suggest about your character, your intelligence, and
your sense of fun and fair play if you were actually to
require your friends to play out a game of
Diplomacywinks. You are not playing this game
because you like Diplomacy. Well, OK, you probably
are, but if that’s how you feel, you should probably
have just played Diplomacy. And besides, you have
a hangover, the cough syrup isn’t doing enough to
soothe it, and another round of your tournament is
starting in like a half hour. You’re just trying to kill a
little time by tossing some pieces on the board, for
pity’s sake! How on earth did your ego become so
invested in this process that you won’t just drop the
argument and accept that the other guy won, you
deranged little Napoleon?
- But having said that, I guess maybe what went
wrong was that you were using some ploy during
Phase IV where you threatened to make everybody
play, and your scheme somehow went wrong, and
so here you are.
- OK, I’m gonna say... 5 minute deadlines. Your home
supply centers are any dots you’re on after the first
move. So, negotiate, write one set of orders, resolve
‘em, and then do a dot count. Then build or disband
(probably disband, initially). I dunno. It’s honestly
never come up, but that seems like a pretty
reasonable set of rules, no?
- And after every season, you have to go back to
Phase IV for a bit to see if you can end the game
- Oh, and no draws. Diplomacywinks should always
have a winner.
- And if anybody ever gets to 18 in a game of
Diplomacywinks, please send me an email and tell
me what on earth happened.
(firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you heard of
Diplomacycast? Try the Googles.)
This article first appeared in Diplomacy World 115, Fall 2011.