by Eric Mead

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

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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 possible.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.

  7. When everybody has thrown all their pieces, proceed to Phase II.
Phase II: Cleanup
  1. 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?

  2. Good, because I’m counting on you knowing the rules for this phase. Here’s what you do:

  3. 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 mean.

    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.

  4. 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 possible.

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    Three examples:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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 promise.

    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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. Well done!

    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.)

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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 solved.

  15. 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 III: Disambiguating
  1. 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 kick in!”

  2. 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).

  3. 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:

    1. There will be spaces that contain multiple pieces (that is, the Joint Custody spaces).

    2. 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 Clyde.

    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.

  4. 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 looked.
Phase IV: The Debate

  1. 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 on you.)

  2. 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.

  3. Ask yourself the following critical question: who is going to win this game of Diplomacy?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.)

  7. 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.)

  8. 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 Debate.

    Here are some tools you might use to settle the Debate:

    1. 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 supply-center-rich Balkans.

    2. 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 like babies.

    3. 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.

    4. 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 choice.

    5. 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.

Phase V: The Playing it Out Phase.
  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. And after every season, you have to go back to Phase IV for a bit to see if you can end the game yet.

  5. Oh, and no draws. Diplomacywinks should always have a winner.

  6. And if anybody ever gets to 18 in a game of Diplomacywinks, please send me an email and tell me what on earth happened. (press@diplomacycast.com. Have you heard of Diplomacycast? Try the Googles.)

This article first appeared in Diplomacy World 115, Fall 2011.