The Greatness of Diplomacy

Manus Hand

Who knows why Diplomacy is such a great game? We all have our favorite aspects of it, so I am certainly unqualified to speak for all my fellow players. However, I wish to expound on some of the things that I feel make Diplomacy different from other games, and to interject some of my own feelings on why our favorite game actually is our favorite game.

I was first introduced to Diplomacy in high school, way back in the late 1970's. It was just one of the many games that my friends and I took up. But of these games, Diplomacy always seemed special to me. Where some of my friends would prefer to lay out huge hex maps, throw twenty-sided dice, and try to move little cardboard "chits" that would annoyingly shift position everytime you breathed, I was much more comfortable, then and now, contemplating North Sea convoys. Why is this?

To answer this, I plan to delve into what I call "The Seven S's" -- seven aspects about Diplomacy, each of which I have contrived to describe using a single word beginning with the letter "S." In the course of listing and writing on these seven characteristics, I will also take up a couple of other discussion points, points unique to Diplomacy, that are near and dear to my heart.

I know that for much of this text, I'll be preaching to the choir, as it were, but I hope that in this essay each reader can find for himself some small new insight into the beauty of the game. And so, if someone would kindly volunteer to steady my soapbox, I'll mount it and begin.

1. Skill

First of all, because Diplomacy lacks any random element, it is separated from a whole class of games in which one or more rolls of a die can determine a player's fate.

While it is true that the more die rolls that occur in the game, the less dependent on chance is the ultimate outcome, still you can never truly approach the independence of chance that Diplomacy affords. In a game with a lot of die rolls, the chance of one unfortunate roll deciding your fate are minimized, but runs of good and bad luck are far from unheard of. Even in a game such as backgammon, a player who should win can make all the correct moves and still lose. While some would argue that it might be lifelike, even the possibility of losing through no fault of your own makes a game, in my mind, inferior to a chanceless game like Diplomacy.

Simply by virtue of being chanceless, I believe that Diplomacy leaves backgammon, Monopoly, Scrabble (where the element of chance is minimized somewhat by the ability to re-use played letters), and other games with ingredients of chance behind.

2. Simultaneity

Diplomacy stands above most other chanceless games because of the simultaneous movement aspect of the game.

Although chess, my first gaming love, is undeniably a great game of pure skill, it is rightly acknowledged that a chess game between two players of completely equal caliber is white's game to lose. There is not quite as much fun in a game if you know that the person you are playing against has either a built-in advantage or disadvantage.

Simultaneous movement is an absolutely perfect gaming concept. There is no waiting around for your turn to move, no forced decisions ("will I be allowed to attack or forced to defend?"), and no uncertainty about what the board will look like when you next are asked to make moves. Every player has exactly the same positional information at his or her disposal for every decision.

Add to this the fact that in every move there is the possibility of immediate failure. All of the uncertainty that each of us feels constantly throughout an entire game is actually manifested only in the brief moments when moves are adjudicated. This serves to heighten these feelings of uncertainty and to force deeper consideration of one's moves.

3. Scope

Diplomacy is often called a "wargame" by the uninitiated, but that term is much better reserved for the hex-mapped, table-driven games. In addition to the distinctions concerning the random element and simultaneous movement, there is one other important difference between Diplomacy and these other "wargames." Simply, the scope of Diplomacy is vastly different.

Where the so-called "wargame" can concern itself with even such details as when a particular soldier needs to pause to rest or to use the latrine, Diplomacy cares only about the single action taken by an entire army or fleet. Personally, I vastly prefer this to being intimately involved in the toilet habits of every bleeding infantryman. In my opinion, the fact that small details need not be attended to affords more time to the game player for consideration of the proper course of action.

In fact, the sweeping scope of Diplomacy is all too often misunderstood. It is common to hear players speak of their armies and fleets as if they truly were just a bunch of tanks and soldiers or battleships and sailors. The player would do well to remember that what is represented by the little blocks on a Diplomacy board is actually something a bit different -- something more fitting to the scale of the game.

A typical question posed by players with the misconception I speak of surrounds the convoy: "How can an army that takes six months to move from London to Wales travel from London to Smyrna in the same amount of time?" One result of this thinking is the so-called Army/Fleet variant rule, which provides that armies cross bodies of water by piggybacking on the top of fleets (which move at "normal" Diplomacy speed). However, the question posed above is easily answered by remembering that Diplomacy is a campaign-level game, and by realizing what this means abouabout the units on the board.

Diplomacy units represent influence more than they represent military power. Indeed, the military power that is represented by a unit is best thought of as potential, not actual, might. Does the fact that there is an army unit in Picardy really mean that there is a group of military men in residence there? You may be surprised by my answer, which is "Maybe not." Even if it does represent a bunch of armed soldiers, I argue that this is only a small part of what it represents. Does an army unit in Picardy mean that the number of soldiers there is equal in number to or that the soldiers are equally well equipped as, say, those in the foreign army unit that sits across the border in Belgium? Probably not.

"Wait a minute!" I hear you say. "Are you saying that an army in Belgium is in any way not equal to an army unit in Picardy?" No indeed, far from it. What I am saying is that the two units are entirely equal because each represents the influence of their owning country in that location. If Picardy moves into Belgium but bounces, this is not the failure of a bunch of soldiers. This is the failure of the war council that planned the attack while sitting at home. It is your failure.

Perhaps on a certain turn a bounced Picardy-to-Belgium move represents a failed propaganda effort made by underequipped covert French operatives who came up short in their attempt to peacefully overthrow the Belgian government (or at least failed to make the Belgian government become more pro-French in its policies) because the Belgian populace didn't fall for their rabble-rousing. At the same time and on the same turn, an attack from St. Petersburg into Norway might be a true epic armed conflict with dead bodies scattered from the Winter Palace to Oslo, and perhaps elsewhere around Europe and the world wherever Russian and Norwegian interests clashed. Both of these moves (PIC-BEL and STP-NWY) were made on the same turn. Both took the same amount of time (six months) in their planning and execution, but both were radically different, if we choose to speculate on what the actual mechanics of the "attack" may well have been.

I'm not saying that all attacks from Picardy to Belgium represent little sabotage crews; on some turns, a full-scale bloody battle would be a better analogy. By the same token, every move from St. Petersburg to Norway does not represent the shifting of massive amounts of troops. What is true is that both orders, whenever in a game they are issued, represent the same amount of influence shifting. It matters not to the player, who takes the role of a campaign planner, what the low-level details are that determine how that influence shift is to be accomplished (or at least attempted).

I believe that my point can be made even better with fleets than with armies. Does the fact that there is an English fleet unit in the North Sea really mean that some number of English battleships, destroyers, and cruisers are all sitting in the North Sea for six solid months? No, it doesn't. Instead, it represents the understanding of the international community that England "controls" the North Sea; that any attempt to move there (or even to claim that any other power's "control" might be superior there) will be met with resistance. Just as an army unit in Belgium does not necessarily mean armed resistance, however (remembering my example that the failure of Picardy to Belgium might not have been a military failure but one of propaganda), the resistance met by a German fleet moving from Holland into an occupied North Sea might also not be military. Yes, it might mean that English fighting ships, from wherever they may happen to be (I speak here of ships that are unrepresented on the board) mobilized to repel a true movement by German vessels. However, just as realistic is the prospect that HOL-NTH could have failed politically rather than militarily; the "bounce" representating simply England's (and the international community's) condemnation of German speechmaking and sabre-rattling about that nation's claimed control of or influence over shipping in the North Sea.

Looking at it this way, it is easy to see that a convoy is a six month affair, just as an army move is. Does a convoy truly represent an army getting on and off one ship and then another, in a long chain from St. Petersburg to Syria, and then setting foot on ground on the other end? No indeed. A convoy, like any Diplomacy move, represents a conscious decision to weaken the influence and control that a nation exerts in one location in favor of establishing it elsewhere if at all possible.

If you crave some human point of reference, rather than this abstract campaign-level explanation of what is going on, you can indeed formulate one (or many), but you should do so knowing the underlying truth of what a unit on the Diplomacy board truly represents. It can represent everything from soldiers and sailors to paper-pushers and administrators to politicians and the press, or some combination of these. In fact, especially in the fog of war, perception often becomes reality, and so it is most important to realize that a Diplomacy unit can even represent none of the above, but instead be simply the threat, or claimed ability to exert some form of nationalist influence. A Diplomacy unit may represent no men at all in a given location, and instead just a fiction -- just an empty threat to unleash well-armed soldiers, or disgruntled civilians, or sharp-tongued journalists, or any number of other things, to exert your influence.

Diplomacy is a game of shifting influence, not of shifting machine-gun toting men. While men with machine guns are one important way in which control over a location can be represented, threatened, and established, they are not the only tool of the influence shifter, and by realizing this, many otherwise mysterious aspects of the game come more clear. Why is it as easy to conquer Spain as to conquer Clyde? Why does it take as long to travel the thousands of miles from St. Petersburg to Norway as it does to go from Venice to Trieste? The answer to both of these questions lies in the fact that what a Diplomacy player does, and what he or she should always remember as being his or her one and only role, is to plan what a nation's resources should be used for during the upcoming six month period. What these resources are and where they are actually located geographically (if in fact, they exist at all) are things that truly don't matter. What matters are the pressure points, represented by the units on the board. How these pressure points are pushed around to exert one's control is all that Diplomacy is.

All that is important is the campaign. A Diplomacy player plans campaigns, not battles. It is one of the few games that is played on this level.

4. Strategy

What is the basic difference between tic-tac-toe and chess? Both are two-player games, with no element of chance, played on an unchanging board, in which play alternates from one player to the other. In both, a perfectly played game between players of the same skill level will result in a draw. In many things, tic-tac-toe and chess are very similar. So why is chess a better game than tic-tac-toe?

The answer actually lies below yet another similarity. To become proficient at either of these games requires the ability to "look-ahead." An adult can beat a child at tic-tac-toe regularly, but only until the child learns to "look-ahead" one single move. This same adult can beat a child in a game of chess only until the child's "look-ahead" capability meets or exceeds that of the adult. Chess not only requires the ability to look ahead as far as or further than your opponent (whereas tic-tac-toe requires only the ability to look-ahead one single move, regardless of the skill level of the opposition), but the board and pieces offer a depth of complexity to the look-ahead process that tic-tac-toe does not provide. To become proficient at tic-tac-toe requires little brainpower; to become a master at chess requires a trained and analytical mind immersed almost completely and obsessively in chess knowledge.

Where does Diplomacy fit in here? I would argue that Diplomacy has achieved the proper equilibrium between these two extremes. Perhaps on rare occasions it is possible to envision a grand scheme, a plan for global conquest that will take your Diplomacy power a decade or so to implement; however, the fact is that even the best Diplomacy player can not reliably look ahead more than two turns and even then only regionally. The game itself enforces this. First of all, since every one of the pieces could move on every turn, the ability to reliably look ahead becomes impossible very quickly. Secondly, the game is divided into game-years, and the adjustment phase acts as a sort of "reset". It is quite extraordinary when a player has looked ahead beyond the next adjustment phase of a game of Diplomacy, other than, perhaps, to make his own initial, but far from confirmed plans.

I contend that the ability to "look ahead" in Diplomacy (and this only regionally) is fairly static in players of all skill levels, that it extends to somewhere between one and two turns at most, and that the genius of Calhamer put the adjustment phase where it is in order to return all players to the same "look-ahead" level. A player with a steel trap positional mind would be hard-pressed to use it as an advantage in a game of Diplomacy, since the nature of the game dictates that it would have to far exceed the standard brainpower level to have even the smallest positive effect.

5. Simplicity

Diplomacy is a simple game to learn. Its mechanics are even simpler than chess. Where chess has six types of pieces, each with a unique way of moving, Diplomacy has two, and other than the convoy order, both Diplomacy unit types move the same simple way.

Because Diplomacy is more than a contest in tactics, but a contest in wills and influence, the fact that the game is so simple to learn, tactically, is a great plus. A new player is quickly up to speed and testing his or her other abilities -- those that truly determine victory -- with the rest of us. Imagine if everyone entered the chess hobby at an equal tactical level (on second thought, don't; you simply can't)! The simplicity of the rules of Diplomacy is a great equalizer.

6. Subtlety

I am, of course, aware that the simplicity is a bit deceiving (like everything else in the game), and that there are a good number of subtle tactical tricks. However, no one would argue that even given these, Diplomacy is an exceedingly easy game to learn. The rules of Diplomacy are simple, and the board is also simple enough. But put them together, and add some of the other ingredients of Diplomacy, and some of the beauty of the game immediately comes out.

How many times have you played Turkey, and wished for England to assist in an attack on Russia? All of a sudden, you could find yourself trying to ensure peace between France and England. To do so, you foment war between Italy and France, but to make this happen, you must stop Austria from attacking Italy. But Austria doesn't have anything else to do, so you encourage Germany to head south and make Austria busy. Germany can't do so, because he's too busy fighting Russia. So Russia will have to make peace with Germany before you feel like you can take on the bear.

That may be a bit exaggerated, but we all know it's not far from the truth. Sitting in Portugal with a single unit, the most important thing to you might truly be what the Moscow army does. The topology of the board is tailored to enhance the interaction between players, and to force every player to have complete interest in and a total view of the board at every turn. The best chess players work not regionally, but positionally, on the board as a whole. Sure, each chess move is made by repositioning one piece from one of the 64 squares on the board onto another, but the best chess player has an intimate understanding of exactly what that move means to every other piece everywhere on the board. In Diplomacy, obtaining this global view is also a learned skill, but the learning of it is virtually forced by the game itself, not self-trained by repetitive exercises and intense studies in pattern matching, memorization, and deep-level forward-thinking.

7. Sneakiness

What can I say here, other than that I left one of the most important aspects of the game until last? As I've said, Diplomacy is a battle of wills; each of the other six qualities I have mentioned acts to equalize the game in each and every possible way, leaving only the player's wills to duke it out. Perhaps sneakiness is the wrong word, but the fact that the wills of the players are being tested against each other is somehow admitted by this word. You don't need to be sneaky to win, but it doesn't hurt. You need to be influential, but influence can only go so far. You need to be trusting, but at the same time, you need to be defensive.

A debate flares every so often regarding the DIAS (Draws Include All Survivors) rule. Adherents of Calhamer, with whom I count myself, argue that DIAS is the only acceptable conclusion to a game other than a solo victory. This is because if any one player fails to win, all other players, from the smallest to the largest, surely share the credit for denying the victory to him. Even the single-unit power who only exists because of the kindness of a stranger, and who has had no front with or effect on any other player, deserves to share equally in any draw, since it was obviously a considerable and important accomplishment for him to reach this situation. Had he been eliminated, or had his unit been located anywhere else on the board, it is not unlikely that one or more of the other powers would have been mispositioned to prevent a victory, or that some extra mistrust would have developed between two or more other players, seriously affecting the balance of power that brought the game to a conclusion without a solo.

There are others, though, who argue that the DIAS rule does as much to penalize good diplomatic skills as it does to reward them. They contend that if a player can convince any other player to concede the game to an alliance of his opponents, that this is a diplomatic feat that should be allowed. The DIAS rule, of course, forbids this. Consider a player who, by force of will, convinces another player (who has a very playable position) that the situation is hopeless, and that he should surrender the game to a set of three other powers. In a DIAS game, this could never happen, and the player who otherwise might have conceded must play the game out (and could even win or at least share in a draw). If Diplomacy is truly a battle of wills, however, opponents of "DIAS-only" contend that the ability to influence a player to give up the game to a group of opponents should be allowed and rewarded. I must confess that the logic of this argument is quite convincing on its face.

Notice, however, that the DIAS rule does not forbid concession of the game to a single player by all of the others. Rather, it simply outlaws concession of the game to a group of two or more players. If you think about this, the logic of the DIAS rule becomes obvious. If two players have worked throughout the whole game, ostensibly for a two-way draw, one of the two players (if the DIAS rule is not used) could call for the other players to concede to the two-way before their final elimination. The other player involved in this two-way alliance, though, may have been secretly harboring an intention to stab his ally and go for the solo victory. Simply the ability for one player to call for a draw may force the otherwise would-be winner to accept the unwanted draw rather than go for his solo.

By way of example, consider a 16-center power which is allied with a 14-center power (and has been all game), and consider the only other power in the game as having four units, all in hopeless spots. The 14-center power, if the rules allowed it, would be well-advised to call for a two-way draw, and if the vote failed, the 16-center power would have a hard time trying to claim that the four-center power was the party that voted against it. The defenses of the 14-center power, which had been lowering all game due to the yeoman diplomatic work done by the 16-center power, are suddenly raised again by the failure of the draw vote, and the solo victory is snatched from the deserving would-be backstabber.

Because so much of what it takes to be successful is embodied in this single quality of exerting one's will via diplomatic influence, this paradoxically leads to the one and only shortcoming of the game, which is that is that a two-player game of Diplomacy is completely impossible. It is hard to be sneaky when it is obvious to the other player that you're out to get him. It is hard to influence his moves if he knows that whatever you want him to do is de facto against his best interests.

In his genius, Calhamer acknowledged this weakness by making a two player game nearly impossible to reach. Since Diplomacy doesn't work with two players, the standard game of Diplomacy really is never played with two players. Only by evenly splitting the board and becoming exactly evenly matched can only two players remain. If this state is ever reached, the game is over either immediately or very very shortly.

There have been a number of efforts to create a two-player Diplomacy variant, but so much of the game is lost without a third player that these efforts have only met with limited success. I'm presently working on a two-player Payola variant, which will at least introduce some of the uncertainty regarding the opposition, but, unfortunately and unavoidably, the diplomatic aspect can never be replaced without adding another participant. Well, there you have it. A very wordy discussion on a number of the strengths of the great game of Diplomacy, including a lengthy lecture on the campaign-level aspect of the game and the reïnforcement of the sneakiness factor by the DIAS rule. I'll leave you with one more thought, which is that although each of the qualities of the game is very important in and of itself, taken together they achieve something special. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, and the result is that the game is balanced.

A player can be very good in the tactical and strategic skills of the game, but can be lacking in diplomatic skills. Another player might be strategically weak but be an excellent diplomat. Still another player might have passable but unremarkable skills in all three areas. Even though one of these players might lose miserably to another of them in a game of Go, that same player might beat the others handily in a game of poker. One can argue, however, that these (or any other) three players, with their different talents so varied, are still somehow evenly matched when they face each other over a Diplomacy board. And that's just another miracle of The Game.

Manus Hand

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