In this article from Diplomacy World #67, Paul Glenn examines the 'Balance of Power' policy that was a crucial factor in European diplomacy for centuries. How does it work out — or not! — in Diplomacy the game?
For me, the biggest surprise in Rod Walker's classic Gamer's Guide to Diplomacy was the discussion of the "balance of power" style of play. Of course I had studied all about the concept of balance of power in various history and political science courses, but I had never seen it applied in Diplomacy. It seemed to be almost an alien concept in the game. Yet it seems to enjoy a certain amount of prestige in the hobby. It is a fairly common topic of discussion in hobby literature. Even the game's creator, Allan Calhamer, has described balance of power as the proper way to play the game.
This seemed strange to me also because I had never before seen a player use this style in actual play. At first I thought this was because of my relative inexperience in the hobby — I wasn't involved in the postal hobby at that point. However, even after subscribing to and playing in several zines, I have yet to see this strategy implemented in a game.
Why is there this dichotomy between hobby literature and the play of the game itself? The answer is that the balance of power playing style, while fine in theory, is largely unplayable in practice. By this I do not mean that a player should never use this strategy as part of his arsenal of tricks — it is very useful at times. There is an important distinction between balance of power as a tool and as a strategy in itself. While the use of the balance of power as a tool is quite useful, I don't think it works as a game-long policy.
The pure balance of power strategy, as opposed to its use as a short-term tool, is based upon the policy pursued by several countries in the past, most notably Great Britain. It involves siding with the weaker side in any conflict, so as to prevent any state from becoming so powerful that it threatens the existence of the other states. This policy inherently includes the survival of all nations in the international arena, for the conquest of even a small country could seriously undermine the balance. Mr. Walker's description of the balance of power style of play fits this historical model — the balancer "is concerned that no player, no alliance, will become strong enough to eliminate any of the others." (my italics) The balance itself is the goal.
I think this policy is unplayable for two principal reasons. First, it is an unrealistic policy. In order for the policy to be successful, the player pursuing it must be able to intervene (or threaten intervention) in any conflict to redress the balance. In many cases, this is impossible. For example, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for England to intervene in the Balkans until late in the game (which would require the balance to already have been broken in England's favor.) Unlike its historical counterpart, England cannot subsidize its allies to save them. A few countries have the potential to intervene in a wide range of theaters, but even then limited forces prevent wide-ranging interventions. It is true that diplomatic intervention can be applied anywhere, regardless of geography. However, this type of intervention is rarely successful, unless it is backed up by the use or threat of force.
Also, the role of other players in the game hampers the balance of power strategy. Part of the greatness of the game is that no one player can effectively act alone — he or she needs allies. In almost any Diplomacy game played, there will be two or three players (if not more) hell-bent on winning the game. These players would certainly not be willing to help maintain the balance of power, and their aggressive actions would seriously undermine any attempt to preserve the balance, making it an all but impossible task. One player could not hope to maintain any balance over a long period of time, because sooner or later the other players' actions will upset the balance.
Because of these factors, attempting to maintain the balance of power in Diplomacy is an unrealistic goal. If the policy is doomed to failure, why try to follow it?
The second problem with the balance of power style of play is that if it is successfully applied, it would make the game very boring. In the unlikely event that several balance of power style players became involved in the same game, that game would soon deteriorate into boredom. There could be interesting and elaborate negotiations to prevent victory, but even this would wear thin after a while. Any players who sought to win would soon realize that no matter how hard they tried, they could not win. This would inevitably lead to frustration, a lack of interest in the game, and probable NMRs. The game would either die from lack of interest, or end in a seven-way draw (which is, in effect, the same as ending the game before it even starts.) Either way, it would not be a memorable or enjoyable game.
While I do think that the pursuit of the "pure" balance of power strategy is unplayable, I still felt that the idea can be an extremely effective tool. If nothing else, it is always a good argument to use in one's diplomacy, especially in the beginning of the game: "We have to stop [blank] or he'll get too powerful!" Sometimes enforcing the balance is the only way to prevent one country from achieving a runaway victory.
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