Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Deconstructing Diplomacy

(Originally appeared in Diplomacy World #154, the free flagship magazine of the Diplomacy-playing hobby)

The following is edited and modified from a transcription of a video I made for an audiovisual class I’m creating for Udemy.com. It was created for aspiring game designers, not for hobby Diplomacy players. But you may learn something from it.

I think this one of the greatest games ever made so as you might expect I’ll talk a lot about it. 

What's a deconstruction? We’re trying to discern the inner workings of a game. What makes the game work or not work from a design point of view? The purpose is to help designers understand how the game works and why it is successful or not, so they can apply those lessons to their own games. 

I've a lot history with this game. It was my favorite game from 1970 to 1975. I played a lot by mail, and as there was no email the games took several years to complete. I was quite successful as a player, and I published two Diplomacy fanzines. These were the days of printed fanzines, mimeo or ditto printed. I also wrote quite a few articles about the game. 

My series of articles about playing the game well was on the Avalon Hill website for decades, and was cited on the boardgamegeek page for Diplomacy until their recent redesign stopped citing articles. I also designed a lot of Diplomacy variants, and to this day I'm probably the most prolific designer of published Diplomacy variants, though I gave it up when I started to design standalone games in the late 70s. 

What is It?

So what is Diplomacy? Diplomacy was originally published in 1959, the same year as Risk in the United States. It requires exactly seven players, a very unusual requirement. It roughly represents World War I and the era before it. It's a very long game when played to a conclusion, which is often a draw, 4 to 8 hours. Almost all the activity is interaction amongst the players, especially via secret negotiation, and it is the secret negotiation that “makes the game” while also making it such a long game. 

Moreover, it's a zero-sum game. The only way to gain something is to take it from someone else, and that's part of what makes it such an aggressive game. There's no way to progress without “regressing” somebody else. It's a heavily psychological game because much of it goes on in the players’ minds, though there is a tactical system and strategic system. 

This is something that struck me only recently: it's actually a co-operative game. Diplomacy is known as a cutthroat boardgame full of lies and deceit, but it is one of the most co-operative games in existence that can still produce a single winner, though often it doesn't. It's not like a standard co-op game where all the players win or none of them win. Also, you’re not playing against the game, not playing against programmed instructions. Nonetheless, it's very co-operative, because you can't go it alone. You have to work with other players to succeed because you're outnumbered six to one, at least at first. 

Even more important, one of the fundamental mechanics of the game is a support order that lets you directly assist another player, or be assisted, and that's a rarity in games. That's possible because we have simultaneous movement adjudication in Diplomacy, which is also quite rare in tabletop games.

So we have a game where strategy, in the sense of military grand strategy, is very important. It's a game of negotiation, but you need to negotiate with the right objectives in mind, so understanding the strategy of the entire game is vital. A good strategist will beat a good tactician, again because you're outnumbered 6-1. At the game start there are seven players, but you only have three or four neighbors at that juncture. Yet you have to see and try to influence the entire board for the entire game to maximize your chances to win. It is an epitome of strategy, both of military strategy and of “strategy games” more generally, as you have to use your mind to succeed. 

While many play the game with the short term in mind (owing to the possibilities for surprise and betrayal), those who think in the long term are more likely to succeed.

Part of the fascination with the game is a fascination with maps and with the shapes of geography with geopolitics, so it’s unsurprising that there are hundreds of Diplomacy variants, frequently with a new map, sometimes not. 

There is is a conference map which the players take with them when they go away from the board to secret negotiations. It shows the map of the game and the 75 areas on the board. There are just two kinds of units, armies and fleets. The fleets can move in coastal areas, and only 8 of 34 supply centers (23.5%) are landlocked. Armies and fleets are about equally useful, especially given the geography of Europe and some of the Mediterranean littoral depicted on the board.

The tactical system uses simultaneous movement/adjudication. There cannot be more than 34 pieces, but players have to write orders for each of their pieces, something that wouldn’t work today except for niche markets. (In 2006 Fantasy Flight Games published the second edition of my game Britannia; they refused to include a scoresheet, feeling that writing down scores was unacceptable to the market! They included scoring chits instead.) It's possible to help another player in the tactical phase of the game as well as to hinder others. There's no overt chance in resolution of conflicts, no cards, no dice. But because of simultaneous movement sometimes there is guesswork. Sometimes there's Yomi involved, reading the enemy's intentions. You can play a Game Theory minimax style most of the time tactically, but as in real warfare, the best generals are successful via Yomi.

In the larger sense Yomi is very important to the strategy of the game, because if somebody's going to stab you in the back, or someone is lying to you, you’ve got to figure that out in time to do something about it. 

My Ten Subsystems of Games

I'm going to go through my 10 subsystems of all games and describe what we see in Diplomacy. These subsystems are a framework designers can use to help them conceive new designs.

For the first one, model-theme-atmosphere-image and so on. The game loosely represents World War I. Loosely. The seven players are roughly equal in strength. We have 75 areas on the board and only armies and fleets. The technology is more 1900 than 1914, though the map is from 1914.

Player interaction rules. This is a game of very strong player interaction via negotiation. Lying and even cheating is encouraged in the rules. Surprise is common owing to simultaneous movement.

Objective/victory conditions. Players need to control a majority of the 34 supply centers, so usually there is player elimination. But at the end of the game, there may be three to four or even more players, and often nobody can achieve a majority of supply centers and you end up with a draw. One of the fascinations of play is that some players value second place over most draws, while others value any draw over second place (partial win versus outright loss). There is nothing in the rules to require or force a draw, so theoretically the game could go on forever.

Number four is data storage. There's an area board. Armies and fleets of seven colors are supplied, and players use a paper and pen for writing orders. Everything else is in the player’s minds.

Sequencing is a negotiation session followed by order writing and then simultaneous adjudication. 

Movement/Placement is one unit per area. Units move one area maximum in a turn. Fleets can occupy coastal provinces. The sea areas and the areas along the edges of the board are larger so that you can move just as quickly around the board as across the center of the board to get to the other side. 

Information availability. Only the player's intentions and his orders are hidden from the other players, until the simultaneous adjudication.

Conflict resolution is simultaneous and deterministic, a majority wins, ties to defender, no loss in combat unless a unit cannot retreat. For a wargame, deterministic combat with no loss is rare.

The economy is zero-sum. 34 centers; to gain a unit you must take the center from somebody else. Players at start occupy 22 of 34 supply centers (65%).

The user interface is a boardgame. Players talk with other players frequently in secret, leaving the table. They write orders for their units.

Some Evaluation Questions

I also have some evaluation questions I try to use with a deconstruction. 

What is the essence or vision of the game? Negotiation, followed by strategic and tactical action in a very rough representational World War I, that's diceless and uses simultaneous adjudication. (“Gunboat” Diplomacy, while a popular variant, makes nonsense of the game’s essence.)

Who is it marketed to? Hard-core psychological game players. It's kind of the opposite of Chess in many ways. It can also be seen as a strange combination of poker and chess. It's poker psychologically but retaining the determinism of chess. 

Players’ primary activity is negotiating. If you don’t negotiate, you lose. 

What are the major challenges? Reading opponents’ intentions while disguising yours is a great deal of it, and military grand strategy. 

The actions the players can take to overcome the challenges. They can negotiate offensive oriented alliances, negotiate nonaggression agreements, make war, make peace, expand, capturing supply centers with superior force or guile, and outthink the other players. As I said, there are lots and lots of variations of Diplomacy. 

What about the play balance? The inner three powers (Austria, Germany, Italy) are at a clear positional disadvantage, and as far as I know this translates to a disadvantage in results compared with England, France, Russia, and Turkey. Keep in mind, the actual strengths of nations in this time period have nothing to do with their strength in Diplomacy.

What is and isn’t a variation?

(I am repeating some of the following from Diplomacy World #100)

This brings me to the question, what characterizes Dip, what makes someone look at a game and say "that's a variant of Diplomacy"?

I have made two lists at various times.  The first is very short:

Simultaneous movement

Units directly related to territory controlled [zero-sum]

The support mechanism

No overt chance mechanism in combat resolution

But this leaves out negotiation! But it allows Gunboat to qualify.

Another try is less terse:

Secret Negotiation 

Always, simultaneous movement (but some people call Game of Thrones: the Boardgame a Dipvariant, and it isn't exactly simultaneous movement; it uses a mechanism to avoid the need to write orders).

Always, the support mechanism.

Always, no overt chance mechanism in combat.

Usually, centers maintain units in a zero-sum fashion--and while some games give economic points to spend in various ways, players still must pay maintenance for existing units.

Usually, no-holds-barred negotiation.

Usually, an area board and one unit per area.

Most of these elements appear in other games - I'm using the support mechanism in a couple prototypes - but the appearance of most or all of these is likely to be in a Dipvariant.  One could try to use the same list and make a game that doesn't derive from Diplomacy, of course.

If Released Today?

A final question. If Diplomacy and its variants did not exist, and it was released today, what would be the result?

It would probably fall flat on its face - like most older games, it must be admitted - not because they're not good but because tastes and players have changed drastically to favor puzzles and shorter experiences. Even Chess wouldn't amount to much if similarly treated.

Briefly in Diplomacy's case:

way too long

you don't know how long it's going to take (unpredictable length)

player elimination (frowened upon nowadays)

requires exactly seven players (inflexible)

requires a very large number of players (often impractical)

very direct-conflict driven in a tabletop game world that values lack of conflict

it makes people write things down

there are far too many draws

Any commercial variant that aims at a market outside current Diplomacy players must address those problems. I have designed one, "Scramble for Africa", that addresses those problems (except direct conflict and writing things down), and when we get back to a situation where we can playtest games in person, we'll see what happens.

My apprenticeship in game design was partly with Diplomacy variants.The game is a niche taste, but it's the epitome of this kind of game. Because of the nature of the game those whose feelings are easily hurt should not play. It's an extreme example of a game where you have to earn what you get, and that's out of fashion these days. I regard it as one of the great games in the world, and I rarely call a game great. It's instructive in how a psychological game can be so different from poker, which is very much a psychological game, and also how a chess-like game can be so different from Chess.

Nowadays the game is often played by email, with software judges, and some variants are played by email as well. There are Diplomacy conventions. But it's not that easy to get seven people together to play the game, especially because it takes so long. There have been commercial Diplomacy playing video games, but they have been a disaster, just horrible. Video games are rarely (never?) good at grand strategy.

It's a game at an extreme, more than 60 years after publication. It doesn't suit most modern tastes, but still has lots of fans.

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