When I was a young teenager my father used to buy games off a friend who was in the boardgame business. Some of them seemed to appear one year and then never again, but one I remember has had a long career of about fifty years: Diplomacy. The box on the 1970s version showed caricatured representatives of the seven great European powers of about 1900 sitting around a table, except that one of them was falling backwards with a sword through him. It looked intriguing. Once I opened the box, expecting a typical wargame, I was surprised. The map of Europe looked good, but it was divided not into neat hexagons but irregular areas of both land and sea, such as Galicia or the North Atlantic Ocean. There were just two types of counter, army and fleet, with seven sets of each in the colours of the major powers (England, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and Turkey). As for the rulebook, it seemed almost as daunting as my GCE O-Level maths book. I tried to muddle through playing it on my own, but in the end reluctantly gave it up as too difficult and put it back on the shelf for a couple of years.
When I was older I belatedly realised that reading the rulebook properly would probably enhance my enjoyment of the game. This time I played it through with a friend and was pleased with how elegantly it all hung together.
So what is Diplomacy? It could perhaps be classified as something similar to Risk with a touch of Monopoly-style trading of favours thrown in. The standard game starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Each player controls one or more of the Great Powers and seeks to enlarge that power's influence by controlling the majority of the supply centres on the map. The supply centres are located in areas or cities (eg London, Moscow, Serbia, Tunis), and a player's forces are in exact proportion to the number of supply centres held: thus gaining them is advantageous, losing them is catastrophic. At the beginning of the game players can simply occupy neighbouring neutral countries to start gaining supply centres, but afterwards conflict between the powers is inevitable if victory is sought.
This might sound like just another game of annihilation if it weren't for the basic, but strong, elements of the game. Firstly, the mechanics of moving and fighting are simple but mean that victory is unlikely to be achieved by simply bashing away at the neighbours. There are no dice or random cards: the outcome of an attack is determined mathematically and logically by how much support it has. Basically put, if a unit in one province attacks a unit in another province with support from a friendly or allied unit in a third province adjacent to both, then unless the defending unit has support from another adjacent province, the attack will win. Since there is no "stacking" allowed (only one army or fleet per province), this makes it relatively difficult to amass enough force. Also, unlike ordinary games of this nature, all moves are simultaneous. The players write their orders down secretly and then reveal them in the appropriate phase. This creates an enjoyable uncertainty, creates situations where attacks may cancel one another out, and allows for unforeseen double-crosses and strategic blinds. In multiplayer games, the players are encouraged to make secret deals and agreements with one another, with the understanding that these may often be broken and certainty that there is no loyalty in the game when only one person can win. People of a sensitive disposition who dislike this aspect of game playing from friends or family may perhaps want to give Diplomacy a miss. On the other hand, outright elimination of a power is not always in the interest of the majority of the players, and it may pay to prop up a beleaguered player to prevent the frontrunner from gaining more supply centres.
If this all sounds complicated, the mechanics are actually fairly straightforward. Although written orders sounds time consuming, in practice there are so few pieces per player (most start with only three, and the maximum number per side is twenty fleets and twenty armies, by which time the game has usually been decided) that writing orders takes about five minutes. In addition, each piece is limited to a few basic actions, usually move, support or (in the case of fleets) convoy. The rules nevertheless recommend four hours for the full seven player game, with the diplomacy phases (players ganging up on one another) taking longer than the move writing phases. This time span, and the difficulty of getting seven players on board at any one time for a whole evening or weekend, probably accounts for the explosion in online Diplomacy. Computer versions of Diplomacy have also been released, to mixed reviews: the chief complaint seems to be that the AI is just too weak against a human player. Certainly I have played the old DOS version and found that I can normally win using any power: perhaps the AI players simply don't use diplomacy to gang up on me. The AI in Risk seems much stronger.
There have been scores of articles written on Diplomacy strategy over the years. For what it's worth, here are mine.
Remember the title is Diplomacy, not Annihilation. Full-on aggression is not the best way to get what you want.
Although it's tempting to chase after every unoccupied supply centre on the map, it often pays to keep your units adjacent to one another for mutual support. Units out on a limb holding supply centres some way away are vulnerable to attack and even if not may be reluctant to move out of the province, making them fairly negligble for long term strategy.
There are certain conflict points on the map: the Low Countries, Scandinavia and especially the Balkans.
England starts off with two fleets and one army (the opposite of most of the powers). Thus she has an early chance to control the seas, but has to avoid fighting Germany and France at the same time. If she can do this and restrict or eliminate one of these early on, then control of the western and northern seas will allow her gradually to take supply centres around the North Sea and Low Countries.
France should be able to seize Spain and Portugal early on. The main points of tension are with England and Germany over the Low Countries, and possibly with Italy depending on which direction that country wants to go in. If England and Germany are preoccupied with each other, a Mediterrean strategy may be an option, but beware of spreading yourself too thinly.
Germany, at the centre of Europe, has plenty of scope but by the same token is open to plenty of enemies for west, south and east. Avoid a combination of France and England if possible. In the south Austria should be too busy holding her frontiers to give you much trouble. An agreement with Russia allows you to concentrate on the west and Russia to concentrate on Austria, the Balkans and the Turks.
This is a tough one to play. Apart from Tunis there are few easily accessible supply centres for Italy unless the Austrian player allows you to grab Trieste, which may then invite retribution or keep you tied down there. Really you need to ally formally or informally with one of the other Balkan powers (Russia or Turkey) and mop up the third. France is a very real danger to both Italy and Tunis, so an agreement there will help. Italy is one power where fleets are as useful as armies.
A similar situation to Germany except that you can also be invaded from the north, by your fellow German speakers. Fortunately the German is usually too preoccupied with west, east or Scandinavia to spend much time on you. Instead, as in the 1900s, the opportunities and problems are in the Balkans. Serbia can be seized immediately, and possibly Rumania as well with a bit of polished play. Thereafter you have to watch out for the Italians, Russians and Turks, possibly in that order. The fleet is useful but you will probably need to build more armies to defend your frontiers.
The colossus gets two fleets and two armies at the beginning of play. The drawback is that these are spread thinly, from St Petersburg to the Black Sea, and you have the Turks and the Austrians to worry about, as well as possibly the Germans. You can get Sweden in 1901 but holding on to it may be more difficult if the Germans or English decide to be awkward. Usually the Russian has to concentrate on the Balkans and competition with Turkey and Austria. Allying with one or the other will help you enormously at the beginning. It is hard to control the Black Sea and even harder to get a fleet through Constantinople into the Mediterranean. Should you succeed in this then Turkey has probably been severely weakened and you are well on your way. Fleets are useful in the south if you want to follow this policy, but otherwise armies are the priority for the Russian, especially as Warsaw is vulnerable to German or Austrian approach.
The so-called "sick man of Europe" is actually fairly strong in Diplomacy terms, partly because of its sheltered position in the corner of the board and partly because the Balkans are adjacent, with Bulgaria and possibly Greece falling by the end of 1901. Again, controlling the Black Sea is hard as both Turkey and Russia start off with just the one fleet in the area. If Austria is willing then Turkey can try to seize Sevastopol from Russia: alternatively, with Russian partnership the Turk can go south into the Mediterranean and use fleets to unhinge the Balkans and menace Italy.
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