Diplomacy – A Game About How We Play Games With People

Some board games are more complicated than an innocent like Candy-land but are worth playing because of their social depth and replay-ability. Diplomacy is one such strategy board game meant for two to seven players. The game is set during WWI, where players take control of one of seven great powers. Players must talk to their opponents a majority of the game, discussing how to coordinate their armies on the board. I consider Diplomacy’s social aspect an archetype that appears repeatedly in gaming communities. In the heat of a game, players learn about their friends’ subtle cues as they try to stay two-steps ahead. This kind of cue-reading is found in Magic: The Gathering, Settlers Of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons, and especially Poker. The communication and interpersonal skills for outwitting an opponent in Diplomacy are a major part of all the games play on campus. As I talk about other games later this year, I will try to get back to this central idea.

Diplomacy is a game invented in 1954 by Allan B. Calhamer, a Mailman and hobby-game enthusiast. Players take the role of  countries that participated in The Great War such as England, Germany, Italy, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Each player starts with a few army units, which are not nearly enough to win the game. Players must enlist the help of other players in order to gain progress. Player’s use their army can make one move from one territory tile to another with only one unit in a territory at a time.

Diplomacy is played with two phases which repeat until there is one country standing. The most important phase is the diplomatic phase; a period of 15-30 minutes for writing down moves to reveal that turn and more importantly make deals and alliances with your opponents. Next is the reveal phase, when every player simultaneously reveals their unit moves. Since the reveal phase ends the turn, players go back to the diplomatic phase to discuss what just happened. There are more rules that have to do with armies assisting other armies to take tiles and the seasons of each turn which can be found here.

The board of Diplomacy. (Intellectual Property of Wizards Of The Coast Inc.)
The board of Diplomacy. (Intellectual Property of Wizards Of The Coast Inc.)

The rules of Diplomacy seem hard to understand at first but it makes sense as you go along. Once you get used to the three moves your units can make a turn, the rhythm of the game picks up momentum. While the goal of the game is to become the last country standing, many Diplomacy players rarely have the time to complete an entire game. The experience of playing magic itself is worth more than winning the game.

I started playing Diplomacy around the time I arrived at Dickinson in my first year. in my first game, I remember playing Russia, with my friends Amanda Turner, Tristan Arnolds, and Shisheng Zhou playing England, Germany, and Italy respectively. I remember clearly Amanda had pulled me aside and talked me into attacking Shisheng. I trusted her. Big mistake.  It was too late after I went all-in on invading Shisheng Germany. I discovered Amanda and Shisheng moved their armies around my armies simultaneously, pushing me out of my own territory. In two turns, I was out of the game. That’s what Diplomacy is all about. 

Amanda (left) and Shisheng (right) writing down orders for their armies.
Amanda (left) and Shisheng (right) writing down orders for their armies.

This year, I was determined not to get fooled again. This time, I played as Turkey, while Shisheng played as Germany and Tristan played as Russia. Amanda picked England again since it fits her style of play best. Amanda chooses to wait most of the game passively, looking for opportunities to grab power when the dust settles between other players. Personally I kept my alliances shrewd, never committed much of anything that anyone told me, and always played aggressively. In fact, sometimes I had outright broken promises with people in order to get ahead. The game ultimately continued for six hours with not a single country defeated, except for Austria-Hungary and Italy whose players decided to quit midway.  While there was no clear “winner”, the experience of getting to outwit my friends on different occasions in-game made me feel like I had won.

Tristian (left), Shisheng (front), and Amanda (back) talking during a diplomatic phase
Tristian (left), Shisheng (front), and Amanda (back) talking during a diplomatic phase

I recommend anyone who has a lot of friends to play Diplomacy. Especially if that person thinks they are a good liar and believe they have gullible friends. Who knows, maybe those “gullible friends” will surprise you by stabbing you in the back. To me, games are always about playing the player, not the game or their pieces. A face-to-face tabletop game should always include layers of communication and long-term strategy elements. The fact that reading people is so difficult and interesting is what keeps my friends and I itching to play another round.

One Last Note:

There’s no guarantee of this, but I’m hoping that my friend Tristan Arnolds will organize the game for the International Relations Department that he has been talking about.







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