Monday, June 01, 2009

Guest review: Diplomacy

During Play On Con last weekend, Hillary and I went looking for late-night gaming. A full seven-player game of Diplomacy was starting up, and we were invited to play. I had a crushing headache at the time and bowed out in favor of a quick nap, but Hillary stayed on to fight her way through the all-out warfare and cutthroat politics.

She wrote up a nice review of Diplomacy from a newbie's point of view, and so I present it here...


Diplomacy is a strategy/war game that is very easy to understand, but can be very hard to play, depending on your skills and the skills of those you are playing with. There is no luck element to this game and the outcome relies solely on the interactions of the players.

Here's how the game goes:

There's a map of Europe. You draw markers to decide which country you are and get a predetermined number of units (the same for everyone). You can do a handful of things each turn: move a unit, hold a unit, support another unit's move, support another unit's hold, and convoy a land unit to another land via a ship in the area. On each turn, you write your orders and then hand them in to one person who makes sure they get executed correctly. Every "year", there is a spring turn and a fall turn. The number of units you get in the spring is determined by the number of supply centers, cities marked by a star on the map, you had in the previous fall. If you ever have 18 supply centers in your possession, you win. Simple, right?

Keep reading.

Here comes the fun part -- I mean that both literally and ironically. What makes Diplomacy Diplomacy is the negotiation of treaties, the forming of alliances, and the inevitable betrayal of said alliances. During the "writing orders" phase, players go off to the side or leave the room to negotiate with other countries. This is what makes the game truly interesting, because you have to decide what you want, how to get it and who to trust. A game of Diplomacy can get very cutthroat depending on the players and the circumstance. In the game I played, I had to leave for about 20 minutes because of an emergency with my hotel room and when I came back, one of the players was eliminated and looked rather put out. The player who had been the main impetus for this happening apologized by explaining why he did what he did and then saying "sorry you got screwed". He added "you've got to check your friendships at the door with this game."

My idea, for about 2 turns, became to figure out any way I could to screw this particular player because he was cutthroat and he was absolutely going to win. That idea went away when I realized that I was terrible at the game because I lack any ability to visualize military tactics or any notion of how to be cutthroat. So instead, I became said player's bitch. He told me what orders to execute to bother another country, and I moved wherever he needed me to, even if that meant that he took supply centers from me. I probably didn't live up to the group's expectations for the perfect adversary for the 7 player Diplomacy game some of them had been wanting to play all weekend, but I honestly gave it my best shot -- I am just not cut out to be a diplomat.

Some games like this can end up being a "kingmaker", where you figure out you're not going to win, so you then have to figure out which "horse" to back. Diplomacy doesn't necessarily have to be that way for a couple of different reasons. First of all, In the game I played, it was considered completely acceptable to say "I can't do anything else" and put all your units on hold indefinitely. In addition, the game can be voted a draw by all players left in the game, which is what the last 3 players decided upon long after I left the game.

Easy to understand, different from most games, no blowing on dice or crossing your fingers, and involves "the human element" more than any game I've played.

It's LONG (I played for at least 3 hours and the game went on long after I left), not for the sensitive soul, and requires a very specific skill set for planning moves and "negotiating" with other players.

Overall impression:
Diplomacy is very cool and I understand why it is highly rated on BoardGameGeek. I had a blast despite realizing after 2 or 2.5 hours that I could not play this game well. I actually really like how much it involves the human element -- every game could turn out very differently depending on who you're playing with, what their aim is, etc.

If this game sounds like the type of thing you would like, step up to a table next time you see someone get out the box. If it doesn't, step away from the table and go grab your Apples to Apples box, you hippie pansy. If you're not sure whether or not this sounds like fun, grab a chair and some popcorn and watch the drama unfold... if you like what you see, join them next time.

One last note:
The fact that this is essentially the "anti-Hillary" game and I still had a lot of fun definitely says something. I wish I could play again, but I am solidly in the "step away from the table" crowd given that I am a sensitive soul, am not good with military tactics, and my attention span lasts all of 30 seconds. I don't think you'll ever see me near a game of Diplomacy again... unless it's with popcorn.


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