Monday, March 4, 2013


The creator of the classic board game Diplomacy, Alan Calhamer, has died.

I say "classic," even though most likely the majority of people have never heard of it. But back when it was released by Avalon Hill, the then-king of what we would now call "strategy gaming" (as opposed to "family gaming"), it became a modest hit. Popular enough to survive multiple printings--nearly unheard of for most board games--and countless (rather shitty) computer adaptations.

For those that don't know, Diplomacy is a game set previous to World War II, where seven major powers fight each other. The board, at first glance, appears to be a Europe-centric Risk, but it's far from anything like Risk. While there are armies on the board and you are trying to conquer other territories in the game, it is done through a majestically simple mechanism that requires zero luck. At the end of each turn, you simply have to have more armies in a territory than the defender.

Simple, of course, until you realize that it's impossible to do it on your own. And that is where Diplomacy begins.

All movements are simultaneous; players don't take individual turns. Rather, everyone writes down their "orders"--basically what armies they are going to move. These are all revealed simultaneously  and resolves as if they were simultaneous.

So...during each turn, players negotiate with one another. Since it's nearly impossible to conquer a territory by yourself, this turn is all about asking your "friends" for help. Support my army here, you might say, and I'll support your army there. Of course, neither player is bound to follow through...acutely so, since eventually you'll have to turn on everyone to win the game.

And that is one of the reasons Diplomacy is called the "friendship-killer." When the game has a built-in mechanism for betrayal, people who can't help but metagame will find themselves developing hatreds they never felt existed. Normal, rational people with long-lasting friendships have hated each other afterwards. This is what has made the game so iconic--and has also limited its appeal. While it's largely regarded as a critical favorite, you don't see a whole lot of games played of it anymore. (The game is perfect for play-by-email--or, if you're particularly adventurous, play-by-mail, and the lag between turns and lack of face-to-face betrayal makes the entire endeavor much less volatile.) It's this emphasis on negotiation that has made computer adaptations so poor--playing against an AI just doesn't have the right feel to it.

The game certainly isn't perfect--the sides aren't perfectly balanced (woe to Italy), and in a game like this they pretty much have to be, and while it's set in WWII it has no other theme to speak of (it could just as easily have been the ancient Mediterraneans or Chinese provinces  and indeed maps have been made for multiple historical scenarios)--but it does everything that a luckless, negotiation game should.

I once claimed that once I could get seven people together willing to play this (admittedly dry) game, I would purchase and play it. One enterprising friend did, indeed, purchase this game for my wife and I for our anniversary in the hopes that we would play it. Sadly, we have yet to do so. I just need, um, five more people ready to go.

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