[Diplomacy] System matters

edited November 2009 in Story Games
I play (off and on) a fair amount of Diplomacy online. I used to play just with friends, but sometimes I play with strangers at http://www.playdiplomacy.com (which is a great site if you like the game).

My last game with friends ended with people quitting, and my girlfriend refusing to ever have anything to do with my crazy-gamer friend ("I don't care if he apologized, I don't ever want to meet that guy") . Another friend of mine has sworn off playing with the rest of us forever. And I'm currently in an internet game with people I don't know where I argue with one of the other players because he keeps telling me to "Take it easy" and "Calm down" whenever I send him what I think are perfectly bland, non-upset Diplomacy messages.

But I don't think any of these people are wildly dysfunctional. I think there are such hugely varying ideas of "How You're Supposed To Play" that people come to the table with very different expectations of the game.

Many people feel that in Diplomacy *ANYTHING GOES* ... there is no such thing as cheating, unsportsmanlike behavior, dishonesty, etc. Which sounds weird, but it's very common. And if you are in a group where everyone thinks that, it works great. But when you combine those players with different kinds of players, social mayhem ensues.

With the guy I'm playing with now, he sends almost no messages. Which to me is a crazy way to play the game. But to him, my multiple "Hey, what's up with your move?" messages apparently make me seem insane and histrionic.

I guess I have no real point here, other than to say that Diplomacy (while not a role-playing game per se) illustrates better than anything else the idea that a game is made up of more than the written rules, at least to me.


  • Diplomacy has some killer emergent play.
    Much like Mafia/Werewolf, it's deceptively simple but rich.
    It strikes some pretty beautiful notes.
    Have you played Intrigue?
    It's got alot of similar things going on.
  • Apparently I've got to play Diplomacy. It's infamous for ending friendships, and from my inexperience I fail to understand how that's possible. So...you agree to be allies with someone and then backstab them? And this is understood to be a normal part of play? And that ends friendships? I've gotta see for myself.
  • edited November 2009
    All of my Diplomacy play has been online, at http://www.dipbounced.com. There are definitely some unwritten rules that will have an effect on play. I originally made note of these while trying to suss out the fine points of what was a somewhat opaque game to me from a social standpoint, but keeping them in mind has helped improved my game.

    1) Don't be a dick. With rare exception the most brash or demanding player gets ganged up on eventually.

    2) Don't get too big too soon. Early success often leads to being ganged up on and eliminated. Russian players seem to have this problem frequently. Probably exacerbated by the large geographical size of Russian territories.

    3) Don't stagnate. If you fail to maken any, or enough, progress in the form of supply center acquisitions, you will likely be used as a buffer by an "allied" neighbor then destroyed when convenient. Italy seems to suffer from this most often. It's probably better to make risky moves than safe and predictable ones if you can't seem to gain any momentum.

    4) Communicate, early and often. Even if every word out of your mouth is a lie, at least you'll be presenting a facade with which the other players can engage. Nothing is more worthy of suspicion then a player that doesn't communicate, or only does so infrequently or in a very clipped and brief form. Besides if you don't communicate you can't form alliances or keep them going. You also can't engage in various forms of diplomatic scheming and skullduggery. The silent player is a losing player.

    As far as the issue of honesty/dishonesty, most people I've played with seem to understand that scheming and dishonesty are part of the game. But they will also punish those that engage in dishonesty with them if possible. It usually takes the form of doing whatever can be done to hinder the stabbing/lying player's success regardless of the cost to themselves. So I guess the rule there is "Don't get caught in a lie by a player that will not be out of the game next turn." But I've also found that "It's better to ask for forgiveness than for permission." is something to keep firmly in mind. Part of the fun of the game can be exploring that fine line between actions that are forgiven and those that lead to war or annhiliation. If you're otherwise sticking to the four rules above, you can gain a lot of leeway in this regard.

    Most of the games I've played in have been anonymous, which certainly effects the social dynamic during the game. The non-anonymous games have had some interpersonal drama. Mostly expectation clashes leading to a (misplaced?) feeling of betrayal. From some of the vehemence I've seen during play it's not hard to imagine Diplomacy leading to damaged friendships. Some people take games extremely personally. A game like Diplomacy where play is competitive, socially focused to a large degree, and beyond what any rules text can cover is just ripe for expectation clashes and hurt feelings of all sorts. Sort of like High School.
  • Oh my lord do I love this game but I will never play with friends again. I played as Germany so I def had to get my sneaky on and managed to convince everyone to backstab one player who was going to crush me and at the same time swept into snap up some territory to get out of the middle of the board. He got so mad that everyone "betrayed him" that he flipped the board over... seriously. Then it degenerated to an argument about being childish, and I kid you not some of the people who played still will not talk to each other, and this was 2 years ago.

    Moral of the story only play kick as back stabbing politic games with truly grown up people.
  • "Diplomacy destroys friendships" is one half a self-fulfilling myth and one half a symptom of people playing out of their depth. The myth part is when people glorify and mystify the dangerous edginess of the game. I encounter this sometimes, usually in the form of wild stories about how "anything goes in Diplomacy", stories that fail to address the simple fact that if you can't play like a decent human being, then I'm going to get offended, and I'm not exactly a Diplomacy virgin of any sort. It's like people hear too many stories of how British postal players used to break into each other's homes to steal their orders, and then for some strange reason fail completely in realizing that this is criminal, crazy and in no way admirable.

    The playing out of their depth part is just like people have said - good play of Diplomacy requires you to realize that personal trust is not a tool of play in this game. People who can't distinguish between what happens in the game from what happens outside it can't play without getting hurt. Almost everybody has to learn this lesson by losing viciously in practical play, and for some people this very lesson is so devastating that they don't want to touch the game anymore afterwards.
  • Eero is spot on. Diplomacy is one of my very favorite games, probably because I've been lucky enough not to have someone get angry during a game. I won't play, though, unless everyone at the table knows and agrees that we will lie to each other and even purposely backstab each other eventually, and that doesn't mean anything about the real-life relationship between us.

    I do find other people's Diplomacy horror stories hilarious, though.

    Brian - have you played in person? You really need to in order to get the full experience of the game (I think, I've never played online, so what do I know?) I think you're in the DC area, and I would drive up for a game, seriously.

  • I think what BWA said about different expectations is as true for Diplomacy as any other game. I've played in person and through PBEM - and in both cases things frequently turned ugly. In the FTF games, alcohol was to blame and we learned to NEVER allow people to drink while playing. PBEM is rough because, in the absence of all of the other physical cues of communication people tend to inject motive and emotion that is often wildly misplaced.

    Being up front about how you will be lied to, and about how you will be stabbed, is probably the best advice for playing Diplomacy. And wear thick skin.
  • In my opinion (formed by a few games a long time ago), Diplomacy is almost entirely based on tricking people to trust you, and then betray them at the most appropriate moment. It seems to me the things you do in the game to get people to trust you are pretty much the same that you use in everyday life. I mean, you don't have to, but it's what works best, and people will do it as soon as the situation gets a little tricky on the board, sometimes involuntarily (if only through their body language). That's why people's feelings are hurt so bad when they get betrayed in the game. They feel exactly like they've been betrayed in real life.
  • My experience, on the other hand, is that when the play elevates to a somewhat proficient level (all players have a full game of experience under their belts, say), the amount of simple betrayal takes a sharp dive. After that Diplomacy becomes an intricate game of strategy in which trust is given not because you believe in the other player but because trust is mandatory if you want to win. When we hold Finnish Championship tournaments and such, there really isn't any hurt emotions involved, because everybody at the table knows that the only reason for another player to betray them is if that player is going to be benefiting from that betrayal himself. At that level of play the trick is to prefer trust that cannot be broken for benefit, and only risk trusting an opponent in position for stabbing you when all other choices are worse. At that point I don't really see trust as much of an issue - there is none, all players realize that they are ultimately playing against each other, everybody knows the score to the game. You can't offend others when they know what the game is about.

    On the other hand, Diplomacy is a very intricate game, and the styles of play are pretty different in different parts of the world. From what I've read about it, Americans play in a much more emotional and static style than we do around here in the Nordic countries. This might be partially because of dated sources (much of Diplomacy literature dates from the '70s and '80s), but many phenomena that are reported from the USA are practically unknown in the Finnish Diplomacy scene. For example, permanent alliances (possibly pre-arranged before the game or nearly so) and intentionally tied games are not much known around here; on Finnish Championship levels the firmest alliances usually last only 2-3 years at most, ending when the underdogs try to concertedly balance the board position (and improve their own chances) by bribing of threatening the alliances into breaking. I could see how you'd view the game in a different light in that sort of environment, as Diplomacy is much more desperate and wargamey if the alliance structure at the board is naturally static. In an environment where alliances are deeper and more static, there is also more trust involved in forming them, and thus more reward for breaking them, which might account for American reports of Diplomacy as nothing more than a game of betrayal.

    Then again, part of the skill of good play in Diplomacy is definitely a capability for gauging the table's social atmosphere and adjusting your own play to it. I've read about local microclimates in which Diplomacy has become unplayable because players precommit to their alliance structures too much and fear loss of credibility if they ever break these alliances to try for solo victory, but the result of that was already mentioned - the game becomes unplayable if the players as a community manage to convince each other to not strive for victory of the single board. In a play environment poisoned by metagaming I can easily see Diplomacy becoming unfeasible for all sorts of reasons. Aside from metagame issues, though, I find Diplomacy beautifully self-regulating for the most part: an outsider coming into a local play culture will almost always benefit (in the sense of winning the game here and now) by playing counter to the local assumptions rather than buying into them, which means that over time people tend to learn to be better in the game instead of reaffirming their local peculiarities.

    I agree with James in that all games have social expectations involved, and should those not match, play will not succeed. I don't consider Diplomacy any worse in this regard than Chess or Go, for example. I'd rather not play Chess with an impatient newbie, for instance, as I'd just get annoyed with them moving the pieces indiscriminately, doing take-backs and so on.
  • The reason Diplomacy ends friendships is not because people don't understand that it's a game, it's because the game draws out behaviors from players that they also use in real life. And that realization can be frightening and disturbing and make people come to real-life understandings about real-life betrayals. Or imagine them.

    Hoog said the same thing rather well. It can be good fun among the right group, but the right group is one where everyone understands that each of the other players can be manipulative bastards - and sometimes are in day-to-day life as well.
  • (Sorry if I'm drifting, but I like discussing Diplomacy.)

    That's an interesting viewpoint, Tony, philosophically speaking. My own viewpoint about people being manipulative bastards is that I find it an excellent skill-set when wielded for the ethically correct reasons. Thus I don't mind it at all when it is used in Diplomacy for mere entertainment, any more than I mind it that some people leverage their violence skills in sports (within the rules of the game, of course). Perhaps that's why I don't shatter when presented with Diplomacy? I guess we'd need to ask those people who don't like the game because it "breaks friendships". It'd be really interesting if the social functionality of Diplomacy actually depended on whether your morals are means-priorizing or goals-priorizing ;)
  • Hi all ... I seem to have come across as whining about how Diplomacy has ruined my life. Apologies. I've been playing for about ten years, and the vast majority of my games have been awesome (aside from the typical draggy end-game)

    My point was that the idea that "the game" encompasses a lot more than the text of the rules ... something people talk about endlessly with, say Dungeons & Dragons, but which is actually more obvious to me with Diplomacy.
    Posted By: ClintonBrian - have you played in person? You really need to in order to get the full experience of the game (I think, I've never played online, so what do I know?) I think you're in the DC area, and I would drive up for a game, seriously.
    And then you'd end up with Italy.

    I have played in person before. Although, as much as I like the game, if I managed to get seven people into gaming around a table for an evening, it would be way down on my list.

    Diplomacy, to me, seems almost perfectly designed for online play.
  • Posted By: Eero Tuovinen(Sorry if I'm drifting, but I like discussing Diplomacy.)
    Drift away. I think my initial point was less interesting than where the conversation is going.
  • edited November 2009
    One of my friends refuses to play Diplomacy (anymore), and says, plainly enough: "I can't help but take it personally. I know it's not, but it doesn't matter." I'm pretty sure that sort of thing is the underlying cause to many of the horror stories.

    Diplomacy is awesome. It's also on my list of games every designer should play.

  • Diplomacy, in my experience, works best if players know each other and have the same expectations. It's a rough game to play with someone you don't know, especially if you haven't played the game before; it can give you a very bad first impression of that person.

    When I introduce it to new players, I tell them stuff like "you can make binding deals and sign them in your own blood - but it doesn't make any difference; people can break them whenever they want to." Just so nobody will be surprised when it happens.
  • Probably worth noting that Diplomacy was a major design influence on Blood & Bronze, actually.
  • I, too, have a love of Diplomacy; and I own the awesome deluxe edition with metal figures and detailed board... and I've never played it. My circle of friends played it in, like, 1985 at about 14 years old, got into fist fights, and won't touch it with a ten foot pole. No idea why--I played at least monthly in England during college and we had a blast, even as folks called each other sheep-buggering bastards. Maybe it takes simple maturity to enjoy it?

    It's Henry Kissinger's favorite game. "Nuff said, I reckon.
  • I routinely refer to the "Diplomacy Effect" as it applies to any game you play.

    The Diplomacy effect is that self balancing mechanism that only works over the course of multiple interactions (games played in this context) with the same people.

    Being the ultimate "I swear on my mother's soul" guy who then betrays everything he ever promised For the Win...is a FANTASTIC Diplomacy strategy...once. After that you're marked for life. What makes Diplomacy so powerful is that you have to play it such that you can actually play it again with the same people. If you get known as the guy who makes alliances claiming to play for the allied victory, but always break them at the end for the solo win, who's going to believe you.

    That's why playing with the same people over and over is so crucial. Diplomacy the game...like diplomacy itself...is a game about reputation and leverage. If you playing with a bunch of people who have no reputation and you have no leverage with, then you're blind and essentially just bouncing little wooden blocks off each other on a map of Europe. If you're playing with people where reputations are at stake and leverage is available...THEN, you're playing Diplomacy. And THEN the price of ultimate betrayal to get the win is meaningful to the extent that it damages your reputation for all future games played with that group.
  • Ralph,

    Having played for years with more or less the same group, I agree that this can make for awesome games. My friend Joe and I have such a bad history in the game that we both pray to draw powers far from one another on the board, because we invariably end up injuring one another due to our total lack of trust. Also, as anyone who plays in this group can tell you, the Bragg brothers CANNOT BE TRUSTED.

    But ... I don't agree that other kinds of games are inferior, nor are they reduced to mere pointless tactics.

    In the game I'm playing now, I don't know a soul, but it's every bit as exciting to see the results of each set of orders.

    Even though I don't have "institutional trust" in any of these players, I can assess the reliability of their claims based on a) their words and actions and b) my perception of their strategic options and choices. (In my current game, I gambled that I could trust Russia, because it was in his best interest to go along with me for the moment, and I suspected he would find England's communication style off-putting).

    This is can be just as fun as banking on reputation and known quantities.
  • I'd just like to say that y'all should listen to Eero, because I know from my one visit to the Diplomacy World Championships many years ago that the Finns are Diplomacy players without peer.
  • Posted By: rafialI'd just like to say that y'all should listen to Eero, because I know from my one visit to the Diplomacy World Championships many years ago that the Finns are Diplomacy players without peer.
    Eero is right-on with the statement that trust is important.

    Treachery and backstabbery are part of the game, but they are to be used sparingly and carefully, rather than willy-nilly. Lies and betrayals make enemies, and making enemies is a surefire way to lose the game.
  • I've always heard that Diplomacy is a great game to play with people you don't need to stay friends with.
  • The meta game of diplomacy is social. When you betray early and often you create a social environment of betrayal and backstabbery. When people are reliable and rational it creates that pattern - which makes the stabs so much more effective!

    I noticed this social effect in the game "Junta." When I started the game giving away all the money to the other players there was no coup. Then I was able to be more unfair. No coup. I resigned and later was reelected. We went the whole game without a coup. In another session I kept all the money the first turn which naturally caused a coup. The game was plagued with coups.

    The downfall for me with Diplomacy is that it requires a full roster of players who have to stay for the whole game. This is hard to muster. The guys I play with now are much more into Twighlight Imperium if we're going to play an all day game.

    Oh! I think I'm playing a real life Diplomacy game at work. Office politics is the blood sport you really do have skin in. The lesson I take to it from Diplomacy is "It's never personal even when it is."

    Chris Engle
  • Posted By: MatrixGamerThe downfall for me with Diplomacy is that it requires a full roster of players who have to stay for the whole game.
    True, unless you use the "play as neutral" rule for folks who have to leave (which is kind of lame, true).

    but one thing about Diplomacy is that it's an ideal play-by-mail (email, wave, etc) game. Most folks can find time to submit a turn a day, even if it means a few emails or phone calls to sort out alliance orders. Hell, I've watched a Diplomacy game play over the course of a whole con, with orders due hourly, even as most of the players played other RPGs or board games or what-not (or were hyper-busy con organizers).
  • I do love a PBEM game. Engle Matrix Games work great in that format and it's how I do a lot of play testing. Diplomacy is the best PBM but other games do well also.
  • edited December 2009
    Dear Diplomacy nerds,

    I started a new game at www.playdiplomacy.com if anyone wants to join. You have to sign up for the site, but it's the best Diplomacy engine on the internets. You'll love it.

    Game name: Wreck of the HMS Dauntless
    Password: radishes

    Friendly game! No socially-destructive behavior.
  • Posted By: BWA
    Friendly game! No socially-destructive behavior.
    Come now, where's the fun in that?
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenCome now, where's the fun in that?
    I retract my stipulation. Sign up for the game and you can be as socially-destructive as you like. And the move turnover is 24 hours per, so being across the Atlantic Ocean should be no impediment.
  • Hmmm. So far it's just me and Bill White. I seem to have gravely underestimated the desire of otherwise polite people to fume and curse while looking at a little map of Europe on a computer screen.
  • Pow! Joined.
  • I've never played before! How exciting!
  • I joined. Eero, there are two slots left.
  • Nathan,

    The website does most of the work for you, but if you want to go over the rules, they're online here.

    There's also piles and piles of strategy articles online. My favorites are here.

    * I really love these strategy essays. They were all written in the late 70s by people who played Diplomacy through the mail and were published in fanzines and newsletters. They're written in a style that assumes you're part of the postal Diplomacy culture of that time (which I guess the original audience was) ... so there are constant references to specific games, manuevers, players and controversies.

    Sort of an analog web forum.
  • I'd love to play, but I don't really have the time this month, as I'm horridly busy with a new restaurant we're opening around here on the 14th. If the seventh player doesn't appear in a couple of days, perhaps I'll join in.anyway. As we say here in Finland, an almost full Diplomacy crew is a terrible thing to waste. I couldn't promise very good play, but maybe I could show off my gunboat expertise and triumph with minimal correspondence.
  • I'm in! This will now be an exercise in not spending too much of my time thinking about Diplomacy...
  • The problem I always had with playing Diplomacy in person was simply finding seven people who were interested and could commit to the time. But the other advantage online/PB(E)M games have is press: the opportunity to add to the game chatter with mock news reports commenting on the game and perhaps misleading the other players. It's just not practical to do that in a live game unless you're playing over a long period (like, one turn a day, with the board left set up somewhere) instead of in one session.

    The one uncool act I've encountered in my Diplomacy experience happened when some friends and I were playing using an online automated judge program—we emailed in our orders and it emailed the results once it had all the orders. A couple players were having difficulties getting the judge program to accept their orders, and one of the players sent a message through the press system that faked being an error message from the judge, in a bid to get people to inadvertently reveal their orders or change them. If you looked closely, it was apparent the message was a fake, so it wasn't a big deal, but the players who were being frustrated by the judge problems were understandably annoyed.

    My favorite anecdote from Diplomacy play belongs to a friend of mine who had her history class play a few turns of Diplomacy over a week or two, as a school exercise. One of the teams came up to her and complained that another team had lied to them and attacked when they promised they weren't going to. My friend said "Yes. And...?" and the kids said "Ohhhhh..." as the lesson dawned on them.
    Posted By: David ArtmanI've watched a Diplomacy game play over the course of a whole con, with orders due hourly, even as most of the players played other RPGs or board games or what-not (or were hyper-busy con organizers).
    Reading this thread, I was already thinking about this before I came to your post, David. I'll have to see whether I can organize something for GPNW 2010...
  • Must...find...one...more...player--
  • Not anymore! Let's rock!
  • Hi-yo! Game on.
  • I'm definitely interested in being included in the future, but too swamped now to have jumped in.
  • I imagine this game will end in a wreckage of insults, angry feelings and bitter recriminations in, oh, two weeks or so. See you then!
  • Got to Hell, Minter! How dare you say that!?!


    PS - am I ahead of schedule?
  • A BWA --> Marhault
    F BWA support A BWA --> Marhault

    Also, for those of you who joined the game but did not yet confirm, check yr email for an automated message.
  • Be sure to post your press here on Story Games. We'll have to make a point of critiquing your play, great leaders always perform better under audience pressure. And should somebody drop out, we'll probably find replacement players here as well.
  • Confirmed. And I read the rules (thanks Brian!). I'm excited to lose to you all!
  • Posted By: Nathan P....I'm excited to lose to you all!
    Disingenuousness and false modesty: You begin well, sir!
  • Adam, you're the last to confirm. I can't wait to see which power I get...
  • Adam is clearly playing some sort of twisted mind-game to get the rest of us anxious and on edge, quick to reveal weaknesses. Well played, my friend.
  • Yeah, and then he's going to draw Austria and ...

  • Posted By: ValamirI'm definitely interested in being included in the future, but too swamped now to have jumped in.
    This sums up my current status as well. If a S-G Diplomacy game gets launched again, I'd be interested.

    Seth Ben-Ezra
    Great Wolf
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