Diplomacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diplomacy_(game)) is a classic war strategy game created in 1954, originally played in person or by mail. I won’t paste the rules, but here’s the gist: Each player controls a power with some starting territory and forces, and the goal is to capture enough territory to win. There are no binding alliances, only words. Each turn, players negotiate with each other, decide their moves, and submit them to the game master, who executes them all at once. The turn length is preset, anywhere from 5 minutes to an entire week. The game ends if all remaining players agree to a multi-way draw.
Behind the game’s simple rules, there’s more depth than most people realize. First off, it may look like another Risk-like game, but to quote the rule book, “you are a diplomat first, a commander second.” You can’t win by superior military tactics, rather it’s all about negotiation. Still, most people aware of that call this a game of deception, but that’s missing most of the story.
Diplomacy is a social game, representing dynamics found in teams, business, politics, stranger interactions, and even personal relationships. Cooperation and deception complement each other. As a testament to the nuanced realism of this game, even mature adults can become emotional about it, especially after the game goes on for several days. I don’t mean like in Monopoly where sometimes kids throw tantrums and parents argue about the rules. Whatever situation that involves you in Diplomacy can feel like it’s happening in real life, and it can teach you life skills. Hard to believe until you play it yourself.
Every common scenario in Diplomacy maps to real life quite directly due to its purity and simplicity. To name a few, some of which are related:
- Trust. “I trust my allies because they have no good reason to attack me.” “I can’t trust someone who doesn’t trust me.”
- Faith. “We agreed to both withdraw from this border next turn, and there’s nothing stopping us from betraying each other.” (i.e. Prisoners’ Dilemma)
- Reputation. “I’ve never betrayed anyone, so everyone will want to work with me.” “Nobody will care or notice if I betray this person.”
- Threats and bluffing. “If you advance that army, you aren’t our friend.” “If you betray me, I will make sure you lose, even if it means I lose too.”
- Might makes right. “There are no pacts between wolves and lambs.”
- Right makes might. “You and I both know what’s fair, and I won’t agree to anything that’s not.” (See threats; a weaker player can take a stronger player down with them if they feel sufficiently wronged.)
- Optics. “Let’s make it seem like we aren’t working together.”
- Solidarity. “Those two are united, so if we’re divided, they’ll eat us both.” “There are too many people in this alliance for it to hold together.”
- Deception. Abusing all of the above. Baiting, wedging, gaslighting, and empty threats.
Military strategy isn’t the focus of Diplomacy, but it captures the spirit of it better than even the most complex RTS video games. Actual commanders never have a real-time view of all their troops like in an RTS, and that changes the game drastically. Playing Diplomacy, you’ll find yourself in strategy meeting calls with your allies that feel more like the real deal: playing out scenarios, anticipating enemy movements, avoiding leakage of plans, handling misinformation, and dealing with the inevitable Byzantine Generals problem.
Diplomacy is also designed well mechanically. The asynchronous gameplay makes it perfect for remote friends. There are many ways to play, like online at https://www.backstabbr.com. The original map, Europe plus the Ottoman Empire during WWI, includes carefully placed neutral supply centers meant to be fought over and choke points meant to require cooperation to pass through. The movement/attacking rules I skipped are simple but allow for many complex scenarios that will keep you both entertained and nervous. It’s the right balance between simple and complex.
The last reason this game is so great is it feels so cool to play, like you’re in the War Room from Dr. Strangelove. It’s one of those games that’s more fun the more seriously you take it. Makes a great social experience with seven people, just try and stay civil.
Given all the above, I’ve never seen a game come close to the depth, intrigue, and educational value of Diplomacy, except for ones based on it. Most games merely look like different decision trees to me, and the social aspect sets Diplomacy apart. Texas Hold’Em is also great because it’s based on real-life power plays and bluffing, but Diplomacy covers all those and more.
I especially encourage students in history or social studies classes to play it. History isn’t only about memorizing facts. This game can help you understand how power is consolidated, how powers interact, why people fight, what fairness means, how evil wins, and how evil loses, both in history and today.