There are great number of truly evil board games. But there is a game that’s the evilest of them all. Diplomacy.
Monopoly is a finely tuned torture device. The first player eliminated is forced to sit in boredom for hours, while the eventual victor forces you to futile devices, rolling dice, prolonging your inevitable demise by landing on Free Parking, and hoping to land in jail. You’ll reach a point in the game where there are only two, but the undisputed winner, sadistic and corrupted by power, refuses to accept your concession, pointing to the rules and forcing you to play until you literally have no property and zero dollars. (As a matter of public record, I’ve resolved never to play Monopoly again.)
Risk is an evil game of quite a different sort. “In war there are no winners,” said someone. Arguments, negotiation, unlucky dice rolls. The first person to show any sign of weakness – or be screwed over by unsympathetic dice – is systematically ganged up on and dismantled. It’s a game for eagles and vultures, fighting hawks and carrion crows. It’s a terrible way to lose. I’ve seen more table-flips in Risk than in any other game.
But when it comes to potentially ruining real-life friendships, none of the above are a patch on Diplomacy.
Oh, the name sounds quite benign. It sounds like it’s about people talking and negotiating. But the entire game is talking and negotiating about how you are going to systematically destroy every other player, in minute detail. You’ll have this same conversation with six different players: promising eternal alliance and scheming against every other player. But you’re going to have to lie to someone.
This t-shirt exists and is wholly accurate.
If you want a game that has broken marriages and ruined friendships, this is your game. It may not have started any wars, but Cold War icons John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger were fans. If you want a game of epic plotting, tense confrontation, conspiracy, betrayal and back-stabbing, then you’re after the evilest game of them all.
Diplomacy presents a map of Europe circa 1901, divided into seventy-five regions. Seven major powers occupy the board: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). If that makes it sound like World War I is about to break out, you’d be absolutely right. Diplomacy is the purest distillation of a war game.
In your own country, you’ll control three armies (two armies, one fleet) and three regions which are supply centres. Armies go on all land regions, fleets go on coastal regions and the sea, and are otherwise equivalent in power. You move them to capture more supply centres, which allow you to create more armies. If a player controls 18 supply centres, they win the game.
One of the many remarkable things about Diplomacy: Zero dice. Unlike Risk, only one army is allowed in any one region. So moves and attacks are one and the same. There is a region, and I want to be in there. If you’re already there, then I’m attacking you. Conflicts are resolved by sheer weight of numbers: your army that moves, and your armies in neighbouring regions that actively support you. Even numbers mean there are no winners and no losers. Simply, nothing happens. The only way one army will defeat another army is with the support of armies in neighbouring regions. Or with the support of armies from other nations.
Another remarkable things about Diplomacy: there aren’t turns per se. Everyone’s moves happen simultaneously. All seven players write down their moves on a piece of paper and reveal them at the same time. Then those moves are all resolved, with simple rules to resolve conflicts. Turns comprise of moving your armies, supporting the moves of your armies, or supporting the moves of other players’ armies. But you only have three armies. So all your negotiations will be centred on garnering support from foreign powers, and promising support for their endeavours whilst garnering support for your armies in exchange.
Mechanically, Diplomacy is simple as a realistic war game can get. The balance of power between nations has been very finely tuned. Though you might envy Russia, who starts with an extra piece, that simply makes them a larger target, and more vulnerable to attack. Clever tactics alone won’t win you a game, although poor tactics may lose you a game. Ultimately – and unsurprisingly – it comes down to your ability to diplomacy.
As Germany, you’ll want to watch carefully what France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia are doing. But England and Russia will oppose you invading and picking up neutral supply centres in Scandinavia. Italy and Turkey will be wary if you backstab Austria-Hungary and steamroll south. But maybe you arranged it that way with Italy, to take advantage of a weak neighbour…
Talk is a key feature in Diplomacy. You’re given 45 minutes to study the board, strategise, negotiate and re-negotiate before making your very first move. That sounds like a lot, but is only just sufficient to talk to every other party at least once and write your move. If you haven’t written your orders by the deadline, then your armies just do nothing. Subsequent turns are given a strict 30 minutes. A typical game will go for 4-6 hours.
All real world negotiating tactics are in play. Promise. Threaten. Issue ultimatums, and follow through, or not. Declare neutrality and watch the world burn, hoping the wolves cannot collectively dismantle the turtle. Ally against a common threat. Conspire with a dangerous opponent against a weak neighbour for your mutual benefit. Promise support, but lie. Promise support but backstab. Promise support and err, hiding your malice behind incompetency. Promise support, demonstrating your good faith by writing your moves in front of them… only to pull out alternate moves from your other pocket. Or tell them the truth: “next turn, I’m attacking you.” #sorrynotsorry
Real world lessons abound. Mulder’s mantra, “trust no one” is high on the list. But also: you cannot survive in this world alone. A lone wolf is the first player eliminated. As my old chemistry was fond of saying, “your sins will find you.” Lie too often and everyone will gang up on you as a volatile nuisance, in this game and every game hence. Timing is everything, and a well-timed backstab will see you in glorious victory. History bears witness that this has served many usurpers well. But also that those who live by the sword often die by the sword.
Diplomacy was published in 1959 by Allan Calhamer, and has had an avid fan-following ever since. Chess was the first game to be played by mail, Diplomacy was the second. Diplomacy was first played on the internet via email in 1983, pre-dating the first Apple Macintosh, the development of HTTP, most Australian ISPs, the smartphone and MMORPGs. The United States has held national Diplomacy championships (DipCon) since 1970. Australia has held national Diplomacy championships since 1988, which was the same year that the international championships for Diplomacy, WorldDipCon, started. People who love Diplomacy love Diplomacy.
You too, may love Diplomacy. Paradox Interactive (the makers of Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis) made a version in 2005, and an older Abandonware copy exists. There are board gaming Meetups and places to play online. One such website is Play Diplomacy Online, and another is the appropriately named Backstabbr. Or find a free Saturday and talk six friends into coming over, and explore this classic game together. If you’re lucky, you’ll keep at least one of those friends.
Diplomacy is a work of art – a pure and perfect board game. Fortune and mechanics are stripped to the absolute essentials of the art of war. By simple reduction, you’re forced to realise that war – like love – is chaotic but it’s not a game of chance. It’s about humanity, and relationships and words. It’s about cruelty and kindness, loyalty and treachery. It’s a good game because it’s about people who are often less than good. It’s a great game because it asks you – yes you! – who you really are, what you’re willing to do and what you’re willing to sacrifice when the promise of victory is on the line.
Diplomacy is the most evil game ever made because at the heart of Diplomacy are the hearts of the humans playing the game. It forces you to see humanity as it truly is. And sometimes humanity is evil.