Perhaps one reason Diplomacy is appealing to real-life diplomats is that it's complex, incorporating a wide variety of interpersonal and strategic factors players must consider. Indeed, the game is sufficiently layered that the official rulebook is 24 pages long [source: Official rules]. Still, the basic framework of how the game plays out is fairly straightforward.
As mentioned before, the game begins in the years before World War I, and each of the seven players represents one of the major powers of the time: Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey. The only aspect of chance involved with the game -- which you play on a board that represents a map of Europe and parts of the Middle East and North Africa -- is when players are randomly assigned the nation they control.
The game board used in Diplomacy is broken up into 34 supply centers -- which are generally major cities, such as Moscow, Berlin and Vienna, or important areas of industry and commerce -- represented by stars, as well as coastal and inland provinces delineated by boundaries on the map. At the start of the game, players get a number of fleets and armies, referred to as units, which they can move in order to try to defeat other players. Through strategy and alliances, players move their units in an effort to take over as many supply centers as possible. The more supply centers a player controls, the more armies and fleets are at his or her disposal. The first player to acquire 18 supply centers is declared the winner.
This is all a somewhat roundabout way of saying something very basic: Each player is a country with armed forces it can move in an effort to control Europe. With that as the basic set up, the game plays out in a way that is unpredictable, completely dependent on the decisions and strategies of the players. Once begun, the game progresses by season, starting in the spring of 1901. Each year has a spring and a fall turn, each of which is broken up into a number of phases -- most importantly a diplomatic and an "order writing" phase. The diplomatic phase is when players can meet with one another in pairs or in groups and plot what they want to do. This is a time for the building of trusting alliances or laying the groundwork for deception and betrayal. Negotiations last 30 minutes before the first turn and 15 minutes for each turn after.
Players can meet in private or public, they can make public pronouncements to one another, sign secret treaties, spread gossip or even try to spy on one another [source: Official rules]. It's important to know, however, that nothing a player says or agrees to in writing is actually binding, which puts a premium on figuring out who to trust and who to be wary of. Once the diplomatic phase is complete, players write out orders for what to do with their fleets and armies and then they read those orders out loud. Those orders are then executed on the board, which leads to forces retreating or being disbanded. These turns continue until someone wins.
The official Diplomacy rule book recommends setting aside about four hours to play, though presumably the game could last a much longer or shorter period of time depending on what transpires. How far beyond the starting date of 1901 the game lasts also is dependent on whether one player takes control rapidly or not. And that's where strategy comes in.