Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't mean it's more enjoyable. Just ask Ted Strickler, who spent more than three decades working as a foreign service officer in the U.S. State Department, doing stints at consulates and embassies in places like Sudan, Egypt, Switzerland and Germany. When Strickler was in college at American University in Washington D.C., he and his buddies spent countless weekend hours playing a board game called Diplomacy. "The game was more fun," says Strickler, comparing it to his eventual real-life career.
While it may not be all that surprising to hear that a game is more fun than real life -- it is called a game, after all -- Strickler insists there was some value to all the play that served him well in his work. "The game was a lesson in the importance of building coalitions and the work required to maintain them," says the now-retired diplomat. "Anyone with a reputation for double-dealing or breaking promises soon found himself and his country isolated without friends and allies."
As the name of the game indicates -- and as Strickler's experience with it as a quasi-training program for his career shows -- this is a game all about diplomacy, although it takes place in the sort of world environment that diplomats of good will generally try to avoid. Specifically, it's a game designed ideally for seven players, all of whom should be at least 12 years old, and it's set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century [source: LeRoy]. This was a time, of course, of great peril, with powerful nations hurtling toward the conflict of World War I.
The game plays out from the start of this unsettled time, and the object of Diplomacy is to control Europe. It's realistic enough that both former U.S. President John F. Kennedy and master diplomat Henry Kissinger were reportedly players [source: McClelland]. And its rules are anything but simple.
Diplomacy Rules and Game Play
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.
Diplomacy Game Strategies
As a matter of principle, Diplomacy aficionado Bob Sacco is adamantly opposed to manipulating people in the course of everyday life. Still, the Buffalo, N.Y., resident thinks he's pretty darn good at it, and the game of Diplomacy has given him an outlet for proving that. "Using that skill as a part of a game where it is expected could be quite a release," he says.
Deploying his powers of persuasion to get other nations to do his bidding has been a central part of Sacco's strategy for winning games of Diplomacy. "My favorite stratagem used to be to form an alliance that surrounds the most initially powerful players or people who are the best players and take them apart," he says. In other words, Sacco would team up with other players to first attack the most powerful empires on the board. Then, with them out of the way, he would turn on his former allies.
The thing about Diplomacy is that it progresses differently depending on who is playing; there are those who prefer to go it alone, while others would rather form and hold alliances as long as possible. Some players, as is the case with some nations, are more comfortable forming bonds with other nations as a way to augment their power, even though doing so carries with it the risk of being betrayed. Those who stay solitary are less willing to be dependent on the actions of others. In their case, it's more comfortable to simply consider everyone an adversary, because there's no guesswork involved. Ultimately, though, there can be only one winner, and those who do form bonds with other players will have to break them.
Eventually, you have to betray [your allies]," says Julia Widdop, a once-avid player who first learned to play the game in 1997. "At that time, you try your best to make it look like someone else's fault. It gets very touchy toward the end, because you know your ally is doing the same thing, and you just try to time your betrayal to come before his."
With so many possible paths and outcomes in an average round of Diplomacy, perhaps it's no wonder that many aficionados have gone beyond the traditional setup, with different takes and variations on the game.
Diplomacy Game Variants
While plenty of groups of seven people have spent hours sitting around a game board playing Diplomacy, there are other ways to play the game. Because it can often be difficult to get seven people together to play, there are slightly different rules for playing the traditional version of Diplomacy with fewer players. For instance, if there are only six players available, Italy is eliminated. If there are even fewer people around, then each player has a combination of countries under his or her control.
Since the game was invented in the 1950s by Allan Calhamer -- a then-undergraduate student at Harvard University studying 19th century history -- people have long played the traditional version of Diplomacy via mail, with moves being submitted through the post. These days, not surprisingly, it has become more common to use technology and play using e-mail, text message or online.
Additionally, there is a World Diplomacy Convention held each year in a different location [source: Leroy]. Originally held in Birmingham, England, in 1988, the event brings players from all over the world together to play in a tournament. The winner of the event is considered the world champion of Diplomacy. There are also other games (not all of them produced by the same company) that share the basic rules of Diplomacy, but are set in other areas of the world. For instance, the game Machiavelli is set in Renaissance Italy, and the game Kamakura is set in Feudal Japan.
Although it has been 40 years since Strickler, the former diplomat, has played Diplomacy, his fond memory of the game is an indication of how addictive it can be. When he played during college, there was even a newspaper that reported on the game's negotiations, rumors, alliances and ultimate actions. "It's a great game," he says. "No wonder Kissinger loved it."
- Leroy, John. Public relations representative for Wizards of the Coast, makers or Diplomacy. Personal correspondence. Feb. 28, 2012.
- McClelland, Edward. "All in the Game." Chicago Magazine. May, 2009. Feb. 29, 2012. http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/May-2009/All-in-the-Game/
- Official rules of Diplomacy. (Feb. 24, 25, 26, 2012). http://www.wizards.com/avalonhill/rules/diplomacy.pdf
- Sacco, Bob. Player of Diplomacy. Personal correspondence. Feb. 22, 2012.
- Strickler, Ted. Player of Diplomacy and former State Department official. Personal correspondence. Feb. 22, 2012.
- Widdop, Julia. Player of Diplomacy. Personal correspondence. Feb. 22, 2012.