Thursday, October 05, 2006

On diplomacy

Diplomacy is arguably the best multiplayer war game there is. Its biggest attraction is that unlike most other war games, the outcome does not rely in any way on randomness — there are no dices or cards. Rather, the outcome depends entirely on strategy. This post will record some thoughts I have had on the game, future posts might cover more specifics. First though some details about the game.

It’s a war game, so the idea is obviously to win more territory than other players. It is set in Europe on the eve of the Great War. There are seven players, each representing a great power of the era: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey.

The continent is divided into 56 regions, 34 of them contain supply centers. The number of supply centers a player controls determines the total number of units (armies and fleets) they may have on the board. Every player begins the game with three units (armies and fleets) except Russia, which has four units.

The game is played in turns. Prior to each movement phase, there is a negotiation period where people make deals about future supports. After the negotiations are over, players write orders for their units; each unit can: move into an adjoining territory; help another unit move into or defend an adjoining territory; or do nothing. Because the orders can be written in secret, no deal made in any negotiation can be enforced.

All moves are revealed and put into effect simultaneously. Only one unit at a time may occupy a given map region. Conflicts are resolved according to how much support a unit has for its movement. The greatest concentration of force always wins. Because each player begins with roughly equal strength, the only way to win is with other players’ support.

At the beginning of the game, there are 12 neutral supply centers. These are all typically captured within the first few moves, allowing all the powers to ramp up their military strength. From here on, the game is zero sum — someone’s gain is always at the expense of some other player. This means that the only way to win is to convince other players to provide support that are not necessarily in their best interest.

Players who control no supply centers are eliminated from the game. The winner is the player controlling 18 supply centers.

I have already noted that the game’s outcome is in no way dependent on luck — no dice or deck of cards. The result depends on social interaction, interpersonal skills, and the formation and violation of alliances. Calculated lying is a crucial part of the game. This means that it should never be played with anyone who is, or could possibly be, your work supervisor. I would also advise against playing more than once in a year — losers get really grumpy.

Right, so how does one go about winning this game? Here are some suggestions.

1. In the opening rounds, it is a good idea to call for an international conference to divide the 12 neutrals. Notice that there are seven players, so obviously not everyone will get the same number of territories. The key is to pick up at least two while appearing statesmanlike by mediating in ‘good faith’ among the others. Also, these periods should be used to gather intentions of other players.

2. Once the game enters the zero sum phase, or possibly even earlier, form an early alliance with a neighbor against the other neighbor (for example, a Franco-British alliance against Germany). The key is to use the ally to defeat the enemy convincingly, and have more units than the ally after the initial enemy is beaten.

3. Even while the initial enemy is being engaged, form an understanding with other players so that the initial ally can be betrayed at some crucial point. For example, France should form an understanding with Russia so that if a Franco-British alliance is victorious over Germany, Russia engages Britain allowing France to betray the initial alliance. The key here is to damage both allies sufficiently; the objective is to become the dominant power.

4. Finally, project power to decide outcomes in distant battles, and pick up 18 units. For example, with Germany occupied and Britain and Russia subdued, France should be in a position to dictate terms to Italy and Austria-Hungary.