06 July 2017
We see if the notoriously ruthless game of alliance and betrayal holds up nearly 60 years on
Diplomacy is a game that ushers in hushed tones of reverence when brought up in conversation among those in the know – both for its stripped-back design, cited as the favourite tabletop experience of US president John F. Kennedy and authors Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and for those willing to embark on the six-hour voyage the iconic friendship-wrecking goliath offers.
The game’s notoriety arises out of its reliance on forming alliances between players and choosing when to break them off with often devastating betrayals. Each player – it’s best played with the full headcount of seven, for the sake of both balance and variability – controls a country in pre-World War I Europe, represented by two types of unit: land-bound armies and fleets, which can venture from the seas into specific coastal regions.
Unlike global strategy games such as Risk, however, there’s no element of luck in Diplomacy – every unit is worth the same as every other unit, and only one can occupy a region at once. This means that to claim the 18 supply centres needed to win (you begin with three), you’ll have to work with some of your neighbours to force other players out by lending each other support.
The game’s length – and the meat of its unique experience – comes from discussion rounds, which last 15 minutes (half an hour for the first round) and allow players to break off into groups to discuss potential partnerships and agreements before writing and executing orders for their troops.
This makes the bulk of the experience comparable to snappier 20-minute social deduction games such as The Resistance or Werewolf writ large, as you attempt to work out who might convince you to funnel your troops in one direction under the pretense of an allegiance only to sneak into the back of your country and swipe control. This can lead to tense standoffs in real life, as the rules permit any amount of deception, lying and convincing to gain the advantage – meaning double-crossing your friends doesn’t just feel real, it is real. If you have some friends who might take the betrayal a little hard – even under the knowledge that it’s a game – it might be worth theming up the otherwise dry and po-faced presentation of the game with some extras; our group dressed up in country-applicable clothes to lighten the atmosphere.
With so much of the game relying on the need for alliances and betrayals to shift troops around the board, less aggressive players may find themselves stuck at lengthy impasses if they’re unwilling to turn on their friends – or struggle to convince others to join their side. At the same time, the cut-throat nature can be intimidating, especially as certain alliances can end up in hours-long sieges of a group of two or three (or more) against a single player, and it can be frustrating and even upsetting to find yourself pushed out of the game early on by the necessity of keeping progress flowing.
That said, Diplomacy’s focus on the interaction and relationships between players is an absolute treat if you gather the right group of players together. The same factors that make the betrayals feel so devastating also lend the game a weight and impact that few other tabletop experiences achieve. The minimalist mechanics involved in manoeuvring troops make it simple to grasp the strategy and ensure the complexity and enjoyment stays in the discussions and social aspects. Just remember not to take it too seriously – it’s only a game, after all.
The lengthy play time and oppressive nature of the social aspects may be overwhelming for some players, but if you can see the fun side of your friends turning on you and have a full group of right-minded companions willing to invest in Diplomacy’s distinct atmosphere, this tabletop classic is still a treasure.
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Time: 6 hours
This review originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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