Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Diplomacy

By Dick Page 21 Sep 2017 2

Perhaps you have never played Avalon Hill's venerable strategy board game Diplomacy, and so have never spent hours between turns hashing out every detail of every possible move that everybody could make, staring into the eyes of your opponents to divine which of those moves are filthy lies.

This means you've also never written elaborate press releases in a Play-by-Email game, detailing the new and hilarious atrocities that your despot has unleashed upon the heretic populace of your newly conquered territory. You won't know what A: TUN-SYR means and why Turkey might be shocked, nor will you have sat next to your best friend as he seethed silently on the way home, before declaring that he could never trust you again. 

Perhaps you wish to count yourself lucky. I say, you are dearly missing out...

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Diplomacy is a classic board game first released in 1959. In a nutshell, this is a fairly abstract strategy game for seven players with perfect information, no element of chance, and a we-go system in which players write down their orders and then resolve them simultaneously. Such luminous (and cunning) real-world diplomats like John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger were reportedly fans of the game.

The rules of Diplomacy are so elegant and self-evident that I believe any aliens who play games must have a copy of it (or a variant) in the bulkhead of their UFO under whatever their version of Go is. Although the classic game uses a board that is based on the Great Powers of Europe and the Mediterranean immediately before World War I, the rules are easily portable to an infinite number of settings. Some are earnest and detailed with real historical geography and/or carefully balanced powers, while others... well, just look at Easter Island.

Each player commands a fairly equivalent force at the beginning of the game. There is no hidden information except for the lies players tell each other. Each unit is equal in strength and will simply bounce off any other unit unless it is supported by an adjacent unit. This is the key mechanic, because to take any territory from another player, you almost by necessity need help from an ally. An ally who, if they want to really win the whole shebang, must inevitably stab you in the back at some point in the future (unless you stab them first).

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Diplomacy was the first commercially published game to be played by mail, so there is a great historical precedent to correspondence games. It is a wonderful example of a game that shines brightest on a table, where the better part of the experience becomes judging the other players' ability to lie and bluff and putting your own straight face to the test. But, it can also be difficult to arrange seven bloodthirsty generals for a game that could last several hours, so there are some benefits to the immediacy of playing online.

On mobile, one option is to play web-based Diplomacy. In terms of interface, the game is simple enough that even an imperfect web implementation is playable. You only need to read a map, chat with other players or groups of players, and submit a single set of orders perhaps once a day.

For Apple users, the cleanest version -- and best looking on iPhones -- is Backstabbr, playable here. If you are on iOS, this is really your only option, as the only other one is the outdated and poorly updated The Game of Diplomacy [iOS], which skirts shockingly close to copyright violation in its title.

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Backstabbr has a smaller user base, and fewer options for maps than some of the other options, but for mobile it is ideal. PlayDiplomacy has the largest userbase and WebDiplomacy is also popular, but they don't do as well on mobile, especially when you are trying to deal with the fiddly little menus you use to find a game.

On Android, two apps will compete for your time. The more recent one is Conspiracy [Android]. This app is definitely the slickest mobile version of diplomacy. The controls are intuitive and the graphics are more communicative in terms of actions & options. It also has a fun avatar-maker, although you won't see players' avatars at full-size often.

However, Conspiracy suffers from a less-advanced player-ranking system, so it is easier to end up in a game with a player who is much less advanced than you, or doesn't even know the rules. Players forgetting to submit moves is common and can be frustrating. It also only has the original Europe 1901 map - but that's the best one anyway.

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Another option is Diplicity [Android]. This is a more venerable app; the previous version was Droidippy. The interface is not as clean as Conspiracy and there are occasional bugs when loading or app switching. It is also more difficult to control and to understand what your orders are doing. On the other hand, the community is much larger and the ranking system is better-implemented, so you can be more confident of getting into a worthwhile game. There is also a web interface at dipl.io. Luckily, both of these options are totally free, so you can get both and trial them.

Diplomacy is a classic design that deserves more players, online and on the table. It's been the inspiration for other ruthless games like Subterfuge and Neptune's Pride, so if you've liked those games, why not give the grandfather of them all a try? You have nothing to lose but your trust in the basic goodness of humanity.

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