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On Matters of True and Everlasting Depth, and Why I've Nicknamed my Di­plomacy set "Sigmund"

by Conrad von Metzke


The following article has been written for entry in a contest involving a cash prize. On that basis, it would be to my distinct advantage to focus on the predilections of the judges. Regrettably, the chief judge has revealed to us that, while he will accept submissions in any relevant genre, he "naturally lean(s) towards S&T articles”... This makes a meaningful contribution difficult, inasmuch as strategy and tactics are at best peripheral issues in the play of Diplomacy.


This is not to dismiss those components outright. Save for "parlour" games of pure luck, e.g. Snakes and Ladders or Uncle Wiggly, there isn't a game in existence that doesn't require some elements of strategy and tactics. But some games require those elements in plentitude, and others merely in passing. Being understood primarily as military terms, particularly when taken as a single phrase, "strategy” and "tactics" obviously connote games derived from military foundations, be they the direct-replications (D-Day, Get­tysburg), the more generalized canvasses (chess), the abstracted derivations (go, draughts) or the fantasized embel­lishments (Dungeons and Dragons).


Diplomacy is none of these things. It is, foremost and overwhelmingly, a game of human psychology. Never mind that it uses a map and, ostensibly, armies and fleets; that it vaguely emulates the First World War; and involves "at­tacks" and “convoys" and all manner of other militaristic terms. It is NOT a war game! It is a game of interpersonal relationships, garbed in warrior's clothing.


On its face, this appears to be a preposterous statement. The rules of the game, almost five pages (1992) excluding the sample game, devote exactly two paragraphs to the “psychol­ogy" aspect of the game. The printed literature derived from hobbyists is similarly overwhelming; by contrast with the stack of tactical articles, one would need a magnifier to see the pile of human relations items.


But on further reflection, there's a good and obvious reason for this: People who write articles tend to focus on the finite, on the quantifiable, on matters about which fabulous charts and tables can be prepared. This allows the writer to come across as a richly gifted mentor, and permits the reader to bask in the misapprehension that he is actually learning something significant. What is really happening is that the mechanical aspects of the game are being raised to unde­served levels of importance, merely because the REAL fundamentals – deceit, manipulation, inscrutability, lying, cheating and stealing - cannot be taught at all. Manuals on poker can teach you how to count cards and predict odds, but they cannot teach you to bluff. Equivalently, manuals on Diplomacy can teach you how to form a stalemate line, but they cannot teach you how to twist the opposition around your little finger.


Consider for a moment the summary course of a game. Seven persons are cast together as opponents. Of these, only one can win. (A draw is not truly a finished game, but is instead an agreement to stop playing. Remember that there is no such thing as a true stalemate which renders a win truly impossible.) For a winner to emerge, combinations of oppo­nents - enemies, if you will - begin by assisting one another in gaining strength, which will ultimately be turned against one another. In other words, to defeat the opposition you must first help it achieve greater power to defeat you.


There are very few games in which one is constrained by the rules to operate this way, and it is this Janus-like feature which in my opinion gives Diplomacy its popularity and seemingly endless variety. The thrill is not in planning the orders, or formulating the Grand Design; rather it is in the constant mental see-saw with the other players, individually and severally. It is not in the pushing around of wooden blocks, but in the scheming and negotiating to push them around (hopefully) in such a way that you gain more than the opponent-cum-ally who is nevertheless lulled into thinking that he got enough. And ultimately, the thrill - and by extension the durability - of this game and its outgrowth hobby are in the personal relationships that devolve from the interactive nature of the play. I have a strong sense that few other gaming groups, at least those that operate by post or on­line, achieve anything resembling the level of familiarity and bonding which Diplomacy's adherents attain. The game itself makes it so: it is simple cause and effect. As a "wargame,” a test of one's tactical skills, Diplomacy is of no great moment.  As an exploration of involvement with the vagaries and complexities of other human beings, it is a wondrous game indeed.


The above is not, you understand, to belittle strategy and tactics overmuch. They are very useful little skills, well worth the trouble of analysis and understanding. But they do not make Diplomacy the game that it is. That honour is reserved to people who play it. And the testament to the brilliance of Mr. Calhamer’s invention, and Dr. Boardman’s application of it, will never be in the ratings lists and opening gambits charts and exhaustive dissections of stalemate lines, but rather in the friendships and warm feelings that survive long after the charts have been filed and the game box returned to the shelf.