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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Game Review: Diplomacy, Part II: Opening and Mid-Game Analysis

A little while ago I devoted some time to describing the game Diplomacy. Here is the first continuation of that post, devoted to analysing what I find interesting about the game.

Note: A map of the board can be found here. When I mention specific territories, most of them have obvious three letter abbreviations (usually the first three letters of the territory's name), but if there is any confusion, the list of standard abbreviations can be found here.

The game has roughly three stages. The beginning of the game is characterized by many neutral supply centres available around the map for enterprising European powers to take over. For example, France pretty much immediately annexes the Iberian peninsula, netting the valuable pair of supply centres in Spain and Portugal. Italy picks up Tunis, Austria-Hungary envelopes Serbia, Turkey buffers their border with Bulgaria, Britain moves onto the continent by occupying Norway, and Germany grabs Denmark. Of course, this might not happen, but all of those captures are possible to perform without any interference from another player (as long as it is accomplished within the first year (two turns)). The only country that is not guaranteed to take control of a supply centre in their first year is Russia, and that is only if Germany decides to be a jerk and, in the first turn, moves the fleet in Kiel to Denmark then follows up the next turn by attempting to move that fleet to Sweden, likely blocking the fleet sailing out of St. Petersburg either through the Gulf of Bothnia or along the coast of Finland.

Similar to Sweden, there are a large number of more contentious supply centres scattered about the map. Romania is easily contested the first turn between the Austrian-Hungarians and the Russians (as long as the Russians are willing to not attempt moving their fleet into the Black Sea and risk the Turks occupying that vitally strategic body of water). Similarly, Greece is not immediately available to any power, but within two turns could be occupied by either the Italians, Austrian-Hungarians, or Turks. The Austrian-Hungarians and Italians are likely to already be wary of each other due to the border between Trieste and Venice, the only pair of starting supply centres that border each other. Like the triple entente created over the question of occupying Greece, the British, French, and Germans face a similar conundrum over the occupation of Belgium.

Anyway, so the first few turns consist mostly of people being self-absorbed with their own easy expansion. Initial rounds of diplomacy tend to be fairly sparse and open (at least with beginners to the game. Some veterans or avid fans of Machiavelli might leap headfirst into shadow and intrigue). At this point the game is not excessively interesting, as it is essentially a non-zero sum game where everyone wins. However, the degree to which one 'wins' (i.e. expands the size of one's military) can have massive ramifications on the following stages of the game.

The second stage of the game occurs within a few turns, and it happens when virtually all supply centres are occupied by one of the major powers. Here is where tensions begin to build. Essentially, all players are likely to be fairly evenly pitted with between four and six units under their control (seven or eight if they have done well, an opponent made some early blunders and failed to grab open supply centres, or they have already declared open war and are making remarkable progress). At this point the only way to increase one's position is at the expense of someone else. However, while in that sense it is a zero-sum game, the number of players makes cooperation (at least to a certain degree and with certain favoured allies) still the most effective strategy. This is when the game becomes psychologically interesting, as groups and pacts begin to form. Some alliances are forged out of fear (either of each other or a third party), and it is fear that makes doing excessively well in the opening rounds sometimes less desirable. For example, if France grabs the Iberian Peninsula (gaining two supply centres) as well as Belgium and Holland (giving a grand total of seven supply centres counting their starting territories of Paris, Brest, and Marseilles), the intimidating sea of light blue units might be enough to galvanize a disastrous alliance of Britain, Germany, and Italy. This is especially true since having a large number of units not only makes one powerful, and therefore fear inspiring, but it also makes one an attractive conquest since it leaves many supply centres to be neatly divided amongst the conquering parties. That said, in the situation just outlined an enterprising leader of France might manage to convince the Russians or Austrians to come to his aid with a promise of mutually beneficial spheres of influence divided between the two of them, thus forcing his German or Italian opponents to fight on two fronts. Other than fear as a motivating factor, one also needs to contend with greed and an odd sense of temporary goodwill (of course, an exhaustive list is unlikely to be generated, since one can always come up with a fairly unique motivational mindset, but I think the biggest two are fear and greed. Perhaps I only think that, though, because I've been reading Machiavelli lately).

Of course, I am once again getting caught up in details when I intended to give an overview. Beyond the psychological interest of the second stage of the game there is also an interesting mechanical aspect to it as the players learn how best to maneuver their troops and vie for strategic territories. While the Black Sea is of immediate strategic importance for the Turks and Russians from the very beginning and the border between Trieste and Venice sparks immediate tensions for the Austrian-Hugarians and Italians, several other territories that are not supply centres take on an increasingly important role in any but the most trusting of relationships (or relationships characterized by completely ignoring each other due to focusing on another front): the English Channel between England and France, Burgundy between France and Germany, Piedmont between France and Italy, Bohemia between Germany and Austria-Hungary, Galacia between Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the whole mess that is the Balkans between, mainly, Austria-Hungary and Turkey but also of significant importance to Italy and Russia. Of course, there are other territories that can also become quite significant. The North Sea is vital for anyone trying to attack Britain from the east, Scandinavia can become quite hotly contested between Britain, Germany, and Russia, and sometimes something completely unpredictable happens (such as one game I played in which Russia sailed a lone fleet all the way around the edge of the map and happened to snag Portugal from the French).

For the final stage of the game and some more fancifully meandering analysis, stay tuned for part III.


Kari said...

Geek =P

Seriously, though, I miss board games. If you ever get a group together, I want a play-by-play afterwards.