Diplomacy is a board game, war game, and strategy game set in Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century. In theory from two to seven people can play, but the game rules are designed for seven players, and any fewer makes for a less interesting game.
Each player controls the armed forces of one of the seven European powers: England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey. Players manoeuvre armies and fleets across the board, forging alliances and breaking treaties along the way. The game ends when one of the players gains control of more than half of the continent. Otherwise the game ends only by agreement among all remaining players.
The board is essentially a map of Europe (showing political boundaries as they existed in 1914) divided into 75 regions, 56 land and 19 sea. 34 of the land spaces contain supply centers, that is, major centers of industry or commerce. For each supply center he or she controls, a player can build and maintain an army or fleet on the board. Victory is achieved by controlling 18 of the 34 supply centers on the board, or just over half.
The game mechanics are relatively simple. Unlike in similar games, players do not take turns moving units on the board. Instead, before each move, there is a negotiation period of fifteen minutes in which the players entice, wheedle, bluff, cajole, and threaten each other in an attempt to form favorable partnerships. Secret negotiations and secret agreements are explicitly allowed, but no agreements of any kind are enforcable. After the negotiation period is over, players secretly write orders for each unit and these orders are revealed simultaneously. All moves are then executed and any conflicts are resolved as described below. These moves are adjudicated by the game master.
On each turn, each unit (army or fleet) may move to an adjacent region, or support the move of another unit in an adjacent region. Only one unit may occupy each land or sea space at one time, so conflicts are resolved by how much support each order has. There are no dice involved. The greatest concentration of force is always victorious; if the forces are equal a standoff results and the units remain in their original positions.
Because numerical superiority is crucial to success, alliances are vital in Diplomacy. Each country is initially roughly equal in strength, so it is very difficult to gain territory except by attacking as part of an alliance. Negotiations for forming alliances (and for breaking them) are an important part of the game. The excitement of the game is less in the tactics than in negotiation, coalition-building, and intrigue. Each player's social and interpersonal skills are as important to the game as the player's strategic abilities.
Diplomacy commands a respect among afficiandos of multiplayer games similar to the respect accorded to chess among two-player games. Most multi-player games can't help but involve coalition-building to some degree, but only in Diplomacy is the negotiation so critical, so multi-faceted, and so fun. The game can't be won by going it alone, except in a last mad dash of aggression from a strong position. In the mean time one makes compromises and promises to one's allies while spreading fear and misinformation among one's enemies.
Fans of the game have created a myriad of variants, using altered rules on the standard map, standard rules on a different map, or both. An index of several hundred variants is available at the Diplomatic Pouch web site (see External Links, below).
Unfortunately, it is difficult to organize a full face-to-face game. There must be exactly seven players, and one game master, and with six or fewer the game may become stagnant and predictable. Also, there is no set time for the game to finish. Tournament games among experts have lasted twelve hours, but even typical games will last four hours or more. To overcome the difficulty of assembling enough players for a sufficiently large block of time, a vibrant play-by-mail community has developed.
Diplomacy differs from the majority of war games in several ways:
Since the 1960s, Diplomacy has been played by mail through fanzines. More recently, it has become popularly played through e-mail, adjudicated by computer. Also many a game is played online with a human game master.