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Diplomacy Is The Greatest Board Game of All Time
Why Diplomacy is the greatest board game ever made
Allan B. Calhamer’s Diplomacy is the greatest board game of all time.
In 1954, Diplomacy introduced a design that was not yet conceived in the genre of hex wargames or in board games in general. Calhamer realized that the act of war also requires intellectual levels of negotiation in order to make conflicts successful. For example, The Congress of Vienna between 1814 and 1815 was a historical event where the European elites reconstructed the shape and lines of their countries through diplomacy. Calhamer imagined a game where there could be a negotiation phase inside the game, where players talk among themselves, plan, agree, disagree, and command orders after a lengthy discussion.
Calhamer wrote about his design process in 1974,1
“…In the course of debating at high school, I then encountered an argument against ‘World Government’, the hot topic of the late 40s, which was that national governments are checked by both internal and external factors but a ‘World Government’ would have no external checks, hence it would be more likely to become tyrannical. Another debater and I suggested a game simulating the grand alliances of European history, but as we used only two players and didn’t find any way to simulate a third or fourth party it ended in failure.
Meanwhile, several of us were playing Hearts, a card game in which several players participated, each independently of the others. We observed that the game was best if all the others played and co-operated against the current leader. Thus the lead would tend to change hands, giving more players a chance to win the game. Competition was further enhanced by a ruling that if two players tied for the lead at the end, then all players shared equally in the tie. Thus, players who were hopelessly behind still had the incentive to try and bring about a tie between the leaders, so increasing competition rather than detracting from it. I noticed that players who did not understand all this would tend to play for second place or simply to protect their own score, thereby reducing the level of competition overall and their own chances of winning. It occurred to me that if negotiation were permitted between players it would be possible to persuade people to cooperate to stop the current leader. If this effort failed players could say that their chances were limited by the aberrant play of another, but would have to admit their failure to persuade them to play in the optimal way.
From chess, I borrowed the number of spaces (80 as opposed to 64) and the number of pieces (34 instead of 32). My pieces move as the King in chess, just about the average chessman in mobility; thus the board is about equally saturated with force. Diplomacy is therefore much simpler than most wargames in its small number of spaces. I think the game should be as simple as possible, so long as the game is of indeterminate length and reasonably rich in strategic choices.
In 1952 I studied 19th-century European history at Harvard under Professor Sidney B. Fay (of the Harvard class of 1895!), whose book Origins of World War One details the two or three-party ‘arrangements’, contacts, and projects, wholly or partly secret in nature. These were almost as brief and pointed as those made verbally during a Diplomacy game.
…In designing the tactics, reference was made to the Napoleonic principle “Unite to fight - separate to live.” Separation is first achieved by requiring that there be only one piece in each space. Concentration is then arrived at by the use of "support" orders from different pieces bearing on one attacked province. Pieces further from the action are less likely to affect the struggle for it, but some may do so by cutting supports. The use of ‘supply centers’ causes further dispersion of forces and emphasizes the economic nature of the objectives. It also makes it a game primarily of maneuver rather than annihilation. This aspect of the game is reminiscent of the indirect approach of Liddell-Hart, though I had not read Liddell-Hart at the time.
The final problem of organizing a seven-person game was not solved until I started studying Law in 1953. There I became aware that players who failed to meet their responsibilities towards the game should be made to suffer light penalties such as the loss of a single move; so they are encouraged to comply but are not normally wiped out by minor lapses. The game should be designed so that it could charge right on in spite of poorly written orders and the like.
The notion that a player may tell all the lies he wants and cross people as he pleases etc., make some people almost euphoric and causes others to "shake like a leaf," as one new player put it, came up almost incidentally because it was the most realistic in international affairs and also far and away the most workable approach. To require players to adhere to alliances would result in a chivvying kind of negotiation followed by the incorporation of contract law - as some erstwhile variant: inventors have discovered.
The game was completed in 1954 and has undergone relatively little change since then. The major changes have involved adjusting the map to make the countries more nearly equal, and to give them a wider range of strategic choices. Conveying was made simpler and minor complications were eliminated. These revisions occurred in 1958 when a good group of gameplayers and Operations Research people played many games and offered many suggestions for improvement.
In 1959 I had 500 sets manufactured at my own expense after major companies had rejected the game. Manufacture was transferred to Games Research People Incorporated in 1960. Sales have increased every single year since the game has been on the market. Postal Diplomacy was begun in 1963 by Dr. John Boardman. The games are conducted through amateur magazines, of which a few dozen are always in existence. Annual conventions have been held in the United States for some years, conventions have also been held in Belgium and Italy.”
The game was conceived over a debate club around totalitarianism versus freedom, an argument based on the American libertarian value of not breaking “the non-aggression pact.” The act of diplomacy would then require a “night watch” system to keep every other individual country in check, and focusing on their own personal “freedom.” Somehow, this idea that Calhamer experienced, developed into the design of negotiating in games.
An early design theory of “kings-making” arose from playing Hearts. This is the theory that players tend to gang up against a powerful player about to win the game, or in control of the play environment. Today, an extreme form of kings-making can be found in the 2001 card game Munchkin, which shares the same alliance-breaking cycle and trick-taking found in Hearts.
Chess is often cited as a symmetrical game with no luck. Calhamer thought that a game map could share the same instance of chess, and yet also give each piece the same symmetrical move count as well. This plays out in games like Reversi, where one piece can only occupy a space at a time, compared to Risk, where many pieces can share a single space.
In Calhamer’s own words, “I think the game should be as simple as possible, so long as the game is of indeterminate length and reasonably rich in strategic choices,” is based upon the fad of elegance in game design, and the interest to create minimal choices with ironically large outcomes. This design philosophy later became evident in the work of Wolfgang Kramer and the 1990s Eurogame movement. Calhamer’s symmetrical interest is also stated, in that, “The major changes have involved adjusting the map to make the countries more nearly equal, and to give them a wider range of strategic choices.” It’s hard to say whether or not Calhamer made Diplomacy out to be a perfect symmetrical game, as the negotiation phase puts the symmetrical theory of elegance on its head, and destroys it.
Instead of taking turns, Diplomacy is a rare instance of happening simultaneously. There is the negotiation phase, where everything is agreed upon, and then everyone writes down their commands. The commands are all flipped over at the same time, read by a judge, and executed. The game continues until one player controls a certain amount of supply centers on the map. There are no random elements, cards drawn, or dice rolled. “Support” is encouraged, and nonabiding alliances become risky, as Calhamer thought this could be as “real” as possible to international affairs. The game is solely determined by one’s own cunning interpersonal skills and persuasion.
It’s quite a misnomer to call Diplomacy a “war game” in aesthetics only, as British politician Nick Palmer wrote in his 1977 book, The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming, that Diplomacy’s design was ultimately “primitive.”2 Nonetheless, Diplomacy could be compared to the 1957 design of Albert Lamorisse’s La Conquête du Monde, or known to the rest of the world as Risk. Even if you get rid of the dice and cards, Risk plays exactly the same as Diplomacy. Given both these designs, what is considered “primitive” isn’t bad, but both “war games” in question pioneered the future of political board games, the design of negotiating in games, and the adult board game industry itself.
It is rumored that John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, and Henry Kissinger loved playing the game. And Diplomacy World journal is still running to this day, with its current issue being number 162 for the summer of 2023. An entire market, genre, and subculture exists exclusively for the game. As recent as November 2022, Meta Platforms, operated by the nefarious Mark Zuckerberg, announced that they had developed an AI to play Diplomacy online at a human and emotional level, named “Cicero.” Diplomacy still manages to spark interest in a depleted age of robotic automation.
Of course, our white-collar overlords are obsessed with automation and the kneejerk reaction to working “on a team” together in order to be “cooperative.” That’s why they are making robots to enforce such laws of social control. But as for Diplomacy, it’s hard to say if Cicero can actually become an intelligent player while expecting the same human creativity to be found in Dungeons & Dragons as a game master, in Junta as a traitor, in Rette Sich Wer Kann as a judge, or in Cosmic Encounter as a smart politician. Even complex social games like Tribes (by Steve Jackson) and Are You A Robot? (by Andy Looney) require a level of humanity to really understand their core designs that can’t be duplicated by a robot.
The current popular bias for cooperative games, like Pandemic, is rooted in the egalitarian fear of winning or losing. If everyone were to “win together,” or if any sincere form of victory is erased, “play” could be the priority, and any fear of “losing” would vanish from any syntax or semantics. In addition, white-collar workplaces, or managerial positions, rely on cooperative games to subdue and teach their “workers” what to do on a team project, hence enforcing the values of capitalist team management and start-up consultant scams as a new normal. Diplomacy is far from being a cooperative game, as being “cooperative” in this sense requires planning until one player is victorious by ironically backstabbing and bribing all other allies.
Sometimes, we don’t play games for “fun.” “Fun” is not what games are about, as games can rather, be for “entertainment,” and a certain state of enlightenment, intellectualism, improvement, and happiness we can derive from play. There are crooked grifters like Raph Koster that suggest games can only be played for fun, or that the purpose of games is constantly a state of learning, but both of Koster’s claims are fallacious.
Diplomacy, like Chess, can’t really be a game about fun, or something one “learns” from, as both these games are intellectual pursuits of higher conflict, politics, negotiation, and maneuvering, which in turn, are cultural values around assertion and aggression, which is at complete opposition against teaching and “fun.” If one was to really have “fun,” one could just get drugs and prostitutes and focus on the pleasure principle, and if one really cared about learning something, one should attend college and listen to a professor rather than let games and play distract them from the purpose of retaining new skills and knowledge. Intellectual pursuits and social outings cannot be reduced to activities based on “fun,” as it misses the point of higher pursuits.
There is an unfortunate sect of game study intellects that believe in a “post-truth” definition of “games,” in that they really do not exist, and they can only be used as vessels for social propaganda and ideological agendas. Sadly, frauds like Koster and Mary Flanagan rely on the liberal system to advocate and destroy the sincere understanding of games as systems and analytical machines, as liberalism finds no use in the reality of objective sciences. This is why they are obsessed with “Narratology” and novel ideas of “storytelling” rather than actual play and games themselves. If they so wanted to tell a story, they could have easily been fiction or creative writers, but unfortunately, used the hobby of games as a rich kid outlet for liberalism and deep state donations. I believe hardcore games of intellect, like Diplomacy and Cosmic Encounter, threaten the Narratology establishment of Koster and Flanagan while retaining their analytical and intellectual systems that are naturally anti-liberal against the whims of our liberal democratic and capitalist order.
Game designer and Axis & Allies creator Larry Harris wrote the following in the 2007 book Hobby Games: The 100 Best,3
“I am convinced that Allan Calhamer's masterpiece should be part of every high school curriculum. Don't tell the kids, but it teaches history, geography, the art of political negotiation, and something else – some healthy critical skepticism. By the time you get into high school, you have a pretty good idea that not everyone always tells the truth. But a good game of Diplomacy helps you to understand how skillful some people can be at fooling you!”
Aside from European history, Diplomacy is about human nature. It was implemented in its design and continues to impress and amuse future illiterate generations who ignore such humanity. Games like Diplomacy have a special human urge to them, where the machine breaks down when one human tells others to stop it. Diplomacy is John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument, where a program cannot have a mind of its own because the robot will always simulate the ability to understand and construct a behavior that isn’t human. The robot cannot understand the joy of Diplomacy, the same way Narratology advocates cannot understand the meaning of game design.
The future of game design relies on the function and influence of Diplomacy. More games in the future will introduce a negotiation phase within their structure. This would stop the creation of B.F. Skinner box social control, and liberate the player with real intellectualism, politics, discussion, conversation, and humanity. Robots cannot do these things, but humans can. This is what makes board games special, and the design of Diplomacy.
And that is why Diplomacy is the greatest board game ever made. Everything else after stems from it. Be it roleplaying games, war games, online games, or debating, everything comes back to Diplomacy. We can only understand this negotiation process, and apply it to a new foundation of “post-elegant” game designs of the future that have yet to be conceived.
Calhamer, Allan (1974) “The Invention of Diplomacy,” Games & Puzzles No.21 (January 1974) https://web.archive.org/web/20151231102946/http://www.diplomacy-archive.com/resources/calhamer/invention.htm
Palmer, Nicholas (1977). The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming. London: Sphere Books. pp. 146–147.
Harris, Larry (2007). "Diplomacy". In Lowder, James (ed.). Hobby Games: The 100 Best. Green Ronin Publishing. pp. 81–85.