One of my goals here at Past Go is to explore that surprising and sometimes profound juncture where tabletop games—on the surface merely a thing of novelty and entertainment—actually intersect with real life, sometimes in serious ways. For me, personally, and at this stage in my geeking career, I can think of no example of this conflagration more influential than the game Diplomacy.
If you don’t know it, here’s the gist: Diplomacy is a territorial conquest game set in Europe in the early 1900s, involving those imperial powers who would ultimately be embroiled in the First World War. It’s not technically a “war game,” and for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not actually about the war; it’s about the mobilization of military forces that took place in preparation for the war, and the political posturing that accompanied that. Second, “war game” aficionados would argue that the military mechanics in this game are too abstract and grand-scale for it to be a proper “war game.” Proper “war games” tend to be much more detailed and more like simulations. By contrast, Diplomacy rightly belongs in a class of strategy games known loosely as “grand strategy war games” or, more correctly, “political games,” in the same family tree as the mainstream title Risk.
Diplomacy uses a simultaneous-move mechanic, whereby each turn, all players secretly write down all their intended piece movements, and after a certain time limit has elapsed, all orders are resolved simultaneously, with the rulebook on hand to adjudicate conflicting orders. The movement options are all very simple—there is less variety of movement than chess even. The heart and soul of the game is the time period between movements. This is when the players are conversing with each other, either in pairs or in groups (even those being interchangeable): making plans, forming alliances, promising favors, and so on. Like real-world diplomats, players are under no obligation to keep their promises to one another or even to tell the truth about what they intend to do or what they know about the other players, and in fact some level of deception and outright betrayal is necessary to win the game. However, too much lying and double-crossing, and you will find yourself a ripe target for all the other players, who have suddenly set aside their differences in favor of wiping you off the map. It is extremely Machiavellian, and it’s filled with head-games.
So that’s basically how the game works. What I’d like to focus on, though, is what the game means. Since summer of 2014, I have been playing regularly through an on-line forum called PlayDiplomacy.com. At the time, I just wanted to learn a new strategy game that I had known about since I was a teenager but had never really had a chance to properly learn. I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on my non-gaming life.
Let me talk about the deception, lying, and manipulation first, and get that out of the way. Certainly this is an essential, even notorious part of this game. You regularly find yourself juggling half-truths or even blatant lies with the other players, and you often work to get them to issue orders that are beneficial for you (if not so much for them). It takes psychology and a talent for salesmanship. I’m not gonna lie (famous last words from a Diplomacy player…): this aspect of the game has subtly crept into my real-world interactions. It’s been both positive and negative, but mostly negative. One positive example was a while back when we threw a surprise birthday party for my brother-in-law. Through techniques I had practiced in Diplomacy, I managed to get him to invite me out to dinner, and to have him choose the restaurant where the party had already been staged. It was quite beautiful, actually, and he was floored. But this sort of manipulative behavior, when away from the board, usually just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For a while I had been advancing myself in the political arena within my teachers’ union, and though I was moderately successful in a short amount of time thanks to these techniques, I really did not respect the person I was becoming. I mean, I enjoy watching House of Cards, but I don’t want to actually be the Democratic House Majority Whip. So really, that’s where it lands for me when it comes to the machinations you can learn from Diplomacy. I feel that I am quite good at them, when I need to be, but unless I’m at the board with six other people who have tacitly agreed to the same despicable behaviors in the interest of playing a bluffing game, I just find these skills dishonorable and unsettling.
What is curious to me, however—and this may be a bit of tangent—is the high frequency of Diplomacy players whom I know to be educators, public servants, and most curious of all: priests. It seems that a significant portion of these vicious and manipulative “diplomats” on the board are actually people of stalwart and upright character off the board. People in whom you would want to place the utmost trust and confidence. Now—this isn’t meant to suggest that these people are secretly untrustworthy. Quite the opposite. I’m not a Hobbesian. But it does suggest to me (in my amateur musings with philosophy) that there is a side to us—however small and underdeveloped—that kinda likes to be mean and selfish. It’s that little devil on the one shoulder who wants and needs to be exercised every once in a while, in order that his temptation can be exorcised, so that we can lead the kind of moral lives we’d rather choose. In this sense, if I’m right, Diplomacy offers a periodic outlet and a safe forum for the nastier tendencies we have, so we’re less inclined to behave this way in the real world, and are in fact cleaner in our interpersonal relations.
Or maybe this is just me manipulating you, trying to convince you what a deep and profound thinker I am, so you’ll subscribe to my blog.
Fortunately, deception is not all there is to Diplomacy, and likewise: there’s a lot more you can get out of it for the real world, as well. Like I said before: too much lying, double-crossing, or generally ass-hat worthy behavior, and you’ll find yourself ostracized—both on the board and off.
Playing Diplomacy has given me a thicker skin. Not that I was oversensitive before, but I find myself even less so now. Sometimes, your opponents in Diplomacy will say the cruelest things imaginable to you—they’ll make really deep and personal cuts—with the intention of getting you to make emotional decisions rather than rational ones and luring you into some kind of trap. To be successful in the game, you mustn’t take the bait. Thus, off the board, I find myself quiet when insulted; less likely to lash out or react with passion. More often I take the time to formulate a controlled response, or sometimes realize that the smartest response is none at all. This has positively influenced my interactions with certain vocal students of mine, as well as with some colleagues who don’t seem to like me very much.
Similarly, playing Diplomacy has decreased my tendency to hold grudges. As circumstances change in the game, it is often necessary to ask for or do a favor for someone who earlier let you down or outright backstabbed you, in the interest of prolonging your own survival in the game or staving off some even more powerful threat to the whole board. Thus, off the board, when I am insulted or discredited by someone (which, again, happens all too often at work), I’m less likely to write that person off wholesale and/or sever all relations. There has, in fact, been a time when a certain colleague, who at least seemed to hate me and spent a goodly portion of their time bad-mouthing me in the lounge, one day came to me for assistance on a union-related issue, and I was glad I could help them and provide them with a renewed sense of job security and camaraderie.
Above all else, Diplomacy has reinforced in me the basic and essential tenet to “never give up.” It sounds trite or cliché, perhaps, but this is a character trait we try to instill in our kids early on, whether through family game nights or youth sports or academics or whatever. While I was hardly what you would call a “quitter” before, Diplomacy has reminded me that tenacity is more than just an optimistic or naïve philosophy; it actually produces positive results. It isn’t uncommon to find yourself in a virtually hopeless position on the board: one territory left and surrounded by warmongers. But this does not have to be the end—at least not in all cases. The talented diplomat can make a case for himself, buying just a little bit of time, a short lease on life, and maybe even turn that into a shared victory in the end. I’ve seen the most talented diplomats take a single-space, failed nation all the way to total victory. And even though that doesn’t happen every time, no matter how suave you are, there is always the long game. You play enough times and in the same circles, and players start to remember you. How they remember you is up to you. While it is against the spirit of the game to carry grudges from one game to the next or to make meta- or cross-game deals, your reputation precedes you nonetheless. Sooner or later, this translates into a benefit, or a curse, depending. How true this is off the board as well, and I carry this reminder with me, especially as I venture deeper into the gaming industry and the production and development side of things. It reminds me to take every failure as an opportunity, and to bear in mind that even the smallest diplomatic gesture can cause ripples upon ripples that go totally unnoticed until they are waves.
None of this is to say that, thanks to Diplomacy, I’ve suddenly and fully realized my inner Buddha or totally subdued my inner Hulk. Far from it. I still get petty. I still get pissed. I still react impulsively sometimes, and I still really, really want to feed those internet trolls. But less often than I used to. And I get bored with myself much faster these days when I do. You might just attribute this to aging, maturity, and experience, but of course “experience” simply describes those ten thousand varied things that create the illusion of story in our lives. Diplomacy is one such experience for me. Moreover, it would seem that the experience has been profound enough to have become much more than a life event, but rather a way of living.