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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive


PC Review - 'Diplomacy'

by Alanix on Oct. 20, 2005 @ 12:51 a.m. PDT

Set in early 20th century Europe, this PC adaptation brings the power struggles of seven mighty nations to life like never before. Its abstracted and simple gameplay puts the focus on the need for shrewd negotiations and overall strategy.

Genre: Strategy
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Release Date: October 4, 2005


I honestly remember the first time I saw the seminal strategy game, Diplomacy. I was 13 years old and took two busses into downtown Baltimore to the Avalon Hill game company's outlet store on Read Street. I walked past it twice because it didn't draw attention to itself. Settled in amongst old three-story, red brick townhomes that dated back over 100 years was a set of concrete stairs accompanied by the familiar black wrought-iron railings that have been part of Baltimore since forever. On the wall at the head of the stair was a discreet, brass plaque with an arrow which pointed down and simply said, "Avalon Hill."

Was I in the right place? After all, I was a 13-year-old kid looking for a toy store. This looked more like a speakeasy. Apprehensively, I walked down the stairs and opened the large steel door at the bottom of the stairwell… and into heaven on earth!

It smelled like a used bookstore with that great, old-paper-and-ink smell, and the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with game boxes of everything they ever published, going all the way back to Tactics II," arguably the first of the modern war games, at the time billed as "a game of military chess." There were unmounted mapsheets of every game, allowing one to place the game on a wall and Play by Mail (PBM).

PBM gaming reached its zenith in the mid-'70s, as finding opponents to play these (for the time) amazingly complicated games proved to be a bit difficult, so players were forced to index the hex grids of their games, and mail each turn to his opponent, piece by piece. Games took months (and on a few occasions, years) to complete.

Anyway, back to the outlet store. Standing on the cashier's desk was a box that boasted itself to be, "A game of skill in which negotiation, rather than chance, guides destinies of international politics… Strategy without dice!" This was Diplomacy. I bought it that very day. If you don't believe me, look at the photos of the original box, board, and negotiation worksheet! Nyahh…. (chuckle)

The beauty of Diplomacy is the same beauty that can be found in other "classic" games, such as Chess, Reversi, and holding the quirky nuances of personality you would find at a high stakes poker table. The mechanics of gameplay can be learned in a few minutes, but the nuances will take a lifetime to master, if then.

All moves are written down in advance, and the moves are adjudicated simultaneously, adhering to a strict set of rules regarding movement, and conflict. There are no lucky die throws to save your butt if you blunder off in the wrong direction.

In a nutshell, the object is to control a majority of the board's 34 "supply centers." Your army consists of simply "armies" and "navies," each worth exactly one point, and you utilize these pieces to move, support and conquer neighboring countries. The board is reminiscent of Risk, but no more than one unit can ever occupy a country at a time. You get one unit for each supply center you control, and the first player to reach a majority of these centers wins the game.

The real essence of the game, however, is what happens in between the turns. This is where alliances are made and broken, friends are made, and backs are stabbed. When playing in person, 30 minutes are allotted between each turn for players to go off on his/her own and plot. The rulebook made it perfectly clear that none of the deals brokered were binding in any way, allowing a great deal of intrigue to go on. When playing by mail (and later, e-mail), these negotiations were in the form of hastily written notes sent to the other players. Usually, in a typical snail-mail game, one turn was played per week, thus allowing plenty of time for the post office to expedite our "diplomatic pouches."

Now, here I am, nearly 30 years later, writing a review of a PC version of one of the greatest games of all time. The PC CD-ROM package was wrapped in a royal blue satin pouch, tied with a gold, braided rope and sported a medal pinned to its surface. The medal is engraved with the phrase "CAVE QUID DICIS, QUANDO, ET CUI," which translates to "Beware what you say, and to whom." (Who said I'd never use two years of college Latin?) What a wonderful way to sum up the core paranoia that is a game of Diplomacy.

The introductory tutorial attempts to fill you in on how to go about making your decisions, but frankly, it tries to cram too much information into too short a space. If you have never played Diplomacy before, you will be shaking your head before the first turn, as the tutorial is non-interactive, for the most part. If the tutorial had been more segmented, with the player physically making the moves described, then the tasks wouldn't seem so daunting when assembled during actual gameplay.

From a visual standpoint, there's not a whole lot exciting here. It's a board game. It looks very nice, but if it's bells and whistles you are looking for, you've come to the wrong place. The mood is as austere as the grandeur of the real-life situation it depicts. The board is easily readable, freely zoomable (although a smoother, more gradient zoom would have been an improvement) and offers a clear view of the action.

Sound is pretty much of a non-issue as well, but I will say that the music during turns gets a little repetitive after a few hours. Fortunately, you can turn that off from the options panel. The "voices" given to your opponents are non-language grunts, chuckles, moans and the like. They are supposed to give the player an idea of how all the different moves affect the players involved, but they are mostly not helpful.

This leaves us with the "make or break" features of Paradox's Diplomacy: the artificial intelligence, the interface and the adjudicator.

My main problem with the AI here is in the way it is presented. The negotiations, alliances and diplomatic maneuverings are all handled without any language whatsoever. When you draft a negotiation to another player, it is done by showing him what moves you propose you both make during the upcoming turn.

This is where things get tricky. You must actually make your moves as you would during the issuance of real orders, and submit them to whomever you are negotiating with. They can either tell you that they agree, disagree, or they can even come back at you with a counterproposal. When all is said and done (with the timer counting down all the while), the moves are recorded and resolved all at the same time. Remember, your ally isn't bound by any rules to actually abide by the previous negotiations, so you sit back and watch the moves being made.

The adjudication engine is very quick, and I didn't notice any errors in game logic at all when the moves are resolved, but I would have liked more in the way of explanation, even if it's just a text box explaining why a certain move failed.

If you understand the last three paragraphs, you have probably played the board game before. If you didn't, I'm sorry. What can I do?

The skill level of the AI in the physical movement of the game is very good. A major part of the game piece movement in Diplomacy is outmaneuvering the other guy so when he is forced to retreat due to a failed move, he has nowhere to legally move and must be removed from play (disbanded). The computer is pretty good at finding the dead ends, but remember – the computer is only moving based on where he thinks you are moving, and so on. Double duplicity is the rule of the day.

I wish the interface itself had been more helpful, though. I didn't see any mouse-over texts to act as a guide, and overall, it doesn't feel that intuitive. I will admit, once I got a few games under my belt, it became easier, but the first few turns can be a little stressful. Do yourself a favor and keep the manual handy because it contains a great index that takes you to where you need to go.

Also included is a "Sandbox Mode" that will allow you to use the game's adjudicating engine to judge your own Play-by-Mail, E-mail, or Face-to-Face sessions. This is a very nice feature for old school Diplomacy players because the judging programs we have mostly been using are text-based and require a decent amount of time to input moves. This is much more streamlined.

In the final analysis, while I do miss the huddled conferences in the kitchen, or the scribbled notes made on the backs of cocktail napkins asking Germany to support my attack on Belgium, Diplomacy is a pretty solid, nicely presented version of what Henry Kissinger called "The only game I ever play." It has a pretty steep learning curve, but in the end, it's worth it.

Score: 7.5/10

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