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Diplomacy: The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds (2014) (grantland.com)
139 points by ollieglass 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments

This game takes like 8-12 hours, but if you do it in person, it just FLIES by. I was too afraid to take a food break or even a bathroom break because I didn't want to be out of earshot of everyone else so they could scheme against me.

We had 15 minutes for planning each turn, and that never seemed like enough. You want to talk to everyone, sometimes including one person, then again after that person leaves to talk to someone else and the third person tells you 'Actually I didn't mean what I told him. Screw that guy, let's do this instead.'

And then that guy backstabs YOU instead, and you find out their quarrel was all a ruse for everyone else and they were actually just pretend trading supply centers back and forth, not actually fighting.

It was overwhelming and I never knew who I could trust, with each turn just nailbiting seeing how it actually played out. But it was also one of the most exhilarating (yet exhausting) gaming experiences in my life.

There's also websites for doing it online, and you send messages back and forth, and can set how long each turn takes (like a day or two maybe). It still works that way, but the experience isn't quite as overwhelming.

Not bad for a 62 year old game.

"This game takes like 8-12 hours"

I found the best Diplomacy framework is a hard 15 minutes/turn limit. After 15 minutes, your moves are down on paper or they don't happen. This yields a 4-5 hour game.

By "best", I mean, "it's fun, it's intense and it's done". I see a lot of variations being described along with notes they became intolerably intense for people.

Which is to say, this isn't a framework that needs help to be made more engaging. Keeping the excess-engagement genie sometimes in the bottle is more the challenge here.

"I was too afraid to take a food break or even a bathroom break because I didn't want to be out of earshot of everyone else so they could scheme against me."

I seem to recall hearing about one tournament game where one player got locked in the restroom to prevent him from taking some action---the judges ruled it a legitimate tactic.

I've found it's best when played by a group of friends at a turn per day. Every day at 18:00, for example, moves are due and revealed. It lets people scheme and talk during the day.

I agree. That's the most effective way. After a few games, no friends remain.

I’ve found this is not a game best played with friends, unless they don’t care to stay friends.

Try playing online with 48 hour deadlines. Diplomacy isn't a thing that's over in a day, its a thing that just happens in the background for weeks at a time. The paranoia gets to you man.


The main flaw of Diplomacy is in the "metagame" problem that for some of the players the game ends a few hours earlier than the others, so they don't get to spend the potential evening gaming with friends as expected and are bored - so this motivates people to choose some other game where everyone will be involved through all or most of it.

Colonial Diplomacy plays a lot faster than regular Diplomacy but the end game is a bit more brutal.

We played this in college, but with a couple twists. We had probably 30 people playing separated into the seven teams. Each week, we'd execute one round of orders on Friday evening followed by drinks.

Really upped the intrigue as the time scales better matched real diplomacy. Plus the distinction of having to balance internal and external politics better matches real life diplomatic tradeoffs. "What you're saying makes sense, but I'm not sure I can sell that to our ruling council" was something you'd hear a lot. Teams also got really into their countries going so far as basically cosplaying at the end. There was also enough people playing that we were able to keep a regular cadence; it didn't really matter if even a whole team couldn't make it one Friday because they'd get a whole week to get their next orders in. The actual execution was more ceremony than where the main mechanics of the game occurred.

In grad school we did something fairly similar when a new faculty member suggested it as a team building exercise...I'm not sure how well it worked :)

Diplomacy played in small groups with friends is a great way to end up with less friends.

To win you basically have to lie to their faces. Still, it’s a great game.

To win you basically have to lie to their faces. Still, it’s a great game.

I have a friend who is a nationally ranked player. He says that among players of his calibre people essentially never lie. That is in part because there is a repeated prisoner's dilemma, anyone who lies will get caught and it WILL come back to bite them in future games.

I love the game, though haven't played in.... a decade at least.

I worked at a place where some other people had a diplomacy club and they'd play over lunch or after hours.

I decided I didn't really want to know who at work was best at lying and backstabbing.

I later left the place because they did stack ranking and found that teams traded people from one team to another with the express purpose of "the new person gets the PIP"

Not my cuppa.

Don't play diplomacy at work and maybe don't work where they play diplomacy?

I've found as long as everyone is equal opportunity backstabbers then it's fine. It is when you get people who won't backstab Fred but will backstab Barney every chance they get that you have problems. Those people would have problems playing Mario Party too.

I hear this a lot, and I've never played Diplo. That being said, how is a backstab more personally unsettling than a bluf in poker?

Poker is always zero sum, for me to win you must lose. That is never not true. But in Diplomacy you cannot win without successfully cooperating with other players. Yes there can only be one ultimate winner, but at any given moment in the game you need to successfully collaborate to make progress, so betrayals are much more painful. A poker bluff isn’t a betrayal because it’s not offering you anything you need or making any commitments to you.

I’ve always wanted to play this, however a few things hold me back.

Experience has thought me that it is very difficult to wrangle a lot of people to play complicated games. Simple party games are easy, but the moment you try to explain anything complicated to a large group all their eyes glaze over.

Then there is the issue of the extreme play length. The people in my play group will complain if something takes an hour to play, I doubt they could handle 8 hours.

The closet I have come to this is Sidereal Confluence which allows for up to 9 players and can takes up to 3 hours or more to play. Explaining that to such a large group was a nightmare.

And finally there is the “take that!” aspect of this game that I find worrying. People like to say “don’t get mad it’s just a game!” But this isn’t javascript we’re taking about, these are real people with real feelings. I’ve been involved in games were people explode in anger or other times were people burst into tears, this is not fun.

As the host of the game night it’s my responsibility to make sure people have a good time, not to have them fight with each other and break up their friendships.

This is the kind of game you play in TableTop groups, not with some random friends at an arbitrary time.

I've played the game with a random acquaintances and hard time limits. That worked better than formally getting all my friends together.

Also, 4-5 people is really all you need for a fun game - or a game that spirals out of hand, with the fun level then being a matter of taste.

I've introduced a few classics to my family over Thanksgivings: Munchkin, Cards Against Humanity, Carcassonne. Eventually we settled on Mahjong; games are quick, the rules are well defined and if enough people want to play we just break out a second set or rotate players through the game.

People would recall and retell twenty-year-old stories how the more cutthroat relatives screwed everyone in Monopoly or Risk, so quick games without elaborate mechanics prevent a lot of hurt feelings.

I'm curious, which variant of Mahjong are you playing? Chinese, Japanese, American? I've learned how to play Japanese Mahjong which is fun, but the rules (especially scoring rules) are so complicated that I do not look forward to having to teach this game to any one.

In regards to the Monopoly comment, to this day I still bring up the time some one screwed me in a game of Star Wars Monopoly back in 2001. So yes, these kinds of things tend to stick around in people's memories.

After looking online I believe we're playing a Hong Kong / Chinese ruleset. I think my original comment implied I introduced the game to my family but I did not. One of my aunts is a Buddhist monk and she learned the game at her temple. We play with a photocopy of a photocopy of rules with American boards. The game was popular in the 40s and 50s so finding a set at an estate sale or flea market is possible, you just have to be careful that it's a full set and all tiles are included.

You're right in that there is some complexity if people are going for named hands. But it's the matter of minutes to teach someone the basics and the classic winning Mahjong hand that stops the game. You can usually get through a few games repeating the rules for scoring at the end to emphasize the basics and then let new players add complexity as they get comfortable.

I think the other reason it's popular is because although you might be the person who called out Mahjong to stop the game, someone else can easily beat your score. Plus there are no alliances to be made and broken: everyone stands on their own.

If you teach someone the game my suggestion is just hand them a copy of the scoring rules and score their hand with them a few times until they're comfortable. This is not (IMHO) a game you teach in one session.

For anyone who has played computer mahjong and is scratching their head wondering what the heck we're talking about this is not just pairs matching. The game when played with humans is very different. Same tiles, but different rules.

When I've played it I've played it with my DnD group and playing it as roleplay can take the sting out of a lot of that. But yeah, it can be tough. Twilight Imperium can have a lot of the same diplomacy fun but feels less edgy -- the downside being it's quite a bit more complex.

Diplomacy is fun, but I don't think the amount of time and stress is compensated for by additional fun. I'd much rather play two games of sidereal than one game of Dip.

How was your experience teaching Sidereal to people? I've only played it once but it was really difficult to get people to pay attention and to understand all the little nuances.

I ran into the classic "if you had told me this I would have played differently!!!" complaint, even though I did mention the thing they were complaining about.

We also didn't finish the game because it got too late.

Not too bad. I limit players in a first game to 5 or 7, so that we didn't have to use the two hardest races but the Eni Et and Unity are either both in, or neither. (Eni Et interest converters work best with Unity grey cubes; without them, both races are a little behind.) The game took a little while, but it wasn't terrible. I definitely recommend it when people are interested.

I second this sentiment. Played it once a long time ago computer supported with longer turns. Couple of days. Could not bear the betrayals even though it is 'only' a game. There are a lot of negotiations, talking and discussing with your friends and little game mechanics.

I quit the game early. Not worth losing friends over.

Apparently this game is a much faster and simpler game that also makes people stressed out and mad at each other.


I've played the game in a number of contexts.

One of the things I noticed is that the longer the turn, the most intense the resulting game, to the point you can experience real life problems.

Letting the game take more than a day seems cool but it often results in things getting out of hand.

Many players feel this way.

You are well advised to watch your back in the game. Don't overextend yourself. However, you also cannot isolate yourself.

Reach out to me, I've designed a card based version that plays 3-6 and about 15 minutes per player. It is super solid but I'd always love more feedback.

Interested in knowing more about this, but you don't have contact information in your profile.

My email was set but I guess not in the about. It is now.

“And finally there is the “take that!” aspect of this game that I find worrying”

I wonder whether introducing a small amount of luck into the game would improve that. For example, in case of a standoff, if (and only if) the attacker rolls a six and the defender rolls a one, let the attacker win, or add a rule that, if two sixes are rolled, a player’s orders in a turn are ignored.

If every player were to have a tiny bit of misfortune in a game, maybe, their mind would put the blame on that and not on the backstabbing that made them lose zillions of encounters (“if only I had won that, I could have convinced X to support me, and…”). I guess players even might put the blame of not winning the game on being too lucky (“if I hadn’t had luck three times in a row, they wouldn’t have cooperated to kick me out of the game”)

It would be difficult or impossible to find just the right amount of luck to add, though.

We got a game of this going in work once. Once.

We played in teams of two, so that at least one partner would have time to meet with the other players for negotiations. The moves took place last thing on a Friday, so you had all week to do your scheming. Then we'd all grab a beer and gather round the board to watch the skulduggery.

About two thirds of the way through it came out that one team had bribed another with actual cash money before the first turn had even been played. This news didn't go down at all well (although I was quite relieved as we were taking a pounding and had resorted to employing Nixon's "madman theory" in an attempt to buy ourselves some breathing space).

We decided we'd best abandon the game before we came to blows.

10/10 can't recommend enough.

"It came out that one team had bribed another with actual cash money"

I play table top RPGs a lot and people talk about bleed, emotions from the game spilling out into real life. You can say this is "neither bad nor good" in the sense you don't want to maximize it absolutely but rather have it there but not so much is actually impacts your outside life seriously.

There are a lot comparisons between social media and drugs floating around in HN. One might better call the phenomena "pathological engagement" Games like Diplomacy certainly show you need to be online at all, you just need the right kind of interface, generally involve selective reinforcement.

"We decided we'd best abandon the game before we came to blows. 10/10 can't recommend enough."

And thing about engagement levels, for drugs as well as all of these bleed inducing processes, seems to be that some portion of people value a greater level of this bleed and will push for it.

Data points to consider

I feel like the best way to play Diplomacy is in leagues of people who you only play Diplomacy with and never have to interact with otherwise.

> 10/10 can't recommend enough.

Love how your comment ends. :)

If curious, past threads:

The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds (2014) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18159770 - Oct 2018 (71 comments)

Backstabbr: A modern web interface for the classic board game Diplomacy - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8468378 - Oct 2014 (63 comments)

The Board Game of the Alpha Nerds - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7913183 - June 2014 (153 comments)


I've been part of a gaming group for about 45 years. The gmes we have focused on have varied over the years, and so has the lineup of players. For a while we played a lot of Diplomacy.

For a couple of years, while we were playing a lot of Diplomacy, we played on some unusual maps. My first wife worked for the USGS Map Sales office, and she could sometimes bring home discarded maps. We tried several of them as Diplomacy boards, including world maps of both Mars and Venus.

Mars wasn't that interesting, really. If you use its actual topography to decide where bodies of water go then you pretty much get one modest-sized polar ocean and several circular lakes in impact craters.

Venus, though, has an interesting topography that worked great for Diplomacy.

I might even have a couple of the hand-colored maps lying around the house (made in the middle 1980s).

I would love to see those!

I first heard about this game on This American Life - they had an actual ambassador from the US help a novice play. I found it super interesting and now have a copy of the game but haven't played it yet (hoping to post-COVID)

The episode, which I found fascinating, is this one: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/531/got-your-back

I heard some seasoned folks at a Diplomacy group describe that media coverage... IIRC, they considered it to miss much of the spirit of the game. I think ongoing people who enjoy it have a special ability to value the game dynamics without taking it personally.

Step one: Don't think of your opponent as people.

This is a great statement. You are probably joking and serious at the same time.

At the same time, I think your quip demonstrates something I'm trying to get across. I've seen some people miss an opportunity to learn from games like Diplomacy. They bring in their personal expectations of how things should work. For example, they may want friends IRL to cut them a break in the game.

I find Diplomacy interesting because you have to light up all of your brain: assessment, strategy, tactics, and communication. Playing Diplomacy is cognitively demanding. One's ability to do well is a blend of hard power (what shows on the board) and soft power (how well you can persuade).

The "novice" (not really) in the NPR article is the author of the Grantland article.

Chapter One. Diplomacy, a game that will make enemies out of friends. Kind of like Twilight Struggle or Among Us, or any of the other games with similar elements: imperfect information, bluffing, perfidy.

I wish I had known about this game in college. Getting 7 adults together for 8+ hours is nearly impossible now.

I got to play this with 7 people exactly once. It was amazing.

It’s a great game to play with people you no longer want to be friends with

Checkout backstabbr. It's a web based version of the game and allows a lot more asynchronous playing. It also allows you to remain anonymous which helps with biases and super judicial alliances.

Does Backstabbr have variants? I like vdiplomacy because it has lots of variants: https://vdiplomacy.com/variants.php

It uses the more old-school webdiplomacy interface but I'm fine with the dropboxes.

For those on Android, check the conspiracy app. It includes about half a dozen variants as well, ranging from 2 players (cold war) to 15 (known World 901). Great platform to play.

You really only need 5 people. I haven't played with seven very often and I didn't find it improved the play much, if at all.

Just as much, if you set a hard 15 minute time limit, you get the play down to 4-5 hours (especially if you also say victory is preponderance on the board, not total elimination of all other players).

I have mostly played with seven. 7x6 interaction pairs = 42. That's twice as much as 5x4=20.

Reach out to me, I've designed a card based version that plays 3-6 and about 15 minutes per player. It is super solid but I'd always love more feedback.

You can play it stretched out and remote. Make orders due every Wednesday and Saturday. Gives everyone ample time to talk and scheme with everybody.

I'd heard of Diplomacy before but never really knew what it was, it just seemed like another one of those games i'd likely never find enough people to play.

That was a fascinating read though. It sounds like a game i'd like to try at least once...though I don't think i'd want to play it with friends or family, a group of strangers would probably be more ideal.

Also, i'm not sure which would be more appealing, in person or a mail/email game. I could see them both being entirely different experiences that probably require different kinds of persuasive skills to play and I can see why in person games probably get far more intense.

The tournament play though seems especially brutal. Honestly, the idea of a tournament for that game almost seems a bit sadistic. There's no way it's not going to end up with people snapping.

I'm honestly kind of surprised nobody's been killed or badly hurt at one of those. I've heard plenty of stories of people being killed for less.

It's almost kind of hard to see Diplomacy as a game, it sounds more like an actual Diplomacy simulation than a game. If something like that started as a video game, it'd fall pretty clearly under the simulation category.

I think Diplomacy is a super interesting domain for AI research, too. It has a lot of natural language (over a limited set of topics) as an important component, and multiple agents taking turns simultaneously, with fluctuating alliances.

Last Saturday and yesterday were the qualifying rounds for the top board of the first Diplomacy invitational championship. I don't play myself but if you have some familiarity with the rules the commentary is interesting.


Had the pleasure of playing in it last weekend — if you’re interested in joining the virtual face-to-face community and playing some games, hit me up and I’ll send you some info

Calhamer's book on Diplomacy, Calhamer on Diplomacy: The Boardgame "Diplomacy" and Diplomatic History, is probably the best set of game designer's notes I've ever seen. Discussions of the state of Europe in the late 19th century mixed with tactics and play suggestions.

It's hard to find, though.

I've played face to face games of this three times. Twice with seven players once with two. The two-player game is interesting but a very different experience. I came across a variant set of rules for two players some years ago that I ended up putting on my personal website sometime in the 90s.


This seems like what David Foster Wallace meant to parody when he added Eschaton[0][1] to Infinite Jest.

[0] https://www.outsideonline.com/1902196/eschaton-worlds-most-c...

[1] http://eschaton.online/

Pretty sure my parents damaged, if not ended, several friendships over the years due to this monstrosity. Always found it alluring.

The rules of the game encourage a winnowing over time. Honesty is a useful strategy much of the time. The fact that it is a strategy, not a life code, bothers people.

But this is a game of geopolitics and power. Many people aren't comfortable with the implications.

I think people are jolting by realizing, one way or the other, how easily they are manipulated.

Played hella Diplomacy when we were kids. I don't know if we were any good since this was pre-internet and the standard of play has probably improved considerably over the decades. But we did run into a problem consistently and read the rules over and over, and argued and still couldn't answer this simple question:

  Can you cut a supported support?
You either can or you can't and the rules then just weren't clear. (The article doesn't mention this problem in its summation.) So we typed up a letter and sent it to I think it was Games Research and waited. For awhile. Finally, a couple of months later we got a reply. They hadn't considered it either! And so they issued a new rule.

Honestly, I cannot remember what the ruling was since it's been so long and I haven't played the game in decades. So I had to look up the rules as of now.

The support is cut.

I have played online a few times over the decades, and in person once. I think we gave up in person.

I have spent many, many hours reading these archives[1]. Recommended if you find the game interesting.

[1] http://www.diplomacy-archive.com/home.htm

The Diplomacy set I bought used, in elementary school, had a set of back issues of Diplomacy World with it. This was before even Dungeons and Dragons existed. I think the way pre-Internet fan-presses had similar qualities to the Internet is a fascinating study.

And Diplomacy itself certainly was one precursor to the "addictive interface".

This seems very similar to the Game of Thrones Board Game. Seems like it is heavily inspired from Diplomacy.

I definitely get the sense that it is. Having played both- I prefer the Game of Thrones board game. Quicker and the game feels like it has a bit more meat on it, which feels like it softens the blow of any betrayal

The way I recall this game, habitual players need fresh meat to pretend to befriend, then screw over.

Perhaps this isn't how it's played at the top. Like Wall Street, you see other people making money through pure genius, so you cut ethical corners trying to do as well?

Habitual good players actually have a metagame that spans across individual games. If you are too backstabby, it hurts your chances in further games, so you need to be very selective with your betrayals.

My favorite way to play is one move a week, and getting together in person for half an hour before and after the moves. It's hard to set aside enough time to run the game straight through in one sitting, and as people keep getting kicked out it's awkward socially.

My group of close friends tried playing online, where nobody knew who was which country. Some had trouble disassociating the back stabbing role play from our real life relationships. It nearly destroyed a few relationships.

Many people need an introduction -- what you can learn from the game. If you take it personally, you miss out on the learning.

I wasn't present, but my fiancee played it with some friends over a weekend. They were all staying in a house having a nice weekend and they took one move an hour (I think that was the cadence) over the period.

One excellent rule that they had was a 'hat' rule. Everyone had a hat, and you could only talk about Diplomacy when wearing the hat. It helps prevent in-game emotions from spilling out.

Personally, I've played it on backstabbr.com with the cadence of a 1 turn a day. Usually played with colleagues, it worked very well.

Maybe funny, but while I never knew the original game (Diplomacy), I did play the game which was meant for those who became bored with Diplomacy, namely Machiavelli (Avalon Hill, 1977). (Get ready for discussions on every move… ;-) )

[1] https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/286/machiavelli

You can get shorter games with lying with: Time Bomb, Fief, Among Us (all of which are excellent). All of which favors extroverted alpha types.

It took me a month to finish a full game for my AP European History class in High School.

Easily the best board game I have ever played.

It inspired me to actually pursue a path in diplomacy and international relations for some time.

The game was setup to be high stakes. It amounted to a month's worth of assignments. Only one team could achieve an A grade by domination. Everyone else fails the assignment.

There were 42 of us. So each nation had 6 students.

I remember almost every move we made to this day because I remember how we reached the final turn and what had to happen for those pieces to be there.

One twist: Each nation had spies. I was a spy for Germany. But I was elected as leader of Turkey. My grade depended on Germany winning, not Turkey. However, Germany does not know I am a spy for them. But I won my election by revealing to my group that I was a German spy and how I would use this information to manipulate both countries.

11 turns later. Europe is decimated. Italy has been crushed by the mighty Turkish armada. Russia is starving while fending off a relentless horde of Turkish armies. Austria-Hungary is completely occupied by Turkish forces, advancing on Germany. The British and French navies form an emergency pact to resolve their despite over the English channel to meet us in the Mediterranean, and are prepared to strike us at Greece. This last turn is my masterpiece. The Germans have rallied a massive force, intending to match my positions in the Balkans. The Turkish empire only needs one or two more tiles to claim a victory. The final moves are coordinated such that the Germans must strike at us to deter our assault. However, if I moved things around slightly, the German army would end up seizing the majority supply center limit necessary to achieve victory.

My team ousts me as leader. Right on time. They intend to decimate Germany. I have been useful up until now. I cannot issue the final commands and the German resistance will be annihilated by the sheer amount of units we possess. They issue the assault without me and I cannot do anything but reveal our hand to German intelligence. With or without me, the Turkish army will fall since we know their movements.

However, Germany fails to issue any orders before the time limit expires. They make no moves. They are crushed by the unencumbered Turkish assault.

The German leader was a Russian spy.

Turkey wins. Victory by domination.

One problem.

The entire country of Turkey was composed of spies, assigned to every other Great Power. No one technically works for Turkey. None of our grades belong to Turkey. Every group receives an F. Everyone in our group fails. Nobody receives an A.

The class absolutely loses it. I have somehow managed to piss off the entire class where everyone loses.

The teacher is frustrated. Technically, this was possible, but it has never happened before. He chose Turkey to be made of spies because Turkey almost never wins, to give it some advantage. He's reticent to amend his grading policy since if any of the other spies were actually good, they would have revealed each other to the group and avoided this situation. But nobody ended up revealing themselves because they assumed that I was the only spy - because I already revealed myself.

A compromise is negotiated and settled upon.

We're going to watch Patton and write an essay on it. Everyone receives an A.

Play twilight imperium

Have a friend that tried to get me interested in this but he played by mail (I'm guessing e-mail now). Zzzz!

I've tried for months to put together a serious group who I could play this with, and then we played once and that's it, then didn't come back. Sad.

Is there a professional system for Diplo? Do people train by playing against AIs created by the top companies in the world? Has the game existed for thousands of years and has studied by endless generations of scholar, military generals and intellectuals of all walks of life?

I doubt so. The game for alpha nerds is Go, in my opinion. It is an incredibly deep game that will always offer you life lessons at every stage of learning.

Now, make no mistake. Diplo is a great game, but is it for alpha nerds in its current form? Not yet.

Diplomacy is harder than Go. Perhaps by a factor of 10e3 or more. (I'd throw out a guess of 10e9; what are other's estimates?)

Doubtful. But even if that was the case... with no professionals and no ranking system, no formal studies and a small community... in practice it is just a casual game.

If you play go at an amateur server, you will have to play thousands of games, read books, and put a significant amount of work... just to play at an average level. And even then, a professional will still wipe the floor with you because they started playing as kids. Professionals represent a much larger population of players from which the majority were not good enough to become professionals.

Diplo is just a casual game you play with friends. Like UNO, or whatever. Like Go used to be 3000 years ago until it started being taken seriously.

"The"? This is a false choice.

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